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Welcome to Episode #123 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare immortalized Richard III as an ugly hunchback who is “rudely stamp'd”, “deformed, unfinish'd”, and cannot “strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (those descriptions being quotes from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III.) In doing so, Shakespeare encapsulated the Tudor opinion of Richard III and that of Shakespeare’s 16th century theater audience who loved to hear stories of the defeat of the House of Plantagenet by the House of Tudor. Shakespeare based his tales of Richard III, including sinister and evil acts, along with his bloody death at the Battle of Bosworth on a mix of actual history, Holindshed’s Chronicles, and a great deal of personal creative license. One of the most enduring images Shakespeare uses of Richard III was that of a twisted spine to accompany Richard’s ugly twisted character. History scholars have long debated the source of this twisted spine. Was it scoliosis? Or maybe a hunchback? 

Without the actual body of Richard III whose shallow grave was long lost to history centuries ago, scholars have used texts, like Shakespeare, to try and find evidence for the truth about what actually happened to Richard III. For one team of archaeologists, however, it was not enough to leave the sinister Richard III lost to history with more questions than answers. So in 2012, in conjunction with the Richard III Society, a team of ambitious archaeologists led by Mathew Morris at the University of Leicester Archaeological Services working with the Leicester City Council mounted an extraordinary effort to locate the final resting place of Richard III, and discover the truth about his body, his death, and his grave. Remarkably, Mathew and his team did locate Richard III’s body, and on the very first day of their project. Mathew Morris joins us today to share about this historical find, the truth about Richard III’s twisted spine, and to explain why one of the most notorious Kings of England was doing buried beneath an English car park.

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Mathew Morris has worked for University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) since 2004, excavating a wide range of rural and urban archaeology across the Midlands, from the prehistoric period through to the Industrial Revolution. He graduated from the University of Leicester in 2003 with a BA in Archaeology and an MA in Landscape Studies; his interests include urban archaeology, community archaeology and Roman and medieval archaeology. Notable projects include the Highcross Leicester retail development, a massive multi-period urban excavation investigating the north-east quarter of the Roman and medieval town; the Western Road Roman cemetery in Leicester, work on Leicester and Oakham castles and the Leicester Greyfriars, and the first excavated section of the Lower Icknield Way at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. In 2012, he supervised the successful archaeological search for the lost grave of King Richard III. He has co-authored three popular books on Leicestershire archaeology, Visions of Ancient Leicester (2011), Richard III: The King under the Car Park (2013) and Life in the Roman World: Roman Leicester (2018).

In this episode, I’ll be asking Mathew Morris about :

  • Two references contemporary to the life of William Shakespeare, one by Christopher Wren the elder in 1612 and then John Speed in 1611 both call attention to Richard’s death, but they seem to be confusing. Wren writes that a monument was erected to Richard III that would have been potentially visible to William Shakespeare himself unless it was torn down before then with the demolition of the friary and there’s a rumor I came across that Henry VII placed a marble monument in the 15th century that could have also still been there for Shakepseare’s lifetime, but then John Speed indicates the bones of Richard III were thrown into a river, which seems to have been given at least some credibility because 19th century historians erected plaques by this river as the site of Richard’s last known remains, and even performed archaeological excavations there trying to find Richard’s bones. Mathew, based on the historical records, what did Shakespeare likely believe had happened to Richard III as he wrote the play?

  • When you found Richard III’s grave, how was his grave different from other medieval graves in this area?

  • Now that you have the skeleton, what can you tell us about Richard III’s spine–is he indeed, a sufferer or scoliosis or some other physical malformation? 

  • … and more!

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Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

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No, to White-Friars; there attend my coining.
Richard III

Richard III (I.2)

As Mathew shares this week, up through to the 19th century, most historians believed Richard III was buried in a river, having been dug up and tossed there. This theory is one that would have been tossed about by Shakespeare when he was writing his play as well. The big plaque reads:

Near this spot lie the remains of Richard III The last of the Plantagenets 1485 The little plaque reads: This plaque, originally erected by Mr. B. Broadbent in 1856 on the nearby site of the Austin Friars, records the 17th century tradition, now generally discredited, that at the dissolution of the monasteries the body of King Richard III was disinterred from his tomb at the Greyfriars in Leicester and thrown into the River Soar. Source

Shakespeare Hired Richard Field Specifically

Two references contemporary to the life of William Shakespeare, one by Christopher Wren the elder in 1612 and then John Speed in 1611 both call attention to Richard’s death, but they seem to be confusing. Wren writes that a monument was erected to Richard III that would have been potentially visible to William Shakespeare himself unless it was torn down before then with the demolition of the friary and there’s a rumor I came across that Henry VII placed a marble monument in the 15th century that could have also still been there for Shakepseare’s lifetime, but then John Speed indicates the bones of Richard III were thrown into a river, which seems to have been given at least some credibility because 19th century historians erected plaques by this river as the site of Richard’s last known remains, and even performed archaeological excavations there trying to find Richard’s bones.

