Friday, February 8, 2013

Richard The III

Richard the III

Confess that work halted at the clinic at 10 am on Monday 4th of Feb 2013 as the practitioners and patients turned their attention to the TV news to find out if the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester five months ago was that of Richard the Third, the last Plantagenet king of England.

My interest was forensic rather than historical. He was King of England and the Scots were busy with ‘intermittent skirmishing’ at that time. My knowledge of English history is scant but all this hoo haa seems to be about Team Tudor versus Team Plantagenet with Shakespeare cast as spin doctor.

In ‘Richard III’, Shakespeare told of an evil, scheming hunchback, Machiavellian with a withered arm. He is described as so lamely and unfashionable that dogs barked at him as he went by, which means he could be my postman. Reports say that he was born a hairy freak with big teeth after being in utero for 2 years. The report does not say what his mum commented about that.  Shakespeare’s spin on the story 100 years after the event may have warped history, but he was scribbling in the time of Team Tudor and knew what side his doublet was buttoned on.

 The pro Tudor camp say that Richard’s 26 months reign was a dark period, culminating in his alleged role in the murder in the Tower of London of two young princes. Even that famous portrait has been doctored by the Tudors.  It was important to them that Richard was portrayed a villain and a cripple (because that would mean the vengeance of God.)  In the painting the eyes are narrowed, hands become claws, there is a raised shoulder. They exaggerated the facts to make a monster...

The pro Richard camp is now 4000 strong. They see Richard the expert soldier, the devoted husband and father, the man true to his own Plantagenet king. He helped the poor, thought that men were innocent until proved guilty and he eased the ban on the printing and selling of books. A Screen writer from Edinburgh Philippa Langley has spent the last three years looking for Richard in an attempt to right the reputation of a wronged man. I don’t think any of us knew how far she might get. I’m not sure she realised how emotionally involved she would become with this mysterious king. When the bones were lifted from the dig and placed in a small cardboard box, she asked if she could cover the box in his Royal Standard. 

The osteologist thought it ‘inappropriate’. The historian said, ‘please do’. At that point all they had found was a skeleton badly in need of an osteopath, but she felt ‘he’ should not go into a white transit van with no honour. And good on her I say.
Very briefly, in 1483 Richard’s brother ( King Edward  4th) died and Richard was named the lord protector of Edwards's son and successor, the 12-year-old King Edward 5th  and his younger brother ( another Richard) . As the boys travelled to London Richard met them and took them to the Tower of London.   But before the 12 year old could be crowned,   Richard declared the boys’ parents marriage invalid, therefore the boys were illegitimate and hey ho...Richard became Richard the III. The boys were never seen in public again.   One day they were practicing archery, the next day gone!
On 22nd August 1485 Team Plantagenet (8,000 strong) lined up against Team Tudor (5,000) at the Battle of Bosworth’s Field. The field was little more than a marsh.  Richard famously shouted “treason” before he charged to his death. That was because Baron Stanely’s wife was Henry Tudor’s mother and Baron Stanely changed camps from Plantagenet to Tudor and took all his merry men with him. That had a material effect on the outcome of the battle. Richard rode deep into the enemy ranks in an attempt to end the battle quickly by striking at Henry Tudor himself. He came within a sword’s length of Henry before being finally surrounded by Baron Stanley’s men and killed.  It is reported that a Welshman struck the death-blow with a halberd while Richard's horse was stuck in the marshy ground. (Hence ‘my horse, my horse my kingdom etc’)  It was said that the blows were so violent that the king's helmet was driven into his skull. Richard's naked body was then slung on a horse and the body insulted all the way to town. His face was left as Team Tudor needed proof that it was him.
It is also recorded that Richard consulted a wise woman in the city of Leicester before the battle. She told him that “where your spur should strike on the ride into battle, your head shall be broken on the return." On the ride into battle his spur struck the bridge stone of the Bow Bridge; his corpse was carried from the battle and his head struck the same stone.
Philippa was with the team every step of the way over the months of investigation of the skeleton.
It had a lot to say. Femur length estimated the height at 5 feet 8 inches.  Richard was ‘tall’ and in 1400 5 feet 8 inches was tall. Skeleton was of extremely slim build, almost female, which fits contemporary accounts.  ‘Lacking in masculinity he fought well’ was a quote about Richard.  Curvature of the spine, adolescent onset which would have given him a high shoulder and slight loss in height but not a hunchback. Richard's disability must have been minimal as he wore normal armour and ‘fought well.’ The skeleton did not have a withered arm – so did that mean it was not Richard or was the arm part of Shakespeare’s imagination.  The pelvis showed the man was 20 to 30 years old.  Richard was 32. The analysis of bone minerals showed a diet of meat and fish, a life of status in the 15th century.  Carbon dating of two rib bones indicated that he had died between the years 1455 and 1540 with 95.4% accuracy. Richard died in 1485.
CT scan reproduced the bones in 3D for trauma specialists and arms experts to study. At that point history and the science started to sing the same song and poor Philippa could not hold back the tears.

