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

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?

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

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution