The Real King Richard III: Monster or Maligned?

My sketch of Richard III
My sketch of Richard III | Source

Richard III vs. Shakespeare

What many of us know of King Richard III of England has come from Shakespeare’s play and from rumor. He’s often depicted as a deformed hunchback who was a treasonous murderer. But how much of what we think we know about Richard is actually based on fact, and how much is based on the words of Shakespeare? I taught the Bard for years in my British lit classes, and ole Will certainly made Richard out to be a villain – a power-hungry usurper who stole the throne of England from an innocent child. Even worse, many people believed that Richard murdered his own nephew and rightful heir to the throne, along with his little brother. On the other hand, Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII after defeating Richard III in battle, was often portrayed as a heroic figure, especially by Shakespeare. But did the playwright have an agenda? Did his loyalty to the House of Tudor cloud his judgment and color his words into a type of propaganda? Join me in trying to unravel this ageless mystery!

Wars of the Roses
Wars of the Roses | Source

Wars of the Roses

To understand how all this played out, we have to start with the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars and battles fought in England between 1455 and 1485. The Plantagenets had ruled England since 1154, with the crowning of Henry II. It was two branches of this royal family that fought in these civil wars – the Yorks and the Lancasters. The symbol for the House of York was the white rose, and the symbol for the House of Lancaster was the red rose - hence the name. The division in the families began when Henry Bolingbroke, a Lancastrian, seized the throne from his cousin and childhood friend, King Richard II. Each royal house felt that its members were the rightful rulers.

In 1461, the House of York took the throne with the crowning of King Edward IV. When Edward died in 1483, his twelve-year-old son was scheduled to be crowned as King Edward V. The boy’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had different plans. Richard supposedly learned that his brother, Edward IV, was never legally married to his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. Richard also apprently believed that his brother was illigitimate and not the real son of their father, the Duke of York. Recent evidence found in France seems to confirm this. Either way, that made Edward V illegitimate and not a rightful heir to the monarchy. A document, Titulus Regius, was confirmed by Parliament, and Richard was crowned as King Richard III in 1483.

Tower of London
Tower of London | Source

Princes in the Tower

But what happened to the young sons of King Edward IV? Just before Richard was crowned, Edward V was twelve, and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, was nine. Richard had them housed in the Tower of London, supposedly for their safekeeping as Edward awaited his coronation. This wasn’t unusual. Even though most of us Americans think of the Tower of London as only a prison and a place of torture and executions, it was actually used as a royal lodging, too.

For a couple of months after Richard III was crowned, people observed the “little princes” playing on the grounds outdoors. Soon after, however, they seemed to have vanished. Word began to spread that the two boys had been murdered, but by whom? Richard III has long been blamed for this heinous crime – not that he did it by his own hand, but that he ordered it done. Many believed the king was responsible for the deaths, and it made him look even more suspicious when he didn’t pursue a formal investigation of the crime. One of Richard’s knights, James Tyrrell, confessed to the murder when he was tortured, claiming that he was following the king’s orders. Henry Stafford, one of Richard’s staunchest supporters, was also suspected. According to Portuguese archives, Stafford starved the boys to death. Perhaps this was done at the king’s request.

But what did Richard III have to gain from the death of his nephews? He had already won the crown legitimately through Titulus Regius, so killing the young princes seems unnecessary. Who would stand to gain the most from the boys’ deaths? Some people suspect the real culprit to be Henry Tudor, who was crowned Henry VII.

Henry was a descendent of the House of Lancaster and had probably been eyeing the throne for some time. He was also eyeing Elizabeth of York, sister to the two little princes. Perhaps Henry believed that marrying her would strengthen his claims to the throne. Henry had a major problem, though. His claim to the throne was shaky, and in order for his marriage to Elizabeth to strengthen his claim, he would have to revoke the Titulus Regius because it made Elizabeth illegitimate. If the document was rescinded, however, that would make Elizabeth’s brothers in line for the kingship. Of course, if Elizabeth had no living male siblings, Henry could have his cake and eat it, too, so to speak. If he had the boys killed and revoked the document, his wife would still be a legitimate noble, and no immediate heirs to the throne would be in his way.

