Was England's King Richard III (1452–85) a murderous psychopath? If you listen to Shakespeare, the answer is decidedly yes. Thanks to Shakespeare's play, the hunchbacked monarch has gone down in history as the heartless ruler who ordered the murders of the brother and young nephews who stood between him and the throne.
Although no one knows for sure the fate of Richard's nephews and no evidence connects Richard to his brother's death, the king's reputation never recovered. But some self-professed "Ricardians" believe Shakespeare's characterization is unfair.
Even before Richard's two-year reign ended with his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, his reputation was already so bad that he was buried without pomp in a grave unmarked for more than 500 years. In 2012, a University of Leicester archeological team tracked Richard's skeleton to a site that once held Greyfriars Church, exhumed it from beneath a parking lot and identified it as Richard's remains earlier this year.
The discovery prompted members of the Richard III Society and others to ask psychologists Mark Lansdale, PhD, and Julian Boon, PhD, of the University of Leicester, to re-analyze Richard's character. After examining biographies and other secondary literature, they concluded that the king likely suffered from anxiety, not psychopathy.
Richard would probably have shown narcissistic tendencies, admits Lansdale, just as you would expect of a medieval monarch. Plus, he says, Richard lived at a time in which, although it was regarded as distasteful, it wasn't unusual for monarchs to murder family members. "But beyond that," says Lansdale, "there's very little evidence of any sociopathological trends above and beyond the normal."
Lansdale and Boon focused instead on other personality traits Richard exhibited, such as loyalty, piety and a strong sense of right and wrong. Richard also possessed a need for control that would have tended toward the authoritarian, they say. The two psychologists diagnosed Richard with intolerance of uncertainty, a trait linked to generalized anxiety disorder.
That diagnosis, often associated with a need for security, fits with Richard's history, says Lansdale. When his brother died, Richard came from the north of England to London to serve as "lord protector" for his two young nephews. As a result, says Lansdale, he moved from being No. 1 in his part of the world to a place hostile to him in the poisonous atmosphere of a court roiled by a succession battle.
The king's severely curved spine — the result of scoliosis — may also have affected his personality. "Physical deformity in medieval times was commonly taken to represent a deformity of the soul, a mark of an evil or twisted nature," says Lansdale. "Reports about Richard being cautious and withheld would be consistent with someone sensitive about what he would see as his personal deformity."
Lansdale concedes that diagnosing someone dead for more than 500 years is speculative. "For one thing, you've got almost no data that psychologists would regard as data to go on," he says, citing the necessity to rely on secondary sources.
But, he says, it's still a worthwhile enterprise. With their different perspective, he says, psychologists can "press the boundaries" and make historians and others think about a well-known area in a slightly different way.
Of course, Lansdale says, presenting Richard this way would make a very different play.
"It's quite an interesting question to ask — what kind of play you could do now in which you represent Richard III as a relatively normal guy dealing with a very difficult set of circumstances?" he says. "It would be interesting partly as a contrast to the pantomime villain we're mostly presented with."
—Rebecca A. Clay
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter