by Carolyn Hammond
Modern copy of Society of Antiquaries portraitMany 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'.
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]
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. This article was originally published in Speakers' Notes published by the Society in 1988. The second edition (1997) is still available from the Society Shop.
A skeleton discovered by archaeologists excavating the site of 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.
by Frederick Hepburn
The unveiling of Richard III's facial reconstruction to the press on 5 February 2013 will change forever our perceptions of the king's appearance. Until now we have been dependent on the surviving portraits of the king to visualise how he might have appeared. This extract from an article by Frederick Hepburn FSA, updated in 2008, gives a comprehensive overview of the three most well-known portraits of the king.
The National Portrait Gallery Portrait
Richard III by Paul Murray KendallMost people today, if asked to bring to mind a portrait of Richard III, would probably conjure up an image of the painting in the National Portrait Gallery (Fig. 1). During the past half-century or so this painting has gained a firm foothold in the popular imagination as the portrait of Richard. It appeared as the frontispiece, both of Paul Murray Kendall's biography of the king (1955) and - after cleaning had revealed its delicately-painted gold filigree spandrels -of the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery's Richard III exhibition (1973). Since then it has been reproduced not only on the covers of further important books about Richard but also on innumerable posters, tea-towels and even T -shirts. It was also, of course, the face in this portrait which launched Inspector Grant on his inquiry into the fate of the Princes in the Tower in Josephine Tey's detective novel The Daughter of Time.
The face is no doubt a compelling one. Intelligent, troubled and with an air of nursing some unseen hurt, it appeals to the romantic in all of us. But it needs to be set aside. The fact is that this portrait of Richard was painted over a century after his death: examination of the tree-rings of the oak panel on which it is painted enabled the dendrochronologist John Fletcher to date the picture to the years around 1590-1600.
Moreover, the size of the portrait (25" x 18½") and the style in which it is painted are typical of the many pictures of kings and queens which were produced to decorate the long galleries of great houses in the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Such series of portraits sometimes stretched back as far as William the Conqueror (though the images of the Norman and earlier Plantagenet kings were inevitably fictitious), and their purpose was chiefly to provide colourful wall-decoration. Pamela Tudor-Craig assembled a considerable number of paintings of Richard III of this date, all of them variations of the same basic type, for the 1973 exhibition, and many of these are illustrated in the catalogue together with the National Portrait Gallery's picture.
Royal Collection and Society of Antiquaries' Portraits
There are two paintings of Richard which stand out from the crowd. Although neither was produced during his lifetime, they are both markedly earlier in date than the rest: John Fletcher's calculations (slightly modified by more recent research in dendrochronology) place them in the second decade of the sixteenth century, during the early years of Henry VIII. One of these portraits is in the Royal Collection (Fig. 2), and is almost certainly identical with a portrait of Richard which was recorded there in an inventory of 1542, and the other belongs to the Society of Antiquaries of London (Fig. 3); it was bequeathed to the Society in 1828, and there is evidence that it came originally from the Paston family's collection of pictures at Oxnead, Norfolk.
You can see the Royal Collection portrait of Richard III (Fig. 2) Then click on 'View larger picture in new window'. Close the new window that opens when ypu want to return to this site.=
In the case of both of these portraits it has been shown that the authentic detail of the costume, and particularly of the jewellery, suggests very strongly that they were copied from lost originals painted during the sitter's lifetime. With the Royal Collection portrait the matter is not quite straightforward because it appears that, at some time after the copy was first painted, some deliberate alterations were made to it. The king's right shoulder was made to look higher than his left by extending the gown and the jewelled collar on that side a little further upwards. With the passing of time the additional paintwork on the gown has become fainter, so that the original line of the shoulder is now quite clearly visible to the naked eye. An X-radiograph of the painting showed up this change very clearly, and also revealed that Richard's right eye was originally not as narrow as it now appears: the lower edge of the eye has been slightly raised and straightened. Also, judging from the paintwork itself, there is reason to think that the outline of the nose may have been enlarged a little and that the mouth has been tampered with in order to make the lips look thinner. Without doubt these alterations were made with the intention of 'improving' the portrait by bringing it more into line with the early Tudor view of Richard as a deformed villain. If, as seems likely, the copyist himself made the changes to his work, it is very doubtful whether such a lowly artisan would have dared to take the initiative in doing so; probably they were suggested, or dictated, by someone in a position of authority at the court.
In other respects the Royal Collection portrait can be regarded as a faithful enough copy of an original painting which was contemporary with Richard, except that it was probably somewhat enlarged: its dimensions - 22¼" x 14" - 12are seven or eight inches taller and three or four inches wider than those of surviving Netherlandish panel portraits of the 1480s.
King Richard III. Portrait before restoration
Reproduced by kind permission of
the Society of Antiquaries
King Richard III. Portrait after restoration
Reproduced by kind permission of
the Society of AntiquariesIn her catalogue of the 1973 exhibition Dr Tudor-Craig showed convincingly that the Royal Collection portrait, in its 'doctored' state, served as the general prototype for all the later paintings of Richard. The inequality of the shoulders is particularly noticeable as a feature which was carried through into all the subsequent versions, including the National Portrait Gallery's picture. The only surviving painting of Richard which is separate from this unfortunate tradition is the Society of Antiquaries portrait (Figs 3a and b). The cleaning and conservation of this portrait which was undertaken during 2007 showed that it too had been subjected to some overpainting in which the appearance of Richard's mouth had been altered: the central horizontal line of the mouth had been moved to a slightly higher position, making the jaw look more tightly set and thus giving the face as a whole a more determined expression. (The photograph reproduced here, showing the portrait before and after cleaning, make the difference clear, as well as illustrating the newly-revealed brilliance of the painting's colours.) At whatever point in the painting's history this change was made, its purpose would seem to have been to make the king's likeness conform more closely to that in the other portraits of him. Through the many copies, and copies of the copies, which were derived from the Royal Collection portrait, the look of thin-lipped unscrupulousness clearly became accepted as a facial characteristic which was standard in Richard's portraiture. The fact that the Antiquaries portrait is different - and different also in showing only a slight unevenness in Richard's shoulders - serves to underline its unique importance. Moreover, the panel's small dimensions - 12½" x 8" - are fully consistent with what one would expect of a contemporary portrait. Only its arch-topped format betrays the fact that this painting belongs to the early sixteenth century; the original is more likely to have been rectangular in shape.