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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis