The Smithsonian Channel will soon air a documentary about the remarkable discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in a parking lot in Leicester, England.
“The King’s Skeleton: Richard III Revealed” premieres Sunday, April 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The two-hour show was produced by the only team allowed access to the scientists, the excavation and the lab tests used to determine the skeleton’s identity. The documentary has already aired in the UK and attracted five million viewers. This will be the first American showing.
Gadling received an advance copy of the show. For some background, read our article about Richard III and the discovery. Also check out these amazing photographs from the dig. Our review follows and contains some spoilers. Of course, everyone already knows how the story ends!
%Gallery-185896%The documentary follows the quest of Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society to find the king’s remains, said to have been buried the now-disappeared Greyfriars church in Leicester after he was killed by Henry Tudor’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Research with old maps revealed it to be under a municipal parking lot. Langley raised money from society members and spent years convincing the local council to allow an excavation.
Langley tells of how when walking through the parking lot she felt certain that she had found the spot where Richard lay. Remarkably, the letter “R” was painted on the very same spot. The documentary fails to mention that this R was a symbol for Reserved Parking. Once the excavation begins and a skeleton is found, there’s a sudden downpour. This normal English weather is given a spooky significance by the producers.
Once the paranormal silliness is dispensed with, we get to the real meat: the excavation and meticulous examination of the body. One interesting sequence is of an art historian talking about how later painters commissioned by the new Tudor dynasty made Richard look deformed, which then was considered a sign of moral corruption. This was the origin of the Shakespearean Richard with the hunchback and withered arm.
Then comes an interesting sequence where members of the Richard III society get their say. They’re dedicated to rehabilitating the king’s image, denying he killed his predecessor’s young heirs and denying he had a hunchback. Their main objection to his having a deformity is that he couldn’t have worn armor. Anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval warfare knows that knights and royalty didn’t go to Ye Olde Shopping Mall to buy armor off the rack; it was made to their specific measurements. Try wearing metal plates on your body that aren’t shaped to your dimensions and see how well you can move! This obvious rebuttal wasn’t mentioned in the show, although surely the producers were told this by their scientific advisers. It seems narrative tension is more important than historical clarity.
While I found some segments of the show distracting, historians and archaeologists get plenty of airtime and we learn a bit about how bones are analyzed and how a DNA match with one of Richard’s descendants proved it was him. There’s also some gruesome detail about all the wounds on Richard’s body, including demonstrations of some of the weapons probably used. The army of Henry Tudor repeatedly hacked at Richard and appears to have humiliated his corpse by stabbing him in the rear end. It was a grim end to a short reign.
My wife, a scientist with no special interest in medieval history and perhaps more representative of the target audience than a former archaeologist like me, commented that the documentary could use some more historical background to place Richard III and the Battle of Bosworth into context. This could have been easily done by shaving off some of the more frivolous segments.
Despite these reservations, we both thoroughly enjoyed the show for its stunning imagery, clear narration and scientific detail. We recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the archaeological discovery of the year.