The King In The Lab – Body of Evidence

“Body of Evidence” was the title of a talk given by Dominic Smee, Richard III’s “body double”, at Leicester University earlier this year. Until recently, one of the great mysteries surrounding the last Plantagenet king of England was the contradiction between the severity of his supposed deformities and his reputation as a soldier, praised amongst others by his brother Edward IV, who was himself considered a paragon of military prowess. Some historians suspected that his deformities were exaggerated or even completely invented by his political enemies, pointing to the fact that reports about them only began to surface after his death, while others argued that it was his military reputation which was exaggerated and that his contemporaries were simply too scared to mention his deformities during his lifetime.

The finding of Richard’s skeleton with its severe scoliosis has reignited the debate. As Philippa Langley, who led the search for the king’s lost grave, succinctly put it when first setting eyes on the royal remains: “How do you fit armour on that?” This was the question scientists and historians tried to answer by dressing scoliosis sufferer Dominic in medieval armour and putting him through his paces. The results were presented in two TV documentaries, a UK version called “Richard III – The New Evidence” and a US version called “Secrets of the Dead – Resurrecting Richard III” – at least, some of them. The purpose of Dominic’s talk at Leicester University was to reveal, based on photos, videos and personal anecdotes, what the producers of the documentaries had chosen to exclude.

The scoliosis and its effects (or not)

He began by showing an x-ray of his scoliosis, which is identical to Richard’s in terms of angle and rib rotation, except that Richard’s scoliosis starts from the 4th vertebra whereas Dominic’s starts from the 3rd vertebra. This means that he has slightly less mobility in his hips than Richard while Richard would instead have had slightly less mobility in his right shoulder. Given how dramatic the curvature looked on the x-ray, it was startling how little it seemed to affect Dominic as he moved around the auditorium or demonstrated the use of a war hammer. Under a t-shirt and light jacket it was all but invisible.

He explained that due to the sideways curvature of his spine the lung capacity on his left side is reduced, but the right side is normal and while he tires more easily than a person without scoliosis, it is not a big issue. The documentaries show him struggling for breath on a treadmill, but at the point when they started filming he had already been running for 20 minutes. According to his orthopaedic surgeon his other internal organs, such as his heart, are not affected by the scoliosis, which was a key reason why Dominic decided not to have corrective surgery.

As I showed in my previous science post, there has been much speculation about Richard being in pain and the impact this may have had on him physically and psychologically, but Dominic didn’t experience any pain during his teens. Now, in his late twenties, he only gets muscle cramps in cold weather conditions or when lifting something heavy, though not enough to need pain killers. He described the pain from a trapped nerve as 10-20 times worse. Unlike Richard he doesn’t have arthritis in his spine, so he was unable to comment on its effect, but this may have been a relatively recent development for the king, who was 32 years old at the time of his death. He would have also been training for armed combat since childhood, which would have strengthened his muscles and helped to support his back.

By contrast, aside from a spell of karate in his teens Dominic led a sedentary lifestyle, so he had to start his knightly training from scratch at age 26. He estimated that he received 40 hours of horse training and 32 hours of weapons training over three months, at an average of two lessons per week, to prepare him for the challenges that were thrown at him in the documentary. The producers actually had a stand-in on hand, but Dominic did so well that they decided to use him all the way.

Customising the armour and unseen research

Because of the sideways curvature of his spine Dominic’s rib cage rests on his hip, so regular armour causes his ribs to rub against the plate, restricting his breathing. The custom-made asymmetrical cuirass, created by Swedish armourer Per Lillelund Jensen from CK45 spring steel, the closest modern equivalent to medieval armour steel, accommodates the curvature and rests on his shoulders instead of his waist. At 62 pounds total weight his armour is also lighter than average to allow for greater agility and to minimise the impact of the asymmetrical weight distribution on his horse. Dominic had brought the cuirass along to the talk and despite the slightly uneven shoulders, which would normally be concealed by the shoulder pauldrons, it looked remarkably “normal”.

1) and 2) Dominic in full armour, and 3) the custom-made cuirass

Dominic gave due credit to his teachers, Dave Rawlings of the London Longsword Academy and Dominic Sewell of Historic Equitation, as he described how he started out learning sword moves from Hans Talhoffer’s medieval fencing manual, but then moved on to other weapons as Richard would have also learned to fight with battle axe and lance, and explained how he and his horse learnt to deal with the asymmetrical weight distribution caused by his scoliosis and how they discovered that the medieval saddle helped him by supporting his back.

He also revealed that they choreographed a number of scenarios to explore how Richard may have died, both on foot and sitting on a vaulting horse, to see how long he could have defended himself against a group of halberdeers. Another experiment involved a re-enactor hitting the top of a sallet with a pole axe, which created a similar imprint in the polystyrene head underneath as the wound on top of Richard’s skull because, due to the gap between sallet and skull, the weapon couldn’t penetrate fully, possibly confirming that “the stroke his Basnett to his head vntill his braines came out with blood”1. Most intriguingly Toby Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection and the man who got Dominic involved in the research, reenacted Richard’s final cavalry charge to see if he could have covered the 800 or so yards distance in time to kill Henry Tudor before he was attacked by Stanley’s men. Dominic didn’t specify how they worked out the available timespan, but in an interview with Jon Snow of Channel 4 Dr Capwell stated that, if Richard hadn’t killed the standard bearer but gone straight for Tudor, the charge may well have succeeded. Sadly very little of this made it into the US version of the documentary and none of it appears in the UK version, except for a short snippet that shows Dominic playing dead on the floor. As he pointed out, this too was part of the choreography – he hadn’t collapsed from exhaustion, as the programme claimed.

