First published in ‘The Ricardian Bulletin – The magazine of the Richard III Society’ March 2015

A VOICE for Richard


In over 30 years of training voices for actors and public speakers alike, I never cease to marvel at the power of the spoken word. The written word is powerful enough in its own right but how those words sound, when spoken by the one who thought them, can often take things to new levels and even help or hinder relationships with others. For example, we can use a simple greeting like ‘Hello’ to very different effect (perhaps to sound polite, sarcastic, seductive or reprimanding). So the old adage ‘It isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it’ rings as true today as it has ever done.

The spoken word would certainly have had a greater impact in medieval times – an era where it was prioritised over the written word, which was less available to the masses than today. So how might Richard Plantagenet have sounded when he spoke? Are there clues to lead us towards at least part of the answer? Last summer, I was asked to organise the after‐dinner speaker for the Voice Care Network UK’s Annual Study Meeting to be held in September 2014. The event was to be attended by voice coaches, speech and language therapists, singing teachers and others with an interest in voice. With the chosen city being Leicester, I decided that we had to have something on Richard III. We were delighted that Sally Henshaw, Leicestershire branch secretary, was available. The plan was to have her talk to us about the real Richard versus Shakespeare’s brilliant but very inaccurate character, followed by two actors in two different characterisations performing A Voice for Richard.

The Shakespearean Richard would present all the clichés. For example, he would speak in Received Pronunciation (RP, Standard English), which has been the expectation for many an audience in recent history. Yet RP only really came into its own in the 1800s and thereby would be inaccurate both for Shakespeare (1564–1616) as well as for King Richard III (1452–85). Equally in error, I wanted this actor to present a man deformed both in character and physicality with limp, withered arm and ‘nasty’ tone of voice. He would be the ugly and menacing tyrant. Turning to information and inspiration from the incredible discovery of Richard’s remains underneath the car park, I realised that it would take a lot of work and research to even begin to scratch the surface in search of his more authentic voice, let alone offer something in performance befitting the real man.

From left to right actor Paul Lancaster, Sally Henshaw, Yvonne Morley and the actor Tim Charrington. Taken at the Voice Care Network UK’s Annual Study Meeting, Leicester, September 2014.

From left to right actor Paul Lancaster, Sally Henshaw, Yvonne Morley and the actor Tim Charrington. Taken at the Voice Care Network
UK’s Annual Study Meeting, Leicester, September 2014.

What makes a voice?

At one level it is simply about exhaled breath passing from the lungs up through the airway and meeting resistance from the two vocal folds (cords) inside the voice box (larynx). The ensuing vibrations (many hundreds of times per second, depending on our chosen pitch) are given further amplification and tone as sound moves into resonating cavities within the throat, mouth, nose and sinuses. Turning the vocal sounds into speech requires the addition of jaw, lips, tongue and soft palate to articulate a range of movements that form words. Yet our ‘voice’ is much more than this wind instrument. The spoken word begins with a thought and a need or desire to communicate that thought.

Both actors would need to consider several interlinked elements to create their respective Richards. Each would work with differences in physical size, build, posture, movement, gesture and mannerisms. They would undertake research to include upbringing, social status, health and well‐being. Each would consider an imaginary journey into a typical ‘day in the life of’ their Richard III.

Then the actors would want to understand clues from accent and dialect. Vocal range and resonance would be helped in part by what could be gleaned from accent ‘musicality’ (tune and rhythm) while facial expression and even breathing patterns could help provide further information about character. Facial expression, based on everything from scientific reconstruction to painted portraits, would help to inform ‘voice’, along with knowledge about the broader cultures and worlds in which each, very different, Richard would live.

Then there would be the crucial influence from what I call the ‘inner voice’: each informing two different men’s sets of attitudes, beliefs, values, aspirations and thoughts. We know how much emotional states can create particular facial expression and influence tone of voice in turn. Each Richard’s ‘voice’ – in the broadest sense of that word – would be shaped by these internal influences. Shakespeare, then, was easy. The play, though biased and inaccurate, is well written and helps the actor in search of their character. I was much more interested in getting to know the real man and would need to learn everything I could about him.

Thanks to the work of Professor Caroline Wilkinson, we have a wonderful cranio‐facial reconstruction, showing a kinder face than some might have imagined. Richard’s skull had given a great deal of information about muscle shape and size to enable this reconstruction. It would provide a great resource to understand more about his facial expression and even something about his speech patterns.

‘Richard would get more significantly
out of breath at times
and this would affect his voice
quality in those moments.’

For example, his jaw slightly protrudes forward – not enough to give an underbite – but enough to slightly favour a degree of limitation in how far he opened his mouth while speaking. This is more common in some people than we might imagine and certainly not to be taken as a judgement in any way about their character. Contemporary examples include (to varying degrees) Dr Michael Moseley, Jack Nicholson, Caroline Aherne and Keira Knightly. If Richard’s jaw held tension and wasn’t fully opening as he spoke, vocal resonance would be partially diverted from his mouth and pass down his nose. So he could have had a degree of nasality when he spoke. The accent tuning would probably support this too.

