Stephen McGinty talks to the remarkable Philippa Langley, the former Scotsman employee whose career switch to screenplay writing led her to discover the long-lost remains of Richard III
LAST August, Philippa Langley stood in a car park in Leicester, looked down at the bones in the freshly dug trench and felt an uneasy ripple of doubt. “It was really odd,” she explained yesterday from the eye of a media storm. “When they first started exhuming him and pulled out the legs and arms he looked to have no battle wounds and he seemed to be quite tall. I’m 5ft 9in and you could see his leg bone was pretty much the same length as mine. I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t him.’ Then the oesteologist said, ‘This just looks like a well nourished friar. It’s not him.’”
Langley then went off for a walk: “I was pretty devastated.” For the past four years, ever since Langley, a former sponsorship manager for The Scotsman, began working on a screenplay about the real Richard III, not the foul hunchback conjured by William Shakespeare, she had been determined to find his burial spot.
The historical records had pointed to the removal of Richard III’s body after his fatal wounding at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 to Leicester’s Grey Friars, but the friary was destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. However, as part of her research Langley visited a car park in the city that had been pointed out as the most likely site of the burial.
“I walked around that car park and I just knew there was nothing there. It was ‘dead’. As I walked away, I saw another, private, car park over to the right. Now I know how mad this all sounds, but I snuck under the barrier and, on a very particular spot, I had the strongest sensation that I was walking on Richard’s grave. On a subsequent visit, I found a little white ‘R’ painted on the exact same spot. Of course it was ‘R’ for ‘reserved’, not ‘R’ for Richard but from that moment on, I was on a mission.”
As the Scottish secretary of the Richard III Society, which has been working since 1924 to secure a reassessment of the king’s place in English history, Philippa led the charge and spent three years cutting through the red tape until she obtained permission from Leicester City Council for an excavation. She then commissioned the University of Leicester Archaeological Services to take on the task. Then, when funding suddenly collapsed at the last minute, she managed to raise £13,000 in just two weeks by making an international appeal to fellow “Ricardians” around the world.
As anyone who has read a newspaper or watched the television in the past couple of days will know, those initial doubts dissolved. “By the time I came back from the walk they had found more bones and it began to look like it could be him. It has been an extraordinary journey and is quite overwhelming at the moment. Everything we needed has fallen into place in terms of the science and analysis.”
Born and raised in Hummersknott, Darlington, Langley moved to Edinburgh in 1989 when her Scots boyfriend wanted to move back home. During various jobs in media and marketing she worked for The Scotsman Publications for a couple of years before a period of ill-health made her reassess what she wanted to do with her life. As she had always wanted to write screenplays, she wrote a supernatural thriller, Gemini Rising and a drama, The Council, before embarking on a historical drama based on the life of Richard III. She became fascinated by the historical figure after reading a biography of him in the mid-1990s and when she embarked on the screenplay, enjoyed clambering inside his head. “When you are writing about someone you have to find a way to get to know them better than you know yourself and his story had so much drama and excitement and intrigue that I soon got caught up in it. For me he was real person, I’d spend so much time with him, thinking about him. He wasn’t just a pile of bones.”
Even before they found the site of his burial, she commissioned an artist and historians to design a new tomb that would reflect his life and times, for which she also consulted Buckingham Palace and the Ministry of Justice. It is now proposed that Richard III’s remains will eventually be placed in Leicester Cathedral.
The Scots may have little love for Richard III. After all, if it wasn’t for him, Berwick-upon-Tweed would still fall north of the Border. But the citizens whom he ruled prior to his bid for the throne respected him as a fair and just ruler who suspended taxes during difficult times and believed in dispensing justice that was unbiased.
There is, however, the little matter of the Princes in the Tower – the two young sons of his late brother – King Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, then 12 and 9, the rightful heirs to the throne whom Richard had swiftly declared illegitimate and were never seen again once taken into his care in the Tower of London. Richard III is the prime suspect, and historians believe that he had them murdered, as to leave them alive would be to leave himself hostage to fortune and the prospect of opponents returning Edward V to the throne. Even to judge by the bloody times in which he lived, the murder of two young boys has stained his reputation for five centuries, yet Langley believes he is innocent: “I am convinced that he didn’t do it. We have enough information to tell us that he didn’t do it. If the boys were killed it was more than likely under the hand of Henry Tudor.”
When Langley finally came face to face with the king she had rescued from the ignominy of a shallow unmarked grave it simply reinforced her desire to protect him from the black tipped arrows of historians and William Shakespeare’s sharpened quill. “We know he didn’t have a hunchback. We know he didn’t have a withered arm. We can probably guess that he didn’t have a limp. We know he wasn’t thrown into the river. All these stories have just been propaganda. We now know what he looked like, we can see the face of the real Richard III and he doesn’t look like a tyrant. That for me was the most powerful moment to see what he would have looked like in real life.”
There will be those who say love is blind, but in recent centuries has a king ever had a more devoted handmaiden? However, when I suggest that the story of her pursuit is like a love story, she laughs: “I don’t love him. I don’t love Richard III, Stephen. I admire him and I’m fascinated by him, but I don’t think he was quite my type.”