BY ROSSELLA LORENZI
In the last three years of his life, King Richard III consumed up to three liters of alcohol per day and feasted on swan, egret and heron, analysis of the monarch’s teeth and bones has revealed.
Researchers from the British Geological Survey and the University of Leicester examined changes in chemistry in the bones of the last Plantagenet king, whose remains were found buried beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester in 2012.
“We applied multi-element isotope techniques to reconstruct a full life history,” Angela Lamb, isotope geochemist at the British Geological Survey, Richard Buckley from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, and colleagues wrote in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Born in Northamptonshire in 1452, Richard became King of England in 1483 at the age of 30, ruling for just two years and two months.
The king, depicted by William Shakespeare as a bloodthirsty usurper, was killed in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth, which was the last act of the decades-long fight over the throne known as War of the Roses. He was defeated by Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.
The researchers measured the levels of certain chemicals, such as strontium, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and lead that relate to geographical location, pollution and diet in three locations on the skeleton of Richard III.
They analyzed bioapatite and collagen from sections of two teeth, which formed during childhood and early adolescence, and from two bones: the femur, which represents an average of the 15 years before death, and the rib, which remodels faster and represents between 2 and 5 years of life before death.
“The isotopes initially concur with Richard’s known origins in Northamptonshire, but suggest that he had moved out of eastern England by age seven, and resided further west, possibly the Welsh Marches,” the researchers wrote.
The isotope changes became evident between Richard’s femur and rib bones, revealing “a significant shift” in the nitrogen isotope values towards the end of Richard life, coinciding directly with his time as King of England.
The shift would correspond to an increase in consumption of luxury items such as game birds (swans, herons, egret) and freshwater fish.
“The Late Medieval diet of an aristocrat consisted of bread, ale, meat, fish, wine and spices with a strong correlation between wealth and the relative proportions of these, with more wine and spices and proportionally less ale and cereals with increasing wealth,” the researchers said.
Another significant shift was recorded in Richard’s oxygen isotope values, which also rose towards the end of his life.
“As we know he did not relocate during this time, we suggest the changes could be brought about by increased wine consumption,” Lamb and colleagues wrote.
The analysis showed there was a 25 percent increase in Richard’s consumption of wine when he became king.
This would equal to a bottle of wine per day, in addition to the large quantities of beer most medieval men consumed at that time, giving Richard an overall alcohol consumption of two to three liters per day.
Indeed, Richard began to indulge in food and wine since his coronation banquet, noted for being particularly long and elaborate. The excesses are likely to have continued throughout his short lived reign.
“It is not unexpected that his consumption of wine and rich foods increased over the last few years of his life,” the researchers wrote.
Richard III will be finally reburied in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015 at the end of a seven-day program of events in Leicester and Leicestershire to honor the king.
Image: Late 16th century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Credt: Wikimedia Commons.