Richard III: Psychopath or mere control freak? Psychologists weigh in.
Was England’s King Richard III (1452–85) a murderous
psychopath? If you listen to Shakespeare, the answer is
decidedly yes. Thanks to Shakespeare’s play, the hunchbacked
monarch has gone down in history as the heartless ruler who
ordered the murders of the brother and young nephews who
stood between him and the throne.
Although no one knows for sure the fate of Richard’s
nephews and no evidence connects Richard to his brother’s
death, the king’s reputation never recovered. But some self-professed “Ricardians” believe Shakespeare’s characterization is
Even before Richard’s two-year reign ended with his death
at the Battle of Bosworth Field, his reputation was already so
bad that he was buried without pomp in a grave unmarked
for more than 500 years. In 2012, a University of Leicester
archeological team tracked Richard’s skeleton to a site that once
held Greyfriars Church, exhumed it from beneath a parking lot
and identified it as Richard’s remains earlier this year.
The discovery prompted members of the Richard III
Society and others to ask psychologists Mark Lansdale, PhD,
and Julian Boon, PhD, of the University of Leicester, to reanalyze Richard’s character. After examining biographies and
other secondary literature, they concluded that the king likely
suffered from anxiety, not psychopathy.
Richard would probably have shown narcissistic tendencies,
admits Lansdale, just as you would expect of a medieval
monarch. Plus, he says, Richard lived at a time in which,
although it was regarded as distasteful, it wasn’t unusual for
monarchs to murder family members. “But beyond that,” says
Lansdale, “there’s very little evidence of any sociopathological
trends above and beyond the normal.”
Lansdale and Boon focused instead on other personality
traits Richard exhibited, such as loyalty, piety and a strong
sense of right and wrong. Richard also possessed a need for
control that would have tended toward the authoritarian, they
say. The two psychologists diagnosed Richard with intolerance
of uncertainty, a trait linked to generalized anxiety disorder.
That diagnosis, often associated with a need for security, fits
with Richard’s history, says Lansdale. When his brother died,
Richard came from the north of England to London to serve
as “lord protector” for his two young nephews. As a result, says
Lansdale, he moved from being No. 1 in his part of the world to
a place hostile to him in the poisonous atmosphere of a court
roiled by a succession battle.
The king’s severely curved spine — the result of scoliosis —
may also have affected his personality. “Physical deformity in
medieval times was commonly taken to represent a deformity
Psychologists began exploring Richard III’s character after his
bones were found beneath a Leicester parking lot earlier this year.
of the soul, a mark of an evil or twisted nature,” says Lansdale.
“Reports about Richard being cautious and withheld would be
consistent with someone sensitive about what he would see as
his personal deformity.”
Lansdale concedes that diagnosing someone dead for more
than 500 years is speculative. “For one thing, you’ve got almost
no data that psychologists would regard as data to go on,” he
says, citing the necessity to rely on secondary sources.
But, he says, it’s still a worthwhile enterprise. With their
different perspective, he says, psychologists can “press the
boundaries” and make historians and others think about a
well-known area in a slightly different way.
Of course, Lansdale says, presenting Richard this way would
make a very different play.
“It’s quite an interesting question to ask — what kind of
play you could do now in which you represent Richard III
as a relatively normal guy dealing with a very difficult set of
circumstances?” he says. “It would be interesting partly as a
contrast to the pantomime villain we’re mostly presented with.”