A guest post on Richard III’s finger (by Wednesday):
For anyone wondering whether Richard could have still formed his
letters if he’d lost digits or tips of fingers, let us begin with what
is required to write with a quill.
features a Japanese calligrapher who, from about 1:00 minute to 3:00
minutes, is writing in Gothic Litera Bastarda with a quill. (You won’t
see feathers; she’s shaved them off because they only get in the way
— except in Hollywood, where the feathers are used to say, “This Is A
Period Movie Because We Have Goose Feathers On Our Quills Okay Thx
YMMV.” You may be able to hear the squeak of the quill against the
Gothic Litera Bastarda is a category of the Gothic script hand (a
“hand” is the basic shape of the letters) which was used in multiple
regions of Europe and Britain for 200 years. There are as many
regional variations as there are scribes who used it. Richard’s own
hand is one of these variations of bastarda.
The very first thing you learn in calligraphy class is the proper way
to hold a quill or a nibholder. (This technique may be applied to hold
any pen.) You are taught to hold it *only* between your thumb and
first two fingers. (See the video referenced above for the proper
Only the tip of your thumb and the tip of your first finger touch the
shaft of the quill. The tip of your second (middle) finger does not
ever touch the shaft. This rule is written in stone. No exceptions.
You never, ever touch the shaft of holder or quill with the tip of any
digits but your thumb and your first finger. (If you do not follow
this rule, you will be required to spend six months making parchment.
This punishment is meaningless until you see how parchment is made.)
So all of us modern children who were allowed to squeeeeeze our pens
between our thumb and multiple fingers? Who turn said fingers red from
pressure when we write? We’d have to relearn how to hold a pen. (I
did.) The monks knew what they were doing because: 1) Your control of
the nib is much more exact if you hold the shaft as they dictated
waaay back there in the mists of time; and, 2) You can write for hours
without finger/arm fatigue if you hold your pen the way they did.
Over time, you will develop a callus on the thumb-side of the first
knuckle of your third finger.
Regarding the left hand, this was the sinister hand in medieval times.
If you were left-handed, you were considered touched by the Devil,
associated with evil. This definition is said to have developed in the
*early* 15th century. So if Richard had been left-handed in battle or
elsewhere, the Tudors chroniclers absolutely would have pounced on it.
I’m thinking that any cleric or scholar teaching Childe Richard his
lettering would have tied his left hand down and forced him to write
with his right hand (as some teachers did up to the 20th century).
Middleham’s trainers…would they have forced him to fight
right-handed? Were some knights trained to use a sword right- or
left-handed in case they needed to switch off, or was that only for
Blake Edwards movies featuring Tony Curtis and a foil?
If Richard had whacked off his thumb at any point after learning how
to write, his writing would have suffered so badly that, from that
point on, I think he’d have had scribes write everything for him.
(Just try writing without your thumb.) If he’d whacked off whole or
half first and second fingers on his right hand…same thing.
If he’d whacked off only his little finger – or the end of his little
finger, he could compensate in his writing. But I’m not seeing fingers
whacked off in the portrait.
My personal opinion is that I think it likely that he lost the end of
his little finger on his right hand. Maybe while training at
Middleham. As childen (and adults) will sometimes lose fingertips when
their fingers are accidentally slammed in a car door, Richard may have
lost a fingertip when someone whacked him during his training. Or
during the Battle of Barnet.
Or maybe he was perfect, not so much as a callus on his hands from
swordplay, was 5’10”, the ravenest of hair and the bluest of eyes, a
deep enthralling voice, flirted endlessly much to Anne’s amusement
rather than annoyance, never feel off a horse, never belched, always
smelled of white roses, his back never hurt him, and he listened to
every word every woman ever said and *remembered* what she’d
said…and if that’s the case, then how absolutely boring he must have
I’m thinking was likely wounded and battered and walked slightly
bowlegged like any man who spends hours/years on horseback. He likely
had scars. Lots of them. And he was proud of them. Because every one
was a story, and every one was evidence he could do his job, take care
of those he loved, and report back to his brother the king, “Rest
easy, it’s done, and it was *fun*. Look at the cool scars and bruises
I got. What’s next?
We know he was wounded at Barnet. We don’t know how he was wounded.
But I don’t think his penmanship suffered. Because the way he wrote
before Barnet and the way he wrote after…not so much with the
He had to have collected scars and bruises and scrapes and ouchies
along the way. And about those battle scars…even if he’d lost an
ear, it wouldn’t have been a problem for him. Nope, not at all. It
would have been an adventure, a story to tell Francis and the other
knights and his son and Anne. It would be evidence of his prowess as a
knight – and a damn fine one. The young warlord went into battle. Even
better, he got wounded and survived. *More than once.*
Of course the Tudors wouldn’t have mentioned this. Because it’d gain
Richard admiration from men, women, and every little boy who ever
placed with a stick and called it a sword. When you’re looking to heap
scorn, mistrust, and damnation on a king’s head, you don’t point out
he fought well in multiple battles and was a worthy knight before he
was a duke or a king.
Boys will be boys…even today, if your kid gets injured and there’s
no blood and won’t be a scar, it’s a disappointment. Nothing to show
off or brag on. Grown men aren’t any different. “You show me your
scars and I’ll show you mine.” Every century, in every culture, every
veteran wants to brag on his glory days as a soldier.
