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Richard III and Robert Cecil (Part II)

In a previous post, we explored the theory that Shakespeare’s Richard III was actually based on the Elizabethan politician, Robert Cecil.

Picture of Robert Cecil

Here is another discussion of the subject, Richard III and Robert Cecil, with references to the hypothesis that Shakespeare was actually the 17th Earl of Oxford, a descendant of the previous Earls of Oxford who were such thorns in the side of the Yorkist kings and one of whom was a major factor in Richard’s defeat at Bosworth. If this is true, it is no wonder that ‘Shakespeare’ was happy to blacken Richard’s name.

There are a few misconceptions in the linked article, notably the assertion that Richard executed the 12th Earl and his oldest son; since Richard was only nine years of age on the date Oxford was executed (26th February 1462) this is obviously erroneous and it was, in fact, John Tiptoft who would have presided over Oxford’s execution, being Constable of England at that time (a position he occupied until 1469).

Such distortions of age and timing also occur in Shakespeare, of course, placing Richard at the first battle of St Alban’s, when he would only have been two and a half years old! In fact, he took part in neither of the St Alban’ s battles.

Also, the article states that the most recent attempt to refute the Shakespearean portrayal of Richard’s character was Josephine Tey’s ‘Daughter of Time’. Although this is probably the most famous such work there have, in fact, been countless more recent ones attempting the same thing, such as ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ by Sharon K Penman, ‘We Speak No Treason’ by Rosemary Hawley Jarman, ‘I, Richard Plantagenet’ by J P Reedman and my own ‘Richard Liveth Yet’.


Playwrights and persistent historical myths

Today in 1564, Christopher Marlowe (right) was baptised in Canterbury.

One of the plays for which he is most famous is




Edward II (left), traditionally dated a year before his own 1593 death. In it, he fuels the myth of Edward meeting his end by a red-hot poker. This is cited by Starkey in his (Channel Four series) Monarchy, who called Edward’s rear his “fundament”, showing again why he should not roam from his Tudor” area of expertise.



Marlowe’s legacy of influence in this is obviously less than Shakespeare’s with regard to Richard III, but the parallels are

obvious. In quoting earlier “historians”, Shakespeare transferred the kyphosis of another contemporary figure to Richard, which some naive people still believe, whilst Richard’s disinterment demonstrated him to suffer from scoliosis instead. Indeed, the Starkey acolyte Dan Jones seems untroubled by the facts in either case.



Why are hunchbacks always portrayed as evil….?


Well, it’s true. They are. And it’s wrong! A terrible injustice that I hope will soon be a thing of the past.

Shakespeare turned Richard into something ridiculously grotesque and over the top, yet the truth was that he suffered from scoliosis, a condition that would not even have been evident in his lifetime, except to anyone who saw him undressed. Usain Bolt has scoliosis. So did Richard III. No more need be said.

So how grossly unfair and cruel it is that those who have kyphosis (an abnormal backward curve of the spine) should be labelled in this superstitious, medieval way. This is the 21st century, for heaven’s sake.

The following article contains some thoughts on the matter.

Myths Being Revived

I have been watching the BBC’s ‘The Hollow Crown’ with interest, as I have never actually seen the whole of Shakespeare’s Richard III and none of Henry VI (Parts I and II). At first I was appalled at Benedict Cumberbatch’s grotesquely exaggerated portrayal of Richard, but consoled myself by thinking that at least, because people will see that it bears no factual resemblance to his actual spinal condition, it might serve to distance the Bard’s Richard from the real man.

I was to be sadly disillusioned, however, on reading an article published by The Mail On Sunday. It basically states that the production team researched people with “curvature of the spine” and how they would have looked if unable to have it corrected “In order to make the depiction of Richard more accurate.” They also state that:

“Until recently it was assumed Shakespeare had exaggerated Richard’s disability to make him appear more monstrous. That theory was undermined by the discovery of the King’s body in Leicester in 2012”

Read the whole article and  see the depiction for yourself here.
And here is the man with the same curvature showing how Richard would have actually looked. Spot the difference!
Dominic in body armour
I have already complained in the following terms:

“I have seen a report in the Mail on Sunday concerning Benedict Cumberbatch and his portrayal of Richard III in The Hollow Crown. (‘Benedict’s really got the hump’). Towards  the end it states: ‘In order to make the depiction of Richard more accurate, Mallett and Cumberbatch studied the medical histories of those who had curvature of the spine and had not been able to have the condition corrected. Until recently, it was assumed that Shakespeare had exaggerated Richard’s disability to make him appear more monstrous. That theory was undermined by the discovery of the King’s body in Leicester in 2012, and tests showed that he suffered from scoliosis’.

