Was the medieval herb Leechmold an early relation of today’s highly poisonous Caroline Jessamine, native to the US?
In a spine-tingling discovery, scientists working at the University of Leicester have uncovered an unbelievable possibility regarding Richard’s appearance. It is now over three weeks since the last medieval King was laid to rest amid great pomp in the Cathedral of St Mary Castro. Since the shock of his discovery, the curve of his spine lying less than a metre under the car park tarmac has led to all sorts of theorising and analysis. Yet his legendary “hunched-back,” now revealed to be scoliosis, continues to stir debate about the extent of his suffering and its visibility to others. Now, in the wake of all the tests, comes a new revelation. It may well be that Richard actually faked his own scoliosis. But how would he do this, and why?
A recent study suggests that Richard’s curved spine might not have been visible to anyone else, that he managed to keep it hidden all his life. This would appear to be likely, given that the comments about it uniformly appear after August 1485 and much was made of them by the Tudor spin machine which Henry VII kept well oiled like a circus act. Now a new report from a Leicester lab has been leaked, containing the suggestion, so damaging to Richard’s character, which has been hitherto concealed, for fear of the controversy it would spark in addition to the issues surrounding his reburial. The presence of certain substances in his DNA prove that Richard had consumed a high dose of a certain herb, well-known to medieval doctors as Leechmold, which had the effect of ceasing up the vertebrae of his spine.
The effects of the herb appear to have been dramatic. Its identity, however, is not clear; one manuscript illumination found in a twelfth century Leech Book show a small, modest-looking plant with heart-shaped leaves and a small yellow flower, but scientists are still struggling to identify it with any known species today. There is a chance that the crop was on the wane in the fifteenth century and has since died out in the UK. It does not feature in Culpeper’s herbal or any other manuals of medicinal plants in the Elizabethan or Jacobean eras, but it may have been taken across the Atlantic by the first travellers, and rooted itself there as today’s common Caroline Jessamine. Among its effects are listed: “to contracte and warp the spine,” “to bryng on the crampes in the back” and “to make a manne stoop when he walks.” Such a scarce and potent herb would have been highly prized, especially among those seeking to practise witchcraft and medicine and only available to those who could afford the significant cost. On 30 June 1485, one entry in the records of a well-known London doctor, John Fenygreek, includes the sale of two handfuls of “syrup of leekmolde” at 50s, to a client who is only recorded as “RG.” Fenygreek was a main supplier of the court, frequently at Westminster, and RG may have been Richard of Gloucester. Although he was King at this point, the doctor was clearly trying to hide this individual’s identity.
But why would Richard have resorted to this herb, in the weeks approaching Bosworth? He had been anticipating Henry Tudor’s invasion since his first failed attempt in the winter of 1483 and in the spring of 1485, reports reached him that it would soon be a reality. Yet Richard was not afraid, not believing that Tudor was anything but a rank outsider whom he could easily defeat: his own marital plans for an alliance with Portugal prove that. So what was Richard doing? From his purchase, it appears to have been in Richard’s interests to make someone suffer from the ill-effects of the herb. Had he been intending to administer it to himself, or to a rival, or someone else entirely? Aware of the medieval correlation between physical deformity and morality, did he intend to capture Henry and parade him as a hunchback, an unfit, defeated King? Or had he bought it for his own use? The effects of the herb must have been rapid, perhaps immediate, depending on the individual’s build and weight. With Richard’s “gracile” stature, no doubt they worked quickly. Exactly what happened is unclear, but the Leechmold ended up in Richard’s system and its effects upon his spine were dramatic. Two possibilities arise. Did he ingest it himself, perhaps in an attempt to garner sympathy when the battle was lost? To present himself to Henry as a humble cripple, perhaps to spare his own life, to live and fight another day. If so, scholars need to reassess the King’s character. Alternatively, was it fed to him by someone he trusted in his camp at breakfast or in a drink, on August 22? If so, we need to start looking for the enemy within.
Leaked report LLR30497
Leaked tap in my bathroom.
Leeks, a few in my garden.
Jeff R Vescent is getting curiouser and curiouser.