Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How to kill a king: archaeology and history meet to tell us of Richard III's last moments

This day in Holy Week is called Spy Wednesday, for on this night, Judas Iscariot made his fateful deal with the Temple priests to betray his master. Today, I'll tell you another story of betrayal: the fate of Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle. For centuries, historians have had to rely chiefly on the official histories of the battle written years after the fact, during the height of the Tudor regime, such as Polydore Vergil's Anglica Historia; but after Richard's remains were recovered under the car park in Leicester, archaeologists, in the course of identifying them, were able to piece forensic evidence together to determine just how the last Plantagenet king died. The conclusions are remarkable: a visceral end to an age marked by brutality, yes.... but also one that demanded their rulers to show superhuman courage and lead their soldiers to victory from the front.

Lead-in to the battle

By 1485, the Wars of the Roses had killed off most of the House of Lancaster. Their claim to the throne came down to a young man who had never even lived in England: Henry Tudor, the son of Margaret Beaufort, who was a great-granddaughter to John of Gaunt (father of King Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king) and his mistress, Katherine Swyneford. This unlikely adventurer, who grew up alternately in Wales and Brittany, France, is a classic case of being a contender for power by sheer virtue of being anyone other than the guy in charge. Henry raised a challenge to Richard III held up by three pillars: the Woodvilles (Richard's enemies at home), the French, and the Welsh. To the first, on Christmas of 1483, Henry pledged to marry Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, sister to the two assumed-dead princes in the Tower, and (for Yorkists considering Richard to be a usurper) the heir to Edward V's crown. To the second, Henry gained troops and supplies from the queen regent of France, where he had lived the last 14 years of his life. And to the third, when he landed in Wales with his army of French mercenaries, he capitalized on his Welsh birth and descent from local legend Rhys ap Gruffydd. Henry found an invaluable ally in Rhys ap Thomas, who brought 500 men with him.

How could this 28-year old man who never lived in England, never seen combat, and whose last ancestor king was a thrice-great grandfather, lead an army of five or six thousand mostly non-English soldiers right to London unopposed?

Lord Thomas Stanley: the face of pragmatism
Richard III knew the answer to that question: treachery in the ranks. His warden in the west marches was Sir William Stanley, who as Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, was bound by his office to stop Tudor's forces from crossing. Richard demanded that William and his more powerful brother, Thomas, the Lord High Constable of the realm, raise forces to intercept Tudor. This would have put Lord Stanley in an awkward position since he also happened to be Margaret Beaufort's husband... and, therefore, Henry Tudor's stepfather. Stanley excused himself on account of "sweating sickness", but not before Richard could arrest Stanley's eldest son and heir, George, as a surety for the father's loyalty. George confessed that he and his family had been in correspondence with Tudor the entire time, and that they had allowed Tudor to march on London without a fight. All Richard could do now was raise up as many loyal lords as possible on short notice and hope it was enough. The king placed his most loyal supporter, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, at the head of the Yorkist army, and ordered all allies to assemble at the village of Leicester.

Betrayal at Bosworth

Three armies met outside Leicester, at Bosworth, on the 22nd of August:
-Henry Tudor's 5,000 or 6,000 troops made up of French mercenaries, Welshmen led by Rhys ap Thomas and a few (no more than a thousand) English exiles from Buckingham's rebellion and other Lancastrians. These men fought in Henry's name, but since Henry had no battlefield experience, they were truly at the command of the Earl of Oxford, a grizzled veteran of the Wars of the Roses, and Henry's own uncle/foster father, Jasper Tudor.
-Richard III's army of between 8,000 and 10,000. His personal army numbered about 3,000 infantry, with the rest split between the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Northumberland. The king had the advantage of numbers and cannons at his disposal, but whereas Tudor had a lot of professional soldiers to rely upon, Richard had to make do with a host of hastily summoned militia fighters and other conscripts.
-And then, there were the Stanley brothers. Their forces together numbered perhaps 6,000, but they parked themselves casually upon a hill to the south, committed to neither side. Though they were both officers of Richard's court, the brothers actually had a long history of fence-sitting. They always calculated having at least one brother on the winning side to have the other pardoned; unsurprisingly, this strategy ensured their accumulation of unsurpassed wealth and influence across three tumultuous changes in dynasty, all the while other leading families of England slaughtered each other to extinction.
After the initial cannon volley from Richard and storms of arrows from both sides, Tudor's men charged up the hill held by Richard's and Norfolk's men, taking heavy losses but holding their ground. No one knows exactly why, but when Richard signaled Northumberland to send in his forces to sweep the field and take the day, Northumberland didn't engage. We don't know if it was treason, since there's no evidence of correspondence between him and Henry Tudor prior to Bosworth or any reward for services after the battle, or if he was merely tactically hindered by his position on the field; or, perhaps, if he truly considered the king a usurper and unworthy of defending. Whatever the case, Northumberland's uninvolvement meant the king's superior numbers were for naught.