Unseen challenges with borrowed armour

What also wasn’t shown in the documentaries was that, due to time and financial constraints, only the cuirass and leg armour, which were so comfortable that Dominic was able to ride a bicycle in them, were custom made. The sallet, shoulder pauldrons, gauntlets and arming doublet were borrowed from fellow re-enactors and the Royal Armoury, which led to unforeseen complications.

Dominic described wearing a sallet as similar to looking through a letterbox: he could only see his horse’s ears and the tip of his lance, all sounds were muffled except the wind whistling around his head and to take his battle axe out of his belt with gauntlet-clad hands, use it and put it back he had to rely on muscle memory. However, the sallet he wore in the programme was too big and the first time he galloped towards the quintain it slid down until it covered his eyes, so he had to pad out his coif to hold it in place. Similarly, the arming doublet didn’t take account of his scoliosis, so it too had to be padded to keep the armour from sliding or rubbing. The symmetrical shoulder pauldrons kept catching on his asymmetrical cuirass, reflecting his shoulder blades catching on his rib cage underneath, so every time he lifted the lance he had to deliberately push up the pauldrons, which should have risen automatically as he lifted his arms had they fit correctly. He had to try and hold reins and weapons without being able to close his hands because the gauntlets didn’t fit and while the high-backed medieval saddle helped his posture it wasn’t designed to interact with his custom-made armour, so the culet, a piece of armour that’s meant to protect the rider’s bum from weapons while on horseback, was instead driven into Dominic’s bum. Imagine galloping through a field wearing ill fitting plate armour and trying to hit a target with a weapon you’re unable to grip properly – after only 40 hours of training!

The real Richard

Although Dominic didn’t say it, it seems clear that both documentaries, but particularly the UK version, were edited to emphasise his physical limitations, for example filming him when he was out of breath or playing dead, while glossing over the shortcomings he overcame, such as ill fitting armour and lack of experience. The US version is edited differently and its commentary is less alarmist, but both versions blame Richard’s defeat at Bosworth on his scoliosis and his supposedly poor health (a claim at which we look more closely in our post The King In The Lab – Richard III’s Dissolute Diet). Of course, if Dominic’s achievements were more impressive than they appear in the programmes – he spent up to 11 hours a day on horseback – then it should be even less surprising that Richard, with his greater experience and custom-made armour, was able to earn a reputation as a competent warrior.

To explore how and to what extent these “limitations” can be further compensated Dominic has set up the Dominic Smee Armour Fund to raise money for a fully customised suit of armour. He has already added a new piece to his collection – an asymmetrical arming doublet curtesy of Ninya Mikhaila of The Tudor Tailor, which fits under his asymmetrical cuirass without the need for padding – and he will soon be able to purchase his own helmet, vambraces and gauntlets. He is also writing a book about his scoliosis and how his attitude has changed from previously ignoring it to now accepting it. As he commented at the end of the talk, the biggest surprise for him was finding out how much he is actually able to do.

I would recommend Dominic’s talks to anyone who is interested in Richard III. He’s an engaging speaker who, despite his different background, is in the unique position of being able to offer insights based on first hand experience. “Body of Evidence” added many new details to my understanding of the historical Richard and I look forward to any new information Dominic’s research may reveal.

You can find out more about Dominic and his work here:

Channel 4: “Richard III: The New Evidence”

PBS: “Secrets of the Dead – Resurrecting Richard III”

Dominic Smee Armour Fund: “The Arming Doublet”

Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle

Lady on Horseback

Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

My previous Travel Tales blog talked about the Forest of Bowland and Skipton.  Today, we’re going to two places that sometimes get forgotten by the traveler who is interested in visiting places having some Richard III connections:  Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.


Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey – Refectory and undercroft


From our temporary homebase in Ripon-Masham, we drove 30 miles to visit one of the gems of English medieval history.  Like Fountains and Byland Abbeys, Rievaulx was one of the great Cistercian monasteries of medieval Europe, and its ruins are said to be the “most complete” of any of the dissolved religious houses in England. It has one of the most spectacular natural settings within a deep valley in the North York Moors National Park; however, to take a photograph from the best vantage point one has to pay an admission price of over Ł5.00 per person to the National Trust’s Rievaulx Terrace. (It was raining and it didn’t seem worth the price of admission just to take a photograph.)


Rievaulx Abbey – Presbytery

At the height of its popularity, as many as 650 men – monks and lay brothers – prayed, sung masses, lived and worked within a completely self-sufficient community.  But it also provided hospitality and lodgings to kings and great noblemen.  In 1322, Edward II was visiting Rievaulx when his army was surprised by the Scots on nearby Shaws Moor and defeated by them at the battle of Byland. Other than that, the abbey seems to have been cut off from the rest of the world, suffered significant losses during the Black Death, but made something of a come back during the 15th century when records show the monks renting out pastureland to 49 tenant farmers. Visiting ruins of such grand buildings is always awe-inspiring – albeit a little melancholy.


Helmsley Castle – Possessed by Richard III from 1478-1485

The next stop was to Helmsley Castle, only three miles to the east from Rievaulx. I’d never heard of this particular castle in all my “Ricardian” reading, but Edward IV granted it to Richard following the execution of George, Duke of Clarence, in 1478.   Helmsley became a great castle when Robert de Roos II (c. 1186-1227) set about rebuilding the pre-existing fortress structure. De Roos, also known as “Fursan”, was one of the 25 barons chosen to ensure King John’s compliance with Magna Carta, and this was highlighted in an exhibit at its visitors’ center.


