History Stories

After reigning for only two years, Richard III was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, becoming the last English king to die in combat. The defeat of Richard’s forces marked the end of the War of the Roses and enabled the rise of the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

In order to cement his new standing, Henry and his allies did all they could to bad-mouth Richard. According to this Tudor-approved version of history–which endured for much of the last 500 years–the former duke of Gloucester was believed to have had his two young nephews (the elder of whom had just become King Edward V) imprisoned and murdered in 1483 so that he could grab the throne for himself. Along these lines, William Shakespeare made Richard the villainous protagonist of his own eponymous play, memorably depicting him as a “poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

Modern scholars, however, take a more balanced view of Richard’s reign, thanks in part to the long-running efforts of his supporters to rehabilitate his reputation. They point to the lack of hard evidence linking Richard to the young princes’ disappearance, as well as contemporary accounts of his progressive leadership.

Anyone seeking insight into this controversial leader would have been thrilled in August 2012, when archaeologists excavating a parking lot in Leicester uncovered a set of human remains that they believed to be those of Richard III.

Later DNA tests using genetic material from Richard’s modern-day descendants showed “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains belonged to the king, though skeptics warned that ancient DNA is vulnerable to contamination.

Since then, scientists have been using the latest technology to conduct an in-depth analysis of the remains. They found that the king suffered from scoliosis, which caused a curvature of his spine, and that he appeared to have been infected with a parasite known as roundworm.

In the new study, experts from the British Geological Survey and the University of Leicester used an isotope analysis of the skeleton’s bones and teeth to search for further clues about Richard’s diet and lifestyle. As they wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science this weekend, “Variations in Richard III’s diet can be traced through his life using carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions.” According to their analysis, Richard consumed a much larger amount of “luxury foods” in the latter years of his life. As king, he probably consumed a diet rich in exotic meats, freshwater fish such as pike and birds such as swan, heron and egret.

In medieval England, the variety of meat and fish a person consumed increased according to how wealthy they were. Richard III, it turns out, ate like the king he was. As the new study’s lead author, Dr. Angela Lamb of the British Geological Survey, said in a documentary film airing on British television, Richard’s diet was “way beyond that of an even equivalent high-status individual in the late medieval period.”

The high-stress nature of getting and keeping the throne seems also to have driven Richard to drink, or at least to drink more. As reported in the Independent, Lamb and her colleagues found that Richard’s wine consumption also increased while he was king. An analysis of oxygen isotopes in the ribs suggests that Richard started drinking around a bottle of wine every day during the last three years of his life, and may have been quaffing up to three liters of alcohol a day in total.

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