Great misconceptions

Was Richard III a hunchback?

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The evidence for Richard III being a hunchback is at the very least dubious. During Richard’s lifetime no sources, even the hostile ones, claimed this, although you could argue that no one would dare. It is only after his death at the battle of Bosworth Field that the story emerges in a number of sources all of which can certainly be called ‘pro-Tudor’.

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Richard Rous wrote two histories of Richard III. The first was published in the king’s lifetime, and doesn’t mention any deformity. The second was published after the king’s death, when, living in the new politics of the Tudor age, Rous has changed his mind and Richard is portrayed as a hunchbacked monster.

Of course it is Shakespeare whose words have most formed our image of Richard. He got his information indirectly (via Hall and Holinshed) from a book by Thomas More, who got his information from Polydore Vergil, who was a contemporary of Richard’s. Vergil is however a rather biased source, being the paid chronicler of Richard’s killer and successor Henry VII. More was himself also in the pay of Henry VII’s son and successor, Henry VIII, and so can hardly be called pro-Ricardian.

In an age when physical appearance was believed to be a good indicator of personality, Tudor historians had little problem in describing a man most had never met as being as twisted on the outside as they claimed he was on the inside. It all helped their Tudor masters, perhaps uncertain as to their own legitimacy, to sleep more soundly in their beds. 

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Answered by: Justin Pollard, author of Secret Britain: the Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, 2009)