We all know the amazing reconstruction of the head of Richard III, and the confirmation it gave of how he really had looked. Forget Shakespeare’s Richard III, the real man had been young, good-looking and altogether normal, except for scoliosis that affected his spine. But when he was dressed, it wouldn’t have shown, especially in the sumptuous clothes of the 15th century. So, no murderous, hump-backed monster he. Ricardians always knew it, but the reconstruction from his skull was final, undeniable proof.
I have always been fascinated by the actual appearance of great figures from the past, and want to know if my imagination is creating something even remotely close to the truth. Take Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. I can imagine so much about him, but all I really know of his physical appearance is from his stone likeness of the tomb of his Beauchamp father-in-law in Warwick. There he is, one of many hooded weepers around the tomb, but does that rather grim face really bear any resemblance? Frustratingly, we will probably never know.
Now, while Richard III was the first king I could ever have called my favourite, he now has a companion, his predecessor with the same name, Richard II. And for Richard II, we have what is reckoned to be the first true painted likeness of a King of England – the full-length portrait that now hangs in Westminster Abbey.
Richard II’s looks would seem to have been almost oriental, with heavy-lidded, almond-shaped eyes, but his complexion is pale and his curling hair a tumble of auburn curls that is decidedly not oriental. There is another likeness of him, as an older man, taken from his tomb, which bears a marked resemblance to the Westminster Abbey portrait.
Richard III’s portraits were eventually proved to be very like the real man. But would the same be said of Richard II’s portraits, if we were to be fortunate enough to see a reconstruction of his head?
To me, Richard II is visually unlike any other king, but then, we don’t actually know what his predecessors (and some of his successors) really looked like. I think we can be sure from Richard III, Henry VII and onward, but before then, the likenesses we have are rather standard, as if selected from a pattern book.
For instance, we have no true portrait of Richard’s father, the “Black Prince”, unless we count his tomb effigy in Canterbury Cathedral. But as this depicts him in full armour, with close-fitting headwear that rather confines and squashes his features, it’s hard to say what he was really like.
However, we surely have a credible image of Richard’s grandfather, the great Edward III, because his tomb effigy is based upon this death mask. And so we see a handsome old man with long hair and matching beard, and a slight droop of the mouth that is reckoned to be proof of a stroke. But we still do not have an actual portrait of him. His grandson’s likeness in Westminster Abbey holds the honour of being the first.
So, did Richard II look like his Westminster Abbey portrait and effigy?
In the case of Richard III, we had his skull and sufficient advance in scientific and artistic knowledge to recreate his head. We may not have the skull of Richard II, but we do have the next best thing, because his tomb was opened in 1871, and very detailed drawings were made of his skull, complete with measurements.
Thought to have been lost, those drawings have been rediscovered in the basement in the National Portrait Gallery, together with a cigarette box containing what are believed to be relics from Richard’s tomb—fragments of wood, probably from the coffin, and a piece of leather thought to have been part of the king’s glove.
The find was made by archivists who were cataloguing the papers of the Gallery’s first director, Sir George Scharf, who had been invited to witness the opening of royal tombs (Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York) and the date on the cigarette box containing the relics matches that of Sir George’s visit—31st August 1871.
One thing the drawings prove is that Richard was not bludgeoned to death, for there is no sign of damage to the skull. So Shakespeare was wrong about that! He’s wrong about a lot of things when it comes to kings by the name of Richard.
And for more of the images, go to this post.