The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I

Maximilian exhibit-190

Portrait of Maximilian I, from the workshop or a follower of Albrecht Dürer.

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) is one of those larger-than-life historical figures. Straddling the medieval and Renaissance eras, he worked tirelessly and spent a vast fortune to establish the Habsburgs as one of Europe’s dominant ruling families. In England, the House of York considered him a vital ally to the interests of English territories and trade on the continent.

In 1484, Maximilian’s envoy asked Richard III to send him 6,000 archers to strengthen that alliance, calling the English king ‘that prince of all Christian princes’ ‘of very great and excellent virtues’ to whom Maximilian had ‘most love and affection, and with whom he desires most to ally and confederate himself’[1].  Expressing no consternation over the deposition of Edward V or the disappearance of the ‘princes in the Tower’, and perhaps believing they were still alive, Maximilian later supported the Yorkist claimants Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, and Edmund de la Pole.[2]

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York assembled The Last Knight – an exhibit of 180 objects from 30 public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and America.  Featured were Maximilian’s own extravagant armors reflecting his patronage of the greatest European armorers of his age, as well as related manuscripts, letters, paintings, portraiture, sculpture, glass, and toys.  The exhibit displayed the Tournament Tapestry of Frederick the Wise, Prince Elector of Saxony, which contains a possible representation of Perkin Warbeck (see Ricardian Bulletin, December 2019, for an article deciphering the tournament scene and its portraiture). Through these objects, Maximilian’s dynastic ambitions and the centrality of chivalry to his personal rule were put into sharp focus.

Maximilian exhibit-179

Tournament tapestry of Frederick the Wise, prince elector of Saxony (circa 1490), which possibly depicts Perkin Warbeck watching from the loggia above, fourth from the left. Warbeck had been received at the Burgundian court of Maximilian I as the surviving second son of Edward IV.

The exhibit began with Maximilian’s first foray onto the international scene at age 17 when he married Mary Duchess of Burgundy (1457-1482) in 1477.  The marriage would not have been possible without the support of Margaret of York — Mary’s step-mother and Richard III’s sister.  Although he was the Archduke of Austria and the only surviving son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Maximilian brought no lands, no income, no affinity, and no experience in ruling.  He was openly ridiculed for being a crude German outsider, illiterate in French, Flemish and Dutch, and unfamiliar with the rituals of the sophisticated Burgundian court. Maximilian was not deterred.  He had his wife’s Burgundian inheritance to protect from external and internal threats following the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.

To demonstrate how Maximilian promoted himself as a credible protector of the Burgundian inheritance, the first object greeting visitors to the exhibit was the field armor that Maximilian commissioned from master armorer Lorenz Helmschmid and had worn in battle and in triumph in 1480 when he defeated the French forces of Louis XI at the Battle of Guinegate.  A masterpiece of late Gothic style, the exhibit offered the unique opportunity to see it mounted along with its matching sallet, now owned separately.  To say this armor dazzles the eyes is no exaggeration. With its elaborately worked fluting, pierced designs, and copper-alloy decorative bands and components, it shows a wasp-waisted young knight around 5’4” to 5’6” in height who wanted to make a strong statement.  The long, articulated sabatons which come to gently arched points, describe a man with his feet grounded in medieval tradition.  It cost Maximilian the modern equivalent of over £1,000,000 to have the suit tailor-made, something that would have told potential enemies that he had (his wife’s) money to support armies too.

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The exhibit’s curators surrounded this young knight with portraits and objects memorializing the preeminence and victories of Charles the Bold, including Charles’ gorgeously illuminated prayer book, and medallions and painted glass panels celebrating the union of Mary with Maximilian.  Originally constructed for the Bruges Chapel of the Holy Blood, the glass panels (now owned by Victoria & Albert Museum) show a haughty and beautiful Duchess Mary and her handsome, blond-haired husband.

One particularly resonant object was Maximilian’s personal copy of Charles the Bold’s military ordinances from 1473, a set of regulations for the organization and administration of a permanent Burgundian army.  It is possible that Charles gave the manuscript to Maximilian at their first and only meeting, in Trier, in 1473.  Maximilian’s personal interest in military ordinances for standing armies is reflected in the notes he made in the margins of this book.