Taking all this into account, it seems that Henry VII is the most likely suspect. He certainly didn’t seem to have any qualms about destroying his rivals to the monarchy. BUT…there’s a problem with this accusation, too. The timing doesn’t really work. Henry would have been hard pressed to get access to the boys before he became king, and that didn’t happen until 1485, and most accounts have the boys’ disappearing two years earlier, while Richard III was ruling. Of course, if the boys were still alive in 1485 but kept out of sight, Henry could have had them murdered once he took the throne.

We may never know the truth about what happened to the two little princes. Historians are pretty sure they were murdered, based on evidence found in 1674. While part of the old keep in the Tower of London was being renovated, workers found two small skeletons beneath a stairway. In 1933, scientific studies of the remains indicated that the skeletons were of children the right ages to have been the two missing princes.

The Real Richard III:

King Richard III

Richard III reigned for only two years, but he was able to accomplish some important deeds. The common people, especially those in northern England, often saw him as their champion. He established bail so that those who had been accused of crimes wouldn’t lose their property or be held in prison for lengthy periods before a trial. Richard also established legal representation for the poor. Before his reign, many of England’s laws were in French, but Richard had them all translated into English. Also before Richard became king, there were heavy restrictions on the printing of books, but as king, he had those lifted.

Richard married Anne Neville in 1472, and the couple had one son, Edward. Richard was reported to have been a loving father and was devastated when his son died at the age of ten. The king was also reported to have been generous, and as a military leader, he was brave and skillful.

Richard III’s reign was never on very solid footing, and there were several rebellions against him. Most were led by supporters of the former king. One was led by Henry Stafford, Richard’s former ally. Stafford was captured, and the king ordered his beheading. Many nobles, however, had thrown their support behind Henry Tudor, who also had the help and support of France.

Bosworth Field

Battle of Bosworth Field

In 1485, Henry and his troops, comprised mostly of French mercenaries, faced Richard and his troops on Bosworth Field. Where is Bosworth Field? For centuries, it was believed to have been at Ambion Hill, in Leicestershire, which is located in the center of England. New evidence, however, pinpoints the location of Bosworth Field to a marshy area slightly to the west and south. Evidence includes pieces of armor, cannon balls, and Richard’s personal emblem, a silver boar badge.

Although Henry was outnumbered, he won the day. Several of Richard’s men deserted him, but the king did not go down without a valiant effort. In fact, he focused on bringing down Henry and almost succeeded. As he approached Henry, Richard was surrounded and attacked by William Stanley’s forces. He was struck several times by swords and halberds and died as a result. The king’s body was stripped naked and buried unceremoniously at a nearby church.

After Richard’s defeat, Henry was crowned as King Henry VII, which brought an end to the Wars of the Roses and an end to Plantagenet rule. The House of Tudor was firmly established and would continue to rule England for 117 years. Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV and a member of the House of York, united the houses of York and Lancaster.

Rumors Surrounding Richard III

Richard has long been maligned. There were even reports that he stayed in his mother’s womb for two full years waiting to be born, and that he was born with long hair and a full set of teeth. His physical appearance has been described as small, hunchbacked, twisted, deformed, and crooked. Supposedly, his outer ugliness revealed his evil character. Through the years, he’s been accused of murdering his two young nephews and poisoning his wife so that he could marry Elizabeth of York, his niece. Historians, however, believe that Richard’s wife, Anne, died from tuberculosis. And I’ve already discussed the questions surrounding the disappearance of the two princes in the Tower.

