King took care to control public image before body put on show after Battle of Bosworth
Richard III would have kept his physique – not least the scoliosis revealed by forensic examinations of his skeleton – a secret from the public as part of his “propaganda of power”, according to researchers who say the king could have used careful tailoring to hide the shape of his body.
A month after Richard’s remains were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral, Dr Mary Ann Lund, of the School of English at the University of Leicester, has reflected on the notoriety the ruler’s body received during the Tudor period, when his physical appearance was frequently used to cast aspersions on his character.
In later depictions, following the disrobing and exhibition of Richard III’s body following the Battle of Bosworth, he was falsely portrayed with a withered arm and unequal limbs.
“Stage history has reincarnated Richard as monster, villain and clown, but recent events have helped us to re-evaluate these physically defined depictions and strip back the cultural accretions that have surrounded his body,” says Dr Lund.
“The care he in all probability received for his scoliosis from his surgically-trained physician was large in scale: traction and manual manipulation needed specially designed equipment, space and assistants.
“Yet it may have been only a relatively small group of people in Richard's trusted circle who knew of his condition.
“The absence of contemporary testimony does not prove this, however.
“What is certain is that, after his death, the exposure of Richard's body went beyond the two days of its exhibition in Leicester.
“That moment after Bosworth inaugurated a longer and more brutalising process, in which an ever-more twisted physique was revealed to the public eye, his own body becoming deployed as a major tactic in the rhetorical strategy against him.
“When Shakespeare's Richard boasts of his shape-changing potential, he registers too the bending course of history and myth making.”
William Shakespeare escalated the mythology. In Henry VI, Part 3, Richard III has “an envious mountain on my back / Where sits deformity to mock my body”. In Richard III, Queen Elizabeth derides the monarch as “that foul bunch-backed toad”.
“It is highly likely that Richard took care to control his public image,” points out Dr Lund.
“The body of the king was part of the propaganda of power, and even when it was revealed in order to be anointed as part of his coronation ceremony it was simultaneously concealed from the congregation.
“Tailoring probably kept the signs of his scoliosis hidden to spectators outside the royal household of attendants, servants and medical staff who dressed, bathed and tended to the monarch's body.”
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