Helmsley Castle – model

The castle remained in the continuous possession of the de Roos lords until the Battle of Hexham in 1464, when its current owner was executed and attainted for fighting on behalf of the deposed Henry VI.   The castle’s east tower dominates the nearby town of Helmsley and the surrounding parkland where medieval lords would have enjoyed hunting and other recreational activities. Although Richard possessed this castle from 1478-1485, there is no record of him residing here. However, he might have dropped by for a visit when he was at Rievaulx Abbey on May 20-21, 1484 according to Rhoda Edwards’ “The Itinerary of King Richard III”.  Indeed, as Richard next traveled from Rievaulx Abbey to Scarborough, it would be almost impossible for him not to pass by his castle at Helmsley – it is literally on the eastward route over the Moorlands towards Scarborough.  Who knows, perhaps he indulged in a bit of hawking in the lovely country that surrounds the castle.  Or maybe he took a brief meal there before setting out to his next destination.  Imagine that:  Richard’s banner might have hung over Helmsley Castle for a short time!

Why was Richard III traveling to Rievaulx and passing by Helmsley to his beloved Scarborough?  Well, he was continuing what he called “Our Great Journey” or what we now call Royal Progress, following his coronation in July of 1483 and interrupted by Buckingham’s rebellion in October of 1483.  It consumed most of  his brief 26-month reign, and totaled an astounding 2,750 miles.  Other English kings were equally active in traveling through their realm, especially during politically stressful periods and after their coronations.  As Rhoda Edwards shows, both Edward IV and Henry VII did the same.  It wasn’t just for pleasure.  The King brought his household, and perhaps more importantly, a council of administrators who would draw up charters, continue royal business, and receive and hear petitions from the people.  Given the fact that Richard III’s royal retinue numbered in the range of 200 persons, it would seem likely that Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle provided lodgings for these royal servants.  So, this was not just a time for Richard III to bask in the glow of his recent crowning, but was intended to create connections to his subjects and to introduce them to the overall style and “tenor” of his rule.

Here are some more photos from our outing to Rievaulx and Helmsley:

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A New Theory about Richard III’s Boar Badge

Richard III fascinates people because his story has so many profound mysteries.  Take, for instance, the case of the disappeared Princes in the Tower.  Or the execution of William, Lord Hastings.  These two events have filled up hundreds of pages of speculation in books, have spawned endless social media threads, and remain the subject of heated debates in historical societies.  They’re like the two giant elephants in the room whenever the topic of Richard III crops up.

Nevertheless, there are certain facts that are known about Richard.  One of those is that he adopted the White Boar as his personal badge while he was Duke of Gloucester, a title given to him at age 9.  We don’t know exactly when he adopted it, but it would be reasonable to assume that he would have had to pick a badge (or several) as soon as he was retaining men into his affinity and given the task of arraying troops. The earliest known account of Richard retaining men is contained in the Paston Letters, which observe him recruiting men into his affinity in June 1469, during the Robin of Redesdale crisis.  At that point, Richard was almost 17 years old.  Certainly, there is no question the White Boar became his most prominent badge by age 23 at the time of Edward IV’s 1475 invasion of France; Richard’s men are clearly identified by it in the list of troops summoned for the campaign.

But where did Richard draw inspiration for choosing the White Boar?  The traditional explanation is that the medieval spelling for boar (“bore”) was an anagram for the Latin word for York (“Ebor” or “Eboracum”), his royal house.  In my article “The Fotheringhay Boar(s)”, published by the Richard III Society in their Ricardian Bulletin, I offered a theory that Richard first saw carvings of boars at the church of St Mary and All Saints in Fotheringhay, where he was born and lived until age 6 or so.  St Mary’s was intended to be a mausoleum for his family, and already housed the tomb of his uncle who died at Agincourt.  Here is a photograph I took of a misericord that was in situ at St Mary’s at the time of Richard’s birth and prompted my theory1:

Fotheringhay boars

Fotheringhay boars

Yet, on reflection, after I wrote that article, I was not content to think that these boars would have provided him with sufficient inspiration to select his badge.  They were too bucolic, and were more in line with what wood carvers were doing in other church parishes and cathedrals to represent the cycle of life, when the season of pawnage (September) came about and common swineherds were allowed into royal forests to feed their pigs on acorns and other foraged items.  You see this theme repeated in other churches throughout England, without any reference to heraldry or family badges.

Delving deeper into this mystery, I ran across another candidate:  the Taymouth Book of Hours. It was created in London, during the reign of Edward III, and is now considered one of the most famous manuscripts of its period. It is elaborately decorated with scenes from the Bible, the lives of saints, bestiaries, legends, and tales of chivalry.

There are many theories about who first owned it. Possibly it was Edward III’s queen, his mother, or one of his sisters.  The book ended up in Scotland in the 16th century, and then came into the possession of the earl of Breadalbane of Taymouth Castle during the late 17th century (hence its name). However, there is indisputable evidence that it had been in the possession of the Neville family, particularly the Nevilles of Raby, in the 15th century. This is proven by this page:

Taymouth Hours-Coat of Arms of Ralph Neville, First Earl of Westmoreland

Taymouth Hours-Coat of Arms of Ralph Neville, First Earl of Westmorland

Here, we have a miniature of the Virgin Mary interceding on behalf of a dying man, with St Michael holding scales and two devils vying for his soul. At the bottom of the page there is a lion holding a shield of arms Gules a Saltire Argent (red background with a white saltire), which is repeated elsewhere in the book.  Those arms, according to my correspondence with Windsor Herald at the Royal College of Arms, belong to none other than Ralph Neville, first Earl of Westmorland – the father of Cecily Neville and, thus, Richard III’s grandfather.

