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The Richard III Society

Promoting research into the life and times of Richard III since 1924

Patron: HRH The Duke of Gloucester KG GCVO

Richard III


His life & death

His family

His leadership

His appearance

The controversies

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His Appearance

by Carolyn Hammond


SoA Portrait
Modern copy of Society of Antiquaries portrait
Many people's image of Richard III is influenced by Shakespeare's portrait of the 'poisonous bunch-backed toad', a limping hunch-back with a withered arm. Shakespeare's sources were the Tudor chroniclers, hostile to Richard. Perhaps Shakespeare also wanted to reflect the medieval idea that an evil mind must dwell in a twisted body. But if we examine what the people who actually saw Richard said, or look at his portraits, then a rather different picture emerges. The earlier portraits, such as that belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, which although not painted in his lifetime are based on originals that could have been done from life, show no sign of deformity. Later portraits, further from the lost originals, and painted to fit in with the established myth, show uneven shoulders and a villainous countenance. The raised shoulder of the Windsor portrait can be shown under X-ray to be a later addition to a painting with a normal shoulder line. The only totally unbiased commentator is von Popplau, who mentions no deformity; the Crowland Chronicler, Mancini and de Commynes, none of them particularly pro-Richard witnesses, also make no mention of any deformity, although they must all have either met Richard themselves, or, in the case of Mancini, spoken to those who had.

Those writing under the early Tudors mention the unevenness of Richard's shoulders, but since they cannot agree on which was higher, this cannot have been very pronounced. Even the hostile witnesses agree on Richard's bravery and prowess in battle, so any disablement must have been slight enough not to affect his use of weapons or control of his horse. As Sir Winston Churchill said in his History of the English Speaking Peoples: 'No-one in his (Richard's) life time seems to have remarked these deformities, but they are now very familiar to us through Shakespeare's play'.


One of the most important outcomes from the Greyfriars dig and the identification of the remains of King Richard III was the confirmation that he had adolescent on-set scoliosis. This is a condition which usually develops between the ages of 10 to 18 and for which there is no known cause: it results in the spinal column bending to the side which can result in one shoulder being slightly higher than the other, in the case of Richard III's skeleton; the right shoulder.

The evidence clearly shows the king did not have kyphosis, which can result in a hunchback, contrary to the historical myths about his physical appearance. Kyphosis is a forward bend of the spinal column when the head is pushed forward and down onto the chest. The legend of Richard's hunchback began in the early days of the new Tudor dynasty when it was expedient to denigrate the reputation of the dead king. Care should always be taken when using the word 'hunchback' in the context of either kypothis or scoliosis; its use can be deemed insensitive to those living with these conditions.

Although many people have not heard of scoliosis it is surprisingly common; in the UK between three and four in every 1,000 children need treatment for the condition. Nowadays it can be corrected by surgery, although those with the condition still face challenges in their lives. The Scoliosis Association in the UK (SAUK) notes that many are inspired by older siblings to overcome such challenges so Richard III may well have been similarly inspired by his elder brother, King Edward IV. As duke of Gloucester and as king, Richard led an active life as an effective administrator and military commander. He rode horses in full body armour and wielded a sword in battle, demonstrating that scoliosis doesn't necessarily limit physical capability. Today, for example, the eight-time Olympic gold medallist sprinter Usain Bolt has scoliosis of the lower back.

There is no contemporary evidence that Richard III suffered from any visible physical problems. The only surviving description of the king is provided by a Silesian visitor, Nicolas van Poppelau, who spent time at Richard's court in 1484 and described the king as lean, with delicate arms and legs and that he was 'three fingers taller' than Poppelau himself.

While Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III is famous for equating physical ‘deformity’ with moral depravity, recent scholarly studies have emphasised the fact that there were many different responses to such physical conditions in the Middle Ages. They were by no means universally assumed to be a sign of wickedness or incompetence. A useful introduction can be found at this website:

Is scoliosis considered a disability? By any definition of disability the answer is almost always no, unless it limits your ability to get around and perform daily tasks. The word ‘disability’ is sometimes used in articles discussing scoliosis, however, it is important to emphasise that in the vast majority of cases the condition does not result in any obvious disability.

Further information

Following the discovery of King Richard’s remains in 2012 there have been a number of articles in the Ricardian Bulletin that explore aspects of scoliosis:

  1. For a general introduction to scoliosis with examples of people with the condition, together with details about the Scoliosis Association see the article 'The Nature of scoliosis' in the June 2013 Bulletin.
  2. For examples of potential treatments for the condition in Richard’s lifetime see 'Medieval treatments for scoliosis' in the September 2013 Bulletin.
  3. For a detailed discussion about the king’s scoliosis see 'The scoliosis of King Richard III' in the March 2014 Bulletin.
  4. For an account of the experience of Dominic Smee, whose scoliosis is similar to Richard III’s, see 'Richard II: the new evidence – Dominic’s story' in the December 2014 Bulletin.

