In 2012, the bones of King Richard III were excavated from a parking lot in the city of Leicester, England.
For years historians and scholars had searched for his final resting place after his death in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Some believed that his grave had been lost, while others were convinced that he was dumped in the nearby River Soar. But Philippa Langley, an amateur historian living in Edinburgh, followed research and instinct to uncover the long-lost bones of him.
Langley’s story has been turned into filmmaker Stephen Frears’ latest effort, “The Lost King.” Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the film reconstructs the search for and discovery of Richard’s remains by Langley, played by Sally Hawkins. It also details how it was pushed aside by the University of Leicester, which has taken most of the credit for the discovery.
“Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” Papa tells of the story. “The middle-aged housewife from Edinburgh finds the 500-year-old king mainly by intuition. And then she takes a lot of praise and credit for it. Steve and I felt very strongly that it was unfair and that this film was part of Philippa’s journey.”
Coogan connected with Langley eight years ago after seeing the documentary on the story, “Richard III: The King in the Car Park.” In the years since, he and Pope kept coming back to the idea.
“When she told me what happened to her, I wanted to tell her story because I felt she had been marginalized,” Coogan explains. “It was a typical case of patriarchal marginalization of a woman who had taken the initiative from her and then it was taken away from her in a way that infuriated me.”
Coogan and Pope did extensive research and spoke to many of the real people involved, including Langley, his family, and Richard Buckley, head of the archaeological team. Coogan, who plays Langley’s ex-husband John in the film, feels that he is generally accurate.
“All the scenes are manifestations of what really happened,” says Coogan. “They may not be literal interpretations of what happened, but the essence of the film is absolutely true.
The film marks a reunion between Coogan, Pope and Frears, who directed the pair’s 2013 work “Philomena.” The director, who has frequently directed films and series based on true events, was drawn to the strangeness inherent in events.
“I come from Leicester so it was always funny to me,” says Frears. “It was always ridiculous that the body of a king would be found under a car park in Leicester. I have spent much of my life listening to women who are marginalized. And here was a story about a woman who had been marginalized and (we were) moving her downtown.”
Altering the timeline
In the film, Philippa Langley takes an interest in Richard III after a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” She suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and relates to him as a misunderstood figure. She begins to investigate his life and eventually joins the Richard III Society. She quickly becomes obsessed with finding the monarch’s remains, which she is convinced are in a car park in Leicester.
The time lapse between Langley’s budding interest in Richard and the discovery of his bones occurs in what appears to be a matter of months. However, that was not the case. The actual search for Langley took nearly a decade.
“You have to condense time,” Coogan notes. “You don’t want to put things like ‘One Year Later’.”
In reality, Langley first caught sight of Richard III after reading Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of the king in 1993, and then saw a version of Shakespeare’s play. She was captivated by the disconnect between the real Richard and the fictional stage version, presented as a villain. She spent years researching her life and then shifted her focus to her death.
“When I was doing research in Leicester, most people thought that the church where Richard was buried was under a bank building and on a street called Greyfriars, or that it was on the river,” Langley recalls. “And there was a researcher at the Richard III Society, in 1975, who said he felt the church where Richard was buried was located in one of the three parking lots, but he didn’t footnote that material, so I don’t know why. . It was when I started my research on the car park that began to be viable.”
Langley made a request to Leicester City Council to dig up the lot. Through the Richard III Society, he raised money for an archaeological dig through crowdfunding, and with the help of Buckley (played by Mark Addy), the dig began in the summer of 2012. A body was exhumed, which Langley believed correctly. that it was Richard’s. in the first day. However, the rest of the team wanted to keep looking. The university extended the dig for another week.
“It was eight years for me,” Langley recalls. “I understand that it is not a documentary, it is a dramatization: a documentary would have lasted four hours. I was warned that it was telescoping, hit after hit after hit of the big things that happened. But I am satisfied because they chose the main moments and made them come together”.
She adds: “I think the story you see is my story.”
More than a feeling
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Langley’s journey is that she discovered Richard in part through the sensation she felt while standing in the parking lot. The first time Langley went to the parking lot, located behind a social services building, she got goosebumps. When she looked down, there was an “R” in the pavement.
“It was clearly for reserved parking,” he recalls. “But he was right there. Every time I would go to that parking lot in that area, that hot spot in the far north where he was, he would have this intuitive experience.”
Langley never told anyone about the sentiment.
“I instinctively knew that if I mentioned that, it would play against me,” he says. “The way things were, I was seen as a bit weird anyway, because I’m not a doctor. I am not a teacher. I am not an archaeologist. And yet I was the one leading the search for Richard III.
“She was a woman, and she was fired, marginalized, overlooked, and kept out of the way,” Pope notes. “And she was someone who was in touch with her feelings. Richard III would still be underground if Philippa Langley hadn’t had that feeling.”
Imagining Richard III
Throughout the film, Langley has conversations with Richard (Harry Lloyd) himself. Richard appears to Langley as the actor who played him in Shakespeare’s performance early in the film. Initially, Coogan and Pope were unsure if including him as a character was too much of a gimmick. But they kept coming back to it.
“In a way, we kind of guide the witness to us,” Coogan admits. “We said, ‘Do you ever talk to him?’ She said, ‘Well, I did it in my head. That’s artistic license: she wasn’t schizophrenic. She did not see him nor did she have visions. It was a way of discovering her own thoughts as she searches for Richard and she searches for herself.”
Langley, however, needed convincing.
“I had been ridiculed, patronized and demoted for being a woman interested in a historical figure,” she says. So ergo, you’re in love with him. I told the writers, ‘Look, you know, this is really concerning to me.’ But once I read it, I got it and I understood it.”
Credit where credit is due
As the film shows, the University of Leicester was initially hesitant to become involved in Langley’s excavation. However, once the body was found, his academics intervened.
“Once the excavation started, that’s when things started to get a little awkward because within the first few days of starting the excavation, we suddenly realized that ‘Yes, we’re in the Greyfriars compound area, and Yeah, the archeology looks great. Interesting,'” Langley says. “As soon as that happened, the university wanted to change what we told the media.”
After the skeleton was exhumed, the university ran genetic tests on the bones to see if they matched a mitochondrial DNA sequence discovered by historian John Ashdown-Hill. It was that match that finally confirmed that it was Richard. When the university announced the discovery, Langley was the 13th speaker out of a list of 13. The university even plastered the words “We Found It” on the sides of city buses.
“She didn’t have the resources to put that on the side of the buses,” says Coogan. “The interesting thing when the film came out (in the UK) was that certain people assumed that academics are beyond reproach. There was a closing down of a certain class of people who didn’t like us challenging an academic institution, which we did. In reality, our film is simply trying to correct that huge imbalance.”
Today, the parking lot where Richard was found has become the King Richard III Visitor Center. Langley has continued the investigation of him. In 2016, he launched the Missing Princes Project to discover the true fate of Richard III’s nephews, King Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.
“I can’t say much, but later this year we will announce the most exciting new discoveries the project has found,” confirms Langley. “When Richard was found, many (historians) looked down on him and said, ‘Oh, it was luck.’ And then say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter anyway because we all know that he murdered the princes in the tower.’ And I’m like, ‘No, actually, we don’t.’