History Matters: Richard III, The New Evidence

Great! Thanks to further research on the skeleton of Richard III and experiments with a ‘body double’, it has been confirmed that the king could indeed have ridden a horse, worn armour and given battle (as if the historical record didn’t prove that). But Channel 4’s documentary Richard III: The New Evidence was very interesting and shed a good deal of light on Richard’s health and lifestyle as king – although it also contained a lot to annoy.

The programme centred around 27-year-old Dominic Smee, a lightly-built man with severe 80-degree scoliosis like Richard’s, and followed his training in medieval horsemanship and martial arts (for which he has considerable natural aptitude) to draw comparisons between what he could achieve and what Richard III could have done. The first thing to strike me was that it explains the documentary confusion regarding Richard’s appearance; while Dominic’s condition was obvious when he was wearing only shorts, it was barely perceptible when he was fully clothed and completely invisible in full armour (a suit custom-made to accommodate the twist in his torso and carry most of the weight on the shoulders rather than the waist, as King Richard’s presumably was); nor did he limp or display any other obvious signs of impairment. So it’s reasonable to assume that Richard III also looked ‘normal’, and accounts for why some commentators say his left shoulder was higher than his right, (as is Dominic’s), or vice versa.

So far so good – but the programme carried assumptions too far. One major omission was the lack of discussion of Dominic’s earlier lifestyle (apart from his hobby of medieval re-enactment), the onset of his condition/how it affected him, and whether he did or does sport. Similarly, it failed to say that until Richard III’s scoliosis manifested at puberty, he would have enjoyed the unimpeded activities of a young 15th century prince, including horse-riding, hunting and weapons training. He would have grown up fit and athletic, and subsequently maintained an active military career throughout his years as Duke of Gloucester – whereas Dominic trained as an IT teacher and is currently unemployed, hence has probably led a far more sedentary existence. Drawing too many direct comparisons between a man who trained for combat from boyhood and one who did not is therefore likely to be misleading.

Also irritating was the implication that kingship turned Richard III overnight into a booze-soaked glutton. Yes, isotope analysis shows that his consumption of wine, fish and meat increased markedly in his last three years; however, contemporary/near-contemporary images still show him as slim and narrow-faced, so he plainly did not gain weight from this diet! There was no mention of the change of expectations imposed by his transition from duke to king, the consequent requirements for formal banqueting and entertaining, or the famous quote from Sir Nicolaus von Poppelau, (who dined with Richard in 1484), to the effect that His Majesty was more interested in conversation than food. The demands of office would have left him with less time for training, so his fitness levels may well have somewhat declined – though they were still likely to have been in line with those of other noblemen.

Equally, it’s unrealistic to say that because he suffered from roundworm and spinal osteo-arthritis, Richard III’s health was poor and he was ‘unfit for battle’ at Bosworth. Lower hygiene standards meant that many 15th century people were infected with roundworm – hence their consumption of tansy, an effective treatment for infestation – and many also had arthritis, as a comparison with the Towton skeletons would have shown. So maybe his health wasn’t great by our standards – but these conditions represented a medieval norm, and Richard was probably healthier (and certainly better fed) than the majority of his subjects and the average soldier at Bosworth.

But to me, the silliest suggestion was that physical limitations imposed by his scoliosis were the driving force behind his cavalry charge – in other words, he knew he was too weak to withstand doing battle on foot. This ignores the evidence of his hawkish career: a veteran of Barnet and Tewkesbury, Richard opposed the treaty of Picquiny because he wanted to fight the French; led a campaign to recover Berwick from the Scots shortly before Edward IV’s death; and expressed to von Poppelau his desire to go on crusade. Maybe he felt he had more to prove than other men, but he was plainly up for a ruck – and after all, that’s what nobles of the period were for: to wage war, win glory and thereby extend their possessions and power. So I would be surprised if, pumped for adrenalin in the heat of battle, Richard gave his back or his lower levels of stamina a second thought. No – his charge was surely prompted by military opportunism: having spotted Henry Tudor relatively lightly-defended, here was his chance to win a decisive victory, maybe even to dispatch his hated rival with his own hand.

Overall, this programme judged Richard III far too much by modern standards. Ian Mortimer made several valiant attempts to pull things back to a 15th century perspective, but his efforts were over-ridden by the production team’s determination to show scoliosis and other medical conditions as the primary cause of the king’s death at Bosworth. So while Richard III: The New Evidence is worth watching, it should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt!

17 thoughts on “History Matters: Richard III, The New Evidence

  1. I agree with your comments disappointed with programme now people judge Richard as Alcohol dependent. Richard did not die in battle because he was weak and unfit he was an experienced soldier and excellent leader of men. He had been trained as a soldier from a very early age. Team did not seem to realise that water was not drunk then it was either ale or wine

  2. I agree with everything you’ve written, Helen. Very neatly and cogently put. The documentary did Richard many favours, but a few disfavours as well, but on the whole, I think, the favours outweigh the rest. I hope!

