To what extent has the concept of ‘deformity’ affected Richard III’s image and character?
By Gemma Almond
GORFFENNOL: The Swansea University History and Classics Online Student Research Journal, Issue 1 (2015)
Introduction: Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as the evil ‘crook back’ has dominated his image for centuries. A villainous king supposedly responsible for the death of his young nephews, Richard III was the embodiment of an evil and malformed soul beneath. As the eleventh child of Richard Duke of York, he was ‘very little’ unlike the powerful and domineering build of previous Plantagenet’s, including his elder brother Edward IV, but whether he possessed any form of physical disfigurement has been subject to question, and until very recently, dismissed. The confirmation of the skeleton, found at Greyfriars in Leicestershire, as Richard III in February 2013, adds an interesting dimension to the contention that surrounds his deformity. Concrete evidence that Richard III had a curvature of the spine and the seeming significance of this leads, naturally to the question of why this mattered. This essay will adopt a chronological approach in an attempt to assess when, how, and why the concept of ‘deformity’ or disfigurement became so integral to the central argument surrounding Ricardian historiography, and whether Richard was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ king.
Exploring the king’s appearance becomes challenging when few contemporary accounts, and no contemporary portraiture survives. Early surviving accounts do not mention a deformity, although the body and appearance of Richard III was commented upon. The earliest documentary evidence was written before he was eight in Richard Duke of York’s lifetime and states no more than ‘Richard liveth yet.’ This has often been interpreted to mean that Richard was a sickly child, which is supported by John Rous’ description of ‘a small body… weak in strength’. As the chronicler of the Earls of Warwick and Chaplain at the Chapel of Guys Cliff, he would have almost certainly have met him. Further accounts of his ‘smallness’ can be seen in ‘Archibald Whitelaw’s Address to Richard III’ where ‘never before has nature dared to encase in a smaller body such spirit,’ and ‘in his small body the greatest valour held sway.’ Further description is offered by Nicholas von Poppelau, a Silesian nobleman, who was acquainted with Richard in 1484 and held a private audience with the king on the 1st of May. Von Poppelau does not comment on a deformity but provides similar allusions to a ‘smallness’ of physique in that Richard was described as ‘slimmer’ and possessing ‘delicate arms and legs.’ This absence of comment on any form of deformity is apparent in the two authoritative works from the period, Dominic Mancini and the Croyland Chronicle, whereby we only learn of Richard’s appearance from the Croyland Chronicle’s depiction of a lean face and pale complexion.
The first mention of any noteworthy physical anomaly is in the form of a striking monstrous birth and is depicted in John Rous’ account following the accession of Henry VII. In marked contrast to Rous’ previously mentioned description in the ‘Rous Roll,’ his History of the Kings of England described Richard as ‘retained within his mother’s womb for two years… emerging with teeth and hair to the shoulders.’ Whilst the only significant postnatal physical difference presented by Rous at this later date is that of ‘unequal shoulders, the right higher than the other’ it is notable that Rous used Richard’s physicality as one way of reverting his previous commendations of Richard prior to Henry VII’s accession. The earliest surviving portraits of Richard similarly provide a visual representation of the transformation found in Rous’ two descriptions.
You can follow Gemma Almond on Twitter @