The Real Richard III

3-D reconstruction and linguistic research reveal English king’s face, voice

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled on Tuesday.


It's a question that actors from Laurence Olivier to Kevin Spacey have grappled with: What did Richard III, the villainous protagonist of Shakespeare's famous historical drama, really look and sound like?

In the wake of this week's announcement by the University of Leicester that archaeologists have discovered the 15th-century British king's lost skeleton beneath a parking lot, news continues to unfold that helps flesh out the real Richard III.

The Richard III Society unveiled a 3-D reconstruction today of the late king's head and shoulders, based on computer analysis of his skull combined with an artist's interpretation of details from historical portraits. (Related: "Shakespeare's Coined Words Now Common Currency.")

"We received the skull data before DNA analysis confirmed that the remains were Richard III, and we treated it like a forensic case," said Caroline Wilkinson, the University of Dundee facial anthropologist who led the reconstruction project. "We were very pleasantly surprised by the results."

Though Shakespeare describes the king as an "elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog," the reconstructed Richard has a pleasant, almost feminine face, with youthful skin and thoughtful eyes. His right shoulder is slightly higher than the left, a consequence of scoliosis, but the difference is barely visible, said Wilkinson.

"I think the whole Shakespearean view of him as being sort of monster-like was based more on his personality than his physical features," she reflected.

People are naturally fascinated by faces, especially of historical figures, said Wilkinson, who has also worked on reconstructions of J.S. Bach, the real Saint Nicholas, the poet Robert Burns, and Cleopatra's sister.

"We make judgments about people all the time from looking at their appearance," she said. "In Richard's case, up to now his image has been quite negative. This offers a new context for considering him from the point of view of his anatomical structure rather than his actions. He had quite an interesting face."

A Voice From the Past

Most people's impression of Richard's personality comes from Shakespeare's play, in which the maligned ruler utters such memorable lines as "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York," and "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

But how would the real Richard III have expressed himself? Did he have an accent? Was there any sense of personality or passion in his choice of words?

To find out more about the mysterious monarch, Philip Shaw, a historical linguist at University of Leicester's School of English, analyzed the only two known examples of Richard III's own writing. Both are postscripts on letters otherwise composed by secretaries—one in 1469, before Richard became king, and one from 1483, the first year of his brief reign.

Shaw identified a quirk of spelling that suggests that Richard may have spent time in the West Midlands, or perhaps had a tutor who hailed from there.

"I was looking to compare the way he spells things with the way his secretaries spell things, working on the assumption that he would have been schooled to a fairly high level," Shaw explained.

In the 1469 letter, Richard spells the word "will" as "wule," a variation associated with the West Midlands. But Shaw also notes that by 1483, when Richard wrote the second letter's postscript, he had changed his spelling to the more standard "wyll" (the letters 'i' and 'y' were largely interchangeable during that period of Middle English).

"That could suggest something about him brushing up over the years, or moving toward what would have been the educated standard," Shaw said, noting that the handwriting in the second example also appears a bit more polished. "One wonders what sort of practice and teaching he'd had in the interim."

Although it's hard to infer tone of voice from written letters, there is certainly emotion in the words penned by Richard III.

In the 1469 letter, the 17-year-old seeks a loan of 100 pounds from the king's undertreasurer. Although the request is clearly stated in the body of the letter, Richard adds an urgent P.S.: "I pray you that you fail me not now at this time in my great need, as you will that I show you my good lordship in that matter that you labour to me for."

That could either be a veiled threat (If you don't lend me the money, I won't do that thing you asked me to do) or friendly cajoling (Come on, I'm helping you out with something, so help me out with this loan).

"His decision to take the pen himself shows you how important that personal touch must have been in getting people to do something," Shaw said.

The second letter, written to King Richard's chancellor in 1483, also conveys a sense of urgency. He had just learned that the Duke of Buckingham—once a close ally—was leading a rebellion against him.

"He's asking for his Great Seal to be sent to him so that he can use it to give out orders to suppress the rebellion," Shaw said. "He calls the Duke 'the most untrue creature living.' You get a sense of how personally let down and betrayed he feels."

Shaw said he hopes his analysis—in combination with the new facial reconstruction—will help humanize Richard III.

"He probably wasn't quite the villain that Shakespeare portrays, though I suspect he was quite ruthless," he said. "But you probably couldn't afford to be a very nice man if you wanted to survive as a king in those days."