Seven years ago today, the world held its breath as a press conference got underway in Leicester, a smallish city in the English Midlands.
Well, I held my breath anyway, and from the reaction at the end, it appeared that plenty of other people had too.
For several months, since two previous press conferences in the city in August and September 2012 – the first to announce an archaeological dig, the second to proclaim that a grave had been found on that dig – I’d been waiting for what I rationally knew would be announced. Because everything pointed to the same conclusion, even if some of us (well, me anyway) preferred to wait for the science of DNA analysis to confirm it.
And that conclusion was, of course, that the grave of King Richard III had been found – ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Philippa Langley at that famous press conference
The press conference erupted into applause, #RichardIII began to trend on Twitter, and some of those watching had a tear or two in their eyes because we had long thought that perhaps the King would never be found. Not so Philippa Langley, John Ashdown-Hill and their colleagues in the Looking for Richard team of course, who were pretty sure they knew where to search and had spent several years persuading others to actually do that searching, while also tracking down the last female-line descendant of Richard’s mother to ensure that, when he was found, there would be DNA to test to prove it was him – beyond reasonable doubt.
The Looking for Richard Project team: left to right: Dr David Johnson, Wendy Johnson, Philipa Langley and Dr John Ashdow-Hill (Photo (c) copyright Philippa Langley)
Well, all that hard work paid off royally (if you’ll excuse the pun). And not only was there now a full DNA profile and a facial reconstruction (unveiled later that evening in the accompanying documentary ‘The King in the Car Park’), but we also knew without question that King Richard was not a ‘hunchback’ as the Tudors had always claimed, and had been accepted without question for centuries. Nor was there any sign that he had had a ‘withered arm’.
What had been discovered was that the King suffered (and I use the word advisedly) from scoliosis – a lateral curvature of the spine, not to be confused with kyphosis, which indeed presents as a ‘hump’ on someone’s back. Scoliosis is a far from rare condition which often becomes apparent during adolescence, but is not generally noticeable to others. Only the King’s most intimate attendants, closest friends and family members would have likely been aware he had the condition. It can cause pain but is not necessarily disabling, and nowadays is eminently treatable. Nowadays.
In the case of King Richard, the curvature was quite severe and, had he lived longer, might well have had more of an effect on him. But it’s thought that at most it would have meant one shoulder was a little higher than the other (which could easily be disguised with well-tailored clothes given the fashions of the time). And it’s certain that the condition didn’t stop him riding into battle and fighting on foot – as we know that even his enemies credited him with ‘fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’ in his final battle at Bosworth Field. The battle wounds that left their horrendous marks on his skeleton are testament to the truth of those words.
King Richard at Bosworth (Photo (c) copyright Matthew Lewis)
Since the discovery of King Richard’s scoliosis, many of us have become more aware of others who have the condition – among them some very famous people who haven’t let it define them or get in the way of anything they’ve set themselves to do. Perhaps the most famous is champion sprinter Usain Bolt – fastest man on earth, winner of umpteen gold medals. Others include film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rene Russo and Liza Minelli, rock legends Kurt Cobain and John (‘Johnny Rotten’) Lydon, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and General Douglas MacArthur.
Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt – of course!
Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter, Princess Eugenie, in 2018 married in a specially designed wedding gown – specially designed to show off the scar from the operation she had as a teenager to correct the curve in her spine caused by her scoliosis. She did it to raise awareness of the condition and of the great work being carried out by surgeons and other health professionals to improve the lives of people with this condition Princess Eugenie is, of course, King Richard’s great-great-great-etc. grand-niece too.
Princess Eugenie.Copyright PA
Earlier that year, in February 2018, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the announcement that King Richard’s grave had been found (and the inspiration it gave me to finally write my books about the King for young readers – The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man – see my previous blog post ‘Five years ago … the impact of King Richard’s discovery’), I made available a short story I’d written titled ‘The Beast of Middleham Moor‘. There are no prizes for guessing who makes an appearance in it.
But the main character in ‘The Beast’ is a boy who has himself just been diagnosed with scoliosis. So it made sense to sell the story to raise fund for Scoliosis Association UK to help young people in a similar position. That fundraising led to first one, then two anthologies of short stories inspired by King Richard, the first of which includes ‘The Beast’. Both are being sold in support of SAUK: Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved… and together have raised a substantial amount for the charity.
So that press conference seven years ago today not only kickstarted the reassessment of of King Richard’s life and reputation, but also prompted quite a change in my own life. Now published author of two novels and compiler of two charity anthologies, I can honestly say my life and career have taken a totally new direction. And that’s all thanks to His Grace – King Richard III. So I will be raising a glass of something suitable to him this evening as I always do on this auspicious anniversary. Cheers!
And if you’d like to spread the word about King Richard, my books and the fundraising for SAUK, please do share this post as widely as you can. As a small incentive, I’ll be popping into a hat the names of everyone who shares on any form of social media – for the chance to win a very special prize: a signed copy of one of my books for you or a loved one, or, if you prefer, a copy to be sent to the school or library of your choice. Be sure to comment below me to let me know you’ve shared! Thank you.
Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK).
Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:
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