Richard III is now as talked about in the 21st century as he was in the 15th. In 2012, a skeleton was found buried under a council car park in the town of Greyfriars in Leicester, England. Following a series of state of the art tests involving advanced carbon dating and DNA-matching, experts were able to confirm the skeleton was that of Richard III.
The last King of England to die on the battlefield, the last of the Plantaganet dynasty, and the last male of the House of York, Richard’s death marked the end of the Middle Ages. Despite now being in possession of his skeleton, the real Richard III is difficult to uncover. A vicious child-killing monster, as immortalized by Shakespeare during the 16th century or a worthy and unfairly-ousted King, Richard III’s reign marks a bloody end to a bloody period in English history.
Key Facts about Richard III
- Richard III was born on October 2nd, 1452 at Fotheringay Castle, Northamptonshire.
- Richard ascended to the throne at the ‘request of parliament’ on June 25th, 1483.
- In 1473, Richard married Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Earl of Warwick who was known as ‘The Kingmaker’.
- Richard III died in combat at the famous Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485.
A Primer on Richard III
During the Middle Ages, forecasting who would be the next to sit on the English throne was not a simple case of following the royal bloodline. Murder, rebellion, exile, invasion, and civil war all played a part in the game of thrones that made it impossible to judge where the crown would next land. Richard III’s life was an endless drama of plotting and planning, by purportedly very devious means, to become the King of England. Even once he was crowned King, Richard could not sleep soundly in his bed, well aware of the role-reversal that had taken place and that he was now the one who must watch his back.
Born in 1452, Richard was the twelfth child of Richard Plantagenet, the 3rd Duke of York and his wife, Cecily Neville. The 3rd Duke contested the throne of King Henry VI, arguing that he himself was the rightful heir. The Duke’s followers were known as ‘Yorkists’ while those loyal to King Henry VI were known as Lancastrians. As son of the leader of the Yorkists, Richard was born into the heart of a period of English history marked by extreme political instability and regular civil warfare known as the War of the Roses.
Richard was born and raised for battle. In 1461 his older brother Edward was crowned King Edward IV following the Lancastrian’s defeat at the Battle of Towton. Aged just nine years old, Richard was named the Duke of Gloucester and made a Knight of the Garter and a Knight of the Bath. The majority of Richard’s childhood was spent training to become a warrior of the battlefield under the tutelage of his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire. It’s here that Richard met his future wife, Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville.
Despite his close relationship with Richard, Warwick organized a revolt against King Edward IV in 1470 which Edward’s brother George supported. Richard stayed loyal to the King and was forced to flee to Burgundy. The exile did not last long though, as Richard was a skilled warrior and played a crucial role in the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, which saw Edward return to the throne in early 1471.
Richard III’s nickname was Richard Crookback, although it is unknown whether this slur was used during his lifetime or added as an epithet following his demise by the victorious Tudors. Various accounts of the king suggest that his posture was indeed crooked, his right side hunched and his left arm withered. Following the recovery of Richard III’s skeleton in 2012 an osteoarchaeologist was able to use 3D imaging and printing technology to map the King’s spine and confirmed that had, in fact, developed idiopathic scoliosis as an adolescent.
Richard was married in 1473 at the age of twenty one. His bride was Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Anne was only fifteen years old when her marriage to Richard was arranged and incredibly, was already a widow as she had been wed at the age of thirteen to Henry VI’s heir, Edward Prince of Wales. Richard’s older brother, George, was already married to Anne’s older sister Isabel and the question of who would inherit what from the sisters’ huge inheritance caused a rift between the brothers that lasted until George’s death.
In 1483, Edward IV died and his son, Edward V, succeeded him to the throne. As he was only twelve years old at the time, Edward V was appointed a Lord Protector to ensure his safety against the widowed Queen’s family who were plotting to seize the throne. This Lord Protector was Richard III who was advised to move Edward and Edward’s younger brother, nine-year old Prince Richard, to the Tower of London for their own safety. During the young King and Prince’s incarceration it became known that Edward IV’s marriage to their mother Elizabeth Woodville had been declared invalid and thus Edward V and his brother were illegitimate and without any kind of claim to the throne.
