New ‘Historians’…New Myths
Historians, historians. It seems we have a new generation writing about the Wars of the Roses and Richard, but still plying the same old, same old. Only with a new and disturbing twist.
The current crop of books seem aimed at the ‘yoof’ market, targeted especially towards those whose knowledge of the Wars of the Roses period only extends to having heard that it influenced ‘Game of Thrones.’ Words like ‘bloody’ and ‘most violent’ abound in descriptions of these authors’ tomes and TV programs, as if attempting to capture audiences with the potential ‘gore factor’ rather than the history. We certainly cannot be having any historical figure’s life or character reassessed in any way, because it appears that certain ‘popular history’ authors believe the late medieval era is just too boring without murderous, hunchbacked Wicked Uncle Richard taking the final bow.
But it gets worse than just rehashing tired old myths. Of late, there is a disturbing new trend—additions are being made to the Richard ‘legend’ which have no basis in truth or are distortions of recent findings. Presented on the screen or written page by a dynamic and popular presenter or author, these new falsehoods may well make their way into a new generation’s myths about Richard, which would be a great shame just as some of the old myths have begun to be questioned and discarded, such as the fictional limp and withered arm.
For example, recently popular historian Dan Jones claimed that Edward IV pardoned the Lancastrians hiding in the abbey after the Battle of Tewkesbury…and that Richard and Hastings, defying their king in what would surely have been considered shocking insubordination, dragged these men from sanctuary and executed them. In fact, there is nothing in the original records that says who exactly was responsible for removing the Lancastrians from the abbey (which was not actually a designated place of sanctuary.) Edward had pardoned them but had obviously gone back on his word…as he did at an earlier date with Welles and Dymoke whom he lured from sanctuary and then executed in Stamford in March 1470. Edward was not averse to executing his enemies, and the idea he would not sanction executions at Tewkesbury for foes such as Somerset is most strange…especially considering he had over 40 Lancastrian nobles executed in the aftermath of Towton.
On top of this new and unfounded claim, Jones even had to add a little fantasy about Richard’s spinal condition, writing that at the random age of age of 22, he became a ‘hunchback’! Surely it is time this pejorative word is put to rest, for both Richard (who was not a ‘hunchback’ but suffered scoliosis) and for any others who have any form of spinal abnormality? Jones’ statement also clearly goes against all the recent medical reports in scholarly journals like the Lancet, which states that Richard’s type of scoliosis was of adolescent onset, appearing as he reached puberty. (Adult onset scoliosis has a different pathology from Richard’s form, as does the congenital type found in young children.) The osteologists have also stated that its impact on Richard’s appearance would be quite minimal, with uneven shoulders being the most noticeable feature (this of course tallies with near contemporary records mentioning a raised right shoulder.)
Archaeologist Mike Pitts has also added his bit recently and somewhat disappointingly, considering his good work elsewhere in prehistoric archaeology. In his book about the Greyfriars dig, he refers to Richard as being ‘frail.’ Nothing about Richard’s remains shows that the King was frail, which has the implication of weakness and sickliness. He had small, gracile bones, true, but that is not quite the same thing as ‘frail’, as Mr. Pitts is surely aware from excavating countless Neolithic skeletons, which also frequently have similar slender, gracile bones.
Lastly, there was a recent small feature about Richard’s teeth in an issue of World Archaeology. He had gum disease! the author wrote almost gleefully. He would have been suffering constant toothache and had bad breath!
What a load of nonsense! He had some caries as one might expect in a medieval man of nearly 33, pre-dentistry, and loss of only a few back teeth; and most of us even with modern dental hygiene will suffer some kind of gingival problem within our lifetime. These kinds of ailments are really useful to know about only in comparative circumstances….i.e. were his teeth/gums better or worse than other medieval nobility? (Obviously better than Henry Tudor’s gnashers which were described by contemporaries as ‘black’!)
Needless to say, it is disappointing that so much poorly researched or even invented data on Richard III is still being passed off as the truth. The public deserves a much less biased and melodramatic view which will allow them to make up their own minds and perhaps go on to further research into the most written about but most poorly understood King of this period.