So how did Richard III get such a bad rap? It might well have been part of the Tudor political machine’s propaganda. If Richard III could be portrayed as a monster, the Tudor monarchy would gain more popularity with the people. Was William Shakespeare part of the rumors? I believe he was. If you’ve never read Richard III, give it a go. The opening lines depict Richard as a bitter man, jealous of his brother’s reign:

“Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

In the play, Richard describes Edward IV, the “sun of York,” as capering “nimbly in a lady’s chamber to the lascivious pleasing of a lute.” The character of Richard, however, describes himself as being too ugly to enjoy such pleasures:

“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty,

To strut before a wonton and ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,

Created of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time,

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.”

Shakespeare has Richard saying, “I am determined to prove a villain.” And the Bard does a good job of fulfilling this role for the character. The playwright has Richard using Anne for his own purposes and then planning on abandoning her; of having his brother, George, murdered; of having the two little princes murdered; and of poisoning his wife. But why would Shakespeare do this? Shakespeare needed the support of the monarchs, and it seems as if he actively sought it. The play was written around 1592, while Elizabeth was on the throne. The Tudors were amazingly powerful, and without their patronage and approval, the Bard would probably never have enjoyed the success he attained. Queen Elizabeth wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, but she did watch Shakespeare’s plays at least fourteen times. Her successor, King James I, was a real fan of the Bard. Shakespeare changed the name of his acting troop from “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men” to “The King’s Men” in honor of James. Supposedly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth specifically for King James. James was the first of the Stuart kings, but he was a descendent of the Tudors.

Richard III's Skeleton Found:

Remains of Richard III Discovered

Upon his death on the field of battle, King Richard III was buried at Greyfriars Church. When King Henry VIII demolished many churches and monasteries, Greyfriars was destroyed. In the summer of 2012, groups set out to locate the king’s remains. They included the Leicester City Council, The University of Leicester, and the Richard III Society. First, of course, they had to find the site of the old church.

The church foundation was found beneath a parking lot, along with skeletal remains. The skeleton was of a small man with a crooked spine that had been affected by scoliosis. The skull provided evidence of several injuries that were in keeping with wounds suffered in battle. The groups in on the search were excited to have found the bones, but they weren’t completely sure they had uncovered the remains of King Richard III. A descendent of Richard’s was tracked down, and a DNA sample was taken. The University of Leicester announced on February 4, 2013, that the found remains were almost certainly those of Richard III.

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Comments 21 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Very interesting Lela! I know very little about European history; didn't pay much attention in school. Having said that, I had no trouble reading your hub, which says a lot.


DJRebelstar profile image

DJRebelstar 3 years ago from England

Awesome , a very timely hub. As a 'northerner' I can safely say Richard III was a victim of the propaganda machine! Typical southerners ;)


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, BB. It's "Holle," not "Lela." I didn't learn a lot of European history in high school, either. lol. Most of what I know I learned on my own while I was teaching Brit lit.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

LOL, DJ. Don't be badmouthing us southerners! Maybe we just like mayhem and mystery.


LCDWriter profile image

LCDWriter 3 years ago from Florida

The discovery of Richard III under the parking lot (and confirmation) was the highlight of my week. It just doesn't get more interesting than that. Makes you wonder who else we are parking on!


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

Your interesting revelations, Holle, indicate that kingship was dangerous in those days. Richard III may have been discovered but we still don't know what really happened to those two young princes. So sad.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York

I have to admit, I am glad I was born into the modern era and not into the royal family of the late 1400's! We visited the Tower of London about 10 years ago, and it was a fascinating tour. I feel sorry for those two little boys who were murdered so long ago - perhaps we'll never know the true culprit. Maybe Richard III murdered them so they could not challenge his right to the throne as they grew older?


DJRebelstar profile image

DJRebelstar 3 years ago from England

It was pretty much nailed on it was Richard III. Who stood the most to gain by their deaths? He did, he was made Lord Protector until they came of age. Richard III got them into the tower so he could control them, then they mysterious died!