Useful information about scoliosis can also be found here: and

For a more detailed analysis of the king’s scoliosis The Lancet published a paper ‘The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance.’ This can be accessed here:

Quotations about Richard's Appearance

From a metrical account of the family of Richard, Duke of York, written between 1455 and 1460 and quoted in James Gairdner's History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third, 1898, p. 5:

'John aftir William nexte borne was
Whiche bothe be passid to Godis grace.
George was nexte, and aftir Thomas
Borne was, which sone aftir did pace
By the path of dethe to the hevenly place.
Richard liveth yit; but the last of alle
Was Ursula, to Hym whom God list calle.'

This has been taken to mean that Richard was a sickly child, but it is just saying that of the Duchess's last six children only George and Richard were still living.

Niclas von Popplau

An itinerant knight of great strength from Silesia, who visited England in 1484 and was entertained by Richard:

'King Richard is … a high-born prince, three fingers taller than I, but a bit slimmer and not as thickset as I am, and much more lightly built; he has quite slender arms and thighs, and also a great heart'

[from his travel diary, translated by Dr Livia Visser-Fuchs from 'Reisebeschreibung Niclas von Popplau, Ritter, Burtig von Breslau', edited by Piotr Radzikowski, 1998, and printed in The Ricardian June 1999, p. 529]

Archibald Whitelaw

Archdeacon of Lothian, who came to Richard's court with an embassy from James III of Scotland in 1484:

'Never has so much spirit or greater virtue reigned in such a small body'

[from his Latin speech of welcome quoted in George Buck's The History of King Richard the Third, ed. A.N. Kincaid, 1979, p. 206]

John Rous (c.1411-1491)

An antiquary and chantry priest at Warwick, who probably saw Richard during his visits to Warwick:

'Richard was 'retained within his mother's womb for two years and emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders. He was small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower'

[from: Historia Regum Angliae, written towards the end of Rous' life, i.e. after 1485; translated in Alison Hanham's Richard III and his early Historians 1483-1535, 1975, pp. 120, 121]


During a drunken brawl in York in 1491 one protagonist criticised the Earl of Northumberland for betraying King Richard, whereupon the other retorted that:

'King Richard was an ypocryte and a crochebake and beried in a dike like a dogge'

[case reported in Robert Davies' Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York, 1843, p. 221]

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Spent some time as a page in the household of Cardinal Morton; he could have talked to those who knew Richard; his History was written about 1513, although not first published until 1557:

'He was little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage … he came into the worlde with the feete forwarde … and also not untothed.'

[from Thomas More's History of King Richard III, ed. R.S. Sylvester, Yale 1963, p. 7]

Polydore Vergil (1470-1555)

An Italian cleric and scholar, commissioned by Henry VII to write an official history of England, which was first published in 1534:

'He was lyttle of stature, deformyd of body, thone showlder being higher than thother, a short and sowre cowntenance, which semyd to savor of mischief and utter evydently craft and deceyt'

[from Three Books of Polydore Vergil's English History, ed. Sir Henry Ellis, Camden Society, 1844, pp. 226-7]

John Stow (1525-1605)

The London antiquary, who had talked to those who had seen Richard:

'He was of bodily shape comely enough only of low stature'

Catherine Countess of Desmond (died 1604)

In his Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III, 1768, p. 102, Horace Walpole says that:

'the old Countess of Desmond who had danced with Richard declared that he was the handsomest man in the room except his brother Edward, and was very well made'

This story is impossible to verify—the Countess certainly died in 1604, but was she born early enough to have known Richard? However an hypothesis by John Ashdown-Hill who has researched the subject is that the Countess's husband, who was considerably older than herself, having been born in 1454, could have seen Richard III and described his appearance to his wife. An article on the Countess of Desmond by Kitty Bristow was published in the Autumn 2004 issue of the Ricardian Bulletin.

A skeleton discovered by archaeologists excavating the site at Greyfriars, Leicester has now been confirmed to be that of Richard III. The skeleton exhibits signs of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that can cause one shoulder to appear slightly higher than the other, in this case the right shoulder. So there is a germ of truth behind the Tudor descriptions, but there is no evidence for the hunchback, the withered arm and the limp—they are merely inventions of those trying to blacken Richard's image.

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Earliest Portraiture of Richard III

by Frederick Hepburn

The unveiling of Richard III's facial reconstruction in February 2013 has changed forever our perceptions of the king's appearance. Until then, we had been dependent on the surviving portraits of the king to visualise how he might have appeared. Frederick Hepburn FSA, examines the earliest portraits in the light of the facial reconstruction.

