What happens when you combine a king with a despotic reputation, a woman with a royal obsession, and...a parking lot? For the filmmakers behind The Lost King, it’s a recipe for movie magic. The film, which follows the 2012 discovery of the remains of England’s King Richard III in a Leicester car park, is based on real-life events.
How did this king’s body get discarded and forgotten for centuries, and how was he rescued? Here’s how Richard III lived and died—and what really happened in the quest to find him.
Who was Richard III?
The Plantagenets ruled England for over 300 years, ending with Richard III. His reign lasted just over two years when he died at age 32 in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, the final salvo of the War of the Roses. He was the last English king to die in battle. But for centuries, the monarch’s life was deemed much more interesting than his death, due in part to William Shakespeare’s portrayal of the doomed king as power-hungry despot in his play Richard III.
Richard was brother of King Edward IV. After Edward IV’s death in 1483, Richard deposed the king’s 13-year-old son, Edward V, whom he claimed was illegitimate. As the new king of England, Richard III held his nephews Edward V and 10-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury in the Tower of London and was widely thought to have had them murdered to secure his place on the throne.
Richard soon faced a revolt by his brother’s supporters. Then, members of the House of Tudor rose up against him. The Battle of Bosworth Field marked the defeat of Richard’s family, the House of York—and left Richard III dead.
A royal mystery
At first, the king was entombed at Greyfriars Church at a monastery in Leicester, about 12 miles from where the battle took place. Historians long believed that when the church was dissolved as part of Henry VIII’s closure of monasteries in the 1530s, the dead king’s remains were scooped out of their resting place and thrown into the nearby River Soar.
For centuries, Richard’s reputation was defined largely by the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name. But a group of history buffs who call themselves Ricardians were eager to rescue his reputation—and find out where the king they revered was buried.
The search for Richard III
That’s where Philippa Langley comes in. A devoted Ricardian who was working on a screenplay about the doomed monarch, Langley visited the former site of Greyfriars Church in 2004. The northernmost portion of the one-time monastery had since become a parking lot for a social services center. But Langley felt a strange sensation when she stepped into the car park.
“I just felt I was walking on Richard III’s grave,” she told The Guardian in 2013. “I can’t explain it.” A year later, she returned to the parking lot, then saw that one of the parking spots had been painted over with the letter R. The letter meant “reserved,” but Langley took it as a sign.
Langley approached archaeologists at the University of Leicester and encouraged them to investigate the site. She wasn’t the first: According to the Richard III Society, others had approached Leicester officials in the past to recommend a dig. But in 2005, the discovery of a living descendant of Richard III made such a project more feasible than ever before. If remains were found, the descendant’s DNA could theoretically be used to confirm its identity.
Though University of Leicester archaeologists were unsure they’d uncover Richard during a dig at Greyfriars, they were intrigued by the prospect of learning more about the long-dismantled monastery. Langley was also a driving force, crowdfunding much of the money for the project.
In August 2012, the dig began—and within hours it was clear that the archaeologists would uncover human remains. Astonishingly, Langley was right: One of the skeletons recovered had a curved spine consistent with Richard III’s known scoliosis and showed evidence of battle wounds. A rigorous investigation followed, and in February 2013 the team announced they’d definitively identified the nearly complete skeleton as that of Richard III. A paper in the journal Nature followed, concluding “overwhelming” evidence for the bones being those of the controversial king.
Reinterring Richard III
In 2015, Richard’s story came full circle when his skeleton was reinterred, this time across the street in Leicester Cathedral. The memorial service featured a poem written by the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and read by Benedict Cumberbatch, a specially commissioned coffin pall by textile artist Jacqui Binns, and even a crown designed by John Ashdown-Hill, the researcher who located the Canadian woman whose DNA was used to identify the lost king.
Though the film has brought even more acclaim to Langley and the team behind the dig, and won several awards, the story it tells has raised eyebrows among archaeologists. After The Lost King’s British release in late 2022, the University of Leicester held a press conference about what they say are inaccuracies in the movie—chief among them its portrayal of the university’s archaeologists as naysayers who blocked Langley at every turn.
The film’s portrayal of the project “is far removed from the accurate work that took place,” said a university spokesperson. “We worked closely with Philippa Langley throughout the project, and she was not sidelined by the University.” While the university recognizes Langley as “the positive driving force behind the decision to dig for Richard III,” it denies that she was thwarted by its staffers.
As for Langley, she maintains that “very few of us thought it was more than an impossible, crazy dream”—one that took Ricardians and archaeologists alike from a nondescript parking lot to a royal reinterment. Today, the former resting place of the “lost king” is no longer a parking lot. It’s a visitor center with a glass floor that allows the public a view into the one-time grave—and a peek into the centuries-long saga of Richard III’s remains.