… but knows some touch of pity

la.[Anne] Villanne, thou knowst no law of God nor man:
no beast so fierce, but knowst some touche of pittie.
Glo.[Richard] But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

Richard’s attempt at a self-defence against Anne’s insult is at the same time a backhanded condemnation of human nature which, unique amongst all beasts, is capable of a total lack of pity. Richard also shows a heroic lack of tact since this whole exchange happens in the midst of Anne’s solemn procession with dead husband in train. Richard’s sweeping self-incrimination is all part of his strategy to woo Anne, newly widowed by his own plans. This is the genius of The Bard, in building such a monstrosity, in a few lines.

Now that recent archaeological revelations allow us to see the real Richard III, in bones if not in flesh, it’s still likely that Shakespeare’s version will remain the popular one. While I can’t muster the sort of enthusiasm this story gets from the History Blog, I confess some morbid fascination all the same. I did not have the energy to articulate that interest in the previous post (which was cleverly titled to fit with this one, something lost in the page design). If I can’t display the same enthusiasum, I can at least nurture some frustration.

The recent press-releases that detail (but not the sort of detail you can work with) the trauma preserved in Richards sepia bones, made them visible to many times more viewers than ever could have seen them when they were first put on display, still clad with royal flesh, at the house of the Franciscans in Leicester, 22-24th August, 1485.2 I can’t help but cringe at the description of “humiliation injuries” identified by the investigators, although my discomfort comes from other places than simple historical empathy.3

This bothers me because these injuries “well known from the historical and forensic literature”, as deliberate acts of vandalism, are identified as such on less solid ground than the writers like to think. What little proof there is that some of these injuries were superfluous—surpluss to mortal needs—(a penetrating injury through the right buttock, passing to the interior of the pelvis, and a penetrating wound to the ribcage), are identified as such because of their location. The argument foes that they could only have happened “after the armour had been removed.” Apparently, one can claim with confidance, that royal armour was capable of complete and total protection, in all circumstances, even in the most ‘intimate’ of areas that are not only attractive, and ligitimate targets.

I am surprised at how easily investigators impute intent behind wounds. Combat was, and remains, a fantastically complex and confusing event, and to make these sort of judgements based on only skeletal marks of trauma, fails to account for a half dozen other, equally plausible, scenarios that could produce what we see. None of those alternatives would depend on a deliberate intent, outside of the basic one: hit him where you can.

While we have far more context for understanding Richard’s injuries than we normally would with any other skeleton from the distant past (we know when and where he was killed, that he was killed in combat, and that his status would make it very likely that he was armed and armoured in the best style of the time) we know nothing else about the actual circumstances of his death, beyond the vague descriptions from the chroniclers. Descriptions that could apply to most combatants killed at Bosworth. These wounds neither confirm, nor refute, even the least reliable source because they are neither peculiar enough or contingent enough, to tell you anything more than what you already knew, or suspected.

We don’t know how many blows struck him that did not leave marks on bone. We don’t know the order for most of the blows that did leave marks. We don’t know how well his armour fit him, how well it moved, how good it was. He don’t know how, or when, or why he lost his helmet and we certainly can’t assume that it means anything other than what it meant: he could (and was) hit in the head, because the helmet wasn’t in the way. We don’t know the slightest thing about the circumstances other than the most basic and abstract contexts of a 15th century battlefield.

The wounds to his face (right cheek, chin) may have come through an open visor, and would have had nothing to do with an emotional motivation to deface this tyrant. The penetrating wound to the buttock does not necessitate stripping his armour, it only means there was no armour (or little armour) in the way of that blow. That part of the body is always difficult to cover and we still don’t know what Richard was or was not wearing at the time. We know that the point which struck bone was narrow, and sharp, but that says rather less about the weapon involved than the reports suggest. Any narrow, sharp point (be it the end of a dagger, pike, sword) are equally possible sources. Perhaps Richard was struck in the buttocks while ‘standing’ in his saddle, maybe he was unhorsed by a lance point into the hip. Maybe he was struck that way when he fell. And yes, maybe someone took a jab at his stripped corpse. Each potential scenario is as likely as the last and there are dozens more that can account for each injury, and none of them depend on the target being Richard III, that beast who knew no pity. Besides, armour was never complete proof against weapons and plate armour could, and was, penetrated by determined attackers with the right weapons. That wound to the ribs does not automatically prove there was not armour in the way, and I still don’t know what rib, and where. Only the blows to the head demand a lack of armour.

But this does not mean Richard was ‘stripped’ and then killed. Close combat involved a great deal of grappling, confused fighting, and lots of fighters all trying to kill each-other in whatever way they could. That confusion multiplies the possible scenarios where Richard loses his helmet and gets struck in the head. He could, in a very short space of time (seconds, really), have all those wounds land on his unprotected head without the slightest nod at ‘humiliation injuries.’

Weapons leave a record of their actions on bone but they have a fantastically limited vocabulary when they do it. We are, however, prone to reading too much between the lines with this sort of history. We feel a need to identify intent behind what we see, but the weapons themselves are very poor at communicating intent in this way. The sword can’t tell you what the swordsman is thinking when it leaves its mark on bone.

I can’t be too hard on the investigators over this. You will be hard pressed to find a paper that treats skeletal trauma without some of this subjective reading slipping in. Often we see what we think we should see, out of dozens of other possibilities. Anglo Saxon warfare was as brutal and unforgiving as it can get and when investigators of a mass grave associated with the 7th century battle of Chester found a skull with a but of bone shaved off the temporal bone, just above the ear canal, they called it post-mortem mutilation. Trophy taking of ears.4

Forget for the moment that there is no textual evidence for this practice in Anglo Saxon England, but consider instead how likely it is that in a crowd of sword and axe swinging people, aiming at each-other’s heads, someone could get an ear shaved off in all the confusion.

I don’t deny that cruelties were committed to the living and dead in medieval warfare and that Richard may have suffered similar treatment but this evidence is far from conclusive and in this case, investigators have chosen one interpretation over many others because it fits the mental picture, not because it is more likely to account for the evidence.

*Revised for some nasty grammar now that I have had time to re-read this monstrosity.
**Revised further, 27 April, because I’m apparently partly blind, and missed several more nasty things.


1 I quote here from the quarto edition of The Trajedie of King Richard the Third printed by Thomas Creede, 1612 (STC, 2nd ed. 22318), sig B1 recto. The exchange occurs in Act 1, Scene 2. It is Richard’s enigmatic and far more damning defence of Anne’s accusations that created my secret crush on Shakespeare, the savant of human frailty.

2 The most concise, and probably still accurate, summary of Richard’s life and messy death, is Charles Ross, Richard III, new ed. (New Haven, CT.: Yale, 1999). Ross describes the progress of the corpse at 225-6.

3 This and later quotes are from the University of Leicester press office release “Evidence from bone analysis.” [Edit: 3/12/15 to which one can now add the more detailed case report of Appleby, J. et al. Perimortem trauma in King Richard III: a skeletal analysis. Lancet vol. 385 (2014)]

4 The find was made in 2005, during a general survey of Roman sites in the area and because it wasn’t what they were looking for, the investigation was fairly short. The found an orderly mass-grave of about 120 individuals but only removed 2 for detailed study. The claim that there was post-mortem mutilation was made by David Mason in an article for Current Archaeology which I can’t cite because I don’t have it with me. The osteology report is available, if you dig for it: Malin Holst, Osteological Analysis: Heronbridge Chester Cheshire, (York Osteoarchaeology: York, 2004).


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