The last gallant charge of an era

From the corner of his eye, Richard saw his rival, Henry, make for Lord Stanley's army, still in reserve to wait until there was a clear victor to side with. We can only guess that Richard assumed Henry was going to appeal to his stepfather, join forces, and ensure defeat for the Yorkists.... for at this point, Richard makes one last charge. Suicidal by our standard, but a gallant display of chivalry and courage in his day, Richard and his royal household knights split off from his main force to make a death-defying charge straight at Henry. Did the king think cutting the serpent off at the head was the only way to rout the enemy? Or was he resigned to defeat, determined to go down in history as a warrior who fought for his birthright?
From the 2013 re-enactment of Richard's charge at Bosworth
The entire course of history came down to the crossing of lances and swords, as Richard's cavalry charge actually broke through Henry's defense. The king personally unhorsed Henry's champion, Sir John Cheyne, and slew the Welshman's standard-bearer, William Brandon. Richard came up to a sword's length of Henry Tudor's person. Victory was almost at hand... until Sir William Stanley's forces swooped down behind Richard's men and attacked. The king was unhorsed and killed, and his army fled in short order. The Stanleys, still fresh, now engaged in favor of the Lancastrians and began the slaughter in earnest while the Yorkists were in retreat. The Duke of Norfolk perished with the king on the field. Richard's bannerman, Sir Percival Thirwell, also goes down in history as having held the Yorkist banner aloft even without his legs, until he was hacked to death. This bloody episode of England's story closed in a moment straight from the tropes of Shakespearean fiction: Lord Stanley picked up Richard's crown, which tumbled off his helmet, and placed it upon his stepson's head. Henry Tudor was now Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland.
As to the mortal remains of his predecessor, Henry had Richard entombed at a poor friary in the nearby village of Leicester. The Franciscans, or Greyfriars as they were known in England, buried him in the quire of their small church, there to remain until Henry's son, Henry VIII, broke from the Roman Church and ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. The friary was sold to local landowners in 1538 and demolished shortly thereafter. And, as we all know now, urban development eventually covered the site of this old friary with a parking lot until 2012, when the Richard III Society and the University of Leicester uncovered it and found the king's grave only two hours into the dig.

500 years later

Courtesy of LiveScience!
The discoveries made by the University of Leicester from some half-millennium old bones are nothing short of magical to my mind. There was, of course, the obvious: major spine curvature that confirmed that Richard III did indeed have scoliosis, that the myth of "Richard Crookback" was based on at least a grain of truth. Samples of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in his bones determine that he had a major change in diet within the last three years of his life. It was one of the many facts that established those bones as that of Richard: only a king could have afforded to feast on fish and flesh virtually every day of the last two or three years of his life, coinciding with the historical record (Richard was crowned king in 1483, two years before his death). They could even tell from the amount of oxygen in his lungs that Richard must have consumed an average of one bottle of wine a day in his last years.
But what of the cause of death? Upon examination, the University's researchers found barely any combat wounds on Richard's body. Rather, nine were found on his skull. Dr. Sarah Hainsworth of the University said,
"Richard's injuries represent a sustained attack or an attack by several assailants with weapons from the later medieval period.
"The wounds to the skull suggest that he was not wearing a helmet, and the absence of defensive wounds on his arms and hands indicate that he was otherwise still armoured at the time of his death." (The Guardian, 16 Sept. 2014)
The nine wounds were delivered from a combination of bladed and blunt weapons, probably including a poleaxe. Since Richard's arms and legs went unscathed, the likely conclusion is that after being unhorsed, the king was pinned by either Tudor's or Stanley's soldiers, his helmet removed, and then bludgeoned to death. There was one major wound to the body, at the pelvis. But judging by the upward angle of the blow, and the likelihood that Richard's rear would have been well-armored, archaeologists have posited that this was a posthumous wound. Most likely, as the chroniclers wrote, Richard's dead body was stripped naked and thrown over a horse. One of his enemies probably stabbed his corpse on the buttocks, piercing the pelvis, as a show of further humiliation.