While you may be reporting what the BBC have told you, and while it is correct that Richard suffered from scoliosis, this categorically does not equate to him having a hunchback. If your reporter had done any independent research at all into the condition, they would see that a scoliosis is a sideways curvature, which would not have manifested as a hump in a normal standing position. The only outward sign of the condition would have been one shoulder appearing higher than the other (which is how he was indeed described by contemporaries). As a Registered Osteopath, I am in a position to give an expert opinion on such matters. As a Ricardian, I am appalled that all the hard work we are doing to try to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation can be undermined in this way. Shakespeare’s Richard did have a hunchback, true, but to say that this is an accurate physical depiction of Richard is false and misleading. The public will think that if Richard’s spine was as Shakespeare described (which it isn’t), his character must be too. This prosthetic was obviously used for shock value. Fair enough, but it should be distanced from the real Richard III. There was a ‘body double’ found who had an almost identical curvature of the spine to Richard’s and a documentary made on Channel 4 showed how he could fight, ride and move perfectly normally and, clothed, you wouldn’t know he had the condition. (I have personally met the young man in question and can vouch for that being true). Incidentally, Shakespeare’s (and Cumberbatch’s) depiction of Richard having a withered arm and a limp is also false: Richard had neither. Please publish a correction as soon as possible; it might seem a trivial thing to you but many people really care that Richard was unjustly maligned and it means a lot to us. I would be happy to comment further if you would like to contact me and get an expert opinion instead of sensationalist nonsense.”

Good King Richard – A Reply to Shakespeare

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A member of the Richard III Society, Ian Dixon Potter who is a playwright has written a new theatre play about Richard III which opens in London on December the 8th.

<<‘Good King Richard’ is the culmination of many months of research going back to contemporary sources and presents a revised view of Richard III, the events which propelled him onto the throne of England and two years later, caused his downfall.

This play proposes answers to a number of historical questions: What happened to the ‘Princes in the Tower’? What was the cause of the sudden death of Edward IV at only 41? Why did he order the execution of his own brother George, The Duke of Clarence? What was at the root of his increasingly bitter estrangement from his wife Queen Elizabeth? Why did Lord Hastings and The Duke of Buckingham turn against Richard? And what was the source of the various negative rumours that were spread about Richard, including his deformity, his murder of the Princes and his intended incestuous marriage to his niece, Elizabeth of York.

What emerges is a tale of deceit, treachery and murder but not at the hand of Richard who emerges as a noble, just and honourable figure, a man of great intelligence and deep principle. The real villains of the piece are two women united in their determination to see the throne of England occupied by their sons, Edward V and Henry VII and entirely careless of how much innocent blood is spilled to that end.

Good King Richard will be performed at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington from 8th to 20th December. The times of the performances will appear on the theatre website a few weeks before the opening night.>>

A grain of truth….?

Reading the previous excellent post, titled “Richard III’s back!” by jrlarner, must have made more of an impression on me than I realized, because I awakened this morning with Richard’s back on my mind. There I lay, too comfortable to get up, and my brain did its usual wandering. That’s why I keep a notebook by the bed, because ideas occur to me then, and the equivalent happens when relaxing to go to sleep at night. All writers will probably recognize the scenario.

I didn’t need the notebook this morning, however, because I dwelt on the matter long after I was fully awake. Like jrlarner, my grey cells were exercised by the old, old myth of Richard III being a “hunchback”. Yes, I know, groans all around that yet someone else is posting about it. He didn’t have a hunchback (kyphosis) you all say, he had a scoliosis that distorted his back in a sideways curve that would not have been apparent when he was clothed, except perhaps as a slightly raised shoulder on one side. We now know this for fact, because his remains had been discovered.

