Meeting Richard

Lin Foxhall, Head of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, considers how the new discoveries might throw new light on old accounts of Richard III.

The aftermath of the Greyfriars dig has brought together many different threads of evidence in our investigation. One of the most fascinating things has been the way in which a discovery in one facet of the research can unexpectedly illuminate another, completely different aspect. The historical texts offer a particularly good example.

Historical sources are as fragmentary in their own way as archaeological remains. Texts often present the viewpoints or interests of certain individuals or groups, but ignore others. Because we don’t always fully understand the perspective of the writers, it can be hard to interpret texts definitively. And, not so many texts survive from medieval and earlier times as from later historical periods. In the case of Richard III there are, unusually, a few contemporary accounts which claim to tell us what he was like, and what he looked like, but it can be difficult to know how, and how much, their representations were affected by the Tudor takeover.

John Rous was a fifteenth century cleric and scholar who died in 1492, not long after Richard III. Late in life he wrote several important historical works including a history of England (Historia regum angliae) written in Latin completed in 1486 and dedicated, by then, to Henry VII. Although it includes some unflattering material about Richard III, it’s not entirely derogatory. Particularly striking is the way he recounts the end of Richard’s life:

Attamen si ad eius honorem veritatem dicam ut nobilis miles licet corpore parvus et viribus debilis ad ultimum anhelitum suum modo defensorio clarissime se habuit, saepius se proditum clamans et dicens,’ treson, treson, treson’, et sic gustans quod aliis saepius propinaverat miserrime vitam finivit, et finaliter apud fratres minores Leicestriae in choro est sepultus.

“However, if I might speak the truth to his honour as a noble soldier, though he was slight in body and weak in strength, to his last breath he held himself nobly in a defending manner, often crying that he was betrayed and saying, ‘treason, treason, treason’. And, so tasting what he had more often served to others, he ended his life miserably, and finally he was buried among the Friars Minor (Franciscans) of Leicester in the choir.”

Similarly, according to the eighteenth century German copies of the writings of Nicolas von Poppelau, a fifteenth-century Silesian noble who met and clearly liked Richard III, ‘Richard was three fingers taller than himself, but a little slimmer (wenig schlanker) and not so solid (dik), also far leaner (dürrer); he had delicate (subtil) arms and legs, and also a great heart.’

The osteological discoveries of the delicate character of the skeleton and some of its gender-ambiguous characteristics might encourage us now to see these historical descriptions in a new light, and to read these descriptions rather differently than I suspect translators have done in the past. In Latin ‘vis’ – ‘strength, vigor’ – is often a characteristically masculine quality. If we have identified this skeleton as the right individual, Rous’s and von Poppelau’s accounts could actually have been more acute and precise descriptions of the living person than anyone has realised.

Our archaeological research does not tell us anything about the character of Richard III, and of course his physical condition and appearance were not a manifestation of his character. Texts also don’t always tell us ‘the facts’ in a straightforward way. However, it is clear that historians will have to re-read and re-evaluate the texts which purport to tell us about Richard III’s life, and the circumstances of his death and burial. Now that we can set these contemporary texts against the archaeological finds, we could end up re-writing a little bit of history in a big way.

rous text
The page in Thomas Hearn's 1745 edition of John Rous' Historia Regum Angliae which describes Richard's death and burial.

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