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The Richard III Society

Promoting research into the life and times of Richard III since 1924

Patron: HRH The Duke of Gloucester KG GCVO

Richard III


His life & death

His family

His leadership

His appearance

The controversies

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His Appearance

by Carolyn Hammond


SoA Portrait
Modern copy of Society of Antiquaries portrait
Many people's image of Richard III is influenced by Shakespeare's portrait of the 'poisonous bunch-backed toad', a limping hunch-back with a withered arm. Shakespeare's sources were the Tudor chroniclers, hostile to Richard. Perhaps Shakespeare also wanted to reflect the medieval idea that an evil mind must dwell in a twisted body. But if we examine what the people who actually saw Richard said, or look at his portraits, then a rather different picture emerges. The earlier portraits, such as that belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, which although not painted in his lifetime are based on originals that could have been done from life, show no sign of deformity. Later portraits, further from the lost originals, and painted to fit in with the established myth, show uneven shoulders and a villainous countenance. The raised shoulder of the Windsor portrait can be shown under X-ray to be a later addition to a painting with a normal shoulder line. The only totally unbiased commentator is von Popplau, who mentions no deformity; the Crowland Chronicler, Mancini and de Commynes, none of them particularly pro-Richard witnesses, also make no mention of any deformity, although they must all have either met Richard themselves, or, in the case of Mancini, spoken to those who had.

Those writing under the early Tudors mention the unevenness of Richard's shoulders, but since they cannot agree on which was higher, this cannot have been very pronounced. Even the hostile witnesses agree on Richard's bravery and prowess in battle, so any disablement must have been slight enough not to affect his use of weapons or control of his horse. As Sir Winston Churchill said in his History of the English Speaking Peoples: 'No-one in his (Richard's) life time seems to have remarked these deformities, but they are now very familiar to us through Shakespeare's play'.


One of the most important outcomes from the Greyfriars dig and the identification of the remains of King Richard III was the confirmation that he had adolescent on-set scoliosis. This is a condition which usually develops between the ages of 10 to 18 and for which there is no known cause: it results in the spinal column bending to the side which can result in one shoulder being slightly higher than the other, in the case of Richard III's skeleton; the right shoulder.

The evidence clearly shows the king did not have kyphosis, which can result in a hunchback, contrary to the historical myths about his physical appearance. Kyphosis is a forward bend of the spinal column when the head is pushed forward and down onto the chest. The legend of Richard's hunchback began in the early days of the new Tudor dynasty when it was expedient to denigrate the reputation of the dead king. Care should always be taken when using the word 'hunchback' in the context of either kypothis or scoliosis; its use can be deemed insensitive to those living with these conditions.

Although many people have not heard of scoliosis it is surprisingly common; in the UK between three and four in every 1,000 children need treatment for the condition. Nowadays it can be corrected by surgery, although those with the condition still face challenges in their lives. The Scoliosis Association in the UK (SAUK) notes that many are inspired by older siblings to overcome such challenges so Richard III may well have been similarly inspired by his elder brother, King Edward IV. As duke of Gloucester and as king, Richard led an active life as an effective administrator and military commander. He rode horses in full body armour and wielded a sword in battle, demonstrating that scoliosis doesn't necessarily limit physical capability. Today, for example, the eight-time Olympic gold medallist sprinter Usain Bolt has scoliosis of the lower back.

There is no contemporary evidence that Richard III suffered from any visible physical problems. The only surviving description of the king is provided by a Silesian visitor, Nicolas van Poppelau, who spent time at Richard's court in 1484 and described the king as lean, with delicate arms and legs and that he was 'three fingers taller' than Poppelau himself.

While Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III is famous for equating physical ‘deformity’ with moral depravity, recent scholarly studies have emphasised the fact that there were many different responses to such physical conditions in the Middle Ages. They were by no means universally assumed to be a sign of wickedness or incompetence. A useful introduction can be found at this website:

Is scoliosis considered a disability? By any definition of disability the answer is almost always no, unless it limits your ability to get around and perform daily tasks. The word ‘disability’ is sometimes used in articles discussing scoliosis, however, it is important to emphasise that in the vast majority of cases the condition does not result in any obvious disability.

Further information

Following the discovery of King Richard’s remains in 2012 there have been a number of articles in the Ricardian Bulletin that explore aspects of scoliosis:

  1. For a general introduction to scoliosis with examples of people with the condition, together with details about the Scoliosis Association see the article 'The Nature of scoliosis' in the June 2013 Bulletin.
  2. For examples of potential treatments for the condition in Richard’s lifetime see 'Medieval treatments for scoliosis' in the September 2013 Bulletin.
  3. For a detailed discussion about the king’s scoliosis see 'The scoliosis of King Richard III' in the March 2014 Bulletin.
  4. For an account of the experience of Dominic Smee, whose scoliosis is similar to Richard III’s, see 'Richard II: the new evidence – Dominic’s story' in the December 2014 Bulletin.

Useful information about scoliosis can also be found here: and

For a more detailed analysis of the king’s scoliosis The Lancet published a paper ‘The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance.’ This can be accessed here:

Quotations about Richard's Appearance

From a metrical account of the family of Richard, Duke of York, written between 1455 and 1460 and quoted in James Gairdner's History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third, 1898, p. 5:

'John aftir William nexte borne was
Whiche bothe be passid to Godis grace.
George was nexte, and aftir Thomas
Borne was, which sone aftir did pace
By the path of dethe to the hevenly place.
Richard liveth yit; but the last of alle
Was Ursula, to Hym whom God list calle.'

This has been taken to mean that Richard was a sickly child, but it is just saying that of the Duchess's last six children only George and Richard were still living.

Niclas von Popplau

An itinerant knight of great strength from Silesia, who visited England in 1484 and was entertained by Richard:

'King Richard is … a high-born prince, three fingers taller than I, but a bit slimmer and not as thickset as I am, and much more lightly built; he has quite slender arms and thighs, and also a great heart'

[from his travel diary, translated by Dr Livia Visser-Fuchs from 'Reisebeschreibung Niclas von Popplau, Ritter, Burtig von Breslau', edited by Piotr Radzikowski, 1998, and printed in The Ricardian June 1999, p. 529]

Archibald Whitelaw

Archdeacon of Lothian, who came to Richard's court with an embassy from James III of Scotland in 1484:

'Never has so much spirit or greater virtue reigned in such a small body'

[from his Latin speech of welcome quoted in George Buck's The History of King Richard the Third, ed. A.N. Kincaid, 1979, p. 206]

John Rous (c.1411-1491)

An antiquary and chantry priest at Warwick, who probably saw Richard during his visits to Warwick:

'Richard was 'retained within his mother's womb for two years and emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders. He was small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower'

[from: Historia Regum Angliae, written towards the end of Rous' life, i.e. after 1485; translated in Alison Hanham's Richard III and his early Historians 1483-1535, 1975, pp. 120, 121]


During a drunken brawl in York in 1491 one protagonist criticised the Earl of Northumberland for betraying King Richard, whereupon the other retorted that:

'King Richard was an ypocryte and a crochebake and beried in a dike like a dogge'

[case reported in Robert Davies' Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York, 1843, p. 221]

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Spent some time as a page in the household of Cardinal Morton; he could have talked to those who knew Richard; his History was written about 1513, although not first published until 1557:

'He was little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage … he came into the worlde with the feete forwarde … and also not untothed.'

[from Thomas More's History of King Richard III, ed. R.S. Sylvester, Yale 1963, p. 7]

Polydore Vergil (1470-1555)

An Italian cleric and scholar, commissioned by Henry VII to write an official history of England, which was first published in 1534:

'He was lyttle of stature, deformyd of body, thone showlder being higher than thother, a short and sowre cowntenance, which semyd to savor of mischief and utter evydently craft and deceyt'

[from Three Books of Polydore Vergil's English History, ed. Sir Henry Ellis, Camden Society, 1844, pp. 226-7]

John Stow (1525-1605)

The London antiquary, who had talked to those who had seen Richard:

'He was of bodily shape comely enough only of low stature'

Catherine Countess of Desmond (died 1604)

In his Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III, 1768, p. 102, Horace Walpole says that:

'the old Countess of Desmond who had danced with Richard declared that he was the handsomest man in the room except his brother Edward, and was very well made'

This story is impossible to verify—the Countess certainly died in 1604, but was she born early enough to have known Richard? However an hypothesis by John Ashdown-Hill who has researched the subject is that the Countess's husband, who was considerably older than herself, having been born in 1454, could have seen Richard III and described his appearance to his wife. An article on the Countess of Desmond by Kitty Bristow was published in the Autumn 2004 issue of the Ricardian Bulletin.

