LIC Blog

Is there really something fishy about Richard III?

In Richard III: The King in the Car Park, aired on Channel 4 last Monday, the radiocarbon dating of the remains discovered in Leicester gave the "wrong" result, for those who wanted them to be the remains of Richard III. One test suggested 1430-1460 and another 1412-1449, both well outside the actual year of the King's death, in 1485.

Professor Buckley swiftly changed the result to give the dates 1475-1530, with a 69% confidence. He did so by stating that it was all to do with fish.

Radiocarbon dating of marine organisms can be out by up to several hundred years, and this effect can occur to a lesser degree in terrestrial life where sea-food forms part of the diet.

The mass spectrometry of the Greyfriars bone samples reveals that the individual in question had a high-protein diet including a significant proportion of seafood. This would seem reasonable for a medieval nobleman, and certainly for a member of the royal family.

Now the radiocarbon dating is not the only test of the remains. But, as the University of Leicester site states:

What it does is remove one possibility which could have proved that these are not Richard’s remains.

This begs certain questions. 

1. How much fish was usually eaten in the Middle Ages?

In his 1955 book Richard III Paul Murray Kendall tells of a great feast in 1466, which was held to celebrate George Neville's elevation to York. His brother, Richard, attended. Richard was put at the head of table in the chief chamber of estate. Amongst the ladies on his table was Anne Neville, then 10 years old (incidentally putting away Shakespeare's falsehood that Anne had never met her future husband Richard, until he wickedly seduced her).

This was one of the most sumptuous banquets of the age and is recorded in tremendous detail. Sixty-two cooks prepared: 

  • 104 oxen
  • 6 wild bulls
  • 4,000 sheep, calves and pigs
  • 500 stags
  • 400 swans and a "galaxy of other meats"
  • 300 tuns of ale
  • 100 tuns of wine
  • 13,000 sweet dishes

In The Homes of Other Days by Thomas Wright we have another account of George Neville's banquet, in far more extensive detail:

  • 300 quarters of wheat
  • 300 tuns of ale
  • 100 tuns of wine
  • 1 pint of hypocras (another drink)
  • 104 oxen
  • 6 wild bulls
  • 1,000 sheep
  • 304 calves 
  • 304 swine
  • 400 swans
  • 2,000 geese
  • 1,000 capons
  • 2,000 pigs
  • 400 plovers
  • 1,200 quails
  • 2,400 "rees" (fowl)
  • 104 peacocks
  • 4000 mallards / teals
  • 204 cranes
  • 204 kids
  • 2,000 chickens
  • 4,000 pigeons
  • 4,000 crays
  • 204 bitterns
  • 400 herons
  • 200 pheasants
  • 500 patridges
  • 400 woodcocks
  • 100 curlews
  • 1,000 egrettes
  • 500+ stags, bucks and roes
  • 4,000 cold venison pasties
  • 1,000 "parted" dishes of jelly
  • 3,000 plain dishes of jelly
  • 4,000 cold baked tarts
  • 1,500 hot venison pasties
  • 2,000 hot custards
  • 608 pikes / breams
  • 12 porpoises and seals
  • Delicacies

This menu certainly challenges the Leicester academics' assertion that a high proportion of seafood "would seem reasonable for a medieval nobleman, and certainly for a member of the royal family". The Medieval feast actually seems to favour meat and fowl. And if this presentation of luxury was exceptionally grand because of the occasion, it at least suggests what was normal for the highest eschelons of society, to which King Richard III undoubtedly belonged.

The recipes of this time are worth reading in their own right. Some ingredients are surprising (and surprisingly good, such as using crushed almonds instead of flour - rather than using horse instead of beef!). Wright shows the menu for a (small!) 3 course meal. And, like the banquet for George Neville, it reveals a taste for variety more than for one particular type of food. They used herbs. They used spices. They strained and salted. Those who could afford to hold a party presented every kind of meat their guests might desire as a measure of their hospitality.

So what about fish?

On "flesh-days" it was not served at all. But by the end of the 15th century it was becoming more common. Pike, Gurnard, Perch and Porpoise were all on the menu.

Can we conclude that fish suddenly became the most common food (especially amongst the nobility as Professor Buckley asserted) and that Richard III ate a lot of fish - so much that the tests on his remains had to be altered to take that into account?

