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Body of Evidence

“Body of Evidence” was the title of a talk given by Dominic Smee, Richard’s “body double”, at Leicester University earlier this year. Until recently, one of the great mysteries surrounding the last Plantagenet king was the contradiction between the severity of his supposed deformities and his reputation as a soldier, praised amongst others by his brother Edward IV, who was himself considered a paragon of military prowess. Some historians suspected that his deformities were exaggerated or even completely invented by his political enemies, pointing to the fact that reports about them only began to surface after his death, while others argued that it was his military reputation which was exaggerated and that his contemporaries were simply too scared to mention his deformities during his lifetime.

The finding of Richard’s skeleton with its severe scoliosis has reignited the debate. As Philippa Langley succinctly put it when first setting eyes on the royal remains: “How do you fit armour on that?” This was the question scientists and historians tried to answer by dressing scoliosis sufferer Dominic in medieval armour and putting him through his paces. The results were presented in the TV documentary “Richard III – The New Evidence” (published in the US as “Secrets of the Dead – Resurrecting Richard III”) – at least, some of them. The purpose of Dominic’s talk at Leicester University was to reveal, based on photos, videos and personal anecdotes, what the producers had chosen to exclude.

The scoliosis and its effects (or not)

He began by showing an x-ray of his scoliosis, which is identical to Richard’s in terms of angle and rib rotation, except that Richard’s scoliosis starts from the 4th vertebra whereas Dominic’s starts from the 3rd vertebra. This means that he has slightly less mobility in his hips than Richard while Richard would instead have had slightly less mobility in his right shoulder. Given how dramatic the curvature looked on the x-ray, it was startling how little it seemed to affect Dominic as he moved around the auditorium and under a t-shirt and light jacket it was all but invisible.

He explained that due to the sideways curvature of his spine the lung capacity on his left side is reduced, but the right side is normal and while he tires more easily than a person without scoliosis, it is not a big issue. The documentary shows him struggling for breath on a treadmill, but at that point he had already been running for 20 minutes. According to his orthopaedic surgeon his other internal organs, such as his heart, are not affected by the scoliosis, which was a key reason why Dominic decided not to have corrective surgery.

There has been much speculation about Richard being in pain and the impact this may have had on him physically and psychologically, but Dominic didn’t experience any pain during his teens and now, in his late twenties, only gets muscle cramps in cold weather conditions or when lifting something heavy, though not enough to need pain killers. He described the pain from a trapped nerve as 10-20 times worse. Unlike Richard he doesn’t have arthritis in his spine, so he was unable to comment on its effect, but this may have been a relatively recent development for the king, who was 32 years old at the time of his death. He would have also been training for armed combat since childhood, which would have strengthened his muscles and helped to support his back.

By contrast, aside from a spell of karate in his teens Dominic led a sedentary lifestyle, so he had to start his knightly training from scratch at age 26. He estimated that he received 40 hours of horse training and 32 hours of weapons training over three months, at an average of two lessons per week, to prepare him for the challenges that were thrown at him in the documentary. The producers actually had a stand-in on hand, but Dominic did so well that they decided to use him all the way.

Customising the armour and unseen research

Because of the sideways curvature of his spine Dominic’s rib cage rests on his hip, so regular armour causes his ribs to rub against the plate, restricting his breathing. The custom-made asymmetrical cuirass, created by Swedish armourer Per Lillelund Jensen from CK45 spring steel, the closest modern equivalent to medieval armour steel, accommodates the curvature and rests on his shoulders instead of his waist. At 62 pounds total weight his armour is also lighter than average to allow for greater agility and to minimise the impact of the asymmetrical weight distribution on his horse. Dominic had brought the cuirass along to the talk and despite the slightly uneven shoulders, which would normally be concealed by the shoulder pauldrons, it looked remarkably “normal”.

1) and 2) Dominic in full armour, and 3) the custom-made cuirass

Dominic gave due credit to his teachers, Dave Rawlings of the London Longsword Academy and Dominic Sewell of Historic Equitation, as he described how he started out learning sword moves from Hans Talhoffer’s medieval fencing manual, but then moved on to other weapons as Richard would have also learned to fight with battle axe and lance, how he and his horse learnt to deal with the asymmetrical weight distribution and how they discovered that the medieval saddle supported his back.

He also revealed that they choreographed a number of scenarios to explore how Richard may have died, both on foot and sitting on a vaulting horse, to see how long he could have defended himself against a group of halberdeers. Another experiment involved a reenactor hitting the top of a sallet with a pole axe, which created a similar imprint in the polystyrene head underneath as the wound on top of Richard’s skull because, due to the gap between sallet and skull, the weapon couldn’t penetrate fully, possibly confirming that “the stroke his Basnett to his head vntill his braines came out with blood”[1]. Most intriguingly Toby Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection and the man who got Dominic involved in the documentary, reenacted Richard’s last cavalry charge to see if he could have covered the 800 or so yards distance in time to kill Henry Tudor before he was attacked by Stanley’s men. Dominic didn’t specify how they worked out the available timespan, but in an interview with Jon Snow of Channel 4 Dr Capwell stated that, if Richard hadn’t killed the standard bearer but gone straight for Tudor, the charge may well have succeeded. Sadly none of this made it into the documentary, except for a snippet that shows Dominic playing dead on the floor. As he pointed out, this too was part of the choreography – he hadn’t collapsed from exhaustion.

Unseen challenges

What also wasn’t shown in the documentary was that, due to time and financial constraints, only the cuirass and leg armour, which were so comfortable that Dominic was able to ride a bicylce in them, were custom made. The sallet, shoulder pauldrons, gauntlets and arming doublet were borrowed from fellow re-enactors and the Royal Armoury, which led to unforeseen complications.

Dominic described wearing a sallet as similar to looking through a letterbox: he could only see his horse’s ears and the tip of his lance, all sounds were muffled except the wind whistling around his head and to take his battle axe out of his belt with gauntlet-clad hands, use it and put it back he had to rely on muscle memory. However, the sallet he wore in the programme was too big and the first time he galloped towards the quintain it slid down until it covered his eyes, so he had to pad out his coif to hold it in place. Similarly, the arming doublet didn’t take account of his scoliosis, so it too had to be padded to keep the armour from sliding or rubbing. The symmetrical shoulder pauldrons kept catching on his asymmetrical cuirass, reflecting his shoulder blades catching on his rib cage underneath, so every time he lifted the lance he had to deliberately push up the pauldrons, which should have risen automatically as he lifted his arms had they fit correctly. He had to try and hold reins and weapons without being able to close his hands because the gauntlets didn’t fit. And while the high-backed medieval saddle helped his posture, it wasn’t designed to interact with his custom-made armour so the culet, a piece of armour that’s meant to protect the rider’s bum from weapons while on horseback, was instead driven into Dominic’s bum. Imagine galloping through a field wearing ill fitting plate armour and trying to hit a target with a weapon you’re unable to grip properly – after only 40 hours of training!

The real Richard

Although Dominic didn’t say it, it seems clear that the documentary was edited to emphasise his physical limitations, for example filming him when he was out of breath or playing dead, while glossing over the shortcomings he overcame, such as ill fitting armour and lack of experience (not to mention interpreting the isotope analysis as evidence of a “dissolute” lifestyle). Of course, if Dominic’s achievements were even more impressive than they appear in the programme – he spent up to 11 hours a day on horseback – then it should be even less surprising that Richard, with his greater experience and custom-made armour, was able to earn a reputation as a competent warrior.

To explore how and to what extent these “limitations” can be further compensated Dominic has set up the Dominic Smee Armour Fund to raise money for a fully customised suit of armour. He has already added a new piece to his collection: an asymmetrical arming doublet curtesy of Ninya Mikhaila of The Tudor Tailor, which fits under his asymmetrical cuirass without the need for padding. He is also writing a book about his scoliosis and how his attitude has changed from previously ignoring it to now accepting it. As he commented at the end of the talk, the biggest surprise for him was finding out how much he is actually able to do.

I would recommend Dominic’s talks to anyone who is interested in Richard III. He’s an engaging speaker who, despite his different background, is in the unique position of being able to offer insights based on first hand experience. “Body of Evidence” added many new details to my understanding of the historical Richard and I look forward to any new information Dominic’s research may reveal.