However, starting with the Tudors, and promoted with a vengeance by Shakespeare, the myth has always been that Richard III was a “hunchback”. Henry VII, the first Tudor, was nothing if not crafty. A chancer par excellence, one might say. If he saw an opportunity to denigrate his hated predecessor, he would use it. But why light upon this particular story? Anyone who had seen Richard would have known he did not suffer from a kyphosis. Yet the rumour began to circulate, and Shakespeare, living in a frighteningly Tudor England, made it fact. His Richard was grotesque, mentally and physically, and through the centuries there were far too many people who believed it all. There still are! It’s incredible that even when presented with irrefutable facts, there are folk who choose to prefer the Tudor version.

Richard’s physical difficulty would not have been apparent to many during his lifetime, and only those very close to him would have ever seen him undressed, which is when his back’s curve would have been evident, as would his raised shoulder. Clever tailoring would have taken care of that then, as it would today. A king would only have the best tailors in the realm.

All this is old news, but something that passed me by until jclarner’s post was that Richard’s scoliosis would not only have curved his back and raised his shoulder, but made one of his scapulae (shoulder blades) protrude. Again, his tailors would have disguised it. Perhaps, even though he was a slight man, when dressed he might have appeared a little “chunky”? Just hazarding a guess, not stating it as fact.

Right, the vast majority of people, certainly the general populace, knew nothing about Richard’s back. But one thing that we know is fact, is that after his cruel death at Bosworth, he was stripped naked and slung over a horse to be hauled from the battlefield as insultingly as possible. To be thrown over the horse, he would surely be face down, legs falling on one side of the horse, arms and head on the other. The result of this would certainly show the distortion of his back, no doubt of that. Everyone would have seen that tell-tale sideways curve. But hunchback?

Well, this is where I wonder about that protruding shoulder blade. Would the fact that he was thrown over the horse, his weight pressing down, mean that the shoulder blade would protrude much more noticeably? That, and his arms being ‘raised over’ his head by the position he’d been hauled over the horse. Was this the origin of the hunchback myth? Would the crowds, looking on as he was taken past, think they saw what we today call a kyphosis?

No doubt someone will shoot me down in flames for this suggestion, and I will bow to superior knowledge, but it certainly did occur to me in those drowsy post-sleep moments, when my brain was active, even if the rest of me wasn’t.

So, all thanks to jrlarner for making me think.

Richard III’s back!

Despite clear explanations by a spinal expert, the exact nature of Richard III’s spinal curvature is still being misconstrued and misunderstood. As an osteopath, I feel I am in a position to shed some definitive light on it.

Richard was portrayed by Shakespeare as a hunchback (“Bunch-backed toad”), with a withered arm and a limp.

The detailed examination of his spine by the experts has proved that he did not have a withered arm, and there was no evidence of a limp, either. If you think the bones are unlikely to show whether or not he had a withered arm you would be wrong, because the pull of muscles on the skeleton actually causes changes in the bone. That is why new born babies have no mastoid process (the bony part of the skull behind the ear) – it only develops after the baby is able to hold up its own head, as the force of the muscles causes the mastoid to form. Muscles are stronger than bone. Therefore, if Richard had had a withered arm (i.e. one that was paralysed or weakened in some way) it would have shown in his bones.

Finally, Richard’s spinal curvature is clearly seen to be a sideways S-shaped curve, known as a scoliosis. A so-called ‘hunchbacked’ appearance is caused by a forward bending of the spine, as often occurs in the elderly who have osteoporosis, and is known as a kyphosis. You can see the difference in the picture below.


But what would that mean as regards his appearance and gait? A scoliosis is quite a common spinal deformity, although the severity varies considerably. In fact, I myself have a mild scoliosis, caused by the spine’s natural compensation for a leg length discrepancy. It is so mild that it is barely noticeable, even without clothes (unless you’re an osteopath!)

Scoliosis can also be present at birth (congenital). Many people who have this degree of scoliosis are probably oblivious to it and it wouldn’t affect their gait or appearance much at all.

However, some types of scoliosis can be much more severe, impinging on the symmetry of the ribcage and even interfering with breathing. This type occurs more commonly in females and often begins in puberty when the body is going through a rapid growth spurt, but the complete cause is unknown. Richard appears to have had this type of scoliosis.

What would he have looked like? Because the curve in the spine was quite severe, it is likely that Richard would have held one shoulder higher than the other and one shoulder blade would be more prominent. One hip may also have been slightly higher than the other. His ribcage would also have been more prominent on one side than the other, but when clothed this would not have been obvious. This would show more on forward bending, when the more prominent side would be exaggerated.

Contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of his appearance do not mention a spinal deformity, although some say he held one shoulder higher than the other. So, if his condition was scarcely noticeable whilst wearing clothes, how did it become known to the ‘Tudors’, who exaggerated and added to it for their own ends? I am of the opinion that it was one of two events which revealed his condition. The most obvious would be the circumstances after his death at the Battle of Bosworth when it is reported that his naked body was taken from the field, slung over a horse, in other words bent forwards which, as mentioned above, exaggerates the deformity. The other event which could have revealed his scoliosis was his coronation. In mediaeval times, the king was anointed on his back, chest and head for which his body had to be bared to a certain extent. Although not visible to public gaze because a canopy was used to shield this part of the coronation from view, he would have been seen by the important participants in the ceremony, who might possibly have passed the information on to others.

So, no, Richard was most definitely NOT a ‘hunchback’!

NB:Drawing of spine with scoliosis and kyphosis
Image credit:   hfsimaging / 123RF Stock Photo

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.

Robert Cecil–Was he Shakespeare’s Real Richard III?

Robert Cecil—Was He Shakespeare’s Real Richard?

It is quite astounding that many traditionalists still trot out the old ‘Shakespeare was right’ trope when referring to Richard III, even though more statements in his famous depiction have been proved to be wrong than ‘right’ in regards to this maligned king.
Shakespeare was, of course, a dramatist, a writer of fiction, and his work should have no more significance as a historical document than that of any fiction writer, even if he was using a historical basis for his creations (as many authors do, with varying degrees of success!)
Indeed, it seems that his character of Richard III may have had only a partial relationship to the actual man his play purported to be about, although this is often overlooked as if this author was some kind of top modern journalist or historian and not merely writing to entertain.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays, however, are known to have some grounding in reality, but not so much in regards to the historical figures he wrote about, but to the leading lights of his own time. Frequently there is a political basis (and bias) disguised within the context of his fiction. The play Richard III is no exception, and the main target of the Bard’s vitriol may well not be the historical Richard, but the powerful and devious Elizabethan politician Robert Cecil.
Cecil was the son of the great statesman William Cecil, who lived in the palatial Burghley House outside the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire. He had a Cambridge education and became a powerful statesman himself in the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I. Robert Cecil was also known to have clearly noticeable kyphosis, possibly since birth or early infancy.
His physical description in 1588 is described in Motley’s History of the Netherlands:

“A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature, but with a face not irregular in feature, and thoughtful and subtle in expression, with reddish hair, a thin tawny beard, and large, pathetic, greenish-coloured eyes, with a mind and manners already trained to courts and cabinets, and with a disposition almost ingenuous, as compared to the massive dissimulation with which it was to be contrasted, and with what was, in aftertimes, to constitute a portion of his own character…”

Now, does this not sound more ‘Richard III’ than Richard himself, whose only mentioned ‘deformity’ (and that not written about till after his death) was a raised right shoulder?
So, why would Shakespeare wish to slander Robert Cecil? It seems like Shakespeare’s two most famous patrons, Essex and Southampton, were the arch-enemies of Cecil, so it would be politic of him to write in the ruthless character that these powerful lords would recognise and appreciate, without openly damning the man who Elizabeth I called ‘my little Imp’ or ‘my elf.’ The man who was Secretary of State and one of the most powerful personages in the realm.
Additionally, Cecil may have ordered the murder of Shakespeare’s very first patron, Ferdinando Stanley, whose mother was heiress presumptive to Elizabeth I. Stanley of course was a descendant of those Stanleys, and also maternally of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. He appears to have been poisoned; his body giving off such an unnatural reek that even months after his death, no family members could bear to approach his crypt. There is also a line of thought that Robert Cecil was heavily involved in the Gunpowder plot, having black-mailed Robert Catesby (yes, a descendant of that Catesby too) into proceeding with the fatal plot; Cecil’s intent was to inflame the public so that he could pass a series of anti-Catholic bills.
A devious man and with the physical attributes of Shakespeare’s character, Cecil may well be the ‘Real Richard III.’

sources: The Assassination of Shakespeare’s Patron: Investigating the Death of the Fifth Earl of Derby (2nd Edition) by Leo Daugherty
British History-John Simkin.

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