For some years I have set my novels in the last years of Plantagenet reign, or the first years of the Tudor dynasty.
|William the Conqueror|
Many authors of historical fiction prefer to set their books in the Georgian or Regency periods, but tor me the Plantagenet dynasty was one of the most interesting and longest lasting that has ever ruled in England. Both Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties included amazing figures of mystery, fear and tyranny. Indeed, both dynasties were founded on blatant usurpation. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and won the throne in 1066. Thus the Plantagenet dynasty was born in murder and brutality.
William’s claims were never valid. Whether or not his story of promises were true, at that time the English throne was never given by right to the man arbitrarily named by the previous king. The English had a different system and chose the man of noble blood whom they considered best suited. Therefore the Plantagenet dynasty had no initial right to rule England, but of course William claimed that by right of conquest. And so William I was followed by many kings of murderous ambition, great renown, courage, responsibility, honest endeavour, and violent determination.
The same occurred with the Tudors. Henry VII had no right whatsoever to the English throne. He had barely a single drop of English royal blood. It has sometimes been claimed that he was the true claimant of the Lancaster line (begun earlier by Henry IV, including Henry V, and Henry VI before the Yorkists once again claimed the crown) but even that is inaccurate. Henry VII was descended from a bastard line and barred from the royal inheritance, but even if that major difficulty was ignored, his claim was still only about the 15th in the Lancastrian line of descent.
Just like William the Bastard, Henry Tudor invaded England with a largely foreign army, and won the English throne by right of conquest. A usurper indeed, but he founded a dynasty of renown including some of the most interesting and fearful of sovereigns. For lovers of English history, it is often the Tudor period that fascinates the most. In those years of the Tudor family monarchy came the first two queens who ever ruled in their own right. A distinct lack of offspring brought the dynasty to an abrupt close, but not until they had sealed their names in history – written in blood.
Amongst the Plantagenets, many kings have gained a terrible and fearsome reputation. However, some of those reputations seem rather suspect when carefully examined. Indeed, there were different expectations in those times and a king had to be a great warrior, do great deeds and win the awe and admiration of his people. Brutality was common, executions were rife and poverty was the common order. It is hard to judge past actions and characters by modern standards.
Most of my historical novels are set during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III. This was a controversial time, and has become even more controversial since experts argue over the rights and wrongs of York against Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses, and in particular regarding the guilt or innocence of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III. After many years of studious and careful research, I consider Richard III an interesting figure who had too little time to prove himself. I believe that he was no usurper, and was probably innocent of most other accusations hurled against him. But that is the fascination of history for we cannot be positive. Contemporary evidence is scarce, and propaganda was rife.
But my new book, Fair Weather, is set during the reign of King John in the early 13th century. This was another king plastered with a terrible reputation, and many claim this to be unjust. But he is not a main character in my novel – which has a time-slip plot with an element of the paranormal. I adored writing this book for it combines the freedom and wild exciting escapism of time-travel – the dark threat of murder and alchemy – and the significant atmosphere of the early Plantagenet time period. I love wandering those dark narrow cobbled lanes in my dreams – exploring the markets – the taverns – and the villages. I follow the ordinary folk and I share their lives. So different to my own. London Bridge had only recently been built – one of the greatest stone bridges of the world at that time. And it plays a large part in my story. That’s where I shall go first when my new time-machine is delivered by Amazon right to my front door. In the meantime my novel Fair Weather is almost a time-machine in itself.
Old England and its Saxon traditions was obliterated by the brutality of the Norman invasion and the usurpation of William the Bastard. But then that same Plantagenet dynasty was finally brought to an end by the next act of usurpation, when invasion brought the Tudor dynasty to power. So whether you love or hate these old royal houses, it cannot be denied that they fashioned England until the early 1600s, and were families of charisma, colour – and threat.
The Wars of the Roses was a prolonged period of civil unrest in England, focussed on a period of just over thirty years which saw seventeen battles between rivals, the initiative swinging swiftly between the sides and the crown changing hands four times as a direct result of battles won and lost. One of the […]
If you have some photographs you took when Richard was taken to Leicester for reinterment, or any other shots taken at that time (and which might help to build a portrait of the king), there is to be display of such work at the present exhibition in the King Richard III Visitor Centre. To read more:
Submissions by March 14th!
Richard III fascinates people because his story has so many profound mysteries. Take, for instance, the case of the disappeared Princes in the Tower. Or the execution of William, Lord Hastings. These two events have filled up hundreds of pages of speculation in books, have spawned endless social media threads, and remain the subject of heated debates in historical societies. They’re like the two giant elephants in the room whenever the topic of Richard III crops up.
Nevertheless, there are certain facts that are known about Richard. One of those is that he adopted the White Boar as his personal badge while he was Duke of Gloucester, a title given to him at age 9. We don’t know exactly when he adopted it, but it would be reasonable to assume that he would have had to pick a badge (or several) as soon as he was retaining men into his…
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River Ure from Worton Bridge
The River Nene, flowing far away
On past the castle of Fotheringhay
Passing the good news away to the sea
Richard Plantagenet, newborn is he
Youngest son to the Duke and Duchess
With joy we greet you and wish you success
Three rivers he knew
Three rivers passed through
The life of our King
Richard’s news to bring
The River Ure, speeding on by
The Castle of Middleham, on the hill, high
Sending the news of a chivalrous knight
A good, noble Lord, upholding what’s right
Richard of Gloucester, Lord of the North
With pride we salute you, as you sally forth
The River Soar, through Leicester city
Meandering on so clear and pretty
Taking the bad news – our King is slain
England in turmoil, unrest again
King Richard III, your life it cost
With sadness we weep for the great king we lost
Image credit: Chris Gunns [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Sodacan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
We all know that Richard’s cognizance was the white boar with gold tusks and bristles but there are several theories as to why he chose this as his personal symbol. There are also a large number of interesting associations which connect the boar to Richard.
