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News Flash! Richard III Ate and Drank Like a King

What an incredible time we live in. We have witnessed the discovery of a skeleton buried under a car park in Leicester, United Kingdom — a skeleton which showed a gracile, young-ish male, with perimortem wounds consistent with battle injuries, hastily laid to rest in the choir of Greyfriars monastery. Examination of the skeleton’s mitochrondrial DNA with that of the known collateral female descendants of Richard III (thanks to John Ashdown-Hill) and radiocarbon testing, confirmed beyond reasonable doubt, that the remains were indeed those of Richard III.

But what an awful time we live in, too. As soon as scientists and other investigators release their findings in peer-reviewed journals, the machinery of the press and social media goes into overdrive, each seeking to outdo the other with a more sensational headline.

A case in point that starkly demonstrates our craving for sensational reporting can be found with the recently-published article in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The findings were based on isotopic analysis of 2 teeth (a molar and premolar), a rib and femur of the skeleton. The scientists’ conclusions are summarized in the article’s abstract:

The isotopes initially concur with Richard’s known origins in Northamptonshire but suggest that he had moved out of eastern England by age seven, and resided further west, possibly the Welsh Marches. In terms of his diet, there is a significant shift in the nitrogen, but not carbon isotope values, towards the end of his life, which we suggest could be explained by an increase in consumption of luxury items such as game birds and Freshwater fish. His oxygen isotope values also rise towards the end of his life and as we know he did not relocate during this time, we suggest the changes could be brought about by increased wine consumption. This is the first suggestion of wine affecting the oxygen isotope composition of an individual and thus has wider implications for isotope-based palaeodietary and migration reconstructions.

 

Now, to most people who have had an interest in the life of Richard Plantagenet, as the son of a fabulously wealthy nobleman, who later became Duke of Gloucester, Lord High Admiral and Great Constable of England, Lord of the North, and heir to the Beauchamp inheritance, this comes as no surprise. Historians like Rosemary Horrox, when referring to Richard’s years as a northern magnate who assembled one of the greatest affinities in the medieval period, say he was the second most powerful man in England – aside from his brother King Edward IV. Naturally, one would expect the second most powerful man in England to be thriving on a rich diet, not one of potage and stale bread. So, we see this evidence as additional confirmation that the skeleton discovered in 2012 was, indeed, that of Richard.

Yet, let’s look at how the press covers the story:

CNN: Richard III’s bones reveal king’s taste for luxury food and wine. By Bryony Jones – “Tests on the long-lost skeleton of Richard III reveal the medieval monarch had a taste for rich foods such as peacock, heron and swan, and that his liking for the finer things in life — including wine — increased significantly after he became the king of England.”

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Richard III’s Rich Diet of Fish and Exotic Birds By Douglas Quenqua – “A chemical analysis of the teeth and bones of King Richard III reveals that his diet was decadent even by standards of medieval royalty. During his two-year reign, 1483 to ’85, Richard III feasted on expensive freshwater fish and such exotic birds as swan, crane and heron, the study said. And he was consuming vast quantities of wine.”

THE WASHINGTON POST: Richard III, the hunchbacked king who lived in the 15th century, liked his liquor. By Nancy Szokan. “Richard III, the English monarch memorably depicted by Shakespeare as a ‘poisonous bunch-back’d toad’ who murdered children to clear his way to the throne, has a new attribute to add to his reputation: a heavy-drinking glutton.”

From these excerpts, one can almost literally see the machinery of the “yellow press” shifting into its overdrive gear. We go from Richard III living like a king of England, to one who was “decadent even by the standards of medieval royalty” to a “heavy-drinking glutton”, with the added reminder of Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a hunchbacked murderer of children. To be fair, all of these articles later neutralize these attention-grabbing headlines by saying that Richard III’s lifestyle was no different from those who occupied the throne before him. Kings of England lived … in luxury. And why? Because it was an expression of the nation’s power and wealth and it sent a message not just to other countries, but also to the common people. When Henry VI was released from the Tower during his brief readeption in 1470, he was dressed in an old blue gown, one he’d worn on many prior occasions. The display of a middle-aged man, on horseback wearing an old gown, perhaps glancing around a little confusedly, did not serve to rouse up the common people behind his monarchy.

By the way, there is no foundation to support the statements that Richard III was more decadent than his predecessors, or that he was a glutton or alcoholic. Since there have never been comparable studies done on skeletons of other English kings, no one can say how Richard III measured up to his colleagues in terms of gluttony or alcohol consumption. So it has to be said these conclusions are concoctions of the journalists’ imaginations. Furthermore, the original article published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, the very article they are reporting about, goes out of its way to put the findings into context. Here are the main highlights:

The Late Medieval diet of an aristocrat consisted of bread, ale, meat, fish, wine and spices with a strong correlation between wealth and the relative proportions of these, with more wine and spices and proportionally less ale and cereals with increasing wealth (Dyer, 1989). The wealthier you were the more variety of meat and fish you consumed. Reconstructing the dietary history of Richard III is unusual as on the one hand we know a fair amount about him as an individual and there are some court records describing the food types he was served. On the other hand, as an isolated skeleton, there are no contemporaneous animal bone samples and thus understanding Richard’s dietary history necessitates comparison with isotope data from other contemporaneous humans and their dietary sources. A variety of Late Medieval faunal material, largely from the east of England, is available (Müldner and Richards, 2005, Müldner and Richards, 2007b, Woolgar, 2001 and Hamilton and Thomas, 2012) and the isotope ratios are consistent with similar samples from southern England. These demonstrate that there does not seem to be a significant regional variation in faunal isotope data from the period and this adds confidence to our use of these data to aid our interpretations.

[…]

Taken as a whole, Richard’s δ13C and δ15N isotopes are within the higher trophic level area of data from the Late Medieval period (Müldner and Richards, 2007a, Müldner and Richards, 2005 and Müldner and Richards, 2007b) and compare favourably to contemporaneous aristocracy and the upper clergy, who as landowners had diets in-line with the wealthiest households. Müldner and Richards (2007a) analysed 155 rib samples from the Gilbertine Priory at Fishergate, York, which included some high-status burials (Fig. 2). The Fishergate group had significantly higher δ13C and δ15N values (mean −19.1 ± 0.6‰ and 12.8 ± 1.3‰ respectively) compared to other individuals from earlier time periods in the area, such as those from the rural population of Wharram Percy, Yorkshire (Fuller et al., 2003). The δ13C and δ15N values from Richard’s skeleton sit at the very top of the high-status Fishergate data set (Fig. 2). The widespread Late Medieval elevation in human bone δ13C and δ15N values is caused by a greater consumption of fish protein because of the observance of Christian fasting rituals. These rules required avoidance of ‘meat’, which was interpreted very specifically to mean terrestrial herbivores, allowing the consumption of a number of other animals, including fish (Barrett et al., 2004). This equated to around a third of the year where no meat could be eaten. This increased demand for fish led to the development of a British commercial fish trade, both marine and freshwater species were eaten, and also imported from Scandinavia. Fish was eaten from a stock of preserved fish (salted or dried) and fresh fish for the richer households, such as herrings, flat-fish, shell-fish and even porpoises and other marine mammals which were permitted on fast days (Dyer, 1989). Cheaper marine fish, such as herrings, were regularly available to the poor whereas the wealthy, such as Richard III, would have eaten more expensive freshwater species such as pike (Woolgar, 2001 and Serjeantson and Woolgar, 2006), although it is not possible to distinguish marine and freshwater fish intake from the average bone isotope values.

