Did Richard III Really Say That?

My morning ritual involves making a pot of coffee: I can’t function without it! Normally, I don’t connect Richard III with the process of brewing a pot of Joe, but today, I happened to reach for a coffee mug that I’d received as a gift upon graduating from law school in 1993. I laughed to myself, because it was emblazoned with the quote “Kill all the lawyers” and it attributed that statement to King Richard. My friends obviously had a wicked sense of humor in giving me the mug, but they didn’t know it was doubly relevant to me, both as a lawyer and a history buff with a fascination for that monarch.

Richard III mug

Did Richard III hate lawyers?

 

Twenty years later, I was attending a continuing legal education course on advanced trial techniques, and – much to my surprise – the lecturer brought up the “Kill all the lawyers” quote.   It was in the context of how trial lawyers had to navigate the unfounded assumptions, biases and beliefs that judges, jurors, witnesses and the public brought into the justice system. He asked the audience if anyone knew who said it. A few hands shot up, and someone shouted “Richard III!”

The lecturer responded, “Now, see, even in this highly educated group, we have a popular misconception. It was not Richard III, but a character from Shakespeare.  Does anyone know which one?”

It was the only time I’d ever raised my hand at a continuing legal education course, and was probably one of my proudest moments as a Ricardian. Here, I finally had a chance to correct a common misperception about King Richard!

The common belief shown by my colleagues actually involves a triple myth as to the quote’s origin, its speaker, and its meaning. Despite what my mug said, Richard III never uttered these words, although you sometimes encounter people who think he did.  If anything, the public statutes propounded in Richard’s 1484 Parliament show a reformist approach to the legal system.  They have been hailed by the likes of Francis Bacon as beneficial “for the ease and solace of the common people” and University of Oxford’s Professor of Law H.G. Hanbury observed the king was “a singularly thoughtful and enlightened legislator, who brought to his task a profound knowledge of the nature of contemporary problems, and an enthusiastic determination to solve them in the best possible way, in the interests of every class of his subjects”.  Nowhere did Richard III ever express a grudge against lawyers nor a desire for their wholesale murder.  In fact, one of Richard’s closest advisers was a lawyer himself:  William “the Cat” Catesby.

When you do meet someone who knows that they come from one of Shakespeare’s plays, it is more often than not that they think they were uttered by the delightfully villainous character of Richard in the Bard’s The Tragedy of Richard III.  Nope. They come from Henry VI, Part Two, and are probably the only memorable words from all three parts of the Henry VI play cycle. The speaker is a very minor character, simply called “Dick” or “Dick the butcher” and are said in the following exchange from Act 4, scene 2:

All:
God save your majesty!

Jack Cade:
I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat
and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery,
that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

Dick:
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Cade:
Nay, that I mean to do.

This exchange is part of a dramatization of an actual event called “Cade’s Rebellion” that occurred in 1450 – two years before the birth of the future Richard III.   Although he has an entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the real Jack Cade is something of a shadowy man, born sometime in 1420-1430, possibly in Ireland or Sussex. After serving in the French Wars, he returned to live in Kent and married a lady of good standing. On the 3rd of July, 1450, Cade – using the sobriquet “Jack Mortimer” – led a large group of rebels into London. Their grievances were directed at the misadministration of government under Henry VI and his inner circle of favorite courtiers. They pointed to abuses in the judicial system, corrupt officials, the king’s insolvency, the seizure of land by nobles, heavy taxation and the loss of Normandy to France. Despite the loftiness of their stated grievances, Cade and his followers soon fell to looting, violence and burning property. Cade was mortally wounded as he tried to flee England with his booty, and when his corpse was returned to London, it was given a traitor’s treatment – beheaded, drawn and quartered.

This brings me to the third misunderstanding about the “kill all the lawyers” quote. Many view it as a jab at the legal profession, along the lines of “dead lawyer” jokes told in countless pubs. Because of the complexity of legal process, its expense, and the abstruse lingo used by attorneys, there is some truth to the sentiment that society would be simpler – and better — with fewer lawyers. However, this ignores the farcical nature of Shakespeare’s Jack Cade and his supporters in the above-quoted scene. Jack Cade has declared himself autocrat, another king, and almost like today’s populist politicians, he makes promises that are ridiculously impractical and can only be believed by the most gullible (such as “there shall be no money”). Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once chimed in with, literally, his own opinion. “As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government,” he wrote in a footnote to a dissenting opinion from a 1985 case.

James Shapiro, an English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University who has written several books about the Bard and his plays, said it could be argued that Shakespeare was tapping into fears of insurrection and civil unrest among the noble classes. But, he observed, the proliferation of lawyers also generated resentment among commoners who couldn’t afford them and viewed them as aligned with the powerful elite. Ironically, we wouldn’t know much about the “real” Shakespeare without the legal world. According to Professor Shapiro, much of what we know about the playwright comes from legal records, including lawsuits he brought to recover debts and his last will and testament. So, kill the lawyers, but don’t kill Shakespeare’s!

To read more about the controversy over this infamous quotation, as well as the proliferation of “Kill all the lawyers” paraphernalia and merchandise, check out:

Jacob Gershman, “To Kill or Not To Kill All the Lawyers? That is the Question,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2014.

 

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The King In The Lab – Richard III’s Dissolute Diet

I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by Professor Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, co-author of the multi-isotope analysis which explored what the last Plantagenet king of England ate and drank. As I mentioned in a previous science post, this study formed the basis for the widely reported claim that, although he was a capable soldier, he overindulged on food and drink and that this “dissolute” diet was the reason for his unexpected defeat at the battle of Bosworth. As this seemed to be at odds with both historical sources and also the study itself, I was hoping to finally get to the bottom of the facts. I wasn’t disappointed.

What Isotopes Can Tell Us

Professor Evans began her talk by explaining that isotopes are particles which transmit information from geology to us via our food chain. Basically:

Rock > soil > plants > herbivores > carnivores

Specifically, strontium isotopes indicate where we lived as children while oxygen, nitrogen and carbon isotopes indicate what we ate and drank during our life. This information is recorded in our teeth and bones as they form or regenerate. Since different parts of our bodies regenerate at different rates, they record information from different stages of our life.

In order to plot Richard’s life history as completely as possible, samples were taken from two of his teeth, a thigh bone and a rib. Teeth mineralise between age 0-15, depending on the tooth, and don’t regenerate, so their composition remains fixed for the rest of a person’s life. Leg bones regenerate slowly, recording the last 10-15 years of our life, while ribs turn over relatively quickly and record the last 2-5 years.

Professor Evans discussed the results of the analysis in sequence, starting with Richard’s childhood. The strontium and oxygen isotopes in his tooth enamel confirmed that he spent the first years of his life in his birthplace of Fotheringhay. However, they also indicated that from age 7-8 onwards he lived in western England, so not in York, as the team had expected, but possibly at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches.

A Hard Drinker?

Moving on to Richard’s adult life, Professor Evans focused on the change in oxygen and nitrogen values in his rib compared to his leg bone. She explained that the oxygen isotope in Richard’s leg, which is usually associated with drinking the local water, is consistent with water from eastern England while the isotope in his rib is consistent with water from western England. The conventional interpretation of this would be that in the last 2-5 years of his life he moved from eastern to western England, but we know from historical records that this wasn’t the case. Since medieval people didn’t only drink water the team also tested beer but, because beer is made from water, the isotope signature was very similar. In fact, the signatures of water and beer are so similar that it’s impossible to tell how much water Richard drank compared to beer.

Next, the team tested French wine and found that its isotope signature was very different because wine is not made from water, but from fruit juice. They calculated that, if 20-25% of what Richard drank was wine, it would explain the oxygen value of the rib. This wouldn’t have been unusual for a high status individual: as mentioned in the study, wine accounted for 21% of food expenditure by the Duke of Buckingham’s estate in 1452-1453. The team therefore concluded that Richard’s wine consumption increased along with his social status, particularly as he introduced himself to his subjects on his royal progress. As Professor Evans pointed out, he wouldn’t have been offered a cup of water by his hosts, but good wine! However, this may have become less pronounced as he settled down as king. Professor Evans also cautioned that medieval wine probably only contained around 10-11% of alcohol, just enough to act as preservative, rather than the 12-16% typical of modern wine, and that a 20-25% rate of consumption at age 30-32 wouldn’t have been debilitating.

At this point, Professor Evans emphasised that she and her colleague, Dr Angela Lamb, had agonised over the wording of the study to prevent its findings from being sensationalised by the media. Specifically, she stressed that they never said Richard drank a bottle of wine a day, as was claimed in the newspaper clippings she showed. This misinformation came about because people looked at the 3-5 litres of daily water intake that are recommended in the 21st century and calculated that, if he drank 3 litres, then 1/5 of that – just under a bottle – would be wine.

Although Professor Evans didn’t mention it, the bottle-a-day claim was first made in the TV documentary “Richard III – The New Evidence”, on which many of the media reports were based. One of the historians on the programme, Dr Ian Mortimer, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London, then further elaborated that “when it comes to liquids the great dividing line is status. Rich people drink wine, as much as they can through the day, huge amounts of wine were consumed by the wealthy. Some wealthy people also drank beer, they didn’t drink water.” Based on this, the programme speculated that “if he didn’t drink water he would have consumed 2-3 litres of alcohol every day.”

Ruddy outdoor cheeks or spider veins and broken capillaries?

Ruddy outdoor cheeks or spider veins and broken capillaries?

As a result, the media reported that Richard was a drunk who downed up to 3 litres of alcohol a day. Some even knew that it was pressures that made him hit the booze while others saw telltale signs of alcoholism in the facial reconstruction! Since Richard is now a global celebrity, the news that the hunchbacked king who murdered children was also a heavy-drinking glutton soon traveled around the world.