Anyone approaching the subject of Richard III's portraiture for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that he was inordinately vain. At least two dozen painted portraits of him are known to have survived to the present day, and the number is still being added to as further examples appear from time to time in the salerooms. But this initial impression is deceptive. By far the majority of these paintings date from over a century after Richard's death and owe their existence to a fashion in the decoration of great houses in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. During the years between about 1590 and about 1620 many owners of such houses decided to enliven the blank walls of their Long Gallery – and at the same time demonstrate their allegiance to the monarchy – by commissioning a set of portraits of kings and queens. Some of these series stretched back as far as William the Conqueror, using completely fictitious images for the kings earlier than Edward III (reigned 1327-77). For most of the monarchs from Edward III onwards authentic likenesses, in the form of either tomb effigies or paintings, were available to be copied. When it came to Richard III, the painters evidently went to the most authoritative source, a portrait in the Royal Collection. A tracing would have been made, and this, no doubt along with further tracings copied from the first one, served as the basis for Richard's image. With greater or lesser degrees of care and artistic licence, the image was then reproduced in various London painters' workshops.

Royal Collection

Amazingly enough, the painting in the Royal Collection which ultimately lies behind all of these commercially-produced copies still exists. It is not contemporary with Richard, but seems to have been painted sometime during the years around 1515-20. (This time-frame has been proposed on the basis of dendrochronology, the science which enables oak panels to be dated from the sequence of growth rings visible at their edges.) It does, however, almost certainly, reflect the appearance of a lost portrait that would have been painted during Richard's reign, most probably soon after its beginning in June 1483. The image shows the king dressed in a gown made of costly black velvet and lined and trimmed with spotted lynx fur. Round his neck is a large and elaborately worked gold collar studded with diamonds, rubies and pearls, an object of astonishing opulence which would have been designed, quite deliberately, to evoke wonder in all who saw it. This is complemented by another rich jewel on his hat, a brooch which, being in the form of a Greek cross, would in addition have been intended as a sign of the king's personal faith in Christ crucified.

Richard's face, however, seems oddly inconsistent within this otherwise extremely positive image emphasizing wealth and piety. The eyes are narrowed into what looks like a malevolent glare, the mouth thin-lipped and the jaw grimly clenched. There is an explanation for this. X-ray examination of the Royal Collection portrait has shown that the facial features were altered, probably quite soon after the painting was initially finished and possibly by the same artist. What appears to have happened, therefore, is that the artist began by making an accurate copy of the lost original portrait, and was then asked, presumably by someone in authority over him, to make some changes to it. The changes evidently also involved making the king's right shoulder a little higher than it had been before: with the passing of time the additional paintwork on the gown has become fainter, so that the initial line of the shoulder is now in fact clearly visible to the naked eye. Why were these alterations made? In all probability the lowly artist, and perhaps also the official who supervised him, believed that the changes would improve the portrait by making it look more like the real Richard. Richard's right shoulder had, after all, been higher than his left. (The antiquary John Rous had said that this was so - and now of course we have the evidence from Richard's bones indicating that Rous is very likely to have been right.) No doubt the painter of the original portrait would have been required to gloss over the unevenness, but by the 1510s it could be shown. So too could Richard's supposedly villainous character: surely (the copyist's supervisor might have reasoned) this must have been evident in his face. Interestingly, at just about the same time the historian Polydore Vergil was given to understand this very same thing about Richard: 'his features seemed to savour of evil while declaring openly his guile and deceit'. Polydore's description of Richard chimes uncannily with the Royal Collection portrait in its altered state. It would be fascinating to know what the Royal Collection portrait looked like before it was altered, and it is to be hoped that infrared reflectography will one day reveal something of this.

Society of Antiquaries of London

Meanwhile, there is another way by which an answer to this question can be suggested. In the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London there exists another early portrait of Richard. This has in fact been dated (again by dendrochronology) to the same decade as the Royal Collection portrait, and like the latter it almost certainly reflects a lost contemporary original. It was cleaned and conserved in 2007, and a comparison of its appearance before and after cleaning is very instructive.

King Richard III. Portrait before restoration.
King Richard III. Portrait before restoration
Reproduced by kind permission of
the Society of Antiquaries
King Richard III. Portrait after restoration
King Richard III. Portrait after restoration
Reproduced by kind permission of
the Society of Antiquaries
Looking carefully at the two images, it is possible to see a distinct difference in the appearance of the mouth. What evidently happened is that, at some unknown point in time after the painting was initially finished, the central horizontal line of the mouth was moved to a slightly higher position in order to make the jaw look more tightly set. Presumably this was done with the aim of bringing the likeness more into line with other portraits of the king: through the many copies that were based on the Royal Collection portrait, the look of thin-lipped unscrupulousness clearly became accepted as a facial characteristic which was standard in Richard's portraiture. But now that the alteration has been cleaned away, a different kind of mouth has come to light. Its expression is undoubtedly stern, perhaps even severe, and in this respect it goes together with the eyes; although they are not narrowed, they do have a focused intensity about them.

King Edward IV. Portrait before cleaning.
King Edward IV. Portrait before cleaning.
Reproduced by kind permission of
the Society of Antiquaries
If the Antiquaries portrait in its newly cleaned condition allows us to see Richard's face as it was originally intended to look, how is the king's expression to be interpreted? The answer may very well lie in the strong contrast which is observable between Richard's expression and that of his elder brother and predecessor, Edward IV, as it appears in a companion portrait. It has been shown that this latter portrait, also belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, is painted on a panel cut from the same tree as the portrait of Richard, and in all likelihood they were painted together as copies of a lost original pair. The two kings are, to be sure, very similarly dressed, Richard being shown this time in a patterned cloth-of-gold gown that closely resembles his brother's. In fact the two images share the same colour scheme altogether - a striking combination of gold, black and magenta against a blue background. But although they are positioned like mirror-images of each other, the two faces have very different expressions. While Edward appears bland and complacent, Richard's much thinner features are alert and determined. This combination of similarity and contrast seems to parallel the situation at the time of Richard's accession: on the one hand he needed to gain acceptance as Edward's rightful successor, but on the other he was extremely critical of his brother's regime. There is no space here to quote at length from the document entitled Titulus regius in which Richard's claim to the throne was set out. Suffice it to say that it includes a scathing retrospective attack on Edward's government, describing those who ruled the land as 'delighting in adulation and flattery and led by sensuality and concupiscence'. At the same time Richard, the 'true inheritor', is praised as a model of all the kingly virtues. The implied pledge that he would eradicate the corruption that had prevailed at his brother's court was therefore a crucial aspect of Richard's public persona: whether justifiably or not, he presented himself as a king who would restore the state to its proper order.

It will be clear from looking at the Royal Collection and Antiquaries portraits of Richard that they are essentially the same image reversed. Both are reflections of a single portrait image, of which the 'original' would have been a drawing which could traced facing either left or right, as the circumstances required, to form the basis of paintings in which the costume could also be varied. In the Antiquaries pair, Richard faces left because convention required that his elder brother should occupy the more important position on the heraldic dexter side. In the Royal Collection portrait he faces right, perhaps because there was once a companion portrait of his queen, Anne Neville.

The discovery of Richard's remains in 2012 has made it possible to add a further fascinating point about these portraits. On examining the skull, Caroline Wilkinson (Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee) found a surprisingly close correspondence between its contours and those of Richard's face as shown in the Antiquaries portrait and, even more strikingly, in the well known portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. (See the Ricardian Bulletin, September 2013, Figure 8, showing images of the skull superimposed on both portraits.) The NPG portrait is in fact one of the late-sixteenth-century paintings that were mentioned earlier as having been based on tracings from the Royal Collection portrait. In this connection it is interesting to note some research carried out by Catherine Daunt and Sally Marriott at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010: among other things this showed, through modern tracings, that the outlines of the NPG image are virtually identical with those of the Royal Collection portrait. Hence the skull has provided some unexpected confirmation of the accuracy of the earliest portraits in terms of the contours of the face and the placing of the features.

Finally, the facial reconstruction which Caroline Wilkinson has been able to make on the basis of the skull is also of great value here. As a scientific object it shows the structure of Richard's features, and this again tends to confirm the accuracy of the portraits. There is nevertheless a certain danger in viewing the reconstructed head itself as a portrait. As Toni Mount has remarked in a very salutary letter ('Let's keep our perspective', Ricardian Bulletin, June 2013, p. 69), the musculature, percentage of fatty tissue, skin texture and elasticity of the face are all based on those of an 'average' male of 30+ years of age; Richard's face may therefore have been different in any or all of these respects. Nor does the skull tell us anything about Richard's habitual facial expressions. It has been noticed how well the reconstructed head 'morphs' into the NPG portrait image – but the face in this particular painting was, for reasons that are now unknowable, made to look unusually sympathetic compared with almost all of the other derivatives from the Royal Collection portrait. The importance of the Antiquaries painting in its cleaned condition therefore remains paramount: reflecting an image which resulted, no doubt, from a process of collaboration between the king himself and his chosen painter, it brings us as close as we can get to seeing Richard as he wished to look, in the eyes both of his contemporaries and of posterity.

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