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Because he was constantly engaged in military campaigns to defend his wife’s inheritance and that of his only son Philip the Handsome (1478-1506), Maximilian was in continual need of field armor.  But his interest in armor was also motivated by the chivalric pursuit of tournament fighting.  The Last Knight had as its largest component the wide variety of tournament armor commissioned by and made for Maximilian for jousts of war, jousts of peace, foot combat, and free tourney.  These events gave Maximilian a platform to show his physical prowess and bravery, and an opportunity to win other suits of armor as trophies.  Jousts of war and foot combat required the greatest protection, as the combatants used terrifying weapons of war to demonstrate their skills.  Thus, armors for the joust of war and that of foot combat were not luxuriously outfitted.  Jousts of peace allowed more decorative armors, such as the one made by Jörg Helmschmid the Younger around 1494, when Maximilian had settled affairs in the Burgundian realm and relocated to Innsbruck after being made King of the Romans in 1486.

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The manufacture of armor and military devices required industrial sophistication, and The Last Knight revealed how Maximilian was personally involved in encouraging new technologies.  He designed a battle horse saddle by which the rider could free up his right hand by ‘stowing’ his lance in a spring-loaded bracket.  He commissioned the design of mechanical breastplates for jousts of peace; when the target was struck, the breastplate would eject the shield and sometimes explode into pieces in mid-air.   Maximilian spent a lot of time devising new tournament games, and understood the dramatic effect of this technology on audiences.

Always seeking the most innovative designs, Maximilian’s patronage extended to locksmiths and clockmakers as well as armorers in Italy, Brussels, the Franche-Comté, and the German-speaking lands.  Some were given noble titles as a direct result of supplying him with armors needed for himself, his troops, and for presentation gifts such as the horse bard he gave to Henry VIII. A selected set of Maximilian’s letters of correspondence was on display, revealing that he habitually incurred large unpaid debts to these artisans.

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Maximilian’s armors not only reflected his self-promotion as the ideal knight, but also cast him as a patron of lofty fraternal organizations.  The most prestigious of these was his induction in 1478 as the sovereign of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. The Last Knight offered the exceptionally rare privilege of seeing one of only three known surviving Golden Fleece collars from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Livery collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece (16th century)

By securing the admission of his father and descendants to the order, Maximilian was able to associate the House of Habsburg firmly with Burgundy. In 1489, Maximilian became a member of the English Order of the Garter, an honor he greatly esteemed.  Four years later, Maximilian inherited from his father the patronage of the Order of Saint George, a Christian fellowship open to both men and women for the defense of Christendom from Ottoman attack.  Badges and motifs from the Orders of the Golden Fleece and of Saint George figured prominently in several of the armors made for Maximilian and his heirs.

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Maximilian enjoyed fighting and being patron of chivalric orders, but he also participated in other activities required of a knight.  One of the non-combative activities was the courtly art of dance.  Maximilian thoroughly enjoyed dancing and was widely reputed to be one of the best dancers in his kingdom, enthusiastically partaking in the celebratory rituals that followed a long day on the tiltyard.  For this, he wished his rule to be memorialized by a series of illustrations showing how tournaments would find their summation in feasts, dance pageantry, masquerades, and mummery.  Oddly enough, men like Maximilian would sometimes don women’s clothing during the masquerades, suggesting that a heroic concept of manhood was not incompatible with cross-dressing.

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Finally, The Last Knight demonstrated the intensity of Maximilian’s efforts to depict himself as a worthy paterfamilias of dynastic lineage.  Using epic story-telling as a medium, he composed Theuerdank to recount his highly romanticized journey to marry Mary of Burgundy in 1477.  Later, he created two literary alter-egos for himself in the characters of Freydal and the White King or Weisskunig.  The heroic exploits of Freydal were commemorated in a series of sketches showing his feats at various tournaments and jousts, and Maximilian later commissioned Albrecht Dürer to create woodcuts from them.

“Freydal” winning Joust of Peace against Jacob de Heere (Woodblock by Albrecht Dürer)

On a grander scale, Maximilian commissioned Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Springinklee, and Wolf Traut, to design and illustrate a monumental Arch of Honor showing Maximilian’s ancestry, his territories, his extended kinship, his predecessors as emperor, his deeds and accomplishments, his personal talents and interests, and thus his glory.  The sheer scale of the project, 195 woodblocks in total, mirrored his unquenchable desire to be remembered.

