Psychology

  • Portrait of Richard III. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections.
    Portrait of Richard III. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections.

The discovery and identification of Richard III’s remains provides an opportunity to re-evaluate his personality, especially in light of what we now know about his physical condition.

In the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology, Professor Mark Lansdale and Dr Julian Boon have studied Richard III from a psychological perspective, based on contemporary documentation and records of Richard’s actions. Professor Lansdale is Head of the School and Dr Boon is one of the country’s leading forensic psychologists, often called in to help police forces and the inspiration for the TV series Cracker.

Murderous tendencies?

Professor Lansdale and Dr Boon first considered the Shakespearean view of Richard as a Machiavellian schemer and cold-blooded psychopath. Psychopathy is a clearly defined condition and many of the traits associated with it – such as narcissism and psychosis – were never associated with Richard. We can be sure that if any hint of such traits existed, Tudor chroniclers would have latched onto them just as they did his physical appearance.

We know that Richard was loyal to his brother Edward IV, and that he felt genuine grief at the death of his young son and his wife. These are not the actions of a cold, calculating, scheming monster. This is not, of course, to say that Richard was definitely not involved in the putative murder of the Princes in the Tower. But the expedient execution of relatives was commonplace in medieval times and certainly not indicative of a murderous mania.

The effect of the ‘crookback’

For centuries, Richard was depicted as a hunchback (to varying degrees), an idea sometimes dismissed by modern revisionist history. The confirmation that he did indeed have a visible, but not disabling, physical deformity in adult life provides new scope for assessing his character.

In a deeply religious (and medically ignorant) age, disabilities were inevitably seen as the work of God. Some people might respond with anger and resentment at their condition, but a more likely effect would be a ‘hair shirt’ mentality in which the physical imperfection was a burden to be borne with humility. As a pious man, Richard seems to have taken the second way.

To those around the individual however, a physical deformity might be seen as a sign of wickedness, and a tendency to play up to this stereotype would not be unusual.

Of particular interest is that the osteological investigation has identified ‘adolescent onset scoliosis’, so this is not a condition Richard had from birth. Much of his character and many of his relationships would have been solidly established before the ‘crook-back’ became apparent.

Confidence and self-confidence

‘Intolerance to uncertainty’ (IU) is a recognised condition occurring to varying degrees in many people. Richard was born into a world of conflict, a world where decisions were made and orders given, a world where execution, exile or imprisonment – or death in battle – could change the political landscape at a stroke.

IU is often characterised by rigid moral values, a strong belief in justice and the law, and a general view of the world as ‘black and white’. This is reflected in the changes Richard made to the legal system in his twenty-six months on the throne and is consistent with his actions as Lord Protector and King right up to his final ill-fated charge on Bosworth Field

Without the usual evidence available to forensic psychologists, Dr Boon and Professor Lansdale’s analysis of Richard’s personality is perforce limited and cautious. Richard III undoubtedly lived in interesting times, but he was a complex human being and consideration of him as such, rather than as a monstrous caricature, takes us a few small steps closer to understanding the motivations behind the actions by which history remembers him.

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