[1] The Song of Ladye Bessiye

Sources:

Dominic Smee: “Body of Evidence”, Leicester University, 21 March 2015

The Dominic Smee Armour Fund

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9 thoughts on “Body of Evidence

  1. Reblogged this on Tales from the notepad… and commented:
    Having missed my first connection, I only just scraped into hearing this talk back in March, but this is a brilliant analysis of what Dominic Smee discussed, and the issues faced during the reconstruction work he undertook.
    Great article!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. white lily on said:

    This is fantastic, and I’m so glad that Dominic Smee is talking about things that were not televised and left on the proverbial “editing room floor”.

    I do think it’s amazing that Mr. Smee was able to perform so well given his 21st century sedentary lifestyle, and that he wasn’t trained to be a 15th century warrior. With Richard’s upbringing and the cultural imperative for someone in his station to be thoroughly trained in the art of warfare, he would have been much more prepared and physically conditioned to meet the challenges of his condition. As is so common with modern narratives about history, there is a tendency to sensationalize or exaggerate limitations that we now pathologize.

    One thing I would like to know. Richard III’s skeletal build, like Mr. Smee’s, is described as “gracile” – another way of saying thin and with delicate rather than large bone structures. This would have made Richard less weighty on a war horse than, say, heavier and more massive individuals like Brandon whom Richard was able to unhorse at Bosworth. I’m wondering if anyone commented on the pros or cons of someone of lesser weight on the back of a warhorse. Just thinking out loud here, but it is well known that professional jockeys go to great lengths to keep their weight down, in order to have an advantage during a race. Realizing that racing is not the same as warfare, I wonder if there are actual *benefits* to being a person of gracile build, as the horse is not weighted down and may be able to be more fleet, maneuverable, and less prone to exhaustion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • bloodofcherries on said:

      Dominic didn’t mention how his weight affected his horse compared to a heavier person, only about the asymmetrical weight distribution which at one point even caused his saddle to slide off. What you say sounds logical to me though and I think it would be a very interesting question to ask Dominic Sewell if I ever meet him.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Iris on said:

    Excellent post and I confirm that Dominic is really a lovely person and noone could ever tell anything’s wrong with his back, even with barely a tshirt on. I guess the same could well be applied to Richard.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “…while others argued that it was his military reputation which was exaggerated and that his contemporaries were simply too scared to mention his deformities during his lifetime.”

    This argument has always amused me, or rather, it amuses me that anyone with any knowledge about the available contemporary and near-contemporary sources on Richard could say that with a straight face.

    So, that would mean then that, for instance, Nicholas von Poppelau was too scared of Richard to mention any of his “deformities” in his description of him, even though he was a foreigner who did not even live in England? Blimey, Richard must have been really scary if people in other countries on the continent feared he would come after them if they spoke a word about his terrible secret deformity!

    Apparently everyone was too scared to tell Mancini about Richard’s deformities in spite of everyone who’s ever seen him presumably knowing about them, even though they weren’t scared to tell other kinds of dirt about Richard and others.

    For that matter, even Louis XI (who met Richard in 1476) was obviously too scared of Richard, even back when he was just Duke of Gloucester, to mention his deformities to anyone, since the French never got to using that rumor against Richard!

    Strangest of all, he instilled so much fear into his enemies in England that the author of the Croyland Chronicler continuation was too scared to mention his deformities after Richard was already dead and Henry VII the king, even though he was otherwise mud-slinging Richard and calling Henry an angel come to save England. I guess Richard was not only that scary that the poor Croyland chronicler was afraid Richard may have come after him from his grave, but also really vain, so he didn’t mind people saying any other nasty things about him, except if it was something about his looks!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thank you so much for this great post! That I should live to see that ludicrous slander of hunchback Richard blown right out of the water … it’s more than I ever dared to hope for.

    Mr. Smell looks absolutely stunning in that armour!

    (There are a few people suffering from scoliosis that I’ve known in the course of my life — in each case I had to be told about their condition to realize it.)

    BTB — it does seem, now, that von Poppelau’s description is spot on, does it?

    Liked by 3 people

    • bloodofcherries on said:

      Yes, von Popplau seems to be one of the most accurate sources about Richard. Interestingly, he’s also pretty much the only one without a political agenda. He was a foreigner and it’s unlikely that his diary was meant for public consumption because he didn’t hold back with scathing remarks about some of the other crowned heads he met.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. I really hope Dominic Smee gets his new tight-fitting suit of armour, i really do!

    Liked by 2 people

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