Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Rebuilding the King's body: Richard III's skeleton may speak for itself.



Hunchback ? Usurper ? Murderer ? Says who ? In the five centuries since his violent death on Bosworth Field, Richard III’s reputation has been hotly debated among academics and enthusiasts alike. Perhaps no other English King has caused so much controversy and elicited such a devoted following. Vastly polarised images of the last Yorkist monarch have emerged, from the caricature promoted by More, Vergil, Holinshed and Shakespeare, to the responsible King who took on the mantle of England’s rule amid tragic circumstance that left a permanent stain on historical record. One of the key areas of contention has been Richard’s appearance but eagerly anticipated new evidence may have light to shed in this area.
                                    Richard III played by David Garrick in the Eighteenth Century
The late medieval correlation between physical appearance and moral character has played a key role in shaping later interpretations of Richard. As the brother to the tall, blonde Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard appears to have taken more after his father, being dark-haired and wiry. It may be significant that he had three older brothers yet was the first to bear his father’s name. Evidence for his supposed deformation has come from a variety of sources: the 1456 Clare Roll, written as a record of the Clare family’s ancestry, commented that the four-year-old “Richard liveth yet,” giving rise to assumptions that he was a weak child. However, in the context of an age when infant mortality was high, and demographers have estimated that approximately only half of babies born in the fifteenth century reached their fifth birthday, such a comment seems entirely appropriate, if not expected. He was then the youngest child in the family, whilst his siblings were considerably older. It was also meant to distinguish him his younger sister Ursula who had already predeceased him and the long dead ancestors of whose stories he was the culmination.

                                                 Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Rumours of his “monstrous” birth appear to have originated with John Rous, the chronicler of the Neville family into which Richard married. Critically, two versions of Rous’ Roll survive, giving a powerful indication of the way that historiography has shaped the individual to purpose and not always upheld the impartiality so desirable in modern scholarship. The first Roll, written before 1485, presents the King as a “good” ruler who champions the cause of the common man; however, after the arrival of Henry Tudor, Rous rewrites the past, introducing the first description of Richard’s “monstrous” birth. Now, the “good” King appears to have required a two year gestation period before being born with long teeth and hair. No suggestions of such a horrific arrival survive from the 1450s. It is likely that Rous was rewriting events to suit the new dynasty’s sensibilities, however it cannot be ruled out that earlier sources may have been destroyed or presented in a more flattering light to an influential family of the day. We do know that such “monstrous” births were considered to be reflective of the moral practices of the parents and omens of ill-fate. The Yorkists were famously superstitious, with Edward IV’s vision of the parhelion or three suns in the sky taken to be a prediction of the outcome of the Battle of Towton and subsequent direction of the Cousins’ Wars. Rous’ rewriting may have been an act of self-preservation. Polydore Vergil, Thomas More and Shakespeare exploited it for their own purposes and may or may not have believed it. The image of the hunchbacked King is hardly compatible with the reputation Richard established early on, as an impressive military commander. Equally, in his youth, one duchess described him as the handsomest man in the room. Modern technology has also enabled the x-raying of portraits that have clearly been doctored to show a raised shoulder and withered arm.
                                                        Kevin Spacey in the title role

 The recent excavations in a Leicester car park have reignited a debate which has never really died. Although the world will have to wait between eight and six weeks to discover whether these remains are in fact those of the lost King, the possible presence of scoliosis could be very controversial. After the extensive debunking of these supposed historical myths, it might turn out that Richard did actually have some form of curved spine after all. If this is the case, the implications for historiography- the attribution of meaning to written and pictorial forms of evidence – will be significant. Many current theories about Richard may need to be reconsidered. While all historians are aware that they are, by definition, dealing with imperfect surviving material, this case may really expose the difficulties of drawing conclusions from a few biased fragments. What picture of King Richard III will emerge from these excavations ? Whatever the DNA tests prove, it is to be hoped that the dig will encourage all those involved to reflect upon the nature of history and the importance of objectivity in attempting to uncover the “truths” of the past, if such a simple concept exists. Then, a new Civil War may well be fought over the burial of his remains.