It would be safe to say that the Taymouth Hours would have been a very expensive book to acquire or an extremely generous gift.  It is richly decorated and would be exactly the type of thing that a wealthy nobleman would want in his library collection, especially given its royal provenance.  And, with its depictions of gallant heroes, “wild wood men”, and scenes of women hunting on horseback, it would have been a popular book in any household, for young viewers in particular. Inserting one’s coat of arms into an illuminated manuscript was one of the ways people showed ownership.

But where did it go after being in the possession of the first Earl of Westmorland?  He had 22 children by two wives, the first being Margaret Stafford and the second being Joan Beaufort.  Well, in a rather inexplicable turn of events, he dispossessed the heirs of his first wife, leaving their oldest surviving male heir practically nothing but the title, and settled the bulk of his estates and possessions on the children of his second wife.  The one who ended up benefiting from this legacy was Richard Neville, fifth Earl of Salisbury, the father of the notorious Kingmaker.

That the Taymouth Hours was owned by a Neville brings it in close proximity to Richard III’s life.  His mother owned several religious texts, and of course, her arms would have been the same as her father’s until she married the Duke of York, so the arms we see above could actually be her’s.  Alternatively, her nephew, the Kingmaker, could have acquired it from his father and kept it at his principal castle of Middleham, where Richard lived as a ward from age 13-16.  And it’s also conceivable that George Neville, the Kingmaker’s brother and an enthusiastic collector of books, could have possessed it.  Richard was reported to have attended George’s enthronement as archbishop of York at his residence of Cawood castle.  Could Richard have seen the Taymouth Hours by any of these close associations with the Nevilles?  I believe it’s well within the realm of possibility.

However, there is one piece of evidence that is hard to ignore, and perhaps this tips the scale further towards probability.  And that is the illustration shown on this page:

White Boar

Taymouth Hours – White Boar

This is an illustration within a series of bas-de-page images telling the legend of Guy of Warwick. The tale was enormously popular in the late medieval period, and involved a story of a great boar “of passing might and strength”. The hero – Guy – is a lowly squire who has fallen in love with the high-born Felice. In order to win her heart and hand in marriage, he must go on a quest and defeat multiple enemies including slaying a dragon and killing the boar depicted here. We know that Richard enjoyed such stories of romance and chivalry: he signed his name at the bottom of a manuscript telling the legend of Ipomedon, which also involves a knight who must prove his worth and valor in order to win the hand of his lady.

What is striking is the similarity between the boar illustrated on this page with Richard’s boar badges found on the foreshore of the Thames River in in London and at the Bosworth Battlefield:

When we combine the Neville provenance, Richard’s known connections to that family, and his explicit enjoyment of chivalric tales, it is difficult to discount the Taymouth Hours as being one of the sources of his famous boar badge.

  1.   For information about what happened to the misericords and quire from St Mary’s church in Fotheringhay, and the other boar still located there, see this blog

The King In The Lab – Bones Don’t Lie

We may jokingly call ourselves Ricardian Loons, but we’re serious about our research. Consequently, science will be a key area of focus for our blog. Since the discovery of Richard’s lost grave in 2012, the scientific examination of his remains has revealed – and continues to reveal – a wealth of new information. Some people insist that these insights have no bearing on history, but we disagree. In our opinion, they’re casting doubts on many popular theories about England’s most controversial King.

I’d like to kick off our science series with a paper I wrote for the University of Oxford’s “The Wars of the Roses: Power, Politics and Personalities” course, which asked how far the analysis of Richard’s remains changes our understanding of his life and reign. So, what can his bones tell us about the man? As it turns out, quite a lot.

More than meets the eye: 3D model of Richard’s spine © University of Leicester

Starting with his childhood, they put his relationship with the north into perspective. Much has been written about Richard’s childhood home at Middleham Castle and his wardship in the Earl of Warwick’s household. According to wide-spread belief, he lived in Yorkshire for most of his formative years and it has been suggested that the happy time spent amid its purple moors and rolling hills shaped his personality. Others have argued that, having lost his father at an early age, the ambitious Kingmaker became his mentor and served as role model for his more controversial actions, such as the executions of Hastings and Rivers and the deposition of Edward V.

By carrying out a multi-isotope analysis of Richard’s teeth, which would have formed during his childhood and early adolescence, and bone samples from parts of his skeleton which would have regenerated at slower rates, scientists were able to plot his life history geographically. The results indicate that from age 7 he lived in southwest Britain, possibly Ludlow in the Welsh Marches, part of the duchy of York. Only during his adolescence did he move back into eastern England.

This ties in with the view held by a number of historians that Richard was only in Warwick’s custody for about 3 years, from age 13 to 16. Although his name was added to charters and commissions before 1465, these were most likely nominal appointments, similar to the office of Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine to which he was appointed around the same time. As AJ Pollard has pointed out, “a child of 9 cannot be a commissioner, any more than he could preside over admiralty courts.”

Moreover, Richard may have only seen Warwick at special occasions, such as the enthronement feast of George Neville as Archbishop of York, as the Earl’s commitments required him to travel and it is unlikely that he personally tutored his ward in lessons as diverse as horsemanship, weapons training, hawking, languages, music and dancing. It is therefore doubtful that Richard saw him as a mentor or that his wardship had a significant influence on his personality.

