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Book Review: The King’s Grave by Phillipa Langley and Michael Jones

NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

This is the story of the discovery and exhumation of the remains of Richard III in the floor of a medieval monastery in Leicester, England.  Certainly an interesting read, the book is flawed by the apparent intention of the author (P.L.)to make it about whether Richard was a good person or not. As a result, much of the book is consumed in attempting to read scraps of history or archeology, or indeed anatomy, in a way that would be exculpatory for Richard’s alleged misdeeds, including the killing the two boys in the Tower of London in the summer of 1483. .  Much history is provided, interspersed between episodes of the modern search and discovery.  Who knew there was a Richard III Society, the goal of which is seemingly to cast the Tudors (the family that followed Richard’s on the throne) and Shakespeare (author of Henry VI and Richard III as the bad guys, who invented nasty stories about Richard?  Well, there is, and Langley founded the Scottish Branch.

The high point of the book should have been the uncovering of Richard’s distorted bones, his “crookback’ (scoliosis) that, for all intents, proved the remains were his; instead of being thrilled, Langley writes how disappointed she was that Richard was actually “deformed.” Her thesis was that the idea of a deformity had been invented, Richard was portrayed as being deformed in order to make him seem more evil.  She then proceeds to put up a bit of a strawman of “hunchback”, saying that Richard’s deformity wasn’t actually that bad. Medically speaking, she was making the distinction between scoliosis (a lateral bending of the spine) and kyphoscoliosis (lateral and front-to-back bending).  The former is characterized mainly by a visible difference between the height of the two shoulders, while the latter is manifest by an apparent “hump” in the upper back.  This question is well-discussed here.

In studying the early descriptions of Richard’s disability, however, it is telling to notice the words which are not applied to him. To our knowledge, Richard is not described as “bunch-backed” in print until Shakespeare; the word “boss” (from the French bossu) does not seem to have been used either. Both refer to a swelling or hump. Shakespeare’s Richard is called “crookback” three times in Henry VI, Part 3, and is more specific himself about his appearance when he claims that nature made “an envious mountain on my back, / Where sits deformity to mock my body” (Act 3, scene ii), and later describes his shoulder as “thick” (5.vii). Rather than deliberately inventing the hunchbacked Richard, though, Shakespeare may have interpreted the word “crookback” as referring to this kind of spinal deformity. The OED’s first recorded use of “hunch-backed” is the second quarto of Richard III (1598), 4.iv, when Queen Elizabeth calls him “that foule hunch-backt toade” (“bunch-backt” in the first quarto; Q2’s variation is retained in later quartos). In one sense at least, it is plausible that Shakespeare (or perhaps one of his printers) is the inventor of the hunch-backed Richard, and that this term stems either from a typesetting error or from a misreading. If so, it is indicative of how influential Shakespeare’s version of Richard’s body has been.

So the high point of the search becomes, for the author, a disappointment, instead of a victory. Sort of deflates the whole book.

I recommend the book, though of course with a large grain of salt.  The historical discussions are interesting, but it is difficult to know whether the prominent bias of Langley might have introduced serious distortions. I look forward to a more balanced discussion by other researchers in in the future.


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