  3. Hi Helen, I agree with you comments too. Richard was trained from a very early age to handle weapons which would have given him the stamina needed in later life. He proved himself time and time again on the battlefield and not even his enemies said he lacked courage! As for the eating and drinking he had to entertain officials and diplomats on a daily basses and banquets were expected from any royal prince or noble. Hats off to Dominic for a very brave effort but I must say I learnt nothing new from the scientific results.

  4. thanks, all. I guess it’s inevitable that popular documentaries will contain an element of sensationalism, but was disappointed that the chance was missed to present comparisons between Richard’s bones and those of the fighting men at Towton – which would have been extremely interesting.

  5. Meet the Ancestors it was not. I remember the episode where they recreated the chariot and were astounded how well it worked. Similarly, the living archaeology element of this programme clearly showed how medieval horse tackle helped rather than hindered Dominic to the surprise of the experts. It showed what it saw, with a novice.

    Then, we get to the other science, and as you correctly identify, all they want is an angle. Rather than celebrating the fact that field of isotope analysis and what it tells us, and no expert spoke of over indulgence, the documentary makers edited the materials they had and came up with an angle which when spliced with Sir Laurence Olivier, gave them a dramatic conclusion. It is a shame, because I am sure this study will really further the science and we, the general public, could have been engaged with it. Will C4’s angle help it sell in the world market? Richard does seem to attract a lot of attention. Maybe, alike aired football matches, they could repeat the programme with the option of turning off the commentary.

  6. Excellent review, it only forgets to mention R was betrayed by half his lords at Bosworth, “probably” a major factor in his demise despite his cry “A diet, a diet, my kingdom for a diet” before unhorsing Cheeney 1 full foot taller than him (possibly hit down by R’s belly according to Channel4’s assumptions)… 🙂

  7. Thanks again, everyone. Yes, instead of trotting out Shakespeare’s Richard yet again, the programme should have said that it was the inaction of the Stanleys and others, leading to the king being surrounded and overwhelmed, which contributed most to his death. But that would have interfered with their sickly, boozed-up fantasy of him, of course.

    • Indeed, it does look like the entertainment industry generally has an unspoken fear of breaking the villain taboo. They MUSt find something wrong about the guy, whatever evidence can deny it, so they presented the drunkard to replace the hunchback

  8. I was practically shouting at the tv set. Of course Richard trained in the tiltyard for hours, undergoing rigorous combat instruction, even as a boy. What he went through in the final two or three years of his life, kingship, which he was rightfully entitled to, and losing his son and wife, the defection of Buckingham etc, was enough to turn anyone to eat and drink for comfort.

  9. Thank you so much for this reasoned and fair analysis of a programme I seethed through. I have been an avid Ricardian for more than forty years and the finding of Richard’s body was an emotional and wonderful time for me and others. But I really wish now that they would stop interfering with his remains for their own ends (and to get profit out of documentaries like this one) and simply re-inter this lovely, magnanimous, brave and good man.

  10. I did not see that program as I had to think of my blood pressure and my sanity. I have seen enough from article’s in newspapers to those programmes before hand and come to the conclusion its all a bit too weird for me. Interesting enough some of my friends who are not interested in this era in history find all this science stuff a bit too weird. They were so confident that they found him they brought that visitor centre before they announced they found him. Above all else which I find strange is all these diseases, drink problem, part of the legs missing but they knew how tall he was 5′ 8″. He just had to have a curvature of spine. I am asleep already and that’s without having a glass of wine.

  11. I have been looking forward to getting onto Facebook since watching the programme to see what you all had to say. You have not let me down. Excellent. Thanks

  12. I was hoping that after using Dominic as a body double- which allowed them to successfully complete their study- that they might do something to help him with his scoliosis and possibly improve his quality of life now and for his future.

  13. I was intrigued by the show, mostly by the way the medieval saddle and armour were helpful to Dominic.
    I too felt considerably cranky that NO-ONE mentioned that as a Duke, Richard would have trained in combat from a very young age which meant that his muscles would have been trained unlike Dominic’s. I am however so very pleased Dominic came forward and agreed to do the program for what is has revealed about the saddle and armour. As to the alcohol and diet – oh please! You are spot on with your review. I’m also pleased for Dominic, he did a fabulous job and all credit to him. He deserved to feel very proud for what he has achieved. I hope it will help him in whatever he goes on to do. He did credit to the ‘well beloved and shot down some of those ridiculous theories.

    • yes, quite, Sandra – their build and degree of scoliosis might be similar, but aside from that there’s little comparison – Richard’s diet, lifestyle, fitness and physical strength would all have been very different and his capabilities far greater than Dominic’s. However, it did show conclusively that a person with such scoliosis is by no means crippled or incapable, which is good for people to know!

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