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The Real King Richard III: Monster or Maligned?

Updated on August 30, 2013
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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