A Big Eater?

Turning to the question what Richard ate, Professor Evans explained that nitrogen indicates our place in the food chain and that medieval delicacies, such as game animals and freshwater fish, happen to have long food chains as a small fish is eaten by a medium-sized fish, which is eaten by a larger fish and so on. Each link in the food chain pushes the person who eventually eats the largest fish, which has eaten all the smaller fish, higher up the nitrogen scale. As king, Richard would have been served more of these delicacies than before, so the nitrogen value in his rib, which only recorded the last 2-5 years of his life, is significantly higher than that of his leg bone, which recorded his diet all the way back to his late teens. Crucially, Professor Evans clarified that isotopes can only tell us what a person ate, not how much, so the change in Richard’s diet doesn’t mean that he suddenly ate more; it just means that he ate more animals with long food chains.

Unfortunately, the TV documentary “Richard III: The New Evidence” overlooked this important detail. Describing Richard’s coronation banquet as a “catalogue of excess”, it not only claimed that his food consumption “went off the scale” when he became king, but that “greed ran in the family, proving an irresistible urge for his brother Edward IV”. Finally it concluded that “the evidence suggests that when Richard took to the battlefield in 1485 his body was in no shape for fighting” and that this was the reason for his defeat at Bosworth, noting that subsequent kings no longer tried to combine “the conflicting customs of fighting and feasting”.

Again, the newspapers faithfully reported the programme’s claims, with particular focus on medieval delicacies that sound exotic to 21st century readers, such as swan, peacock, egret and heron. The Independent actually consulted the Richard III Foundation about medieval food, but decided to ignore their input and proclaimed that the king lead a “debauched lifestyle”, which saw him embark on an “orgy” of feasting and heavy drinking. The Foundation complained and their letter was published, but all criticism was edited out. Thanks to the internet and social media the news about Richard’s supposed vices quickly spread into public consciousness.

This article appears to have been removed from the internet, possibly as a result of the Foundation's complaint

This article appears to have been removed from the internet, possibly as a result of the Foundation’s complaint

More concerning is that it has also spread into academia. The historians in the TV documentary, Dr Mortimer and Dr David Grummitt, formerly of the University of Kent and now Head of the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christchurch University, not only accepted the claims, but went on to speculate that they were the reason why Richard decided to charge Henry Tudor on horseback, rather than fight on foot. It’s unclear to what extent Dr Mortimer was aware of the experiments that medical and combat experts had been conducting with Richard’s body double, Dominic Smee, which showed that his scoliosis didn’t affect his ability to fight, when he conceded that “it is certainly possible that Richard’s downfall was coming off his horse. As soon as he was off his horse he was going to tire very quickly and was not going to be able to defend himself”, adding that his condition made him “especially vulnerable”.

Dr Grummitt, however, clearly disregarded a primary source he should have been familiar with since it contains a rare eye witness account that was widely cited as supporting evidence for the identification of the king’s remains. Niclas von Popplau, a German knight who had dined with Richard only a year before Bosworth, described him as “very slender” and more interested in conversation than food, which he “barely touched”, yet Dr Grummitt suspected that his eating habits resembled those of his brother: “Edward IV was reputed as a glutton throughout Europe by the time of his death and there were indications that Edward’s prowess, his ability on the battlefield, had been compromised by his love for food and it is really interesting to think that Richard too had access to this incredibly sumptuous, incredibly lavish royal diet.” Based on this he agreed that “Richard’s choice then to try and win the battle by cavalry may have been affected by his physical condition, his scoliosis and the ability of the saddle and the armour to support him while in battle.”

Interestingly, the health and fitness experts at The Examiner took a very different view. They praised Richard’s high protein, low carb regime as a medieval Atkins diet and suggested that, far from making him unfit, it could have led to weight loss and improved athletic performance!

A Myth In The Making?

Isotope analysis is a very technical subject, but Professor Evans made it easy to understand and even fun. Her talk once again highlighted the important role science can play in adding new details to our understanding of Richard III. However, it also highlighted the tendency of journalists to exaggerate and distort these details and the readiness of historians to accept claims without verifying the underlying facts, make assumptions based on these unverified claims and brush aside primary sources that don’t fit into the resulting picture. It’s precisely this knee-jerk copy-and-paste history which is at the heart of many myths about Richard III, not least the one that he was dug up at the dissolution of the monasteries and dumped into the river Soar, which was only debunked when his undisturbed remains were found exactly where he had been buried 527 years earlier. Will the claim that the last warrior king of England was too unfit to fight become another one of those myths? Time will tell.

Related Posts:

“The King In The Lab – Bones Don’t Lie”
“The King In The Lab – Body Of Evidence”
“The King In The Lab – The Unsanitary Lifestyle Of Richard III”

Sources And Further Reading:

Lamb, A.L., et al: “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III”, JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE (2014)

Channel 4: “Richard III: The New Evidence” (2014)