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How One Woman's Secret Discovery Under a Parking Lot Changed 500 Years of History


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, the "Underground" episode. My name's Glynn Washington, and you may think that we here at SNAP headquarters are just a bunch of effete pencil pushers, that we know nothing of the real underground. But for our next story, SNAP's going to get a little bit dirty. SNAP JUDGMENT's Stephanie Foo has a tale from Merry Old England.

STEPHANIE FOO, BYLINE: Some people go crazy over Justin Bieber. Others obsess over Doctor Who. But Philippa Langley, she's a super fan over Richard III, King of England circa 1480.

PHILIPPA LANGLEY: He fascinated me so wanted to do more research into the man. Basically, I went on, you know, about a three-year journey looking at all the historical documentation I could find.

FOO: Philippa is not a historian, by the way. She's a screenwriter. But she spent years reading through books in libraries hoping for a glimpse of Richard III. And if you're all caught up on your British history, you might know that if you're going to be in love with the British king, Richard III is a very strange choice.

LANGLEY: Yeah. The traditional viewpoint of Richard III is that he murdered basically everyone - his wife, his nephews, his brother - in order to not only get the thrown, but maintain the throne, to keep the throne. And he seems to be completely the dark villain and pretty much two-dimensionally bad.

FOO: Richard went down in history as someone who was ruined by his ruthless ambition. So to compare, he was kind of like the Richard Nixon of UK, except, you know, way worse. But the reason why Philippa was so into this evil king is, she didn't think he was evil. She kept finding letters and documents that suggested he was a good guy.

LANGLEY: What I found was actually fascinating. He was certainly not the black-hearted villain. There's definitely another man there - a man who was loyal, brave and pious and just.

FOO: Philippa started to feel indignant about the bad name Richard had been given. See, Richard was killed in battle by Henry Tudor, and the Tudor's took over English reign. You know the Tudor's, right? Enough drama for a Showtime series - Henry VIII, chopping off all his wife's heads? But the Tudors didn't have a legitimate birthright to the throne. So Philippa's theory is that they launched a terrible PR campaign against Richard after his death. She thinks they published literature to convince people that he was a murderous scumbag and England was better off without him. And they were even powerful enough to get the greatest writer of all time on their side.

LANGLEY: Shakespeare, in particular, made a big thing of making Richard as crooked in terms of his physical appearance as he was meant to be in terms of his character. And there's only this word for it, which is really inappropriate - but it's the hunchback with the limping gait.

FOO: Philippa suspected that Richard hadn't been a hunchbacked at all. But there was no finding out, his grave had been lost centuries ago. But Philippa still wanted to visit Richard - feel what his life had been like, feel close to him. So because she couldn't go to his grave, she tried the next best thing. She went to the site of the Battle of Bosworth where he had been killed, and then to Leicester to see the remains of his castle. It was interesting and all, but it still kind of felt like a history book. Nearby she saw a piece of what looked like medieval stonework. She was drawn towards it.

LANGLEY: There was a piece of a 15th century wall. So I went and had a look at the wall but I got no sense of the past to there, so I left to go home. But as I did, I saw another carpark opposite - I think you call them parking lots - and just had this overwhelming urge to go into it. And in a certain place in this carpark, I felt as though I was walking on his grave. I think the only way I can describe it is just, like, having goosebumps because it made me feel cold even though it was a really warm day, I was actually cold.

Sounds strange to say, for sure it does, and I'm a realist, but it happened. A few feet to my left on the tarmac somebody had painted a white hand-painted letter "R". I imagine for reserved parking. But for me, it was strange because it told me everything I needed to know. It was at that point that I decided I needed to research Richard's burial and attempt to go in search of his lost grave to see if his grave was there.

FOO: Philippa wanted to dig in that lot for Richard's grave. And so soon after she got home, she started fundraising. She was setting out to rewrite history. She wanted to find Richard to acquit him and change the hatred that people had held against him for 500 years, and that was going to be hard. Especially because...

LANGLEY: I'm not a historian. I'm not a scientist and not an academic. I couldn't go into Leicester City Council offices and say to them, I think there might be a king in your carpark, or in his grave. You know, you need to have serious research behind it. And serious research is what we then did. Four years, in fact, of research then followed. It was hard. It was really tough trying to get the money and the permissions together, you know, there was quite a few people that said, you know, God, you're never going to find him, you do know that? And I just couldn't, I couldn't give up on it. And I just considered remortgaging my house trying to get the funding. About $34,000, managed to scrape it together.

FOO: And amazingly Philippa got a museum and archaeologists behind her to actually start digging in the lot. But even then, she says that none of the archaeologists believed that Richard was down there. They just felt like this was an opportunity to find some 15th century artifacts. But Philippa was certain. She'd spent over seven years researching Richard by this point and she felt sure he was down there.

LANGLEY: We started digging on the very first day and trench one went right over the area that I needed it to, where the letter R was. After about four and a half hours, we suddenly found lower leg bones, and we found them in the exact place that I said they would be.

FOO: Right under that letter R painted on the pavement.

LANGLEY: I was kind of jumping around and saying to the archaeologists, look, you know, we might have found him. We might have found him. I think they were looking at me and saying, look, Philippa, come on, you know, we don't know where we are yet. We don't know - they may have just been odd bones. So we had to carry on digging. But as we started digging that trench, we found what seemed to be an old Victorian lavatory, a toilet - close to the lower leg bones. So I put my face in and, yeah, it was pretty strong. You could still smell the toilet.

FOO: So yeah. This material is hundreds of years old and it still stinks like it was put there yesterday.

LANGLEY: And for me that was a really - it was a key moment because I thought whoever these remains are, whether they're a friar, whoever they are, we needed to remove them from that place. It didn't seem right for them to be within inches of a lavatory. They started uncovering the leg bones first and then the arm bones, and it had no wounds on it whatsoever. So, you know, we knew Richard had died in battle and so by this point, look, this is a friar, this is not going to Richard. I went off and, you know, I was pretty downhearted actually at that point because my seven and a half year journey to find a friar, you know, I just needed to take some time out. But when I came back they said, look, we've got something to show you and they showed me the skull because it looked like it had some severe battle trauma on it.

FOO: So to see if the bones were Richards, scientists were going to do a DNA test on the bones. This was possible because, prior to this, historians had traced Richard's bloodline.

LANGLEY: All the way from Richard's eldest sister, Anne of York, right through to the modern day Michael Ibsen, he's a cabinet maker in London who was the 17th generation great-nephew of Richard III.

FOO: So they compared the DNA of the bones with Michael Ibsen's DNA.

LANGLEY: They got a complete match.

FOO: They had found Richard III from a supernatural hunch. This was pretty much a real-life miracle. The archaeologists were freaking out. The historians were freaking out. Michael Ibsen, Richard's grand-nephew, was freaking out.

LANGLEY: He went into shock actually.

FOO: And you'd think that Philippa would be freaking out, too - completely ecstatic. But she wasn't, because this also came with other news - news about Richard's spine.

LANGLEY: You know, they said look, he's a hunchback. It was a shock. I was absolutely shattered.

FOO: Because Philippa wasn't satisfied with just finding his bones, she wanted to clear his name. So she'd been banking on his spine being straight. Remember, if it were straight, it would throw everything terrible that the Tudor's wrote about Richard into question. It would erase a past of gossip and lies and open up a discussion about whether Richard could've been a different man, a good man. And that's why this crazy moment for Philippa wound up feeling empty.

LANGLEY: I think I should've been rejoicing, I really should've been at that point. But I think, you know, all the work that we'd been trying to do, I just thought all of that work would come to nothing. You know, there's so many historians, they'd say that this just proves everything. You know - crooked body, crooked mind.

FOO: But of course, Philippa's intuition said something else and she knew by now to trust it. So she got some back specialists to take a closer look at Richard's spine, and it turned out Richard hadn't been a hunchback. He'd just been hunched over in his grave because they had dug a tiny hole way too small for him and tossed him in all curled up. He did have scoliosis in life, but the Tudor's of course exaggerated this.

LANGLEY: The best propaganda draws on a small kernel of truth. You take a small truth and you exaggerate it. We now know so many of the myths that surround Richard and we've been able to blow them just by finding his remains.

FOO: Richard's remains have told us that rumors surrounding the way his body was treated after death were also untrue. And if so much of what we thought we knew about him is false, then who knows what other rumors about him could be false, too? Maybe Richard III didn't murder everyone to ascend to the throne. Maybe he was a great guy. More probable, is that he was neither a demon or a saint. Richard was probably a man - and for Philippa, what truly made him a three-dimensional character, was when scientists actually sculpted a 3-D bust of Richard based on his skull.

LANGLEY: When the facial reconstruction was finally revealed, Richard died age 32 and you kind of saw the young man. He didn't come across as looking like a tyrant, he just didn't. The squinting eyes, and the mean lips and the, you know, the way the portraiture had been changed by the Tudor artists. You didn't get that in the facial reconstructions.

FOO: Philippa identifies with Richard more than ever. This whole dig thrust her into the public eye in the UK, and now she gets what he's been through.

LANGLEY: You know, I know Richard's reputation has been pretty much dragged through the mire. But strangely with this project my reputation has been dragged to the mire because, you know, I think people have found it easy to put me in box as the loopy woman that wants to go in search of bones 'cause she loves bones. You know, I wondered, do I tell people the true story? In terms of the intrusion moment, do I put it out there? Because I could quite easily have just kept it quiet. But one of the things I made very clear about this project from day one was it was always going to be about the truth. We need to be really careful as to what is real and what is myth.

WASHINGTON: We'd like to thank, extend a royal thank you, in fact, to His Majesty, King Richard III and thanks as well to Philippa Langley. We'll have a link to Philippa's excellent book, "The King's Grave" on our website, Oh, yes - yes you have reached that time. But don't you fret. And do not frown. Why? Because there's plenty more SNAP where that came from - movies, pictures, full episodes, the SNAP JUDGMENT podcast. Tip your cup my friends - drink. Drink, but drink it slow. Facebook? Yes. Twitter - @snapjudgmentorg. This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.