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Britain’s Channel 4 aired a fascinating documentary this past week, Recreating Richard III—a forensic investigation with a twist (spinal twist really). Historians have always questioned the battle prowess of Richard III given his back deformity and after his remains were conclusively identified, and the extent of his scoliosis seen, these doubts took on greater weight.

Step in Toby Capwell of the Wallace Collection and the Channel 4 team who set about trying to discover whether Richard could have actually dealt with the physical stress of medieval battle. Amazingly, and by chance, they linked up with a 27 year old reenactor with scoliosis. And, as it turned out, with the same degree of spinal curvature and shape as Richard III. Dominic Smee became Richard’s “body double” over a period of months, training in riding and swordfighting and even had a custom suit of armour made for him to account for his twisted ribcage and back.

The results were astounding and made for fascinating viewing as it turned out that even this degree of scoliosis would not preclude swinging a sword effectively. Dominic couched a lance, smacked the quintain, and sparred with foot soldiers. Even did a charge of 700 metres over broken ground.  Admittedly, endurance was a problem as his ribcage could not expand enough for his lungs and heart to pump effectively, meaning that he would run out of puff after a few minutes. As someone who used to reenact medieval combat in full armour, I know that feeling all too well and my ribcage is A1.

Some of the points were not all that surprising: turns out that riding in a medieval saddle provides more support and control than a modern one. Duh. The postage stamp of a modern English saddle is a joke to those of us who ride Western.  There was a parallel thread of analysis on Richard’s skeleton to provide clues on his diet. Turns out that after he became king, his meat and wine consumption went off the scale (leading researchers to claim this affected his overall health and could have contributed to physical failures in the field). But what about every other noble quaffing gallons of wine and eating a whole roast pig for lunch? Seems it was an even playing field in that respect. But at the time of his death, aged 32, his spine already had arthritis and constant pain would have been his companion. Far more likely a contributing factor to his demise perhaps.

For me, the answer was never in doubt. Far too many references in the historical record of Richard’s fighting prowess and not unexpected for someone who would have started training as a boy. Overall, a fun and compelling view and well worth catching if you can online.