How could a hunchback fight like that?

Meet Dominic Smee, Richard's body double
As I said, the bones show that Richard had scoliosis, but no historical record that I know of mentions it until Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III, begun under Henry VII's reign. While it's also possible that Richard or his elder brother, Edward IV, suppressed any mention of the former's condition in their lifetimes, I believe the Tudors didn't even know about it until they stripped the fallen king's armor and saw his unusual spinal curvature protrude from his uncovered flesh.
During the studies performed on Richard III's remains, Channel 4 produced a fantastic documentary, raising this very question. To find the answer, a 27-year old teacher by the name of Dominic Smee, who has the same degree of scoliosis as Richard, volunteered to take a series of tests to see if his condition would affect a medieval warrior's battle prowess. Though Mr. Smee fatigued on foot, he performed quite admirably on horseback at the joust. The suit of armor crafted just to his measurements betrayed no suggestion of any unusual stature whatsoever, and in fact, the armor, combined with the sturdy medieval-style wooden saddle, ensured that Smee was positioned comfortably upright through all mounted tests.
If we take into account that Mr. Smee trained in the arts of medieval combat for only a brief time, while Richard Plantagenet was raised from birth to fight for his title, it's no surprise that this "hunchbacked" king was able to kill his enemies on the lance, and even unhorse Henry Tudor's champion: a mountain of a man, estimated to have stood at 6' 8". Mounted combat evened the playing field. Whatever else Shakespeare got wrong, we can agree with him that Richard's kingdom truly was lost for want of a horse.
Channel 4's documentary is below: I highly recommend watching it when you get a chance!

Reburying a medieval king

I dedicated a slew of posts last week to Richard III's reburial in Leicester last week. Though I missed the live broadcast of his official reinterment service at Leicester on account of work and living in another country and time zone, I was finally able to watch a recording of the entire event later on Youtube. The rest of Holy Week will delay my ability to proffer my full thoughts on that ceremony until next week at the earliest, but I am glad for one thing, at least: that the people of England assembled by the thousands in Leicester to see their last medieval king now buried in solemnity. The troglodytes of the Internet hawed and huffed about the ceremonies being a waste of money, or a pageantry of irrelevance. But we see by the crowds, and all the ensuing discussions throughout the world; my blog being one small part; that the Middle Ages live on in our memories. Whether he was a tyrant and usurper, or a courageous warrior-king who went down fighting with his people, Richard III still touches us today, even as far away as the United States.
Let's close this entry with the words of Polydore Vergil, who, I remind you, was Henry VII's official court historian. Even in that position, Vergil conceded what must have been agreed upon by all:
"King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies." (Anglica Historia)
My thoughts on this service are still in the works....

Other articles from "Richard III Week":

-Today in history: Henry IV: the man whose claim to the crown started the troubles that led to the Wars of the Roses

-The first day: Richard on tour: select photos from the procession on Sunday, and the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster's Compline homily

-The Bible in Richard's day, and, was Richard a proto-Protestant?: on the king's reading habits and what to make of his Wycliffe New Testament

-A requiem for Richard: on the Requiem Mass, the king's faith, his book of hours, the cult of purgatory, and the chantry chapels of Richard's age

-Of hearses and hearse cloths: looking at Richard III's funeral pall and dressing the dead in medieval times

-Richard III's claim to the throne: sanguinity, statue, or sacrament?: Examining Richard's dynastic claims and what makes a king the king

-O God of Earth and Altar: a hymn by G.K. Chesterton, used at the reinterment on Thursday

-The poet laureate on Richard III: the poem at the reinterment. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.

 -Anatomy of a prayer: a look at one of the prayers used at Thursday's reinterment, versus its original medieval text.

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