Richard III skeleton reveals his prodigious alcohol consumption and rich diet

By Richard Moss | 17 August 2014

The skeleton of Richard III continues to offer up the secrets of the former king, this time his prodigious alcohol intake comes under the spotlight


a photo of a man in armour next to an armoured horse
Dominic Smee helps scientists to see how Richard's scoliosis would have affected his ability to take part in combat© Steve Ryan / Channel 4 Televison
First it was an infestation of roundworms now it's the turn of alcohol and food as scientists use the latest techniques to examine Richard III's skeleton to reveal the diet of the last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III.

The recent study of the king’s bone chemistry by the British Geological Survey, in association with researchers at the University of Leicester, has revealed that there was a 25 per cent increase in Richard’s consumption of wine when he became king – equivalent to an extra bottle of wine per day, every day.

This was in addition to the large quantities of beer most medieval men consumed during that time, giving Richard an overall alcohol consumption of two to three litres per day.

His diet as King also changed: during the last three years of his life, Richard started banqueting regally - consuming an array of incredibly high status and rich food, composed of exotic meats and freshwater fish and likely to include birds such as swan, crane, heron and egret.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, also pinpoints geographical changes in his early childhood via an examination of the changes in chemistry found in the teeth, the femur and the rib; all of which develop and rebuild at different stages of life.

Isotope measurements that relate to geographical location, pollution and diet (strontium, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and lead) on the king’s teeth reveal that he moved from Fotheringay castle in eastern England by the time he was seven.

The data also suggest that during this time he was in an area of higher rainfall, older rocks and with a changed diet relative to his place of birth in Northamptonshire.

By examining the femur, which represents an average of the 15 years before death, researchers show that Richard moved back to eastern England as an adolescent or young adult, and had a diet that matched the highest aristocracy.

But it is the analysis of the rib, which renews itself relatively quickly and represents life between two and five years before death, that revealed the most dramatic results.

By contrasting the differing chemistry between the femur and the rib, researchers have pinpointed a dramatic shift in diet that coincided directly with Richard’s time as King of England.

This could be down to a geographical shift, but the historical record shows no such change of location, leaving  an increased consumption of rich foods and alcohol.

“Richard’s diet when he was King was far richer than that of other equivalent high status individuals in the late medieval period,” says Isotope Geochemist and lead author of the paper Dr Angela Lamb.

“We know he was banqueting a lot more, there was a lot of wine indicated at those banquets and tying all that together with the bone chemistry it looks like this feasting had quite an impact on his body in the last few years of his life.”

The discoveries are featured in a new Channel 4 documentary about the king, which follows research aided by a British man who has precisely the same form of scoliosis as Richard III.

Twenty-seven year-old Dominic Smee, whose spine, with its 75 degree curve is deemed ‘virtually identical’ by the experts to Richard III’s, worked together with a team of historians and scientists to find out to what extent Richard’s scoliosis would have affected his ability as a warrior.

Using full body armour and a series of exercise with medieval weapons the study concludes that Richard III would have had no problem wielding medieval longswords, lances, halberds and axes and riding into battle in full armour.

Richard III: The New Evidence, airs on Channel 4 on Sunday August 17 at 9pm.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on the Richard III skeleton:

Experts see Richard III's battle injuries as infirmary remains help create new skeleton

Leicester Cathedral reveals "distinctive" Richard III tomb "imbued with spirituality"

Richard III to be buried in Leicester, High Court rules

Richard III DNA tests to reveal hair, eyes and diseases of the King

Archaeologists send head of Richard III to Northampton Museum

Richard III body infected with roundworms, say University of Leicester archaeologists

Gray Friars skeleton is last Plantagenet king, say Leicester team on trail of Richard III


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