In 1560, Catherine Duchess of Suffolk (once wife to Henry VIII's favourite Charles Brandon) had a household at Grimsthorpe, with at least 70 servants. They ate a lot of fish:

In October, 1560, 800 salt fish were bought for £66. 13s. 4d., and half a hundred ling for £7; the next January six barrels of white herrings cost 23s. 4d. the barrel, and six barrels of red herrings cost 12s. each. There was also meat, veal and mutton and pork most commonly. The meat was mostly for the Master's table and for the higher members of the household. At the lower levels, fish was the regular fare. 

Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk

by Evelyn Read, p. 161

We then read:

Meat was served in variety at the Master's table; one typical menu reads, 'Boiled meat, boiled beef, pigeons, roast veal, rabbit, baked venison.' Less meat and more fish appears at the gentlemen's and clerks' tables, and below that level the fare was almost entirely fish of various kinds. Fish was served at the Master's table, too, of course, but not always and never exclusively. Oysters, in season, were also served at the Master's table.

Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk

by Evelyn Read, p. 165

An average shopping for Grimsthorpe was a more mundane version of the George Neville banquet:

  • Beef
  • Mutton
  • Lings
  • Salt fish
  • White herring
  • Salt herring
  • Veal
  • Capons
  • Cocks
  • Hens
  • Woodcocks
  • Patridges
  • Figs
  • Yeast
  • Butter, fresh and salt

A second list is similar:

  • Beef
  • Mutton
  • Lamb
  • Fallow deer
  • Herons
  • Pigs
  • Butter
  • Chickens
  • Red deer
  • Veal
  • Capons
  • Geese
  • Eggs
  • Salmon Pie
  • Porpoise Pie
  • Mustard Seed
  • Oatmeal

There is no question that fish was eaten in the 15th and 16th centuries. And it was sometimes on the table for royals and nobility. We have no evidence to suggest that King Richard III was excessive in his consumption of fish or that he was different to the other nobles of the time.


2. What is a "significant" proportion of seafood?

The mass spectrometry of the Greyfriars bone samples reveals that the individual in question had a high-protein diet including a significant proportion of seafood. This would seem reasonable for a medieval nobleman, and certainly for a member of the royal family.

The word "significant" is ambiguous. We all know what it means in common parlance - it means important. But Leicester's Press Release comes from academics using statistical methods, where "significance" has a technical sense.

In the latter sense, it is used of statistical inference. Not the most transparent concept to the man in the street. 

The University of Leicester academics make the joke:

And it also tells us something about what he had for supper.

This is the language of journalism. No statistician worth his salt would make such a categoric statement. He would say, "It might appear from this result that the person consumed a high proportion of fish" because statistics never give certainty.

Does the test on which they base the assertion that the remains reveal a diet of seafood point to the final meal or to general consumption? The reports are not clear. But they ought to be, because the entire interpretation of the radiocarbon dating relies on the fish.

The fish factor is important, because - according to the Leicester analysis - without taking fish into account the remains belong to the wrong era for them to be those of Richard III. But when we do take fish into account, we may have to consider that the remains are those of the ordinary man in the 15th century street.

On this basis, we can use radiocarbon dating to prove the remains to be those of a rich man but at the wrong time to be King Richard. Or we can use radiocarbon dating to prove the remains to be those of an ordinary man, but at the right time for Bosworth.

What if the fish has proved too much? 

We will asking Professor Buckley for comment and will share any reply we receive.

Update on February 14, 2013 by Abigail J. Fox

On 9th February, the following email was sent to Professor Buckley. We are waiting for a reply.

Dear Professor Buckley,

At we have been considering the evidence and research from the project in Leicester.

The importance you placed on fish in the radiocarbon dating interpretation intrigues us. We have published our thoughts here.

Would you be able to explain what you meant by "significant proportion of seafood"? 

By what was the significance measured? And how significant was the seafood compared to animal meat and poultry?

Do you include fresh water fish in the category "marine life", as displayed on screen in the Channel 4 documentary?

We would be much obliged if you could clarify these issues and we will happily share them with our interested readers.

Kind regards,

Abigail Fox

Update on February 25, 2013 by Abigail J. Fox

Peter Ackroyd in his biography The Life of Thomas More, briefly describes the remarkable feasts held in Lambeth Palace by Archbishop Morton.

There was a first course of beef and mutton, swan or geese, followed by a second course which might contain no less than 30 different kinds of meat, among them crane, heron and curlews; eventually came the cheese, "scraped with sugar and sage leaves", together with the various fruits of the season.

~ page 29

No fish is mentioned at this lavish affair.

(Still awaiting a reply from Professor Buckley.)

Update on February 27, 2013 by Abigail J. Fox

In Richard III: The Unseen Story, Professor Buckley presented the reasoning why fish was a sufficiently important factor for them to reinterpret the carbon dating:

1. People in Medieval Leicester usually ate pottage

2. The remains suggest a high protein diet

3. Someone with a high protein diet must therefore have been high ranking

4. Fish is a protein

5. Fish requires an adjustment factor in carbon dating

6. The remains found in Leicester therefore needed adjusting

7. Because rich people in Leicester ate fish

8. Not that King Richard III spent his life in Leicester

Hardly a convincing argument. In fact, a fishy one.

Update on March 12, 2013 by Abigail J. Fox

On 11th February I contacted Professor Lin Foxhall with the questions we had originally submitted to Professor Buckley. One month later, she has replied. As a quick reminder, the questions I asked were:

  1. Would you be able to explain what you meant by "significant proportion of seafood"? By what was the significance measured? And how significant was the seafood compared to animal meat and poultry?
  2. Do you include fresh water fish in the category "marine life", as displayed on screen in the Channel 4 documentary?

The first is important because it removes the vagueness of the idea that the person consumed a high fish diet. The second is important because it would be interesting to know whether the fish ponds of Middleham provided the kind of fish taken into account in the statistical model used by the team at Leicester.

Sadly, Professor Foxhall does not close either question:

Hi Abigail,

Apologies for the delay in replying to your email, but as you can imagine we have been overwhelmed with queries. We are still carrying out further stable isotope analysis, but you will be able to read some of the preliminary results in the journal Antiquity in June. Of course, there must have been a range of different kinds of fish, at different prices, available to people in the later medieval period which will have been eatern [sic] by a wide range of people. However, a diet high in meat or fish was probably the preogative of the rich, and poorer people probably ate meat and fish (especially salt fish) in much smaller quantities. The levels of marine fish consumption indicated by the initial stable isotope analysis suggest an individual at the wealthier end of the spectrum.

all the best

Professor Lin Foxhall, MBE (Hon.), FSA
Professor of Greek Archaeology and History
Head of School

This reply still maintains, as a matter of undisputed fact, that the wealthier an individual was, the more inclined he was to consume a high fish diet. And yet no data is forthcoming to substantiate this. If we are seeking proof that the individual was wealthy, then evidence of consumption of the more exclusive meats would provide a clear marker of that. But why we are trying to use food to prove the wealth of the individual? Surely the emphasis on fish became important because of its influence on the interpretation of the carbon dating. If the individual did not eat a lot of fish, then the data would not allow for the conclusion that the remains are those of King Richard III. And I say again, whatever the evidence that is being kept from view with regard to the measured significance of the fish diet, the presence of fish proves nothing - except that the person ate fish.

In conclusion, because it seems as though we will not get a clearer answer, please note that Professor Foxhall used a word that we should observe and remember. Because this is about statistics. This is aboutprobability. And that leaves us only in the realm of what one person thinks is probable.

However, a diet high in meat or fish wasprobably the preogative of the rich, and poorer people probably ate meat and fish (especially salt fish) in much smaller quantities. ~ Professor Foxhall

emphasis added

Behind the "science" lies someone's judgment. That judgment can set the results down the right road or the wrong road. Some people have told me that it is a waste of time to discuss fish since the DNA has proved the identity already. But it has not - it has disproved a lack of connection, which is not the same as proving a connection. When I put this to them, they reply that all the other evidence is so good that it must be true. But is the other evidence really so good?

We have a skeleton without good muscle attachments and we say that he was a soldier.

We have a skeleton with the most severe degree of scoliosis and we say that he slayed champions.

We have a skeleton with evidence of a fish diet and we say that he was a King of England.