The skull had a gaping hole in the side, like a blow from a sword had sliced some bone off. It would have been fatal, the brain visible through the skull. Even the most modern neurosurgery could not have helped him.  There was spike type hole in the top probably made by a roundel dagger. He would need to have been without his helmet and on the ground and this fits with accounts.  They also found a fractured pelvis where he had been stabbed in buttock. Maybe as his corpse was slung over a horse, hugely suggestive of post mortem humiliation injury. The skeleton displayed evidence of 10 such wounds.
The mitochondrial DNA through sixteen generations down to a cabinet maker from London via Canada proved it beyond doubt. The skeleton was that of Richard. Vile child murderer or a hero adored by his subjects? 
So where did he end up? With our friends the forensic team in Dundee of course! They reconstructed his face to reveal a rather ‘bonnie laddie’ as the presenter called him.

Interestingly while Richard was brother of the king he was in charge of ‘the North.’ This job generally involved invading Scotland in those days.  He formally declared war on us in 1480, but it is reported the English army did not muster as the king did not appear. The Scots denied a good rummel went off in the huff and indulged in some ‘intermittent skirmishing’ for the next four years. Which we enjoyed.
We shall not blog of the previous Edward (1st), The Hammer of the Scots. He got this nickname because of his efforts to subdue us. He did not succeed but he is celebrated in the British national anthem   ‘rebellious Scots to crush.’ Obviously nobody actually sings that verse now. However, the Scottish anthem is very anti English.  “Send him homeward, proud Edward’s army, to think again.”
Caesar had it right. He landed at the south coast of England and ‘came, saw, conquered.’ Then Hadrian came north. He looked at Scotland and the weather and thought ‘Why bother.’
He then built wall across the country to keep us out. Or in. Can never decide which.

Well that’s my version of events and if Philippa’s quest tells us anything, it’s that history is up for grabs.

Stop press- the debate is now raging about where to bury him. As a monarch he should be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey  but the  problem is how to get him there. A hearse, a hearse, my kingdom for a hearse???
Caro 9th Feb (Team GB)


  1. A fascinating story indeed and a remarkable detective chase to Richard. Of course, the real question is where are the princes? Can they be found too? Alison Weir and others came to the conclusion that while Richard was, indeed, a very good king - and might have been a great one had he lived - he had been responsible for their deaths.
    Like all good characters - shades of grey (but not 50 of them).

  2. I have been Richard's supporter since I first read about him. Shakespeare should have been sued for defamation of character. The Plantagenet monarchs, Richard's family, were big men for their day, and generally described as being fair in complexion with red or blonde hair. They were described as the "Golden kings". Richard, as described, was a smaller man with a darker complexion and dark hair. Fair = good, dark = bad.
    Henry Tudor defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth field and made himself king, Henry VII.
    Henry was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII, who was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth's tame playwright, Shakespeare, wrote plays that had to be appealing to Elizabeth. What could be a better gift than writing a "history" play that proved how bad Richard really was?
    I much prefer the scenario that casts Henry Tudor as the bad guy. Did Richard steal the throne and kill his nephews or were the Tudors the real villains? There will never be a resolution but why do people think history is boring. I was captivated by the subject when I was eight or nine and read about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. She was six days old when she inherited the throne of Scotland. No one can call Mary's life boring.


  3. Being both a Bardolator and a Ricardian, I can admired Shakespeare's play for its drama AND still believe that It twists the history (writers of historical fiction often do that to make a good story!). Read Josephine Tay's The Daughter of Time and Sharon Pennman's The Sonne in Splendor and see the Ricardian side of the story. I still have my copies. I think I will reread them in honor of the finding of Richard's bones. Neither of them, by the way, concludes that Richard murdered the boys in the Tower.

  4. With all you serious Richard types chiming in, I think I'll just say I think "My kingdom for a hearse," works very nicely.

  5. Love this! And where's Josephine Tey when you need her?

  6. This is such a fascinating subject. Oddly, about a month ago I read Josephine Tey's 'The Daughter of Time' and became an instant supporter of Richard III. Up until then I had only heard the Tudor inspired accusations. I hope his bones are given a proper, royal burial. It's also very strange that a fellow Canadian is a direct descendant. I have never approved of Shakespeare's Richard III. And now that forensics has given us his gentle likeness, I strongly believe he was innocent of the murder of his nephews. Thank you, Annamaria for suggesting 'The Sonne in Splendor' by Sharon Pennman. I look forward to reading more about the last Plantagenet king.