On PBS’ Secrets of the Dead: ‘Resurrecting Richard III’

Dominic Smee

By Dominic Smee
Interesting fact. The American version of the documentary produced for Channel 4 is actually the “director’s cut” and a whole ten minutes longer, despite having nearly 100 hours of footage on the cutting room floor! So not only did you get to see the program as the Director intended, but also you got even more than those of us living in the UK!

Nearly three years have passed since ‘Resurrecting Richard III’ first aired on PBS, but some of the events which took place during the filming of this program still stand out as if it all happened only yesterday…

It is difficult to try and pinpoint a favorite part of the investigation because much of my experience had a profound impact on my perspectives, both of myself and of Richard III.

I began my ‘journey of discovery’ with a somewhat basic understanding of who King Richard III was – from the history books, interspersed with various other facts gleaned from reading my mom’s historical romance novel ‘The Rose of Middleham’ as well as other sources.

My involvement in the program instantaneously gave me a very personal insight into Richard’s day-to-day life, wearing armor and performing as a military commander both on and off the battlefield, despite having such a significant scoliosis (which he must have succeeded in keeping hidden until his death) during such turbulent times. I would later develop a profound sense of respect and admiration for the courage and faith shown by King Richard III.

It was on the final day of filming when I felt that I had finally made a personal connection to Richard. I knew we had similar scoliosis’ [curvature of the spine]—though at the time I wasn’t sure just how close. Besides that though, we were, and are, worlds apart. He was a king, trained to be a knight from the age of 8 … a life I couldn’t be further from … but something happened to me that day that bridged the 500 year gap…
I was sitting on a vaulting horse in full battle armor, taking part in an experiment to ascertain whether my scoliosis would prevent me, and thus Richard, from dealing with attackers if he were stuck in the mud and unable to fully control his steed.

One of these ‘attackers’ hooked their (foam) halberd into my (real) battle axe. I didn’t see what was happening at the time, but they were able to pull me and my saddle over with them… (Simulating the cutting of saddle girth). Time felt like it stood still (even though I never hit the floor – I was caught before that ever happened) as I slid over. Was this how Richard would have felt? Was this what Richard saw before he was overwhelmed?
We decided to take the accidental conclusion of the first experiment to its end point by simulating a prone Richard; I lay face down in the grass and mud, under the horse, with my ankles pinned. There was very little I could do. The armor went from being a protective shell to my tomb. Again, I felt like I was experiencing Richard’s last moments… So much so that I began a piece of writing describing just that… Unfortunately that book never got finished…

The most daunting experience of the investigation happened right at the beginning of filming. I was told take a taxi to where I would meet up with the film crew and everybody else involved in the program. Upon arriving, we were told that there had been a change of location and were redirected to a rather remote sports hall. When I first began ascending the rather ram-shackled, narrow winding staircase leading to the sports hall-proper, I was filled with a sense of apprehension: Just where was I being taken? What was going to happen when I reached my destination upstairs?

At the top of the staircase, we entered a rather ordinary looking sports hall filled with several very busy members of the film crew and a bunch of new faces I had never met before. There must have been about twenty people in all. Once inside, the first people I met were Claire Small, clinical director and physiotherapist, and her assistant. I remember telling Claire how I felt more self-conscious about my weight than my scoliosis. After I met her, I slowly meandered my way around, introducing myself to the rest of the room.

My brother (Richard!) and I were asked to go into a back room – a very small toilet and to get changed into one of the director’s old shirts which loosely resembled a medieval shirt. I remember leaning on the sink as I got changed and staring into a cracked and smudged mirror, thinking, “what on earth had a let myself in for?”

The way I recall things, I had a feeling that I was going to be asked to take my top off and I uttered a silent prayer to give me courage for what I was about to do. (I may have been forewarned or asked about this in advance, but filming was nearly four years ago so I’m sure you can forgive me if I cannot remember things exactly!) I walked out and soon the cameras were running, and lo-and-behold, I was asked to remove my shirt. I expected grimaces, shudders and revulsion, but everyone gathered there only treated me with respect and praise for what I had done. That one moment meant a great deal to me as it was a defining point in my life. This was the first time that I had been truly honest and open about a part of me that I had kept hidden for so many years. Now that other people had begun to demonstrate acceptance of my scoliosis, I was able to begin to see my own body in a new light.

