King Richard III is a figure of some controversy and arguably one of the foremost symbols of the adage that “history is written by the victors.” A lot of what we know of Ricard comes from popular culture, which is largely defined by William Shakespeare’s play named after the Plantagenet king. The Tragedy of King Richard III presents Richard as a bloodthirsty opportunist, a hunchback whose ugly inside was reflected in his outward appearance. Through the course of the play, Richard conspires to have his nephews murdered so that he can ascend the throne, then faces rebellions by his lords that ultimately result in his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field by Lord Richmond, who goes on to become King Henry VII and the first Tudor king.
But how much of Shakespeare’s portrayal is true? Surely, there is some exaggeration and artistic license taken by the Bard, as the Richard III Society believes. Founded by S. Baxton Barton in 1924, the society holds the belief that Richard has long been portrayed in a negative, or at least more unflattering, lighter than he really was as a person. The society attempts to compile historical records and evidence to discount the bad reputation that Richard earned as a result of the Tudor narrative against him as well as subsequent portrayals based on that narrative. In 2013, they led the campaign to uncover his skeleton in a car park that had been constructed over the church in which he was buried.
Richard was born in Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1452. He was the twelfth of thirteen children born to Richard Plantagenet, the 3rd Duke of York, putting him firmly on the York side of the War of the Roses that raged off and on from 1455 until two years after Richard’s death with the Battle of Stoke in 1487. Much of Richard’s young life was spent fleeing the Lancasters and their allies and developed his scoliosis in his early teens. The conflict cost the Plantagenets with Richard’s father and older brother Edmund dying in battle.
After reigning from 1461 until he was overthrown in 1470, King Edward VI regained his throne when he beat King Henry VI’s son Edward at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. Henry was then imprisoned and was said to have died of “melancholy” while in prison, temporarily ending the struggle over the throne. It was long rumored, however, that Edward had ordered Henry’s death. Sir Thomas More, a leading Tudor figure until his falling out over the Church with King Henry VIII, wrote the History of Richard III, which explicitly names Richard as Henry’s killer, though Wakefield’s Chronicle lists Henry VI’s death as 23 May, a date on which Richard was not in London.
Not too long after Edward regained the throne in 1471, George, Duke of Clarence and the middle brother, fell out of favor with Edward when he became a suspect in a plot against the king. George was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Edward himself stood as the accuser against the duke for treason, on which Clarence was found guilty and executed in 1478. Shakespeare’s play portrays Richard as having engineered these rumors in order to do away with a potential rival for the throne, but historians note no evidence of Richard’s involvement and the trial of George seems to be entirely motivated by Edward and his supporters.
In the play, Richard uses Clarence’s death to drive the already-sickly Edward further to his deathbed. With Edward IV’s death, his young son is set to become Kind Edward V. Richard then sends Edward and his brother Richard, Duke of York, to the Tower of London for their protection, later having them murdered by his followers. Historically, when King Edward IV died, Richard was named as Lord Protector for the young Edward V and his brother. The Woodville family attempted to prevent this by taking it upon themselves to be young Edward’s protectors, supposedly with the hope of dismissing Richard as Lord Protector and making Edward little more than a puppet king.
Much as in the play, Richard moved to arrest the Woodvilles and their supporters to keep this from happening. Richard then escorted Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, to the Tower London, which at the time was still used as a royal palace and the place where kings resided until their coronation, staying in the royal apartments there. The lords swore oaths of fealty to Edward and affirmed Richard as Lord Protector. It’s at this point where history and fiction begin to intermingle, and Richard’s desire for the throne becomes apparent even to historians.
Richard seemingly turns on William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings, who had been a supporter of Richard’s. Hastings was eager for the crowing of Edward V, and that seemed to turn Richard into Hastings’s enemy, having Hastings arrested along with Thomas, archbishop of York, and John, the bishop of Ely. At a council meeting, Richard had accused Hastings and others of conspiring with the Woodvilles against him. Thus, with their arrests, Richard removed some of Edward’s support, prolonging the young king’s coronation. Reportedly, Richard had been informed by a clergyman of the supposed invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville due to Edward’s prior marriage, which would make Edward V and his siblings illegitimate.
