Interview: Mike Pitts, Author Of 'Digging For Richard III' Archaeologist Mike Pitts' new book, Digging for Richard III, recounts the search for the king's skeleton — and sheds new light on a ruler who's often seen as one of history's great villains.
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Richard III: Not Such A Bad Guy After All?

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Richard III: Not Such A Bad Guy After All?

Richard III: Not Such A Bad Guy After All?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to retell you a story now. It's a tale you thought you knew, a story you might have read at school, especially if you studied Shakespeare. Heck, you've probably heard us play the tape 1,000 times on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RICHARD III")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Richard III) Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.

MARTIN: That's Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet family, the kings that ruled England. Picture him. He's that evil guy limping across the stage, scheming, plotting until, finally, he gets his comeuppance on a foul and muddy field.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RICHARD III")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Richard III) A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Catesby) Withdraw, my Lord. I'll help you to a horse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Richard III) Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of the die. I think there be six Richmond's in the field. Five have I slain today instead of him. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.

MARTIN: OK, but what if all of that was just Shakespearean propaganda? What if Richard III was just misunderstood?

Mike Pitts is an archaeologist and a journalist. And he's here to tell us more of the story. His new book is called "Digging For Richard III: The Search For The Lost King." He joins us from Wiltshire, England. Thanks so much for being with us.

MIKE PITTS: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: This is a book that is, literally, about digging for Richard. But first, can you just lay out the facts of his death which has been somewhat contested?

PITTS: I think it's good to make the point that Shakespeare is drama. It happens on a stage. And what we see of Richard III in the plays need have no direct relationship at all with Richard III, the real historical figure, the real person. And the real person, of course, we know very little about.

We know that he grew up in dreadful circumstances. He had close members of his family who died violently around him. He was undoubtedly responsible for at least some deaths, and he was only on the throne for two years before he had to face a rival claimant to the thrown at Bosworth.

MARTIN: Bosworth is obviously where he met his demise. We talk about how he's been characterized in popular culture as a result of Shakespeare. But there is this whole society of people out there - Ricardian's, they call themselves - the Richard III society, who are dedicated to rehabilitating this guy, who think Shakespeare got this wrong.

PITTS: There are some people are very concerned to see that what they see as Richard III's unfair reputation for being an unkind man to see that that's put right. And in extreme cases, I think there are people who genuinely believe that Richard III was almost the greatest king that Britain has ever had and the kindest man that have ever walked the shores.

MARTIN: Which brings us to the narrative that you trace in this book which is about digging for his body, finding out where this man actually lay underground. And there are some great characters in this tale. But one in particular stands out - Phillippa Langley. Can you tell us about her?

PITTS: Phillippa - she's a, if you like, an amateur historian but with a passion for Richard III. And one day a good decade ago, her research took her into Leicester. And she had a kind of bizarre experience in a car park in Leicester where she suddenly thought, for no particular reason at all, that she was standing on Richard's grave. And at that moment, she just said to herself, I want to excavate Richard. Archaeologists were commissioned. They started digging, and then we enter another story.

MARTIN: You describe that moment - finding the skeleton - with so much clarity. Can you tell us about that moment?

PITTS: Well, it happened in stages. The remarkable thing was that they actually found it on the first day of the dig. They were just preparing the ground and she found a small bit of leg - a leg bone. So she carries on digging, and, you know, gradually she uncovers his complete curved spine. And it connects up with the neck. And she sits back, and she looks at it. And she says to herself, this is Richard III. I mean, the statistical likelihood of them hitting the skeleton is zero. There are so many coincidences and chances that made this happen.

MARTIN: So it was verified, obviously. I mean, it's one thing to find this curved spine and to believe fervently that is Richard III. But it was proven science.

PITTS: It was. It would be researched and analyzed and tested. So for example, the radiocarbon dating showed the man had died at the right time to be somebody who had died at the Battle of Bosworth. The anatomy of the man matched very precisely the physical descriptions we have of Richard. For example, he's described quite clearly as being quite a frail man. And that is exactly how the skeleton is.

MARTIN: What do you think is the actual historical significance of the finding?

PITTS: We're learning things that corroborate, historical records that are being questioned by historians. So not only do we have Ricardians saying that Richard III was grossly maligned by Shakespeare, but we also have Ricardians and historians, quite often, more broadly suggesting that historical records are never things that we can trust.

There's always a reason for somebody to write something down. Usually that reason is not about recording historical truth. It's about making a particular point that was important to that person at the time. So you can't trust historical records. What's interesting about the skeleton is that at every point where the physical remains of Richard III reflect on a historical record, they show the record to be correct.

But finally, there's no getting away from the fact that the discovery of this skeleton hugely engaged all. I mean, the number of people who been to visit Leicester after this discovery is unprecedented for the city.

The amount of interest online, the interest now that productions of Richard III generating in the public is very, very strong. And I think that it has created this engagement. There's something about the physicality, the materiality of the archaeological evidence that draws people in who aren't always attracted by texts, by history. And I think that's a great thing.

MARTIN: What's going to happen to this skeleton now?

PITTS: Well, this is fantastic. I mean, it's just great. We're going to have a medieval king buried, and you can follow the Cortez (ph) on Google maps. But it's going to be a grand event.

MARTIN: Mike Pitts - his new book is called "Digging For Richard III: The Search For The Lost King." Thanks so much, Mike.

PITTS: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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