The most thrilling and exhilarating experience of the investigation has to be when I made what Dominic Sewell [jousting expert] described as ‘the jousting face,’ which is meant to be somewhere between excitement and sheer panic at the same time! I had finally perfected cantering from a standing start, learning to couch (gripping under armpit) my lance, and hitting a moving target – the quintain (rotating shield target), while travelling at about 30 miles per hour on horseback! Following that, I had to safely discard my lance, turn a corner, draw a battle axe from the belt around my waist and hit a polystyrene head – an even smaller moving target! Achieving all of that simultaneously gave me a huge rush, and I felt incredibly proud of doing so with only approximately four weeks of training twice a week.

There are two points in the investigation which would warrant being my scariest experience.

Dom and Hawthorn at Dom Sewell’s

The first happened mid-way through my training with Dom Sewell. Because I didn’t have any suitable armor of my own, I had to borrow a helmet, or sallet, off Dominic in order to help me gradually acclimatize to wearing a full plate harness. The closest analogy I can make to how you see the world through the eye slit, or visor of a helmet, would be if you were to look out the front door through a letter box. This narrow field of view slightly limits your peripheral vision but drastically reduces what you can see above and below. On horseback, and because of the movement restrictions imposed by wearing a bevor (chin plate), all I could really see was the tip of the lance and the tip of the horse Hawthorn’s ears.

The helmet I was borrowing was made to fit Dom, who has a larger head than my own. We tried to artificially pad the helmet by stuffing bandages and pieces of leather into my arming coif (hat), but while it helped, it was not enough to completely prevent the helmet from moving about. So during one of my training sessions, while cantering towards the quintain, in an arena filled with various mini hurdles, the eye slit slipped and my vision instantly went dark. I couldn’t see a thing. Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to drop the lance and slow the horse so nothing bad happened, but this experience had a profound impact upon my understanding of the need to have custom-fitted armor while riding or fighting on horseback.

My second nerve-wracking experience happened later during my horseback training. Per and Roman (the armor makers) had completed as much of the bespoke harness as they were able due to time and budget constraints.

Each piece of plate armor is designed to fit onto and function with its adjoining piece to create an effective defensive and offensive system. The gauntlets (gloves) used during filming were borrowed from Leeds Royal Armouries and as such, didn’t fit my long slender fingers. This resulted in performance difficulties.

I recall the following incident: One day in training, I was cantering alongside Dom Sewell beside a river on his land in eastern England while wearing the full harness and carrying a lance. The gauntlets and arm armor made it difficult to rotate my wrist and bend my arm sufficiently enough to achieve a couched position. I had to physically force the shoulder armor upward in order to do this, which caused the pieces to lock.

I was travelling at speed, unable to properly lift the lance. With my lance lowering towards the ground, Hawthorn, after years of extensive training, took this to mean ‘speed up’ as I must be aiming for something. There was nothing to do but drop the lance or my life would be in danger. We later removed some of the rivets in the gauntlets to increase my range of mobility. While this didn’t completely fix the problem, it gave me enough maneuverability to get the job done.

Another inspirational motive to re-enact a similar scenario with correctly fitting equipment – as Richard undoubtedly would have had. At the time, we put my difficulties down to inexperience and a lack of strength.

It is interesting to note that trying to get a set of working armor to fit comfortably is a constant battle for those wearing it. A tiny source of discomfort which cannot be alleviated after wearing a full harness for any length of time can soon become unbearable. It is not uncommon to see re-enactors wearing bandages to pad themselves out for a better fit – something which must have been quite common even in the fifteenth century.

My best experience of the investigation took place on the weekend of the final shoot. It was during this time that all of my training would need to come together in order to reproduce what, up until then I had only achieved in the presence of Dom Sewell and Dave Rawlings, my horseback and foot combat instructors.

The moment when I hit the target (which, for Richard, was Sir William Brandon) on that rainy, windy October morning, followed by my battle axe making contact with the prosthetic head further along the field, I knew I had achieved what I had set out to do. I was ecstatic, elated and really pleased to have done Dom Sewell proud for all of his hard work and time invested in me. All in all, we must have filmed 3 or 4 takes of the ‘charge,’ 3 takes of me hitting the quintain, and only one was needed for the heads on the poles.