Richard used this information to rally support from the clergy, nobles, and people of London to have himself declared king. He went to Parliament with this information, and the body subsequently declared young Edward to be illegitimate. Richard was then crowned King Richard III in Westminster Abbey on 6 July 1483. Sometime after this, the young princes simply disappeared from the Tower of London without a trace. There are conflicting accounts of whether Richard ordered their deaths or not and nothing is definitive. Nearly 200 years later, a pair of children’s skeletons were found during renovations, concealed in a box under the stairs in the White Tower. It was not the first time that a child’s body had been found in the Tower, but the pair of them led to speculation that they could be the princes. King Charles II ordered the bones placed in an urn and interred in Westminster Abbey. An examination in 1933 of the bones determined that they were of approximate age to the princes, but no other examination was conducted or has been since, leading to accusations that the report jumped to the conclusion that the bones belonged to the two boys. Without further evidence, the mystery remains unsolved.
In the play, Richard had asked Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, to have the princes killed, but Buckingham hesitated, forcing Richard to tap Sir James Tyrell to do the deed instead. Richard then denies Buckingham a land grant and the duke turns against his king, leading the rebellion against him that culminates in the monarch’s death at Bosworth. Seemingly, some resentment and suspicion towards Richard existed after his coronation amongst Edward IV’s supporters who thought Edward V should have been crowned instead. Buckingham’s reason for turning against Richard doesn’t seem to be as apparent in history as it is in fiction, and in truth, he may not have even been the leader of the rebellion named after him. He was, however, the one to suggest Henry Tudor as a possible successor after the plotters believed Edward V and the Duke of York had been murdered. This is ironic considering that some historians have named Buckingham as one of the suspects in the princes’ disappearance.
Whatever the reason, by October 1483, Buckingham and other nobles were in full rebellion against Richard, who beat back the rebellion in its early days, capturing Buckingham and having him executed for treason. The initial rebellion may have been more successful had bad weather not kept Henry in France and unable to provide Buckingham with more support. It’s at this point in the play that, now king, Richard becomes increasingly paranoid, driving flocks of his supporters away and into the waiting arms of Henry Tudor. During the interim period before his invasion, Henry spent his time gathering troops and support from his exile, also plotting to marry Edward IV’s oldest daughter Elizabeth, which would combine the houses of Lancaster and York. Richard tried to route this by offering to marry Elizabeth himself (who was his niece), though the idea of the southern Elizabeth replacing the northern Anne was not supported by the people in the north, further eroding Richard’s own backing amongst his people.
When Henry Tudor landed in England in August 1485, he had a sufficient force to challenge Richard. Having beaten Buckingham, Richard was little concerned about Henry’s challenge and seemed to relish the opportunity to finish his opposition for the throne. Meeting at Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485, Richard was said to have fought bravely. Seeing Henry surrounded by only a small amount of protectors, Richard made a direct charge for Tudor, but soon found himself surrounded by Henry’s troops. Sir William Stanley’s forces were meant to rush in for support, but Stanley held his men back, all but ensuring Henry’s victory. The reason why Stanley did not come to Richard’s aid is unknown, but it ultimately secured Richard’s defeat. In being slain by Henry Tudor, Richard became the last English king to die on the battlefield and Henry would go on to be crowned King Henry VII, marry Elizabeth of York, and begin the Tudor dynasty.
It was during the Tudor dynasty that narratives including those of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare portrayed Richard in such an unflattering light, either suggesting or directly attributing various murders and plots to him. It was also Shakespeare’s play that portrayed Richard as being a hunchback, though contemporary accounts merely state that Richard had no noticeable deformities except that he was shorter in stature (which could be attributed to his scoliosis). Some accounts of his rule state that Richard was a good sovereign who punished “the oppressors of the commons.” While later narratives suggested that he had poisoned his wife, Queen Anne, by all accounts, she had died of disease, and Richard publicly wept at her funeral. On his death, the City of York deplored the killing despite potentially risking the wrath of Henry.
Ultimately, supportive accounts paint the picture of a man who was not as bad as portrayed. It should be taken into perspective that many of the negative stories concerning Richard come from supporters of the Tudor kings and queens. The real motivations of Richard in his quest for the throne may never be truly understood by us, but there is more to the reign of King Richard III than what you can read in Shakespeare. There is much more to read in historical accounts and especially concerning the finding of Richard’s body in a Leicester car park, but for this article, “our revels now are ended.”