Tuesday, September 3, 2013
When concussions were part of the job description
"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments........"
King Richard III (I, i)
Richard, Duke of Gloucester and not yet on the throne he's perfectly willing to murder for, is more than a bit wistful. The Wars of the Roses appear to be over, and his Yorkist side appears to have won. So what does Richard, so good at warring yet too "rudely stamp'd" to woo the ladies, do to pass these tedious times of peace?
He decides to treat villainy as a job opportunity.
Richard did indeed have a problem in the romance department: the recent discovery in the UK of Richard's skeletal remains confirms that he had a pronounced curvature of the spine that could not have been helpful to his ambitions in war or in the bedroom. Yet surprisingly, Richard's historical reputation as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield was evidently well-earned: by virtually all accounts he led from the front, not while safely ensconced in a palace well behind the lines.
Archaeologists at the University of Leicester have reportedly found indications of ten wounds on the remains of Richard III, eight of which were in the area of the head and neck. The wounds were evidently caused by blades, which corroborates historical accounts that he was hacked to death in the thick of the fighting. Clearly, Richard paid the price of violent ambition. And to this day, he's the last English monarch to have been killed in a war.
Pictured above, in the collection of Agecroft Hall, is an English steel helmet, c1650, of the type used in the English Civil War, decades after the death of Shakespeare. The helmet is of polished steel with a crest and inflexible neck guard; a broad brim with an attached nose guard pivots on the helmet; ear flaps are pierced and on leather straps. This helmet is in such good condition that it is doubtful that it was ever used in the thick of a battle between Parliamentarians and Royalists.
Along with a cuirass consisting of front and back plates for the warrior's upper body, such protection was essentially standard equipment for an English cavalry officer after the abandonment of the complete suits of armor that characterized the well-fitted-out medieval knight. The development of firearms had rendered most such armor obsolete; it made no sense to continue to go to the considerable expense, not to mention discomfort, of wearing sheets of metal that covered the entire body and head yet couldn't stop a projectile from a gunpowder weapon.
By the time of the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire, which saw the violent demise of Richard III in 1485, the fully-armored medieval knight and the whole chivalric tradition, for that matter, were receding into the mists of the past. The technology of warfare had moved on.