A Tudor historian’s view of the Richard III excavations

I’ve written a blog for BBC History Magazine on the excavations of a skeleton which may belong to English king, Richard III:

Richard III

It is not surprising that for centuries Richard III has been synonymous with evil tyranny and physical deformity. To argue otherwise has been to take on three of history’s greats – Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, all of whom argued that Richard had been a man with a crooked back and a crooked life.

Although we’re all familiar with Shakespeare’s powerful evocation – in which Richard III is a hellish villain with a mind as warped as his body – the Tudor tradition of portraying the last Plantagenet king as a monster went much further back.

Shakespeare followed the account by Raphael Holinshed, who in turn echoed Polydore Vergil and Thomas More. Vergil, in a work commissioned by Henry VII and probably finished by 1513, depicted Richard as a cruel tyrant. More, meanwhile, writing in 1514-18 (self-consciously modelling his History on Tacitus’s treatment of Tiberius) described Richard as ‘little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right’.

To More, Richard’s physical deformities revealed his monstrous character and reflected a life of acts ‘unnaturallye committed’.

Both Vergil and More had made use of older accounts, such as that by John Rous, in circulation soon after Richard’s death and newly scrubbed up for the Tudor dynasty to blacken Richard’s name. (Rous even records that Richard unnaturally gestated for two years’ in his mother’s womb before being born breech, with both teeth and flowing hair.)

Pictorial depictions too were on the receiving end of obvious post-1485 doctoring, as Pamela Tudor-Craig has concluded of this image in the Royal Collection.

But, the problem until now – and the reason Shakespeare has been largely unchallenged – has been that this evidence cannot convincingly tell us whether the accounts and depictions dating from Richard’s lifetime were accurate records by eyewitnesses, later changed by the Tudors to make Richard more sinister and villainous, or, flattering descriptions written when Richard was alive, with the truth only emerging after his death.

DNA-tested bones can, and that is why the skeleton that may belong to Richard III is so very important.

So far, the media has excitedly revealed that the skeleton ‘reveals a hunchback king’. This is inaccurate in more than one way, but if the skeleton does turn out to be that of Richard III, it can potentially reveal to us several crucial facts:

• Whether Richard had scoliosis – a type of spinal curvature – or kyphosis – the hunchback that Shakespeare gives him. There’s a distinct difference between the two. The former would have made one shoulder higher than the other, as More attested, and may also have made one shoulder blade prominent.

• How this might have affected both Richard’s appearance and his physical abilities. There’s always been a tension between Richard III’s renowned skill on the battlefield and the supposed extremity of his deformities.

• How exactly Richard died. The king’s martial prowess and the fact that he came within feet of Henry Tudor, whom he could easily have bested in one-to-one combat (no one would have put odds on the chance of a Tudor victory in 1485), mean that the only real way to explain his demise at Bosworth was that he was attacked from behind, as the skeleton initially seems to suggest.

But, finally and crucially, if the skeleton does turn out to be that of Richard III, it will hopefully prompt us to reassess not only Richard himself – we’re thankfully beyond seeing physical disability as some sort of evidence of a twisted soul – but the reputations of both Shakespeare and, especially, More.

Should we conclude that the sainted More, a man of integrity who died a martyr rather than swear against his conscience, was a liar? That can of worms may be even more controversial than the story of Richard III himself.