It was very ruthless BUT all Kings and Queens of England did equally ruthless stuff to get and keep power.

Ironically though the 2 'villain' kings Him and John I actually stuck up for the common person.

The one king that didn't even speak English, hated the place, bankrupted the country due to him being captured and was more intent on killing Arabs is revered. Yep Richard the Lionheart !


Lynn Weisen profile image

Lynn Weisen 16 months ago from South Amboy

John I did not stand up for the common man until her was forced to by the Barons who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. The whole event was brought about by John I being mad at William de Braose. William was out of John's reach, so, as a substitute, John captured Braose's wife and first born son. He imprisoned them in a dungeon, then order it walled up. They starved to death, slowly and painfully. They are my ancestors...


evabe 15 months ago

To another article I also tried to post that Shakespeare's misunderstood character is a GROTESQUE PARODY of the calumnies against Richard,it points to the fact that his enemies were villains


Lynn Weisen profile image

Lynn Weisen 15 months ago from South Amboy

Shakespeare is, after all, fiction. Richard III as a character is merely a vehicle allowing actors to dramatize the role... Grotesque Parody is very well put... all the Norman kings killed rivals... but, some would have us believe that, out of all of them, Richard III was the exception to the rule, with no evidence to substantiate that belief. Today, everyone seems to forget the real victims... two small boys, who never got a life, let alone an opulent funeral that cost millions...


evabe 15 months ago

If you speak about evidences,these are necessary to prove a crime.AND THERE IS NO EVIDENCE AGAINST RICHARD.All the indirect evidences point to his total innocence:his good behaviour,his loyalty,his heartfelt religiousness.The two not so little boys perhaps being together with him in heaven,if there's such a 'place',now they think that they received a relatively proper burial --also indirectly--with him.If somebody killed them,it was one of the plotting Tudor clan.And shakespeare's generation knew something,that was why Shakespeare wrote 'mockeries of true things' about Tudor chronicles.If you are not brainwashed by Tudor propaganda,you could try read Shakespeare properly.


Lynn Weisen profile image

Lynn Weisen 15 months ago from South Amboy

I wrote two hubs called, "The Second Wars of the Roses", in Part 2 I think I make a stronger case as to who killed the Princes in the Tower than Josephine Tey, but she did not have a computer to search for obscure records. It was not Richard III, and it was not Henry Tudor, and, it was not Margaret Beaufort. The prime suspect that fits what facts we know, without any inconsistent elements. If my theory is correct, the guilty party framed Richard III in such a way that Richard's friends all changed their allegiance. I do not agree that they were "not so little boys" as back the children had a very slight build, not like children today, and one was ten years old, and one twelve. Still small boys...


evabe 15 months ago

I don't think the point is if they were small or not,but the fact is that those who wish to blame Richard speak about them as if they had been smaller than in reality they were. Yes,it's possible that Richard was framed,but all his friends did not changed their alliance at all.There were a few traitors--who sadly determined his fate at Bosworth--,and there were people so loyal to Richard that even after his death,they fought against Tudor.No,what I think is that this whole question of the nephews is still seen the way Tudor propaganda wanted people to see it.Kings of those times always killed those who stood in their way,and nobody cares.But everybody deals with Richard's nephews whom he did not kill,but if he had done it,he would just have been like all the other monarchs in those times.I think his tragedy was precisely that he was better.So we should focus on this tragic reality of human societies,how unscrupulous strength becomes the winner,and good-heartedness is a drawback---today too! This is what many people are afraid to realize,to draw as a conclusion,so they keep on 'defending' the Tudor point of view.

But now that we are inter ested in Richard,all the findings about him are interesting.Why do you keep back who your suspect as the boys' killer is? I'd be interested to know. Not Buckingham,I suppose,because this would not be new.

On thing is sure:

.The Tudors--and their allies--were scheming against Richard in his life,then after his death' they forgot' to accuse him of the 'murder' of the boys,but later they found that to bring this subject to the surface again helped their malicious cause. If Richard had done such a thing,Tudor would have mentioned it right away after Bosworth...

What I read out of Shakespeare is that Richard,far from having been betrayed and left by all,kept on being popular and loved--look at the note at the city of York,look at the 'pretenders'in Tudor's times backed by many people--and his popularity went on deeply into the late Tudor times. Shakespeare was not pro-Tudor,and not a bad playwroght.He would have been a horribly bad playwright if he had meant the play Richard III to be realistic. It's a sour grotesque parody of the calumnies--and the contemporaries understood it.Read Ben Jonson 's,Prologue of Every Man in His Humour...

I'm writing articles and a whole book about the misunderstood Shakespeare,it's very important.For him Tudor peace was a 'glooming peace',because 'this England never did nor never shall lie at the proud foot of a conqueror/but when it first did help to wound itself'(Romeo and J,King John).

To think that this playwright strengthens the Tudor versions,is a total misinterpretation of his dramaturgy ! Grotesque parodies,like the play Richard III always mean the opposite of what they seem on the surface


Lynn Weisen profile image

Lynn Weisen 15 months ago from South Amboy

You need to read The Second Wars of the Roses Part 2... for my choice of suspect and why. I think you will be surprised at how everything fits..

Richard was vilified because the Princes in the Tower were children, other people killed rivals but only when they were grown. Even Henry7 imprisoned George's son until he was an adult before he executed him. I started writing these hubs believing that R3 was guilty... I found out a great many things, already knew some, and came up with a different answer to mystery. I champion Shakespeare and the two boys; to see the bard called a Tudor propagandist gets my blood boiling. I do not like the Tudors, or side with them. But, Shakespeare was written 110 years or so after Bosworth, at the end of Elizabeth's reign, to see his name and his work blackened... well, you feel the same, so you know how I feel. Read my other hub and weigh in with your opinion in the comment section of Part 2 of Wars of the Roses... Let me know when your book comes out, I'd like to read it.


evabe 15 months ago

Lynn,

You are just like me:we are people capable of changing our views if we find new evidence.As far as Shakespeare is concerned,I'm sure he is generally misunderstood.You can read one of my articles on queenanneboleyn.com :A Misunderstood Play:Sh's Richard III.

being a bit of an expert on grotesque drama,I always found this play the first ever grotesque drama of world literature.But dealing with it,I found--and keep on finding --new things that show that the whole oeuvre is full of anti-Tudor hints,yes,even Romeo and J,Midsummer Night's Dream,not speaking about King John...So my views have also changed,or at least developed,and now I've reached a difficult stage,because

here we are on tricky grounds,because Queen Elizabeth's role may have been also different than previously thought.As I mentioned in one of my articles:what,if she tolerated all this,because she considered her Tudor line a stained one (she surely hated her father!) and her 'virginity'was due to this fact?.Of course,this has to do with the whole English establishment,until the present day...And I'm not even a British citizen,so anyone might say:what is this foreign woman doin g critisizing the British establishment?

But for me it all started with Shakespeare--and perhaps Elizabeth I would agree with me--and with Shakespeare--- that something has gone drastically wrong with her grandfather's invasion (England wounded itself with the conqueror,in Shakespeare's words)---but in other countries it's even worse! In most countries not even a 'reburial' like Richard's could have been organized for a man whose tragedy gave way to the whole stained est ablishment of his posterity. So this is where my views are developing:it has to do with the way human societies work...a pretty dark picture...

I'll read all your articles.Jut one more thing:what Tudor did to that nephew of Richard whom you mention,is far worse than to be killed in a moment...to suffer years imprisoned still being a child and then to be victim o f a horrible execution.I would definitely prefer to be killed all of a sudden without much suffering!