A skeleton discovered by archaeologists excavating the site at Greyfriars, Leicester has now been confirmed to be that of Richard III. The skeleton exhibits signs of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that can cause one shoulder to appear slightly higher than the other, in this case the right shoulder. So there is a germ of truth behind the Tudor descriptions, but there is no evidence for the hunchback, the withered arm and the limp—they are merely inventions of those trying to blacken Richard's image.

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Earliest Portraiture of Richard III

by Frederick Hepburn

Anyone approaching the subject of Richard III’s portraiture for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that he was inordinately vain. At least two dozen painted portraits of him are known to have survived to the present day, and the number is still being added to as further examples appear from time to time in the salerooms. But this initial impression is deceptive. By far the majority of these paintings date from over a century after Richard’s death and owe their existence to a fashion in the decoration of great houses in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. During the years between about 1590 and about 1620 many owners of such houses decided to enliven the blank walls of their Long Gallery—and at the same time demonstrate their allegiance to the monarchy – by commissioning a set of portraits of kings and queens. Some of these series stretched back as far as William the Conqueror, using completely fictitious images for the kings earlier than Edward III (reigned 1327-77). For most of the monarchs from Edward III onwards authentic likenesses, in the form of either tomb effigies or paintings, were available to be copied. When it came to Richard III, the painters evidently went to the most authoritative source, a portrait in the Royal Collection. A tracing would have been made, and this, no doubt along with further tracings copied from the first one, served as the basis for Richard’s image. With greater or lesser degrees of care and artistic licence, the image was then reproduced in various London painters’ workshops.

Royal Collection

Amazingly enough, the painting of Richard III in the Royal Collection which ultimately lies behind all of these commercially-produced copies still exists. It is not contemporary with Richard, but seems to have been painted sometime during the years around 1515-20. (This time-frame has been proposed on the basis of dendrochronology, the science which enables oak panels to be dated from the sequence of growth rings visible at their edges.) It does, however, almost certainly, reflect the appearance of a lost portrait that would have been painted during Richard’s reign, most probably soon after its beginning in June 1483. The image shows the king dressed in a gown made of costly black velvet and lined and trimmed with spotted lynx fur. Round his neck is a large and elaborately worked gold collar studded with diamonds, rubies and pearls, an object of astonishing opulence which would have been designed, quite deliberately, to evoke wonder in all who saw it. This is complemented by another rich jewel on his hat, a brooch which, being in the form of a Greek cross, would in addition have been intended as a sign of the king’s personal faith in Christ crucified. Above his head, meanwhile, in the upper corners of the portrait, are gilt spandrels each containing a small profile head enclosed within a quatrefoil-shaped frame. These heads have been shown to be based on Ancient Roman medallions representing the Emperor Constantine and his mother St Helena. Constantine was acclaimed emperor in AD 306 by the troops stationed in York and became famous as Rome’s first Christian emperor; his mother, traditionally believed to have been a British princess, found her own fame in legend as the discoverer of the True Cross and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The presence of such heads in a portrait of this kind is highly unusual, and we must presume that it was Richard himself who had asked for them to be included in his portrait image. The intended message would seem to have been that these important British figures in the early history of Christianity were, in a sense, role-models for him – and his enthusiasm for the crusading cause is well-known.