Apparently, at the behest of the citizens of London, Richard was petitioned to assume the throne and accepted. On the 6th of July in 1483, Richard III was crowned at Westminster Abbey. What happened next has been the subject of speculation ever since. Soon after Richard III’s coronation Edward and Richard or ‘the princes in the tower’ as they later became known, disappeared. Popular opinion held that Richard had had the princes killed to avoid any future dispute as to the legitimacy of his accession and had ether hid or destroyed the bodies to avoid detection.
At this point Richard could not have known that the real threat to his crown would come not in the form of child, princes but in the form of Henry Tudor. The Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor was a Lancastrian who had been resident in France for twelve years on the advice of Henry VI who knew all too well how risky it was for an heir to the English throne to be resident in England. Some of the most powerful lords in England were part of a plot to oust Richard III, crown Henry Tudor and marry him to Elizabeth of York creating a union of the two heirs of Red and White Rose factions, effectively ending the War of the Roses.
Henry attempted a premature invasion of England in October 1483. Unable to defeat Richard’s impressive navy, Henry’s invasion only succeeded in alerting Richard to his aims and helping him to identify Henry’s supported in England so that he could behead them.
During their marriage Richard and his wife Anne Neville had one son, Edward of Middleham. Unfortunately Edward died in 1484, thought to have been just ten years old and already the Prince of Wales and direct heir to the English throne. Anne is said to have been so distraught that she herself became gravely ill. During this period, Richard began to court his niece, Elizabeth of York, whose hand was promised to his enemy Henry Tudor. Richard was already accused of killing Elizabeth’s two brothers and with his recently bereaved wife still living this behavior did not sit well with the English public whose opinion of him is thought to have suffered dramatically.
Invasion was inevitable and on the 7th of August, 1485, Henry Tudor set foot on English land via Wales and met with Richard at Bosworth Field near Leicester. A two-hour battle ensued with Richard meeting his end at the sword of Henry’s bodyguard. Richard’s crown fell from his head as he was struck down and Lord Stanley placed it promptly and symbolically onto the head of Henry Tudor.
Legacy of Richard III
Richard III has one of the most complex legacies of any British monarch. Both those for and against the King offer extreme views on his character and reign. For some, Richard was a child-killer, a lecherous man and a terrible ruler. For others, he was capable and kind, a fearsome warrior on the battlefield who was unfairly plotted against and lost his throne in a despicable way. Historian Polydor Vergil said of Richard in 1520, “His courage also high and fierce, which failed him not in the very death”.
While Richard was on the throne he established the Council of the North, bringing stability and economic prosperity to the previously neglected north of England. He created a court of requests where those without the funds to pay a lawyer could air their grievances and invented the concept of bail, whereby those accused of crimes could retain their liberty and property while awaiting trial. Richard also implemented a Royal Charter that removed restrictions on printing books and had laws that were previously only written in French translated into English.
But most of what is thought and said about Richard III comes not from historians but from his representation by William Shakespeare, who wrote his play Richard III under the gaze of Elizabeth I, England’s last Tudor Queen. Shakespeare’s Richard is a grotesque figure and his play is said by some to be a propaganda piece to gain favor with the Queen.
Films and TV Featuring Richard III
- The Life and Death of King Richard III (1912)
- Tower of London (1939)
- Richard III (1955)
- Richard III (1995)
- Richard III (1996) TV Documentary
- Richard III: The King in the Car Park (2013) TV Film
- Langley, Phillipa and Jone, Michael (2013) The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III
- Baldwin, David (2012) Richard III
- Carson, Annette (2009) Richard III: The Maligned King
- Tey, Josephine (1951) The Daughter of Time
- William Shakespeare (16th Century) King Richard III
Locations Related to Richard III
- It is possible to visit the site of the battle of Bosworth during which Richard II lost his life.
- Crosby Hall was the home of Sir John Crosby who rented the property to Richard as a London home for him and his family. A modern house stands on the site of this original house with a plaque to mark the hall’s existence and its links to the king.
- Richard was born in Fotheringay Castle but little remains of his family’ home. It is possible to visit the remains of the castle and it’s still impressive church.