Lynn Weisen profile image

Lynn Weisen 15 months ago from South Amboy

I absolutely agree, what happened to Edward, son of George of Clarence, was horrible, incarcerated all his young life, isolated... But, the evil done to that poor child came back ten-fold to the people who had a hand in his death... Katherine of Aragon's parents, their children, Henry VII's son, Arthur (named, of course, after the Legendary King Arthur of Welsh Legend...) Katherine of Aragon, herself, too many to name... and, Henry VIII? Everyone keeps trying to diagnose his mental and physical conditions... He was descended from the same line as Henry VI, so insanity was in his DNA probably from inter-marrying cousins... Georgie Lowery has a most excellent hub on the Habsburgs... I recommend it to everyone. The Plantagenets killed each other off more than war or natural causes... they decimated their own family for power. You might like the hub on the Howards and the Boleyns... The Howards were descended from the Lancastrian Line, so one of them should have been the lead contender for the Lancastrian faction, not Henry VII, who was a Beaufort. The Howards fought for Richard III, and, before him for Richard of York and Edward IV... John Howard died at Bosworth Field with Richard III. That fact, alone, should speak volumes to us today. Why didn't the Howards assert a claim to the throne as Lancastrians? Because they recognized that the correct Line of Succession was the Yorks, not from Edmund of Langley, but through Lionel of Antwerp. It is the only possible reason. So far, I have found 13 Howards executed or imprisoned by Henry VIII, and I am starting to look further back... for those killed by his predecessors. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard because they had Lancastrian blood lines as they were descended from the Howards, any children they had would carry both lines from John of Gaunt, while Henry only had one line of Beaufort lineage... Everyone thinks today that Anne Boleyn's Coat of Arms was pretentious... maybe not...


evabe 15 months ago

All this is very interesting.If you happened to have a look at my article on queenanneboleyn.com,you might have seen that I'm Hungarian of origin,so i know a lot about the Habsburgs--who ruled Hungary for centuries.Yes,royal families were full of strange,not normal people---but here again,what you say is very near my approach:that the whole question must be seen from a wider perspective.As far as Richard is concerned,following the assumption of innocence rule,which--how interesting!-- he is the only one whom it's been denied for so long,and try to see further:why did this happen,exactly how did this happen why this was done to him 'that is the question'.My subject matter is literature.How could even Shakespeare be so misunderstood,? It's tricky,yes,it has to do with Elizabeth I's role too.What you say about her, also reinforces my original supposition that she felt stronger than people think---and she hated perhaps not only her father,but her father's similarly unscrupulous father too,she knew that the Tudor line was not legitimate and this was why she didn't want to have an heir...

Suppositions? They could and should be researched instead of focusing all the time on Richard--some people enjoy insulting him (they qualify themselves),others treating him as a 'defendant' and the wider picture is overlooked


Lynn Weisen profile image

Lynn Weisen 15 months ago from South Amboy

I went to the queenanneboleyn.com but I could not find your article, I did find Matt's and read it. What is the title of your article? Or some way to find it...


evabe 15 months ago

This morning I was on the brink of deleting this account,because I worked on a 'hub' and it disappeared without any previous warning.Now I couldn't answer you 5 minutes ago,then the 'notifications'application didn't work,

.I hope it's not a problem if I write here my email from which I have a link to my article:

be103@hotmail.com

It would be nice to keep in touch even if I definitely delete this account


evabe 15 months ago

Hi,Lynn

I've just checked.My article is there.This is the exact address:

queenanneboleyn.com/2015/ 03/ 10/a misunderstood-play-shakespeare-the -tragedy-of--richard iii- by -eva--burian

I'd be glad if you wrote to me to my hotmail address,because I've just received a message from the publisher in the US,hopefully it will work out to publish my book with them,but they want at least seventy-five thousand words---much work for me--so I cannot work on 'hubs' now.But we could keep in touch,I would even offer you something,but only in personal email,not this public way

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