Richard’s face, however, seems oddly inconsistent within this otherwise extremely positive image emphasizing wealth and piety. Infrared reflectography of Royal Collection portrait
Infrared reflectography of the Royal Collection portrait
Photo: TSR (Tager Stonor Richardson) Imaging
The eyes are narrowed into what looks like a malevolent glare, the mouth thin-lipped and the jaw grimly clenched. Thus, Richard is made to look like a villainous character. The portrait therefore gives out a mixed message, and this surely cannot be right. How is the incongruity to be understood? An X-ray, taken in the 1970s, had already raised the possibility that the nearer eye was initially painted ‘in a less slit-like fashion’ (Pamela Tudor-Craig’s words); and when the portrait underwent further examination in 2016, this time by infrared reflectography, it became clear that the whole face had in fact been considerably altered. Infrared reflectography of Royal Collection portrait
Infrared reflectography of the Royal Collection portrait
Photo: TSR (Tager Stonor Richardson) Imaging
The technique of infrared reflectography (IRR) allows us to see through the paint surface to the carbon-black lines with which the artist first drew the design on the panel. From this it was evident, not only that the form of the nearer eye had been changed, but also that from the base of the nose downwards the face had been made shorter. The base of the nose, the mouth and the chin had all been moved to a higher position. Moreover, the mouth as initially drawn did not have the compressed and mean-looking appearance of that in the finished painting.

In moving the lower part of the face upwards, the artist evidently realized that he would also need to raise the level of both shoulders (otherwise the neck would have been too long); Infrared reflectography of Royal Collection portrait
Infrared reflectography of the Royal Collection portrait — right-hand shoulder
Photo: TSR (Tager Stonor Richardson) Imaging
and after doing this he added a little more height to Richard’s proper right shoulder, deliberately making the shoulders uneven. The finished painting therefore shows the king with both a villainous expression and a slightly deformed body.

What was the reason for these alterations? Close examination of the paint surface revealed that the artist had not only drawn the features but also at least begun to paint them in their initial positions before making the changes. On the evidence that we have, therefore, it seems reasonable to suppose that the artist began by making an accurate copy of the original work and was then required to alter it. Infrared reflectography of Royal Collection portrait
Infrared reflectography of the Royal Collection portrait — left-hand shoulder
Photo: TSR (Tager Stonor Richardson) Imaging
Presumably his painting would have needed to meet the approval of officials at court, and we might imagine that it was some person in authority within the royal household who asked for the image of Richard to be modified. The officially-held view of Richard III at the Tudor court was that he had been an evil usurper, deformed in body and mind, and it is interesting to note that it was at just about the same time as the portrait was painted that this idea received powerful endorsement in the work of the historian Polydore Vergil. Vergil is known to have completed the first draft of his great work, the Historia Anglica, in 1513, and although it was not to appear in print until much later it is quite possible that it was circulating at court in manuscript form during the later 1510s. Vergil’s description of Richard’s appearance chimes uncannily well with the altered portrait:

He was puny in stature and deformed of body, with one shoulder higher than the other; he had a short face with an expression that was harsh and cruel …

Society of Antiquaries of London

A second early portrait of Richard exists in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London. This has in fact been dated (again by dendrochronology) to the same decade as the Royal Collection portrait, and like the latter it almost certainly reflects a lost contemporary original. It is related to the Royal Collection portrait in that it is essentially another version of the same image, reversed so that Richard faces towards his right rather that his left and showing him dressed this time in a splendid gown of patterned cloth-of-gold. It is remarkable that the eyes in this painting are recognizably the same as those that appear in the infrared reflectogram of the Royal Collection portrait. Also, the proportions of the face are demonstrably the same as those in the Royal Collection portrait would have been before it was altered. Here, then, one would have hoped, is an image that can be relied on. Indeed, this is almost the case. When the portrait was cleaned and restored in 2006-7, it became clear that it too had been subjected to some alteration. What had evidently happened is that, at some unspecifiable date after the painting was finished, the central horizontal line of the king’s mouth was moved to a slightly higher position. This had the effect of making the jaw look more tightly set, and presumably it was done with the aim of bringing the likeness more into line with other portraits of the king: through the many copies that were based on the Royal Collection portrait, the look of thin-lipped unscrupulousness seems to have become accepted as a standard feature in Richard’s portraiture. The alteration has now been removed and the mouth repainted with the central horizontal line in its original position. In other respects, however, the mouth includes an element of informed guesswork on the part of the restorer, and it is to the infrared reflectogram image that we must turn in order to see how Richard’s mouth would originally have looked.

Between the Royal Collection portrait and its infrared reflectogram and the restored Antiquaries portrait, then, we can form a reasonable idea of the intended appearance of Richard’s image. This was, it must be remembered, a public image: it would have been devised by Richard himself in collaboration with his chosen painter (whose name, sadly, remains unknown), and its purpose would have been to present a particular view of the king to those important officials and visitors who would see the portrait displayed in a royal palace. As has already been said, the image was certainly designed to show Richard as both wealthy and pious. Was the depiction of his face also meant to convey a message about him? Although it is impossible to be certain, I would suggest that this may well have been so. If one compares Richard’s facial expression with that of his elder brother and predecessor, Edward IV, as it appears in a portrait which also belongs to the Society of Antiquaries, one cannot fail to observe a strong contrast between the two. It has been shown that this portrait of Edward is painted on a panel cut from the same tree as the portrait of Richard, and in all probability they were painted together as copies of a lost original pair. The two kings are very similarly dressed, Edward being shown in a cloth-of-gold gown that closely resembles his brother’s. In fact the two images share the same colour scheme altogether - a striking combination of gold, black and magenta against a blue background. But although they are positioned like mirror-images of each other, the two faces have very different expressions. While Edward appears bland and complacent, Richard’s much thinner features are alert and determined. This combination of similarity and contrast seems to parallel the situation at the time of Richard’s accession: on the one hand he needed to gain acceptance as Edward’s rightful successor, but on the other he was extremely critical of his brother’s regime. There is no space here to quote at length from the document entitled Titulus regius in which Richard’s claim to the throne was set out. Suffice it to say that it includes a scathing retrospective attack on Edward’s government, describing those who ruled the land as ‘delighting in adulation and flattery and led by sensuality and concupiscence’. At the same time Richard, the ‘true inheritor’, is praised as a model of all the kingly virtues. The implied pledge that he would eradicate the corruption that had prevailed at his brother’s court was therefore a crucial aspect of Richard’s public persona, and it is surely not too fanciful to see this reflected in his portrait image.

A note on Richard’s skull and the facial reconstruction

The discovery of Richard’s remains in 2012 made it possible to add a further fascinating point about his portrait image. On examining the skull, the forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson found a strikingly close correspondence between its contours and those of Richard’s face as shown in the Antiquaries portrait and in the well-known, though much later, portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. (See the Ricardian Bulletin, September 2013, Figure 8, showing images of the skull superimposed on both portraits.) Hence the skull provided some unexpected confirmation of the accuracy of the painted portrait image in terms of the contours of the face and the placing of the features. The facial reconstruction which Professor Wilkinson subsequently made on the basis of the skull is also of great value. As a scientific object it shows the structure and proportions of Richard’s features, and this again tends to confirm the accuracy of the portrait image. There is nevertheless a certain danger in viewing the reconstructed head itself as a portrait. As Toni Mount has pointed out in a very salutary letter (‘Let’s keep our perspective’, Ricardian Bulletin, June 2013, p. 69), the musculature, percentage of fatty tissue, skin texture and elasticity of the face are all based on those of an ‘average’ male of 30+ years of age; Richard’s face may therefore have been different in any or all of these respects. Nor does the skull tell us anything about Richard’s habitual facial expression. The evidence from the earliest painted portraits therefore remains paramount: reflecting an image which would have been produced with the king’s approval, it brings us as close as we can get to seeing Richard as he wished to look, in the eyes both of his contemporaries and of posterity.

For a detailed account and discussion of the investigation of the Royal Collection portrait by infrared reflectography, see F. Hepburn, ‘The Portrait of Richard III at Windsor’, The Ricardian, XXVIII (2018), pp. 1-13; and for the Society of Antiquaries portrait, see J. Franklin, B. Nurse and P. Tudor-Craig, Catalogue of Paintings in the Collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Turnhout 2015, pp. 62-66, No. 6 (entry by P. Tudor-Craig and J. Franklin).