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Was the downfall of Richard III caused by a strawberry?

The king's actions in the summer of 1483, when he unexpectedly put aside his twelve-year-old nephew and became King of England, are considered to be out of character. Could a food allergy have triggered the series of events that lead to the fall of the Ho

Aneurin Barnard as Richard III in the recent BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory's novel "The White Queen". Photo: BBC

Thanks to the efforts of two famous Philippas, one of England’s most controversial medieval kings has been catapulted to the forefront of discussion. Ricardian Philippa Langley, who campaigned to exhume her hero’s bones from a Leicester car park and novelist Philippa Gregory, author behind The White Queen TV adaptation, have brought the events of the Battle of Bosworth into homes across the nation. With Richard III’s sympathetic portrayal by Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard and Langley’s forthcoming book on the dig, co-authored with Michael Jones, this fresh interest gives no sign of waning. Yet despite the debates, burning questions about the man remain unanswered.

Many theories have been offered to explain Richard’s actions in the late spring and early summer of 1483, when he unexpectedly put aside his twelve-year-old nephew and became King of England. Even his devotees will admit that there are several areas in which he appeared to act out of character. One of the most contentious is the fate of the Princes in the Tower, with some unable to accept that a man bound by the motto “loyaulte me lie” could order the murders of his brother’s young sons. Viewers of The White Queen recently saw Gregory’s own personal theory about the substitution of the younger boy and the culpability of Henry VII’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort. When it comes to understanding Richard’s actions, there will never be as dramatic an answer as that which the discovery of his body provided about his scoliosis. We are not about to unearth the lost Richard III diaries, so his true motives can only be guessed at, across a divide of five centuries.

It is possible, though, to map various interpretations over the known facts of the events of 1483. Following the premature death of his brother, Edward IV, Richard intercepted the young Edward V en route to London, imprisoned and executed the boy’s guardians, rounded on his friends, declared his uncrowned nephew illegitimate and accepted the throne himself. This may have been the actions of a man whose ambitions drove him from the start or reactions to perceived threats by those he considered his enemies. One of the turning points came in mid June, when a Council meeting at the Tower ended in the impromptu execution of the staunchly loyal Yorkist Lord Hastings. This scene, in fact, the entire character of Hastings, was omitted from The White Queen TV series, which is perhaps indicative of the ambiguity of his role and incompatible with a sympathetic portrayal of the king. Perhaps though, there was a very simple explanation indeed, which only hindsight and modern medical understanding can unravel.

The initial account of the meeting comes from chronicler Thomas More, whose bias against Richard is known, but who was active in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, present at the meeting. William, Lord Hastings, had been a close friend of Edward IV; he was loyal to the family and in particular, to the next generation. As late as 20 May, Hastings had been appointed Master of the Mint and Richard confirmed him in his role as Chancellor. When he attended the Council meeting of 13 June then, it appears to have come as a complete surprise to all present when Richard turned against him. It may not have been something Richard himself planned.

At this point, Richard had the reins of power in his hands, but only temporarily. After Edward V had been crowned, he would take more of a backseat and the boy’s maternal Wydeville relations would come to the fore. The dowager Queen Elizabeth, the “White Queen”, was safe in sanctuary at this point, her brother Anthony in prison at Pontefract and the coronation set to go ahead on 22 June. But something that day happened which changed everything. According to More, Richard entered the Council meeting smiling and remarked that he would like some strawberries from Archbishop Morton’s garden. He then left, to return around 90 minutes later a changed man, fretting, frowning and chewing his lips. Into his mouth, Shakespeare places the accusation of witchcraft, with his arm “like a blasted sapling, wither'd up” at the bidding of the ex-Queen and Hasting’s mistress. He then turned dramatically on the Lord, ordering his immediate execution. Traditionally, the “bewitched” arm has been seen as an excuse for the removal of someone who would have opposed Richard’s ambition but this owes a lot to hindsight. Remembering that we can never fully understand the workings of the medieval mind, Richard may have genuinely believed himself to be the victim of witchcraft and that his life was in danger. Whatever the Protector’s intentions were at that time, the culprit may actually have been his own breakfast.