Greyfriars Church details, University of Leicester Plan of the 2012 Archaeological dig, Greyfriars perimeter from Billson, C. J., 1920, Medieval Leicester, facing p. 1. Edgar Backus, Leicester. by Hel-hama on Wikimedia. Source

Based on the historical records, Mathew shares what Shakespeare likely believe had happened to Richard III as he wrote the play:

We don’t know if Shakespeare visited Leicester, but the playing company did go in 1611 (No idea if Shakespeare was with them at that point). Henry VII did erect a monument to Richard but it would have been demolished 20 years before Shakespeare was born. No drawings or anything. Just writings claiming it existed. Speed 1611, during dissolution Richard’s body dug up and thrown into the river. That’s a popular tale (Speed was popular). 73 years after these events allegedly took place, no other writers make this claim–starts to sound questionable. Christopher Wren Elder, diary entry, visiting and finds a pillar that claims to be Richard’s remains. One year after Speed made his claims. Confusion (and something of a competition). Shakespeare would have only seen it if he’d been invited there–and there’s no evidence that happened. So all he knew was that the tomb disappeared. There was no cultural cohesion around what had happened to Richard.

Excavation in July 2013 at the site of the former Grey Friars, Leicester. Source

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I to my grave, where peace and rest lie with me!
Duchess of York

Richard III (IV.1)

The grave site of Richard III, discovered in Leicester on 25 August 2012 by Chris Tweed. Source

Buried with Minimal Reverence

When they did find Richard III's grave, it was obviously very different from other ones in the cemetery of the firary. As Mathew explains
It was poorly dug. Lack of respect? Hastily? Unsure, but it was too short for the person in it. It was uneven sides, irregular shaped, uneven base, No evidence of a coffin. Contrasted with other graves within the choir of the church–all of which were very neat, orderly, and all of them had coffins. This was an obviously different one to the area.
Mathew shares that archaeology is not there to answer the why of why something occurs. Tempting as it is to explore thoughts about the context of Richard's death to conclude why he would have been buried without much care, we cannot know the mindset of the people who did it. But it is clear, and tantalizingly so, that he was intentionally buried with minimal reverence.

After Richard III was discovered and examined for historical and scientific evidence, his remains were given a proper burial fit for a King. His remains were taken through the streets on a procession, then interred at their final resting place inside Leicester Cathedral. This picture was taken by wikimedia user “Kris1973” during the procession in March of 2015. Source

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I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.
Richard III

Richard III (I.1)

Michael Ibsen, King Richard III's nephew 16 times removed. His DNA evidence helped identify the remains of Richard III. Source

Identifying Richard & his curved spine

When they did find the remains of Richard III, they had to identify scientifically who it was they had unearthed. Circumstantial evidence lead them to feel confident they had, indeed, discovered the lost King, but they wanted to really be sure. For that certainty, they turned to DNA evidence. They tracked down Richard III's 16th removed nephew and were able to compare the DNA to confirm they had a familial match. Once they identified it was in fact Richard III, they asked the next logical question which was analyzing the truth about Richard's legendary curved spine. Mathew explains,
John Ross (Spelling) right higher and left lower description of Richard III. Shakespeare exaggerated his condition, but he did have a curved spine. Shakespeare got wrong: not from birth. Manifested in his teens. Withered arm and the limp are probably made up (uneven legs H6). No evidence whatsoever in arm lengths or withered arm, etc. No sustained limp.

Similar episode you might enjoy:

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!
Richard III

Richard III (V.4)

King Richard III at Bosworth Field. This engraving was published in: Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) “Richard III” in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, pp. p. 453. Source

Richard's Cause of Death

Shakespeare has Richard III cry “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Act V Scene 4 of Richard III, because in the play, Richard falls from his horse, and then is murdered on the battlefield as a result of not being able to get a new horse. Historians now say that this line from Shakespeare misses the mark on a technicality, and that the real history is that the King did fall off his horse, but was in fact offered another horse. After declining the replacement, he was killed as a result of being on foot instead of on a horse. Regardless of the historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s immortalizing lines in the play, Mathew analyzed the real skeleton of Richard III to determine how close Shakespeare's rendition came to the actual cause of death for Richard III.
Shakespeare is pretty close on this one. There were contemporary accounts of the battle, but not a lot of detail. Shakespeare’s portrayal consistent with his sources available. Cavalry charge came close (Richard killed the standard bearer). Richard became trapped (for unknown reason) had to fight on foot, injured on the skeleton consistent with that. 11 sharp point injuries. 9 to the skull. No defensive injuries. Suggests they are wearing armor. Richard was killed probably because he wasn’t wearing his helmet. 

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Immediately access the entire video library of That Shakespeare Life, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, activities, and more! 

Books & Resources Mathew Morris Recommends

The official University of Leicester project website is https://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/

Our partner's, the Richard III Society, website is http://www.richardiii.net/

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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