 

[…]

Could we expect Richard to experience a significant lifestyle change when he was crowned King? His time as King (two years and two months) will be represented by a higher proportion in his rib bone whereas his femur averages at least the last 10–15 years of his life and hence will be dominated by pre-kingship adulthood and will include late adolescence. Using the criteria outlined by Chenery et al. (2014), in the last few years of his life there is a significant (>±0.4‰) increase in δ15N (+1.4‰) from the femur to the rib but no significant (>±0.5‰) change in the δ13C values (−0.1‰) (Table 1). If this change does record a dietary effect, it suggests increased consumption of high trophic level, terrestrial foods, such as freshwater fish and wildfowl (Müldner and Richards, 2007b); both common delicacies of the privileged (Albarella and Thomas, 2002). The social elite during the 15th Century had diets rich in protein, the amount and variety of which increased in proportion to status (Dyer, 1989). Game birds (swans, herons, pheasants etc.) were exempt from the meat-fasting laws and were relatively expensive to acquire. Like game, freshwater fish was often caught on estates with the larger species sought after as a status symbol of the very rich with demand necessitating royal fishponds to be maintained for the purpose. Wildfowl was very commonly seen at the aristocratic banquet and records from Richard’s 1483 Coronation banquet include cygnet, crane, heron and egret, amongst others (Sutton and Hammond, 1983). Eating wild birds was clearly a mark of standing and increased in popularity through the Late Medieval period leading to some species management (swanneries, heronries and dovecots) (Woolgar, 2001 and Albarella and Thomas, 2002). The shift to an increased proportion of freshwater fish and wildfowl in the latter part of his life corresponds to an increase in these “luxury foods” in the last 2–5 years of his life (ie while he was King) relative to the average last 10 years of his life.

 

[…]

The correlation of the increase in rib bone δ18O with an increase in δ15N (rich foods) from the same bone raises another possibility; that he had a change in his fluid composition related to his diet. Wine was certainly a staple only for the very wealthy. For example, it constituted 21% of food expenditure by the Duke of Buckingham’s estate in 1452–1453 (Dyer, 1989). Wine was commonly imported from Gascony, northern France and the Rhineland and during the 15th century, sweet wines from the Mediterranean region became increasingly popular (e.g. Malmsey, from Madeira) (Dyer, 1989). As wine is made from grape juice rather than water, there is a significant δ18O water fractionation in the vine. We do not have access to medieval wine to analyse, so in order to determine the likely range of δ18O values we analysed four modern French wines (Table 3) which give an average δ18O value of +2.7 ± 0.9‰ (1SD, n = 4) and these are in line with the large database of modern Italian wines, produced between 2000 and 2010, which range in δ18O composition between −1.3 and +8.9‰ (n = 4,000, 95%) ( Dordevic et al., 2013). A simple mixing equation model constructed between drinking water typical of eastern England (−8‰) and the French wine average value (+2.7‰) suggests that Richard’s δ18ODW value of −5.2‰ could be achieved by deriving 26% of his oxygen from wine, and the rest from local water. It should be noted that in converting phosphate oxygen data to drinking water values results in considerable uncertainty: 1‰–3.5‰ as discussed in Pollard et al. (2011). However, there is still a significant increase in the raw δ18Op values between the femur and rib that requires explanation. Uncertainty about rib turnover rates and the drinking water conversion means that this value is a crude approximation, however it does serve to give some sense of the possible quantities of wine involved. This contrasts with the δ18Op composition of his femur, which predominantly represents the time before he was King, and gives a local δ18ODW equivalent value of −8.2‰, typical of eastern England groundwater values.

[…]

Should we expect to see a significant change in diet when Richard was crowned King? Evidence remaining from coronation banquets throughout the Medieval period suggests that during the 15th Century, the coronation banquet was on average 25% larger in size than previous centuries and Richard III’s banquet was noted for being particularly long and elaborate (Sutton and Hammond, 1983). As Richard’s reign was short, such excesses are likely to have persisted and following his coronation in 1483, Richard went on Royal progress, during which he is likely to have been treated to elaborate banquets at each accommodating household. Thus it is not unexpected that his consumption of wine and rich foods increased over the last few years of his life.

In conclusion, the picture that emerges is not one of a hunchbacked king whose ambition also consumed his desire for all the trappings of luxury. He was simply a late-15th century monarch, living the life that was expected of him.

(For those who wish to peruse the entire article, here is the link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440314002428)

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