Grr! A silly garbled item in yesterday’s Telegraph – ‘King Richard III’s teeth and jaw reveal monarch’s anxious life and violent death’ – has got me hopping mad. According to Science Correspondent Richard Gray’s first sentence, ‘Researchers say the skull and jaw of last English monarch to die in battle were badly damaged, lending support to reports that the blows that killed him were so heavy that it drove the king’s crown into his head.’
Nuh-uh, Mr. Gray – actually, the skull damage disproves any such report. There are no signs of the crushing, blunt-force trauma consistent with heavy blows received through a steel helmet; on the contrary, the nature of the slicing and puncturing wounds he suffered clearly show that by this terminal stage of the Battle of Bosworth, King Richard must have been fighting unhelmed.
This could have come about in various ways. If, as some people believe, his horse stumbled in marshy ground and threw him, the jolt may have broken his chin-strap and thrown off the helmet (presumably with the crown attached). It may have been knocked off by a glancing blow from a weapon, or wrenched off by an assailant. Conceivably, King Richard may even have discarded it himself for the sake of better vision, especially if it was uncomfortably dented or damaged so that the visor no longer moved freely. (Any of these scenarios would fit with the tradition that the crown was later found in or under a tree and presented to the victorious Henry Tudor).
Whatever the reason, the clean blade cuts to the skull show that Richard was wearing neither helmet nor crown as he met his death. As for a ‘badly damaged jaw’, the only evidence I’ve seen for this, either on the recent Channel 4 documentaries or in mailings from Leicester University, is a single dagger cut – and the jawbone looks pretty intact on the photos. So this researcher says, ‘forget the image Gray conjures up – of Richard’s helmet bashed so hard that it crushed his skull and jaw – because the skeletal evidence proves it didn’t happen like that.’
But it’s the other thrust of his article that really had me- well, grinding my teeth. A London dentist, Dr. Amit Rai, believes that a loss of surface on some of Richard III’s teeth suggest that he suffered from bruxism (teeth-grinding). This leads ‘researchers’ to ‘conclude’ (presto suggesto!) that Shakespeare’s portrait was right. Richard III was anxious and fearful, grinding his teeth with stress – and why? Because he was ‘wracked with guilt over the fate of the Princes in the Tower’, natch – although Gray does concede that whether this is so ‘may never be clear.’
Piffle and tosh. There’s no ‘may’ about it. It WILL never be clear – wonderful though modern forensic archaeology may be, it can’t answer questions like that. And if Richard III was stressed-out, he had a lifetime of good reasons for it: at 7, being captured and taken into custody after the rout of Ludford Bridge, with his father attainted for treason; at 8, losing his father and elder brother at the Battle of Wakefield, and shortly afterwards being forced to flee the country for his own safety; at 17, sharing his brother Edward IV’s exile during Warwick’s rebellion and the re-adeption of Henry VI; fighting alongside Edward at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury; then years of high-pressure offices and military campaigning – all long before 1483 and any thought of taking his nephews’ crown, let alone their lives!
So perhaps King Richard did grind his teeth – but so what? It’s a very common complaint; most bruxism sufferers have never murdered anyone (I can personally vouch for that!); and I’m willing to bet plenty of murderers have never ground their teeth at all. Besides, there are other reasons for surface loss in medieval teeth – notably the contamination of cereal foods with abrasive particles from grindstones. And while I’m no dentist, I think Richard III’s teeth look in pretty good nick compared to some of the carie-ridden, calculus-caked examples from the Towton mass-grave assemblage; so, no disrespect to Dr. Rai, I’d rather trust an osteologist than a general dental practitioner to make pronouncements on this important 15th century mouth.
But the saddest thing is that now Richard Gray’s article has appeared in a quality newspaper, lots of intelligent people will believe that Richard III was that hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing Shakespearean caricature, and died through having his helmet and crown pounded into his skull. And what’s the betting the tabloids pick up on it? So, yet again, crap about Richard III enters the mainstream consciousness – gah. Excuse me, I’m going to spit.