Wounded in battle with the marks to show it? “Woohoo,” says the
knight, “Give me some of that,” or else why go to battle in the first
“Ooooh, you poor thing,” says the knight’s woman. “Let me take care of
that and cosset you.”
“Get away from me, woman,” says the knight. “I may be dying, but I’ve
still got a story to tell.
And he means it. The wise woman will look at Anthony Woodville and
say, “What’s that? You were wounded in… a joust? At tournament?
Um…how nice. Let me get by you, because there’s a proven warlord
sitting against the tree, right over there, who’s survived three
battles and knows what prowess really means”
What was it Geoffroi de Charny wrote? “The knight who does more is
worth more.” There’s the good knight (Anthony) and then there’s the
great knight (Richard). Who do you think had more scars and stories to
As to fingertips, Richard can’t have lost a bunch of his fingertips.
At the very least, Von Poppelau would have mentioned it ’cause he went
on record saying that Richard *touched* him, put his arm around him,
during his visit at Middleham. (This, when no one ever touched a king.
“We’re having none of that,” Richard must have said, at least in this
instance.) Richard also ate numerous times in public, so shouldn’t
someone have made a note of it if the duke or king had a short hold on
his chunk of bread or his knife?
Someone mentioned the possibility that Richard’s rings (and fingers)
were cut off post mortem by looters. They’d have to be awfully flat,
simple rings because they had to have fit inside gauntlets. And if
knights were like today’s mechanics, working with heavy machinery,
they didn’t want anything on their fingers to interfere with their
The surviving finger bones should also indicate by their ends
(worn/healed/or hacked through like his ankle bones?) whether they
were injured during life and healed/worn smooth, or injured during
death and not healed, or…just missing after 535 years. (We’re lucky
to have any of him, really. And we really need the forthcoming Lancet
papers or a book or three that digs deep into skeletal analysis,
rather than zip-fast-get-to-the-next-detail hour documentary for this
I’m ready to suggest that we can safely assume Richard did not lose
several fingertips in life. (ouch ouch ouch) Else someone would have
noticed and yes, his handwriting would have changed.
The missing nail phalanges are very small and were probably lost in
the grave. BUT if he lost the top bone of the little finger on his
right hand (which is the missing bone that was *originally* in
question when this discussion began, which bone following it is smooth
as if it had healed rather than being lost in the grave)…or even if
he lost half of his little finger, damage to the little finger would
not have affected his penmanship.
This is because the little finger and the ring finger aren’t used
except to brace the other fingers. Lose the little finger, and the
duke and the king can still draw his letters. He’d move only his thumb
and first two fingers (and sometimes his entire arm while his fingers
are rigid if he wants to flourish his letters).
No, we don’t know for certain whether Richard lost part of the little
finger on his right hand. But perhaps it can be allowed that it’s an
interesting coincidence that the *only* finger that’s lost a major
bone is also the *only* finger that is short in portrait, especially
since we know he was significantly wounded at Barnet? “Eh, a fingertip
is minor,” one might say. Not so much in an age where infection and
blood poisoning and death from a mere splinter were commonplace.
Even wearing armor, and given the fact that swords snuck between
plates, there aren’t many places Richard could have been wounded that
wouldn’t have carried a long recovery time or, alternately, a high
risk of lasting muscle or tendon weakness, or a collapsed lung, or
fatal peritonitis, or….
We don’t have record of him lying around healing and unable to travel.
To the contrary, off he went to the Battle of Tewkesbury only a few
days later. He certainly didn’t hang back in that battle. So that
basically leaves injuries at Barnet to his fingers, toes, ears or
genitalia (and I question his ability to sit a horse if the latter had
been wounded), cuts to his face or getting stabbed in the…nether
region. No one ever said he had any facial scarring – serious or
otherwise — so Richard’s losing part of a finger as a fighting duke
(when his squires died beside him, or even during his riding to
protect the borders during his stint as Lord of the North if we want
to ignore Barnet and Tewkesbury, because it sounds like he rode to
stop the reivers, and that was no gentle activity)… and not wanting
to appear imperfect in any way in the marriage-proposal portraits
traveling to Spain and Portugal (so we fiddle with the ring and
disguise it)…well, I think such damage is a possibility.
The Tudors would never mention such a thing, because it would lead to
conversations like this:
“So King Richard the Third lost a finger?”
“Part of a finger. In his very first battle. ‘Cause he was evil and
cruel and God wanted to punish him.”
“How’d he lose part of his finger?”
“That’s not important.”
“How’d he lose it?”
“If you must know, the fighting at Barnet was so bad, his squires were
cut down beside him, and -“
“But Richard survived?”
“Yes. But he lost the tip off of his little finger. Because he was EVIL!”
“So he’s only eighteen, and he lays on and gets all bloody, and some
nasty got past his guard and his gauntlet, but he whacked them first
and survived with only a piffling injury?”
“You’re not listening! The man was EVIL!”
“I don’t think so. I think he was a wicked-cool medieval warlord, and
I wanna know more about him.”
That would be a Tudor’s nightmare.
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