Taken by member of audience at one of my arming up talks with Richard Knox (I am wearing some borrowed armour)

Something that was not made clear from the documentary footage was the fact that Dave Rawlings, my brother Richard and I spent 32 hours over the space of several months refining a choreographed fight sequence depicting two different scenarios in which Richard could have died.

I was also training to fight using appropriate techniques, in an unrehearsed fashion. This was depicted in the film by the footage of me fighting my brother Richard (wearing an arming jack and sallet [light helmet]). I succeeded in reproducing the aforementioned choreographed fight sequence (despite some of the armor being ill-fitting) for two takes in addition to a ‘free-for-all’ against my brother. All of this on the same day after spending much of the morning simulating Richard’s final charge on horseback.

Oh and did I mention that there would be another 5 AM start the following day to finish filming the bits we hadn’t managed the previous day? It was an incredibly intense few days, but it proved to me that I was just as physically capable as anyone else on that set, despite having what many would consider a severe disability. It was both enlightening, empowering and gave me an incredible sense of achievement, as well as no small sense of relief that I could finally get a decent night’s sleep and feel like I’d also made Dave proud!

The final day, I took part in a cavalry charge involving all of the knights and horses. It was breathtaking. The thundering hooves, the combined power and energy as the animals propelled us forward in unison. You could taste the expectation. I felt privileged to not only have been a part of the whole experience, but also to be considered a skilled enough rider to have been given the opportunity – despite being a complete novice at the start of the investigation!

I remember the first time where I actually felt like a celebrity during the investigation. It was when my mom and I took our first taxi from the train station. The driver called to arrange a meeting location outside. Only he wasn’t where we expected him; he was waiting out the back way – the place where celebrities go to make a quiet … or maybe a quick exit! When we finally discovered where he was, the first thing I noticed was a man holding a large white board with my name on it. The kind you expect to see at airports. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing. He was smartly dressed in a suit, with shades and an earpiece. He opened the door for us into a smart interior with blacked-out windows. I think we were pretty dumbfounded for most of the journey – still trying to work out whether it was all real or not!

Finally, I’d like to finish up with tributes to armor consultant and fellow mounted knight Dr. Tobias Capwell, and film director Gary Johnstone, without whom, none of my experience would ever have happened. I am deeply grateful and indebted to them for convincing the TV networks that I was worth the investment – despite what must have been tremendous concern when they first laid eyes on my bare back all those years ago. Thank you for giving me a life-changing opportunity, one which introduced me to new people and vastly broadened my horizons and experience, both of myself and of Richard III. Had I known that on that fateful day when I walked into the Wallace Collection in London to meet Toby for the very first time, I would one day be competing for the main role on a television documentary, I probably never would have gone at all.

Thank you also to Dominic Sewell and Dave Rawlings, Claire Small and Jörg Stadelmann – without you I never would have got as far as I did! Thank you to Bob W. Savage and the staff at Leeds Royal Armouries for providing the extra pieces of armor to complement Per and Roman’s work.

And last but not least, thank you to Per Lillelund Jensen and Roman Tereschenko for their amazing work on an outstanding harness… something I could never have afforded myself without being on the program… truly a dream come true.
The final, but by no means least, accolade has to go to the now sadly deceased Frisian-cob crossbreed Hawthorn, without whom I could never have achieved all that I did on horseback. An incredibly experienced, yet understanding animal with a perfect temperament. You taught me so much. A true warrior. RIP.

Now I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I’ve been up to since filming wrapped nearly four years ago…

When Angela Spencer, the cook at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre Tithe Barn found out that not all the armor featured on the program was made to fit me, she decided to organize a fundraising banquet to kick-start me on my way to achieving that end. As a result of this fundraiser, ‘The Dominic Smee Armour Fund’ Facebook page was born.

