Forensic Case Files: How Shakespeare Changed History (or The Continuing Story of Richard III)

A 3D approximation of the articulated skeleton of Richard IIIIt’s a story we’ve been following for a while. In October of 2012, we covered the discovery of historic human remains under a parking lot in Leicester. Because of the physical characteristics of those remains—primarily an extremely curved spinal column—it was suggested that they were the remains of King Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, during the War of the Roses against Henry Tudor (later Henry VII and the beginning of the Tudor line that would include Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I). In February of 2013, it was confirmed that those remains were indeed those of Richard III when scientists successfully matched his mitochondrial DNA—DNA consistently passed only through the female line of a family—to the mitochondrial DNA of relatives through Richard’s sister’s line.

Just last week, the University of Leicester announced that it had completed its studies on Richard’s spinal column and determined that the king’s spine showed 65 to 85 degrees of scoliosis, curving the spine to his right. A modern day patient with that degree of scoliosis would be an excellent candidate for surgery; in the fifteenth century, this was not yet an option. However, with the skilled help of both a tailor and master armorer, the deformity could have been minimized or even completely camouflaged (minus one shoulder sitting slightly higher than the other). Richard’s skeletal remains also show no evidence of a withered arm or a limp, both part of the Richard III legend. In fact, one needs to keep in mind that Richard was a skilled soldier, able to fight on horseback with both sword and shield—an act someone with a major deformity might not be able accomplish.

It is clear now that Richard, while having a spinal deformity, was never a hunchback. So where did that picture of the king come from? No mention is made of Richard the hunchback until 1598 by Shakespeare: First in Henry VI: “an envious mountain on my back, / Where sits deformity to mock my body” (Act 3, scene ii) and later in Richard III, where Queen Elizabeth describes him as “that foule hunch-backt toade” (Act 4, scene iv). But considering that Shakespeare wasn’t a contemporary of Richard III, and was, in fact, born nearly 100 years after Richard’s death, where did this information come from? From the men who were writing the history of the time—the Tudors—who had a vested interest in showing Richard in the most negative light possible.

History is written by the victors. In this case, the Tudors used The Bard to smear a predecessor so successfully that over 400 years later, that unsupported history still lingers and, for many, the view of Richard as a hunchbacked monster responsible for the death of his two nephews, The Princes in the Tower, remains to this day.

Photo credit: The University of Leicester