The exhibit concluded with a pair of gauntlets that belonged to Maximilian and were probably made by Lorenz Helmschmid around 1490.  They were brought from the Low Countries to Spain by his grandson Charles V.  The gauntlets, along with Maximilian’s favorite suit of armor, were objects of deep veneration for Charles, the future king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.  Maximilian left Charles and his other grandson Ferdinand with a staggering debt as a result of his spending on armor and all the commemorative art presented in The Last Knight.  Maximilian justified his fiscal profligacy using the voice of his literary alter-ego, der Weisskunig:

‘He who during his life provides no remembrance for himself has no remembrance after his death and the same person is forgotten with the tolling of the bell, and therefore the money that I spend on remembrance is not lost; but the money that is spared on my remembrance, that is a suppression of my future remembrance, and what I do not accomplish during my life for my memory will not be made up for after my death, neither by thee nor others.’

It took several generations of Habsburgs to pay off Maximilian’s debts, but his legacy was indelible.  As a result of the marriages he arranged for his children and grandchildren, the Habsburgs came to rule Spain and its New World colonies, Portugal and its New World colonies, Southern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and the Low Countries.  His direct descendants were Holy Roman Emperors through 1740 and he laid the foundations for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an empire that influenced European and world politics until its formal dissolution in 1918.  When Maximilian’s grandson Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, he was described by Ludovico Ariosto and others as a ‘world emperor’ ruling an ‘empire on which the sun never sets’.  This phrase would have greatly pleased Maximilian I, a man whose ambition for global fame and respect was forged in the very steel of his armor.

Here’s a further look at Maximilian’s children and his grandson Charles, including some of the stunning armor that he commissioned for them.

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Here’s a look at some more armor that Maximilian commissioned for himself, including his famous silver suit (now lost but preserved in depictions of Saint Maurice), and some other items that were produced by his favorite armorers:

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Text and Photographs © Susan Troxell, 2020

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Ricardian Bulletin, March 2020.

Notes & Sources:

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I, Anne Blood Mann, ed., Catalogue of Exhibit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019.

Harry Schnitker, Margaret of York-Princess of England, Duchess of York, Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 2016, pp. 69-89.

[1] Gairdner, James, Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, Rolls Series, 2 vols., 1863, vol. 2, pp. 3- 51, pp. 4-5, 22.

[2] Maximilian’s 1484 embassy to Richard III requested military aid to defend Flanders, and proposed a formal alliance between England, Burgundy and Brittany, against France.  At the time of this diplomatic overture, Maximilian’s only son and heir Philip had been forcibly taken from his custody by the burghers of Bruges, and Maximilian was being denied any access to the 6-year old boy as well as his 4-year old daughter Margaret.  Maximilian’s missive to Richard III complained bitterly and repeatedly of the ‘intermeddling’ injustice done by removing Philip from his protection, and setting up a false governing council in Philip’s name in Bruges.  The missive accused the burghers of using lying words, corruptions, and subtle unlawful ways to get into their hands and power both of Maximilian’s children, accusing them of an ambition to rule and govern, and spreading lies about Maximilian’s intentions to usurp his son’s titles.  Gairdner, Letters and Papers, vol. 2., pp. 8-9, 11-12, 20, 29, 37-38.  Given that Richard III was similarly rumored by some of taking wrongful custody of Edward IV’s sons and having had a secret agenda of setting them aside and ruling himself, it would seem remarkably tone deaf to emphasize this type of wrongdoing in a diplomatic embassy seeking a formal alliance with the English king less than one year after his accession.  There were other grounds to show that the burghers’ actions were illegal, namely, Mary of Burgundy’s last will and testament which provided that Maximilian should govern in Philip’s name during his minority.  Maximilian’s strategy seems to imply that he did not find the aforesaid accusations against Richard III credible, and was indirectly appealing to Richard’s indignation at having his honor and motives questioned by false rumors.

The following are some of the coats of arms that Maximilian achieved by his marriages to the Duchess of Burgundy, and his third wife, Bianca Maria Sforza.  His second marriage to Anne, Duchess of Brittany, was annulled.

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”

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)