Spurred on by Angie’s work, I decided to continue the fundraising campaign to get the rest of the armor completed and began giving talks – the first of which took place at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre alongside Richard Knox, the Heritage manager. The campaign was also featured in The Ricardian Bulletin and Richard III Foundation publications. Slowly, over time, I accrued the necessary £10,000 to achieve my goal.
Although I very much would have liked the original armorers, Per and Roman, complete the harness, it became apparent that it was not going to be practical for them to do so. We had to factor in currency exchange rates, air flights, body casts etc., all of which would have increased the cost considerably.

So, I began to look closer to home for an armorer and stumbled across Will West, a motorbike engineer by trade who has made harnesses for the likes of Graham Turner – the renowned artist, among others. He was more than happy to come on board the project. Completing the suit of armor also enabled me to tackle both mine and Richard’s potential issues from a research point of view.

Unfortunately, Will was diagnosed with kyphosis earlier this year and has had to put his work on hold. As it stands, he will be unable to complete my bevor and sallet until November. Repair work to existing armor has depleted funds to the point where I now no longer have sufficient money to complete the entire harness.

I also hoped to consider research into the probability of Henry Tudor’s taking of Richard’s crown from the thorn bush and having himself crowned with it. Certain questions might have been answered: Would the extra weight of a circlet/crown on the helmet had an impact on Richard’s scoliosis? How easy would it have been for a circlet to have been removed from Richard’s helmet, intentionally or otherwise? Was Richard even wearing a circlet on the battlefield?

For now, I am waiting until November when Will has hopefully completed the first part of his commission to see what my next move is.

I was fortunate enough to have been invited to the re-internment of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral. Shortly after the service finished we were invited to St Martin’s House, just across the way from the cathedral to mingle with some of the guests. Walking up the stairs I noticed Benedict Cumberbatch. My mom told me earlier that he had been looking my way during the service, but I didn’t think it likely. Anyway, as I approached the top of the stairs, Benedict turned to face me and pushed through the crowds, heading in my direction. He held out his hand for me to shake and said ‘Nice to meet you Dominic’, and he did likewise to my mom. I couldn’t believe it. He knew who I was and made the effort to single me out particularly. To my credit, I was able to maintain a sense of composure and utter a coherent response. Afterwards, we all moved into another room and Benedict soon got swarmed with admirers. After that I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to butt in, so I waited patiently for an opening. We had a longer conversation later and I was given a personalized message from Benedict on the back of my invite – so well worth the wait!

The experience in 2015 and the week-long program surrounding re-internment of King Richard III’s remains was also a very significant point in my life. I met fans not only of Richard, but also people who felt privileged to meet me–in their words–a celebrity. I was gob smacked. The whole week seemed to pass by in a blur. To many I was just Joe Public, yet to some … I was famous! It was such a dichotomy, which to this day I cannot fully comprehend.
However, my small experience of being in the public eye taught me just how much I appreciate having a private life as an ordinary person. I would go places and be surrounded by groups of people desperate to talk to me. I didn’t have time to speak to them all even though I wanted to. I felt disconnected … never alone… yet cut off. I felt so guilty for not being there for everybody. It was not a life I would have like to have continued. It gives me a huge sense of sympathy for A-listers who go places and can never have a normal life, a normal conversation…

Richard III Society GMM at Denver

Sometime later, I met Bob Pfile and his wife Barbara in the Tithe Barn café at Bosworth Battlefield Centre. They were from the Tidewater Chapter of the American branch of the Richard III Society. I mentioned a little bit about who I was and what I’d been up to. I told him how I’d love to come visit America, and that it’s been a dream of mine ever since I can remember. Bob told me that he couldn’t promise anything, but he’d put the idea forward of my travelling over to present a talk about my experiences at one of their general membership meetings. I heard nothing for some time, until my mom received an email out of the blue confirming that they were in the process of gathering funds to possibly make my dream a reality!

The following year I flew over to Denver, Colorado and got to have my first, and probably only, experience of your amazing country. My thanks go out again to the branch members for making my time over there so memorable – a special shout-out to Dawn and Pete for being such great hosts. We crammed so much into my short visit but I feel so incredibly privileged and fortunate! It was a wholly positive experience, for which I am truly grateful.

I’d like to finish up with the words of one Bilbo Baggins ‘I think I’m… quite ready for another adventure!’