My biography of Anne Neville, Richard's wife, will be published by Amberley in 2013.


  1. Not sure how much will be changed if the skeleton is confirmed as being Richard's. It would certainly de-bunk More et al, but there are strong arguments that he was writing satire rather than history. The evidence of scoliosis is not particularly surprising. It's a comparatively common condition (possessed by Usain Bolt, among others) and even the most revisionist historians have speculated that Richard may have had one shoulder slightly higher than the other. The word from Leicester is that any asymmetry would have been almost imperceptible beneath clothing, so it's possible that the whole hunchback myth was a deliberate exaggeration of what people observed when the body was stripped and displayed for two days after Bosworth.

  2. Hi Jonathan, that's a really interesting point that the rumours may derive from the display of his body, when his enemies would have had the opportunity to exploit even the slightest physical defect. This would play on the old concepts of concealed imperfections, almost like finding a "witch-mark" on the body and fuel those later "myths"! I think there are different degrees of scoliosis too, so while some sufferers might have significant stoops/curves, some may be very slight- as the Leicester evidence may suggest.
    Also, it's interesting how the term "history" has evolved to its modern meaning. You're right that chroniclers like More weren't using it in the sense of modern scholarship but as synomyns for account, narrative etc which did encompass tones like satire and need to be judged with commensurate suspicion. Perhaps their accounts are to be valued for different purposes.
    Can't wait until the DNA comes through !

  3. Absolutely! The one tricky thing is that, while DNA is a precise science, genealogy isn't. It would be so good to have a definite conclusion to this story after 500 years. The circumstantial evidence is extraordinarily persuasive - so much so that, if it's *not* Richard, the presence of a doppelganger skeleton with battle trauma in the exact spot where he was recorded as having been buried would take the concept of "mystery" to a whole new level.

    Re More,I find it bizarre how anyone can take what he writes at face-value. (Maybe it's because of the sainthood, but I don't find him a particularly saintly character and he was certainly adept at stretching the truth to breaking point when he thought the occasion demanded it, e.g. the Richard Hunne case.) His history is riddled with errors, some so gratuitous that you wonder if they're deliberate. In fact, when you combine that with the theatrical invention and repeated allusions to gossip, it seems to actively undermine any possibility of "authenticity". I've no doubt More believed Richard to be a tyrant - not least because of his connection with John Morton - but he's playing a more complex game in this than simple reportage. And in the end, given that the work remained unfinished and unpublished, I'm not even sure that *he* was certain of what he was trying to achieve.

  4. Since when was Edward IV blond? That's an 'artistic convention' used in fiction. He was never depicted or described as blond, other than in 2 panes of stained glass, one genuinely medieval and one Victorian. All his portraits and other contemporary depiction shows brown hair. The remaining samples of his hair are brown (ancient hair does not darkened; rather it goes lighter and reddens.)

  5. Well, lets hope that any re-assesment of Richard is indeed objective, not just starry-eyed Richardian whitewashing that presents him as a Saint, and some Kind of Royal version of Robin Hood. Lets hope he gets portrayed as an actual human being, with some faults, flaws and shortcomings, rather than some kind of exemplar of Kingship and model of humanity, compassion and morality who is totally above reproach. Practically perfect in every way. 'Cos lets face it, that's just as absurd as anything Shakespeare said.....

    I think the whole 'champion of the common man' idea is a myth in itself, mostly perpetuated by the Richard III society- the modern equivalent of the Tudor Propaghanda machine.......

  6. Actually, is it just me or does the scoliosis thing seem to be something of a U-turn? I was taught that until the discovery of the bones, most Richardians absolutely denied that Richard had any kind of physical deformity. Then it turns out he did.

    So its possible that the rumour of a hunched back had at least some basis in truth. Makes you wonder how many of the other rumours about Richard some of the things Shakespeare said, which were not invented by the Tudors at all but contemporary to Richard's own reign.