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.”
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.
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.
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)