Ever since archaeologists excavated King Richard III’s remains from a parking lot in Leicester, England in 2012, researchers have been working hard to uncover his 500-year-old secrets.* They have confirmed the ruler’s identity through mitochondrial DNA testing, discovered he had roundworms (but no other parasites) in his intestines, and have now learned that his spinal curvature wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the physical description Shakespeare gave him in the eponymous play, Richard III (1592).
Most of us know of Richard III through Shakespeare, who portrays the controversial last Plantagenet King as a villain responsible for the murders of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, among other deaths. Shakespeare connects Richard III’s treacherous behavior to his physical appearance, describing him as “deform’d,” “unfinish’d,” and as a “bunch-back’d toad.”
As it turns out, though, Shakespeare’s description of Richard III wasn’t exactly right. In The Lancet (May 31, 2014), Dr. Jo Appleby et al. concluded that:
The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight since he had a well balanced curve. His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this… we identified no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp.**
Richard III had scoliosis, but it was not severe enough to match Shakespeare’s Tudor-influenced description. The Tudors defeated Richard III in 1485, and still reigned when Richard III was written.
Not everyone has agreed with Tudor descriptions of Richard III’s behavior or appearance. For example, in Josephine Tey’s 1951 historical detective novel, The Daughter of Time, Inspector Alan Grant investigates the mystery at the heart of Richard III’s bad reputation—the alleged murder of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower. As he gazes at the portrait of the reviled ruler, Grant wonders how “the author of the most revolting crime in history” could “have the face of a great judge, a great administrator”? Grant decides to clear Richard III’s name, starting with primary historical sources.
I highly recommend reading Tey’s novel, which encourages us to look at historical facts with a critical eye. As I said in Unearthing Historical Truths: Richard III in Fiction and in the Flesh (well, Bones),
Whether or not you agree with Grant’s alternate theory of what happened to the princes, it is hard to dismiss his application of the historical method. It reminds me of my college days as a history major when my papers were built upon the details contained in diaries, personal letters, and other primary sources. Each is a piece of evidence, which a historian, like a juror in a trial, must weigh for credibility to reach a verdict on “the truth.” It’s the only way to root out “Tonypandy,” Grant’s term for historical bullshit.
We also have the scientific method to thank for rooting out tonypandy. Today, through empirical evidence, we know that Richard III’s “disfigurement… was probably slight.” Someday, new scientific and historical discoveries might give us a better idea of what actually happened to the princes. We can’t rely on fiction to figure it out for us.
*He was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which is actually 529 years ago.
**I’ve been battling with Word’s autocorrect over the British spellings in this quote. I’m very annoyed at my American computer right now.