Discovery could potentially separate the man from the myth say University of Leicester experts
Tudor propaganda that sought to vilify King Richard III on the basis of his disability is likely to be challenged by the discovery of remains, believed to be potentially those of the monarch, by a team from the University of Leicester.
The University has led the Search for King Richard III and, in September 2012, the University announced the discovery of a set of articulated remains in the Choir of the Grey Friars Church which are currently being subjected to rigorous laboratory examination. The results of these investigations are expected early in the New Year.
The remains are especially important to academics interested in 15th and 16th century perceptions of disability, as they are identifiably of an individual with a form of spinal abnormality, which would allow for studies to be carried out into how modern perceptions on disability contrast with late medieval and early modern opinions.
William Shakespeare’s representation of Richard presents him as a villain, with a great focus on his physical being as a justification for his villainy: “To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;/To make an envious mountain on my back, /Where sits deformity to mock my body; /To shape my legs of an unequal size; /To disproportion me in every part.” (Henry VI, Part 3)
'I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,/ Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,/ Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ Into this breathing world, scarce half made up.../ I am determined to prove a villain'. (Richard III)
Dr Paul Reilly, of the University of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication, said:
“Most popular depictions of Richard III have focused on his reported physical 'deformity,' with the word 'hunchback' often synonymous with the Yorkist king.
“Disability has historically been used to define the King as an 'outsider,' with the Shakespearean portrayal of Richard as a 'hunchback' and a 'tyrant' accepted uncritically by many.”
Some of the rumours about crimes Richard III may have committed – the murdering of the Princes in the Tower arguably being the most infamous – and propaganda instigated by the Tudors after the victory of the House of Lancaster over the House of York during the War of the Roses can be used to negatively play upon his disabilities.
Dr Sarah Knight and Dr Mary Ann Lund, of the University’s School of English, said: “As researchers and tutors, the discovery – if it is Richard - has enormous implications for the way we interpret Tudor accounts of Richard III, and prompts us to see the ‘foul bunchbacked toad’ of Shakespeare’s creation in a whole new light.
“After Richard’s death at Bosworth and the accession of Henry VII, the hostile accounts of Tudor historians (often under the patronage of Henry and his descendants) tried to tarnish his memory. They recorded hideous crimes he supposedly committed, stressed his physical deformities, and represented him as a near-demonically evil force.
“If these remains are identified as King Richard III, we will know that the physiological accounts, at least, had some roots in truth: that Richard’s scoliosis would have made his right shoulder higher than his left, for instance, just as John Rous described it shortly after the king’s death. But we will also see clearly for the first time how the historical truth became distorted in transmission and translation, even as Richard’s own body became more twisted and monstrous in successive historical and dramatic accounts. In Shakespeare’s radical reimagining written over a century after Bosworth, Richard Crookback became a limping hunchback with a withered arm, who delighted to ‘descant on mine own deformity’.
“But the discovery potentially may have another hugely important lesson for us: that Richard was a committed, unflinching warrior. However damning they were about his appearance and the political damage he supposedly inflicted, the Tudor histories still took care to honour Richard’s bravery in battle, recounting that he died ‘in the thickest press of his enemies’. Even Shakespeare showed a Richard who ‘enacts more wonders than a man,/ Daring an opposite to every danger’. The body excavated in the Grey Friars church shows many of the signs of these final, brutal moments, material evidence of a defeated king. “
You can read the Richard III Society’s response to some of the myths surrounding King Richard III here:
A Q & A on Richard III is available from the Richard III Society here: