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!