At a physical level then, I was fascinated by the pictures of Richard’s skeleton, especially his spine, jaw and teeth. There was much to learn and not everything could be covered in time for the initial presentation for the VCN but I intended to include what I could.

I was also learning more about his scoliosis. It would not have stopped him riding a horse in a medieval saddle, or being the warrior king, but it meant that he would get more significantly out of breath at times and this would affect his voice quality in those moments, possibly giving him a ‘breathier’ and either a ‘softer’ voice quality or shorter phrasing, with a possible tightness in his sound through increased effort while he was ‘catching’ his breath.

Then there is the issue of his accent. I consulted both an accent coach, Tim Charrington, and Professor David Crystal, who is one of our foremost linguists and a specialist when it comes to recreating Original Pronunciation (OP).

Professor Crystal told me we can say for certain that Richard would have spoken a form of very late Middle English or very Early Modern English. He was living right in the middle of the period known as the Great Vowel Shift, which began around 1400 and continued for a couple of hundred years, with repercussions continuing right down to the present day, in which all the long vowels and diphthongs shifted their qualities. That is why Shakespearean OP sounds reasonably familiar to modern ears, while Chaucerean OP sounds very different. The process would have been well under way by 1452, so Richard would have been growing up in a society where older people were sounding more like Chaucer but younger people were taking the accent in new directions. Which way he would have gone, in the absence of contemporary comment, is unknown. As he moved about the country, his accent would have become mixed, as happens a lot today.

There was certainly a Yorkshire accent at the time, but again, we have no idea what it sounded like. It is important to note that today’s Yorkshire accent would not sound the same. All we have to go on are a few scattered remarks. John of Trevisa comments, at the end of the fifteenth century, on the ‘harsh and unpleasant’ accent of the northerners, especially those in York. (We are still very prejudiced with accent even today and can be seduced or even repulsed by sounds that are not our own.) Chaucer, in his Reeve’s Tale, captures the dialect speech of northerners, showing ‘go’ as ‘ga’, and the like. The word ‘time’ was pronounced ‘teem’ in Middle English and became ‘tame’ in early Modern English. There are detailed examples in Professor Crystal’s Stories of English.1

On Professor Crystal’s advice, I decided to opt for a version of OP that is close to Tyndale – which was a generation later (circa 1525). All the silent consonants, such as the k in ‘know’, for example, would be sounded.2 (Note: at the time of writing this article my research continues to discover how far vowels moved by the late 1400s.)

I am extremely grateful to Sally for putting me in touch with Philippa Langley,3 who generously provided extracts from an early draft of her screenplay to be used for our more authentic Richard to speak.

Stage one

This brought the initial work in progress to that afterdinner event in Leicester last September. Tim Charrington himself gave us a wonderfully menacing Shakespearean Richard (withered arm and limp into the bargain) and then, with a very different physical build – no withered arm, no limp, a scoliosis rather than a curvature of the spine, a very different attitude, accent and voice – Paul Lancaster gave us an initial glimpse of the ‘real’ King.

This more authentic Richard was brought to us in two short scenes from an early draft of the script that Philippa Langley allowed us to use. The first scene showed Richard in prayer, heart‐searching and asking for God’s help before battle.

The second was as he stepped forward to address the army he was about to lead. Here was both a pious, humble man in the sight of God and also someone ready to fight for what he believed in; following the courage of his convictions as an anointed king of England. Here was a man who was inspiring and inspired.

I directed Paul to play the second scene making eye contact with all of us who were his ‘audience’ that evening. Here then was a king who cared for every one of his subjects, regardless of birth or social standing. In clearly audible yet unforced vocal tones was the more authentic accent and voice of a medieval monarch. It was atmospheric and moving to see and hear this ‘glimpse’ of Richard.

Stage two

This is in process and planned for later in 2015. As I write, I am grateful for the ongoing resources and help from many fields of expertise to piece further clues together for Richard’s voice: graphology, forensic sciences, archaeology, history and genetics among them. I am grateful to understand more from the field of dentistry, too. For example, there are particular patterns of teeth grinding that indicate certain levels of anxiety for Richard and even physical discomfort. I am also continuing to investigate further detail for Richard’s accent with help from historical phonologists. I am also searching to find any further clues or accounts from people who either knew him or were at least present to hear Richard speaking in some capacity.

Perhaps you can help? If so I would love to hear from you.


  1. Crystal, D. Stories of English (Overlook Press, 2004)
  2. Tyndale’s Bible: St. Matthew’s Gospel: read in the Original Pronunciation by David Crystal (Audio CD, British Library, 2013)
  3. The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones (John Murray 2013)

Yvonne Morley is a voice teacher and vocal coach. She is an Associate with the National Theatre’s voice department. Freelance work includes training actors and production coaching to include the West End. She also works with lawyers, teachers, politicians and those in the media. She co‐wrote More Care for Your Voice (VCN UK, 1999). For more information visit


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