There is one theory that the white boar had already been a royal badge of the Honour of Windsor, although I don’t believe there is a reliable source for this view.
A second theory is that, as it seems, Edward III (from whom Richard was descended) had a blue boar as his cognizance and it is possible Richard inherited this but, as the youngest son, needed to difference it, making it white to represent loyalty and purity of heart. Also, white was already a colour associated with York in the white rose.
Another idea suggests that Richard might have seen a carving of a boar on a pew at the Church of St Mary and All Saints in Fotheringhay, where he was born, and this is what prompted him to choose it as his cognizance.
A fourth theory is that it was a pun on the word Ebor (a shortened version of Eboracum, Latin for York). This may have been true and is certainly possible. There is also the possibility that the Latin name, Eboracum (based on the native British name for the site, which originally meant ‘Place of the Yew Trees’) was corrupted by the Anglo Saxons and subsequently had the meaning of ‘place of the boar’. Even more interestingly, although Market Bosworth in Leicestershire was named from the Old English Bosa (a surname) + Old English worð ‘enclosure’, Husbands Bosworth in Leicestershire asserts that the name ‘Bosworth’ comes from the Old English word Bar (from bar ‘boar’) + worð, therefore meaning ‘Boar enclosure’.
But what of the creature itself? The wild boar has appeared in many cultures throughout the ages as symbols of luck, fertility and prosperity. The Celts considered the boar to be one of their most important sacred animals.
A magical boar called Gullinbursti was given to the Norse fertility god, Freyr, by the dwarves. Its bristles were so bright they would light up the night sky.
(Eduard Ade [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Herakles’ third labour involved the capture of the Erymanthian Boar.
Adonis was killed by a boar and Odysseus is recognised (while disguised) by the scars he had received when hunting a boar in his youth. Interestingly, in Irish and Egyptian mythology, the boar is explicitly linked to the month of October, the month of Richard’s birth.
It is supposed that the boar was extinct in the wild in England by Richard’s time, although there have been later attempts to re-introduce it. Even if Richard was not familiar with it as a game animal in England, he may well have encountered some during his time in Burgundy and France, where they are still living in the wild. Recently, there have been various escapes of captive wild boar and one of the largest groups know living in the wild in England is in the area around Gloucester, Richard’s Dukedom.
The boar was considered a formidable adversary for the hunter, as it would not try to run when cornered, but charge the hunter, not even pausing if it had been speared by a long pike. Apparently it goes for the groin and serious injuries and even death could result for the hunter. Thus hunting it was also seen as a kind of initiation into manhood. It is intelligent and fiercely brave, especially when defending its family and perhaps this was why Richard chose it.
The boar is mainly nocturnal and hides out in a shallow dug out hollow of leaves and branches in the daytime. Boar society is matriarchal and the leading female leads a group of related females and their young (the group is called a sounder) foraging for food. They also like to wallow in mud.
(By Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
The males are mainly solitary and are driven out by the females when they are approaching maturity to ensure the gene pool is mixed. And, of course, Richard was also sent away from his family when he was growing up, to learn how to be a warrior (and he also found his mate there).
Boars are omnivores and eat everything from grass to frogs to crops to mushrooms to fish. The young are striped and are extremely cute.
(By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
As they grow their coats turn a reddish colour and finally darken to a dark brown.
(By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Young Wild Boar Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Their tails are not corkscrew-shaped, like those of domestic pigs, but straight and they have large curved tusks which protrude from their mouths. They really do foam at the mouth when angered.
In mainland Europe where they are still found in the wild, they are often a nuisance, because they dig up crops and wreak destruction. In France, where the boars’ only natural predator (aside from man), the wolf, is extinct, it has allowed the boars to go unchecked and they impact on farmers and others. In neighbouring Spain and Italy, where wolves still survive, boars are not so prolific or destructive. They are still hunted in Europe, no longer with spears or bows and arrows, but guns. Boar meat is considered a healthy alternative to pork as it is less fatty, richer and has more essential amino acids. The boar’s head was apparently a favourite Christmas dish in mediaeval times, and there is a well-known carol that mentions it: ‘The boar’s head in hand bear I…’
There are many examples of depictions of the boar in art and one of the most famous is Il Porcellino) the nickname means ‘The Piglet”) in Florence. This is a bronze boar which is popular with tourists who rub its nose for luck – it is said that if you do you will return to Florence.
(By RalfSkjerning (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
I have just read a very interesting book called:The Golden-Bristled Boar by Jeffrey Green, which I highly recommend. Its subtitle is: The Last Ferocious Beast of the Forest. Here is our final parallel with Richard for he was the last warrior King of England, showing the same ferocious bravery as the boar, charging his attackers and refusing to run, and ultimately being slain and dishonourably treated ‘like an hogge’ by his enemies. His family, too, was all but wiped out in England but, like England’s native boar, York or Ebor is rising again!
“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”. 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.
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.
Dominic Smee: “Body of Evidence”, Leicester University, 21 March 2015
… was the Newarke Church in the 1331 Hospital of the Annunciation, in which he laid from August 22-25 1485: Click here
The Earl at the time was Henry, grandson of Edmund Crouchback,
This is the Hawthorn Building of de Montfort University, on the same site today:
Not as high as many neighbouring buildings, the ten-storey Fletcher for example, but it remains stylish and imposing – the second stage of Richard’s posthumous journey from Bosworth to the Greyfriars, part of which forms his new home at St. Martin’s Cathedral.
Here is a 3D representation of the church, as created by de Montfort themselves:
John Ashdown-Hill’s piece in “History Extra”, defusing a few persistent myths: