Richard III: Psychopath or Just a Control Freak?

Researchers say the English King was not a bloodthirsty villain. He was just a bit insecure.

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A reconstruction of Richard III's face

Thanks largely to his portrayal in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, Richard III is generally remembered as a murderous, hunchbacked villain who killed his nephews to gain the throne. But now that his remains, found beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, have been positively identified, researchers at the University of Leicester now say the 15th century monarch was no bloodthirsty psychopath — just a control freak in need of some security.

In findings presented this past weekend, Psychologist Mark Lansdale and forensic psychologist Julian Boon suggest that there is no evidence supporting Shakespeare’s depiction of the last Plantagenet king. After going through historians’ consensus on Richard’s experiences and actions, they found that the king exhibited little sign of the traits used to identify psychopaths today — including narcissism, deviousness, callousness, recklessness and lack of empathy in close relationships.

(More:PHOTOS: King Richard III’s Skeleton, Dug up from British Parking Lot, Identified)

The two academics presented their studies at the University of Leicester on Saturday. Lansdale said though Richard was not a psychopath, he did suffer psychologically. The king showed signs of a common syndrome known as the intolerance to uncertainty, which is associated with the need to seek security after an insecure childhood. According to Lansdale, people suffering from this syndrome tend to respond disproportionately when loyalty is betrayed, and this can emerge as an authoritarian streak — as in the case of the England king.

Lansdale added that Richard’s spinal deformity — one aspect of his characterization that Shakespeare got right — might have affected him psychologically as well. In medieval times, such physical disabilities were often associated with a twisted soul; this perception might have made Richard cautious in his interactions with others.

Richard III only held the throne for two years — from 1483 to 1485 — before being slain in the Battle of Bosworth Field. But he remains one of England’s most famous kings. Lansdale and Boon are not the first to suggest that he was not Shakespeare’s villain. In 1924, Saxon Barton, a Liverpool surgeon and amateur historian, founded the Richard III society to promote a more balanced view of the king. The group liked to cite British statesman Francis Bacon (who lived more than a century after Richard), who once wrote that monarch was “ a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people.”

(More: Richard III’s Bones: Should One of History’s Losers Be Redeemed?)