Moving on to his adult life, the analysis of Richard’s spine has shown that he was not a “hunchback”, but suffered from adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis. The condition typically associated with the word hunchback, which is not a medical term, is kyphosis, a forward curvature of the spine that causes the upper part of the back to appear more rounded than normal. By contrast, scoliosis is a sideways curvature which results in uneven shoulders or hips. Based on a 3D reconstruction of Richard’s spinal column, scientists concluded that his scoliosis was spiral shaped with a Cobb angle of 70-90 degrees during life. While this is classed as severe, the curve was well balanced and abnormalities of individual vertebrae were restricted to the chest region, which means that the physical disfigurement was slight and could be easily disguised with custom-made clothing. Aside from this, his bones were symmetric and well formed. He did not have a withered arm nor did he walk with a limp.

This explains why Tudor sources describe Richard as deformed while contemporary accounts do not: his contemporaries weren’t afraid to speak the truth; they simply couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until after his death at the battle of Bosworth, when his naked body was thrown over a horse to transport it back to Leicester, that his condition became public knowledge. Indeed, one way of diagnosing scoliosis is to ask the patient to bend forward as this causes the curve to protrude. Unfortunately for Richard, in the Middle Ages an imperfect body was seen as indication of a corrupt mind, so his condition was seized upon and further embellished by the Tudors to justify the usurpation of Henry VII. We should therefore be wary of the logic that, if the Tudors were right about his deformity, they were probably also right about his character: not only did they attribute deformities to him that he did not have, but in the age of Paralympics and equal opportunity employment we hopefully no longer see physical imperfection as a sign of mental corruption.

According to the scientists, Richard’s scoliosis was not disabling as back pain and breathing or heart problems are rare, even in severe cases. This was vividly demonstrated in the TV documentary “Richard III: The new evidence”, which saw a young man – Dominic Smee – with Richard’s gracile bone structure and the same degree of scoliosis explore the king’s ability to wield medieval weapons and fight on horseback. To the surprise of medical experts and combat instructors, he mastered every challenge, even though he had no prior experience and led a sedentary lifestyle. The experiments revealed that, far from reducing his physical ability, the plate armour and medieval saddle actually improved it by supporting his back. Richard would have trained for combat since childhood and therefore grown up to be considerably more athletic than his body double, so his scoliosis would have affected him even less.

The programme also confirmed that a 70-90 degree Cobb angle can be easily disguised. In a loose fitting t-shirt Dominic’s scoliosis was barely noticeable and under armour it was completely invisible. Like that of his body double, Richard’s armour would have been custom-made to accommodate his uneven shoulders and hips, but there is no reason to doubt his well-documented military reputation based on his physicality. Consequently the reverse argument that, if he managed to overcome his disability, this indicates a powerful personality capable of great ambition and potentially evil, is also no longer credible.

The conclusion that his scoliosis was not disabling is further supported by the analysis of the perimortem trauma on his remains, which identified 11 injuries from bladed weapons inflicted around the time of death, 9 to the skull and 2 to his ribs and pelvis, indicating that he really was killed “fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies”. The absence of defensive wounds on arms and hands suggests that, although he had lost his helmet, he was indeed wearing armour. Since this would have protected his body, the cuts to his ribs and pelvis are thought to be humiliation injuries, inflicted post mortem when his naked corpse was thrown over a horse.

The treatment Richard’s body received in death is sometimes cited as evidence for his unpopularity, but this overlooks the fact that Henry Tudor’s army consisted largely of foreign mercenaries, who wouldn’t have seen him as their anointed king, but as an enemy they were paid to defeat. Richard’s remains show fewer post mortem injuries than those of the men who died at Towton, another battle fought with the help of mercenaries, and while he was buried with minimal effort, his grave was located in a place of honour. James IV of Scotland, who historians describe as a wise and charismatic ruler, fared far worse at the hands of his brother-in-law, Henry VIII. After his death at the battle of Flodden his unburied corpse was allowed to rot until his head became detached from his body and eventually both parts were lost. Seen in this context, Richard’s fate was not unusual.

The assumption that he was hated or feared was also at the heart of the belief that his remains had been dug up at the dissolution of the monasteries, carried through the streets by a jeering mob and then thrown into the river Soar. This story was so widely accepted that it was even cited by ULAS, the archeologists commissioned to dig for Richard’s grave under the now famous Leicester car park, on the application for the license to exhume the remains suspected to be his. The positive identification of the undisturbed remains has since shown that it had no basis at all.

Unfortunately, as old myths are debunked, new ones are being created. Much was made in the TV documentary of the fact that Richard suffered from roundworm infection and osteoarthritis and that, according to the multi-isotope analysis, his diet became more fancy in the last 2-5 years of his life and contained a higher proportion of wine compared to water and beer. The programme concluded that his “ill health” and “dissolute” lifestyle were responsible for his defeat at Bosworth and even suggested that he charged Henry Tudor on horseback because he was too unfit to fight on foot. This contradicts both historical records, which show that this diet was normal for a medieval king and that only a year before Bosworth he was described as very slender and more interested in conversation than food, as well as scientific research which indicates that he had fewer parasites than the average medieval person and that arthritis was common in the Middle Ages. The authors of the multi-isotope analysis have since dismissed the allegations as unfounded and Dominic Smee has revealed that he spent 20 minutes on a treadmill before running out of breath, so again there’s no reason to assume that Richard, who reportedly killed or unhorsed several opponents at Bosworth, was significantly physically disadvantaged.

Since Richard’s scoliosis was not visible and not disabling, it is also unlikely that it caused self-loathing or other psychological or emotional defects. This explains a contradiction in his psychological portrait which puzzled its authors. The psychological analysis predates that of his spine and assumes that the scoliosis would have been very visible and difficult to disguise. The psychologists therefore expected Richard to have struggled with interpersonal relationships in his adult life as he would have found it hard to establish trust, but couldn’t find any evidence for this in historical accounts. On the contrary, they concluded that “he seemed remarkably able to engender and build trust with the people with whom he worked.”

Indeed, it is difficult to see how he could have established himself as Edward IV’s Lieutenant of the North if he suffered from serious psychological defects. Given the bitter divide between the Yorkist south and the Lancastrian north, this was not an easy task. Only 10 years earlier, Yorkist propaganda had accused northerners of “slaying and maiming liegeman in such detestable cruelness as has not been heard done among Saracens and Turks to Christian men” and as late at 1471, when Edward returned from exile to reclaim his throne from Henry VI, the city of York closed its gates to him. 19-year old Richard moved to Yorkshire that same year and adolescent onset scoliosis sets in between age 10 and 13, so it would have already been present. As the multi-isotope analysis shows, it is unlikely that he developed strong emotional or social ties during his wardship, so far from enjoying a nostalgic homecoming he was planted into hostile territory and, as AJ Pollard pointed out, “had to win round the political elites in the aftermath of Warwick the Kingmaker’s downfall. He had not been then the expected or natural heir”. Nevertheless, Rosemary Horrox concluded that he managed to build “one of the great affinities of the Middle Ages, both in scale and cohesion.” To accomplish this he would have needed all his wits and it is highly improbable that he suddenly lost them when he became king.

Combining all of the above, the picture that emerges of Richard is that of an able-bodied and psychologically stable young man, who was as competent on the battlefield as he was in the council chamber and who wasn’t any more feared or hated than other rulers of his time. Some may find this hard to accept, but bones don’t lie. Richard is talking to us and after 500 years of questioning his every word and action it’s time we started listening to him.

2 Parking Spots

Related Posts:

“The King In The Lab – Body Of Evidence”
“The King In The Lab – Richard III’s Dissolute Diet”
“The King In The Lab – The Unsanitary Lifestyle Of Richard III”

Sources And Further Reading:

Angela Lamb et al: “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III” (JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE)

Jo Appleby et al: “The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance” (THE LANCET)

Jo Appleby et al: “Perimortem trauma in King Richard III: a skeletal analysis” (THE LANCET)

Piers Mitchell et al: “The intestinal parasites of King Richard III” (THE LANCET)

Mark Lansdale and Julian Boon: “Richard III – A Psychological Portrait” (THE RICARDIAN BULLETIN)

Channel 4: “Richard III: The New Evidence”

History Extra: “What does the discovery of Richard III’s remains mean for history?”

Alex David: “Alison Weir on the Real Richard III” (endorsed and linked on WWW.ALISONWEIR.ORG.UK)

Debunking the Myths – Richard III’s Execution of a Political Lampoonist

Ripon Cathedral misericord

“And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders.” – Sir John Mandeville (14th c.)

It’s funny how myths and legends become a part of history. This column – Debunking the Myths – is devoted to exploring the many false rumors, tales, and impressions that have embedded themselves into our modern perception of Richard III and his times.  Join us, as we hunt down the Loch Ness monsters, Sasquatches, and Blemyae that have roamed the Ricardian historical landscape for centuries.  No need to bring a weapon.  Just bring an open mind!

Today’s blog is about the infamous lampoon posted on the doors of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in July 1484, during the second year of Richard III’s reign.  Even the casual reader of Ricardian history can recite it from memory:

“The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our Dogge,
Ruleth all Englande under a Hogge.”

While not mentioning the King and his councilors by name, the lampoon references their well-known heraldic badges, describing Richard III’s white boar device as a “hogge”.  Conventional history tells us that Richard III, being insecure on his throne, was so incensed and threatened by lampoons of this nature that he indicted its author – William Collingbourne – for high treason.  The penalty paid by Collingbourne was severe.  He was hanged, castrated and disemboweled, and there is a poetic account that he was heard to say “oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble!” as his bowels were ripped from his body.  The effect that ripples from this incident is the perception that Richard III was a petty, paranoid and tyrannical man who brooked no tolerance for political free speech.

But, hold on a second.  There’s a couple of important facts that are missing from this historical Blemyah.  The first of them is that Collingbourne was not brought up on charges of high treason until October or November, 1484, more than three months after the doggerel was posted.  As written by Kenneth Hillier, “On 29 November a commission of oyer and terminer was set up; it included the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk; the Earls of Nottingham and Surrey; Viscounts Lovell and Lisle, and others ‘touching certain treasons and offences’ committed by ‘William Colyngbourne late of Lydeyard co. Wilts esquire, and John Turburvyle late of Fyremayne, co. Dorset, esquire’.” 1  If the offense forming the basis of the indictment was the poem, why would the King delay the prosecution?  Surely, speech that countenanced the death of the King, or diminished his regality by exciting the people against him, was a sufficient and well-settled basis to bring immediate charges.  So why did the King wait?

It turns out that Collingbourne was, in fact, plotting for the overthrow of Richard III and the evidence of this probably did not emerge until after the lampoon was posted.  According to James Gairdner’s RICHARD III biography, the charge against him was that he, amongst others, offered a certain Thomas Yate a sum of money to go over to Brittany to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and his adherents, Dorset, Cheyney, and others, and

“To declare unto them that they should do very well to return into England with all such power as they might get before the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist next ensuing [October 18]; for so they might receive all the revenues of the realm due at the feast of St. Michael [September 29] next before the feast of St. Luke.  And that if the said Earl of Richmond with his part-takers, following the counsel of the said Colyngbourne, would arrive at the haven of Poole in Dorsetshire, he the said Colyngbourne and other his associates would cause the people to rise in arms and to levy war against King Richard, taking part with the said earl and his friends, so that all things should be at their commandments.  Moreover, to move the said earl to send the said John Cheyney unto the French king to advertise him that his ambassadors sent into England should be dallied with, only to drive off the time till the winter season were past, and that then in the beginning of summer King Richard meant to make war into France, invading that realm with all puissance; and so by this means to persuade the French king to aid the Earl of Richmond and his part-takers in their quarrel against King Richard.” 2

Collingbourne was tried before peers of the realm, mentioned above, at the Guildhall in London in December.  It is difficult to imagine a more serious charge, which included not only giving counsel to Henry Tudor as to the optimal time and place to make his invasion, but also conspiring with the French King to give assistance to Tudor’s effort!  According to some scholars, what motivated Collingbourne to plot against Richard III was the fact that he had lost some offices that he had held previously, including one in service to the King’s mother.  Also, as mentioned by Mr. Hillier, Collingbourne’s home in Wiltshire had “always been notoriously Lancastrian, and it was one of the centres of the 1483 uprising” suggesting that he was also involved in Buckingham’s earlier rebellion.  In other words, Collingbourne was something of a known enemy of the state.

Lastly, what are we to make of the notion that Richard III was so insecure on his throne that even lampoons like Collingbourne’s threw him into a state of high panic?  In all honesty, I never thought the poem was all that subversive; it merely names the King and his men by their well-known badges, although calling Richard’s boar a “hogge” was certainly intended to give offense.  However, we have to cast off our modern notions of free speech, and confront the fact that earlier English kings – even those who were very secure on their throne – did not countenance attacks on their regality.  This is abundantly clear in the treason indictments made against two commoners, Thomas Gate and Harry Mase, during the reign of Henry VI. 3  Both made statements – in taverns of all places – that mocked his newly-minted Noble coin which showed the King as commander of the “ship of state”.  Gate and Mase said Henry VI did not deserve to be called a ship’s commander but rather a sheep, not only because of his passivity and deference to overweening lords, but also because he was losing the lands that his father, Henry V, had so gloriously won in France.  Gate and Mase made their statements in the 1440s, well before there was a Yorkist challenge to the Lancastrian claim to the throne, and well before the first conflict of the Wars of the Roses at St. Albans in 1455.

And yet, notwithstanding the above, the historian Edward Hall (1497–1547), in his chronicle UNION OF THE TWO ILLUSTRE FAMILIES OF LANCASTER AND YORK, accuses Richard III of executing Collingbourne merely “for making a small rhyme“, an accusation repeated by subsequent historians.  Somehow they forgot some details.  See how easy it is to create a myth?

What do you think?  Was Richard III being overly paranoid and tyrannical by indicting Collingbourne?  Was the English public unaccustomed to such heavy-handedness by the King, and thus becoming disenchanted with his rule? Are there other historical myths and Blemyae that you’re aware of and think should be debunked?  Share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments below!

For an interesting discussion about the concept of high treason, check out Annette Carson’s book RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND, pp. 27-33 (2015).


  1. Kenneth Hillier, “William Colyngbourne”, RICHARD III – CROWN AND PEOPLE (J. Petre, ed.) (A selection of articles from THE RICARDIAN, the journal of the Richard III Society, March 1975 to December 1981). 
  2. James Gairdner, HISTORY OF THE LIFE AND REIGN OF RICHARD THE THIRD (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1898, 1968 ed.) 
  3. Helen Wicker, “The Politics of Vernacular Speech:  Cases of Treasonable Language, c. 1440-1453” (Brepols). 

Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Forest of Bowland and Skipton

Lady on Horseback

Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

I am passionate about history and travel!  As soon as I got my passport, I was determined to go out and see the world with my own eyes, but more importantly, to encounter places associated with Richard III.  In his brief 32 years, he assembled what has been called by Professor Rosemary Horrox of Cambridge “the largest noble affinity of its day” — meaning, he owned a vast number of castles and estates that we can still visit in the UK.

For me, the most interesting period of Richard’s life as a man began in 1471 when he was only 17 years old and still living in the shadow of his older brothers Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence. That was the year Richard returned from exile in Burgundy, led his first troops in combat at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, and received from Edward IV a grant of castles, manors and offices that would form the backbone of his great affinity in the North of England. I had been invited to speak at the 2015 Richard III Foundation’s conference at Market Bosworth, so my husband and I decided to plan our annual holiday around my talk and to visit Ricardian sites from the 1470s that sometimes get overlooked in favor of the more famous ones like Middleham Castle, Fotheringhay, and Bosworth Battlefield.

Upon arriving at Manchester International Airport, we loaded our bags into our rental car and drove only 45 minutes to the strikingly beautiful Forest of Bowland in the “Red Rose” County of Lancashire. In July, 1471, Edward IV granted Richard the Mastership of the Forest of Bowland in the royal duchy lands. It was one of the few Lancashire duchy offices in which Richard was active – in other respects, he deferred to the Stanleys who jealously guarded their familial entitlement to those offices, so much so that Edward IV had to twice intervene and order Lord Stanley to stop meddling in the offices he’d given to Richard.

Rolling hills of Bowland Forest

Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

The Forest of Bowland is the perfect place to decompress after a long trans-Atlantic crossing and to adjust to a new time zone. It’s all rolling green hills dotted with countless sheep, ancient towns and churches, mossy dry-stone walls, and a network of bubbling brooks that swell over their banks during heavy rains. There, we stayed at a very small B&B in Newton-in-Bowland whose friendly owners, outspoken Yorkshire folk (the eastern side of Lancashire is more “White Rose” than “Red Rose” country), were surprised to be receiving guests from America. We were delighted by pleasant views from our bedroom window.

The owners of the B&B directed us to several walking routes in the area, including one on Pendle Hill, famous for its 17th century witches and the place where George Fox, in 1652, had a vision which inspired him to establish the Quaker movement. Not to be deterred by our jetlag, my husband and I succeeded in climbing the very steep 5-mile route up this “hill” (only 90 feet short of being a mountain!) and were treated to stunning vistas of North Yorkshire and the Pennines. At the end of the day, we rewarded ourselves with a hearty pub meal at Parker’s Arms, where we had the best venison burger ever tasted and a pie filled with “salt marsh lamb” and cockles.

Pub lunch

Pub Lunch – Parker’s Arms, Newton-in-Bowland

Salt marsh lamb, by the way, is a local delicacy and is made from lambs who graze on coastal vegetation which lends a unique flavor to their meat. We’d never encountered it before and it was absolutely delicious with the cockles. Of course, this only made us more excited to try a wide variety of savory pies throughout our trip, and I suppose I could make an argument that sampling them lent another historical dimension since meat pies were greatly consumed during the 15th century. Don’t believe me? OK, I admit we love English pub food. But, anyway, back to history and our trip . . .

The next day we relocated our lodgings to the Masham-Ripon area in North Yorkshire, and this served as our “home base” for the next several days. Ripon is a bustling cathedral town, famous for its racetrack and the “Ripon Hornblower”. It’s also well-situated for making day trips to a plethora of Ricardian sites, including Middleham, Barnard Castle, Sheriff Hutton, Jervaulx Abbey, Fountains Abbey, Coverham Abbey, and Skipton Castle. It was to the latter, Skipton, that we first journeyed.

Skipton Castle touts itself as being “one of the best-preserved and most complete medieval castles in England” according to its pamphlet.

Skipton Castle

Skipton Castle, North Yorkshire – possessed by Richard III from 1475-1485

The original motte and bailey wooden castle was erected in 1090, and later replaced by a stone structure in the 12th century. Many elements of the 12th century castle and its chapel are still evident. Edward II gave the castle to the Welsh Marcher lord Robert Clifford in 1310, who initiated additional improvements, and it remained in the Clifford family possession until 1461, when the 9th Lord Clifford was attainted following Towton. Richard obtained possession of Skipton in 1475 when he acquired it from Lord Stanley in exchange for his Welsh castle in Chirk. It remained in Richard’s possession until his death in 1485, and as one can see from the photograph, a large Tudor-period manor house was added by the Clifford family when they regained possession after Bosworth. The combination of medieval and Tudor-style architecture is charming and there is a lovely courtyard.

Courtyard, Skipton Castle

Skipton Castle courtyard, with yew tree planted in 17th century

Skipton was one of the last Royalist holdouts in the North during the English Civil War and surrendered to Cromwell’s army after sustaining a long siege. Fortunately, the attempt to “sleight” the castle didn’t work completely and, while the castle lost its original roofs, the Parliamentarians later permitted Lady Anne Clifford to replace them – with the caveat that they were not strong enough to bear firing cannon. Lady Anne is credited with planting a yew tree in 1659, which still graces the courtyard.

Hats for sale in Skipton

Market Day in Skipton, North Yorkshire

Skipton is also a busy market town, and our visit coincided with their Monday market day. It was enjoyable seeing the local crafts, household goods and foodstuffs being sold on the High Street, many of which had a distinctive Yorkshire flair. We were also surprised to see that Andrew Cargenie, someone from our home state of Pennsylvania, provided the funds for Skipton’s Public Library!

The desirability of possessing Skipton must have been very high for Richard.  It had not only a fine castle with a garden, park, game reserves, private chases over the Pennine uplands and dales, but also a flourishing agriculture, commercial growth in the town, patronage of Bolton Priory, and extensive estates and honorial jurisdiction.  It also added to what Professor Horrox has called the “trans-Pennines” base of his nascent affinity.

Skipton Parish Church

Skipton Parish Church of the Holy Trinity – patronised by Richard III

Richard acted as patron of the local parish church of the Holy Trinity, granting it Ł20 in 1483 for the construction of its oak roof, the timbers of which are still in place today along with their original 15th century roof bosses. The church became a mausoleum for the Clifford family, following the dissolution of Bolton Priory in the 16th century.

For additional reading about Skipton Castle, see Richard T.  Spence’s “Skipton Castle and its Builders” (2002) and “The Shepherd Lord of Skipton Castle:  Henry Clifford, 10th Lord Clifford 1454-1523” (1994).  For additional reading about Richard’s experience as Duke of Gloucester, and his affinity in the North, see Rosemary Horrox’s “Richard III:  A study of service” (1989).

Some more photos of our time in Newton-in-Bowland, driving enroute to Skipton via Pateley Bridge, and at Skipton.

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