More’s account may hold the key. It is possible that the dish of strawberries produced a genuine allergic reaction which caused Richard’s arm to wither and other physical symptoms to develop. Food allergies and intolerances have only been understood in recent years, with increasing recognition of the erratic way these can develop and their dramatic results. The allergic reactions caused by the proteins in strawberries can produce tingling limbs, breathing difficulties and red, puffy, itchy skin. These symptoms usually occur within two hours of eating the fruit, which is compatible with the timescale of the meeting. Symptoms begin with swelling of the lips and tingling in the mouth and More’s account has Richard fretting, frowning and “knawing at his lips”. Internal distress, breathing difficulties following the closing of bronchial tubes and congestion can follow. Sufferers also experience itching, with limbs becoming red, puffy and blighted. According to NHS information, this can affect one side of the body and is consistent with Richard being afflicted in one arm only. Nor may he have experienced any previous adverse reactions to strawberries. Food allergies can emerge even after an individual has eaten a particular dish for years but when the body’s tolerance level is reached, the symptoms are triggered. Before the advent of modern production and storage, fruit was seasonal and therefore, a rare treat, even for the rich. It is quite possible that Richard had a latent allergy to strawberries which emerged with the first crop that June, causing the sudden physical responses in his body.

How would a medieval mind have explained this sudden dramatic affliction? Fifteenth century people of all classes were deeply superstitious and believed that magic could be used to good and evil ends. Elizabeth Wydeville and her mother Jacquetta had both been accused and cleared of sorcery in 1469-70 although Richard’s own brother Clarence also claimed that they conspiring against him through the medium of magic in the 1470s. It cannot be ruled out that, anticipating attacks from the Wydeville clan, Richard believed himself to have fallen victim to poison or enchantment. He stated that witchcraft had “wasted his body”. Perhaps he genuinely believed it had.

The fear Richard appears to have felt on 13 June was a decisive turning point. It changed the tone of his Protectorship and upped the ante in terms of violence. At this point, Anthony Wydeville and his fellow prisoners Grey and Vaughan were still alive. If Richard had not consumed the fruit and suffered the reaction he did, believing himself the victim of a conspiracy, he may not have believed their deaths were necessary. Edward V’s coronation was still planned to go ahead on June 22 and the Princes in the Tower were seen playing in the Castle grounds around this time.

This Council meeting may, in fact, have been the beginning of the end for Edward V. As Hastings is dragged away in Shakespeare’s version of the scene, he foresees the doom of Richard’s regime: “miserable England! I prophesy the fearful'st time to thee, that ever wretched age hath look'd upon.” The seeds of discord were sown as a result of Richard’s misinterpretation and treatment of Hastings. Buckingham and Stanley witnessed the event and the latter may have even suffered minor injuries whilst attempting to defend his friend. Buckingham would rebel in autumn 1483 and Stanley’s troops turned against the King decisively at Bosworth. Historian and author David Pilling suggests that the execution of Hastings may well have caused Richard’s previously loyal adherents to see him in a new light and fear for their own safety. If nothing else, the meeting sealed the fate of Edward V and of his Wydeville uncle Anthony. Michael Hicks, author of several books about the period, states that this meeting was the point where the crisis broke. Richard’s interpretation of witchcraft caused him to react with a level of violence that transformed a tense situation into a crisis.

The truth of this matter will never be known. With so much of Richard’s motivation and action seeming inconsistent during this volatile time, the possibility of an allergic reaction could explain the sudden escalation in fear and violence that Hasting’s death represents. That in turn, led Richard to act brutally against his relatives, incurring the mistrust of his friends. Could it be that the humble strawberry was the catalyst that brought down the House of York?