Although Shakespeare credited King Richard III with being a hunchback —and thus identified him with an evil creature who could murder his two nephews to gain the throne—new studies are calling this a mistake.
Being one of Duchess Cecily Neville’s three sons to live into adulthood, Richard was given the title Duke of Gloucester before he took to the throne after the death of his brother, Edward IV. Learning at the instruction of Richard Neville—a man known as “The Kingmaker” but given the title Earl of Warwick—Richard III would go on to marry Neville’s youngest daughter, Anne, and eventually take her part of the Warwick fortune. Though they had a son, Edward, he would be sickly from birth and eventually die before adolescence. Any chance of producing an heir was eliminated when Anne died in 1485.
Richard would face trouble as King after his coronation on July 6th, 1483. Once his own heir was buried, he would be left with his brother’s sons, Edward and Richard, to claim the throne as heirs of York. He housed them in the Tower of London until the day he claimed he would go through with his promise of naming them as his heirs. With the eldest boy, Edward, being only twelve, the two boys would stay there until the populace began to be suspicious of their whereabouts as they hadn’t been seen playing in the gardens in months. This consequently caused widespread speculation about Richard as suggestions circulated that he had murdered his own nephews to keep the throne for himself.
After just two turbulent years on the throne, Richard’s fate led him to die during the Battle of Bosworth when fighting against Henry Tudor. Since then, his violent death has marked the moment that the last English King was killed on a battlefield. His body was not given a royal burial; accounts state that his body was stripped naked, thrown over the back of a horse and displayed in front of the public before being given a speedy burial in Leicester.
In 2012, after much research, public promotion and funding, what was thought to be Richard’s burial place was found by archaeologists under a car park in Leicester. After testing the skeletal remains found in the grave with the DNA from a distant living relative of Richard’s sister, researchers confirmed that they believed they had found the remains of the last Plantagenet King.
Since then, questions have arisen by some surrounding the research and the strength of the evidence to whether it truly was Richard’s body that archaeologists found in 2012. By bringing in historians from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, a new study published in May has suggested that Richard suffered scoliosis, had a disproportionate length of limbs and issues with his shoulder. In February of this year, it was reported that the bones and DNA thought to be Richard’s would be mapped in order to reveal more specific physical characteristics about the remains. Although it is thought that such evidence may take up to 18 months to collect, when the results are finally released they will certainly reveal more about the remains and confirm, or reject, some peoples’ queries about the skeleton.
One of the more critical aspects used to identify the bones supposedly belonging to Richard was the spine. After doing a CT scan and creating a reconstruction of his backbone for analysis, scientists found that the spine was curved not from top to bottom, as they had been led to believe. Instead, it curved to the side, showing a clear sign of scoliosis.
The new findings about Richard’s diagnosis—first published in the Lancet Journal of Medicine—have sparked interest in many people. The BBC History Magazine ran an interview with the Head of History at the University of Winchester, Michael Hicks, to discuss the probability of the scoliosis spine being Richard’s. Both Phillip Langley (patron of the excavation of Richard’s remains) and Jo Appleby (archaeologist on the Leicester dig) have been contacted for information about the diagnosis, and Phil Stone (head of the Richard III Society) has given multiple quotes. These findings have also further confirmed the remains were that of Richard III’s.
What could the scoliosis examination mean in terms of the public perception if Richard III is found to not have been the way that Shakespeare portrayed him? Time will tell, but what we do know is that the newly reexamined remains (not “hunch-backed” after all) are set to be reburied in Leicester. Prior to this confirmation, the plans for his burial in Leicester Cathedral were stopped by the Plantagenet Alliance in 2013, thus prolonging the reburial process further. Even though the arguments surrounding where the remains should be reinterred have continued to be debated by many, these recent findings show that the real Richard III must have battled with great physical difficulties and was indeed stronger than anyone had previously thought.
Photo credit: lisby1 via photopin cc
It’s interesting that people discussing the skeletal remains have assumed that since the spine curves to the side, it means Richard was not a hunchback. The fact is that scoliosis, where the spine curves to the side, in fact creates a hump on one side of the back when the person bends forward. True, it’s not that noticeable when standing upright, but a King would have had a dresser or attendant who would have been intimately acquainted with the King’s person and would have seen this hump firsthand when he bent over – even a little. It’s quite believable that the people closest to the King and therefore most to be believed might have added the fuel for the rumor.
Scoliosis is often diagnosed by bending at the waist, but a ‘hunchback’ (kyphosis) is a very different thing, being an forward lean of the spine with the head extended and down facing at an abnormal angle. Richard’s neck and lumbar spine were both normally positioned; he also had a C curve rather than the more common S, which gave him a normal gait and, apparently, no restriction on his lungs. There were no contemporary mentions of anything to do with his condition, and even the first ‘negative’ description, a few years after his death, only mentions his raised shoulder, nothing more. It was well into the reign of Henry VIII that he was described as being ‘horribly deformed’ and it was from this source (Hall) that Shakespeare probably based his play. Certainly his intimates would have been aware of his condition, but in an era when modern medicine as such did not exist and many people had untreated crippling ailments, poorly set broken bones, arthritis etc etc, I wonder if much would have been made of it…until it was politically expedient to do so.
Below is a direct quote from the article in which the writer uses the word “throne,” however; the correct spelling of the word should be “thrown.” Otherwise, I found the piece very informative.
“His body was not given a royal burial; accounts state that his body was stripped naked,” throne” over the back of a horse and displayed in front of the public before being given a speedy burial in Leicester.”
This was amended on 3rd July.
Chloe. Thank you for you acknowledgement. Make it a great day.