Richard III - Villain? Murderer? Victim?
Continuing our series into undeserved royal reputations, today I'm looking at possibly England’s most maligned monarch, a man for whom many people, even leading historians, jump to conclusions before facts. I’m talking, of course, about Richard the Third.
We’ve all seen the images and we’ve all heard the tales, born with teeth and long hair, hunched back, usurped the throne, murdered the kids, wanted to marry his niece, poisoned his wife, evil King hated by the people and so on and so on. So let’s take a look at some of these shall we?
If we take Shakespeare out of the picture, and you’d be surprised just how many people want to use him as an actual source, the source for most of the information regarding Richard’s appearance and character is the Rous Roll. This was a document created by medieval historian John Rous who was alive between 1420 and 1492 and he wrote about many contemporary events.
At some point during the reign of Richard, the Rous Roll was written and refers to the King granting Warwick a charter:
Rex Richardus tercius – born in the castle of Fotheringay a mighty prince in his days, special good lord to the town & lordship of Warwick wherein the castle, he did great cost off building, In the which his most noble lady & wife was born, and at great instance of her, he of his bounteous grace without fee or fine grant to the said borough, freely by charter as King William Conquerour his noble progenitor, afforded him great privileges.
"Mighty Prince and special good Lord to the town". He goes further to describe the way Richard ruled:
Ruled his subjects In his Realm full commendably, punishing offenders of his laws, especially extortioners and oppressors of his commons and cherishing those that were virtuous. By the which discreet guidance he got great thanks of God and love of all his subjects rich and poor, and great laud of the people of all other lands about him.
In a nutshell, those who oppressed the people were punished, he cherished the virtuous, ruled commendably and he gets the love of all his subjects. Doesn’t seem to the be the evil tyrant we’re brought up to believe in does he?
We can kind of back this up further as well because we have legislation passed, bearing Richard’s name, that we might well approve of.
He reformed the justice system so that trials had to be conducted in English rather than Latin. He developed the first legal aid system for the poor, and also passed legislation to prevent the intimidation of juries.
On his first visit to York the people of the city donated actual money to him. The York City archive shows people giving 10, 20, 30 pounds. These sums equate to more than a year’s income for these people, and speaking as one, Yorkshiremen do not part with money lightly I assure you.
If we go back to John Rous writing after Richard’s death and during the reign of Henry VII then we see a very different tone and description in his Historia Regum Anglicae or History of the English Kings:
“Richard was born at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, retained within his mother’s womb for two years and emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders. …”
This King Richard, who was excessively cruel in his days, reigned for three years [sic] and a little more, in the way that Antichrist is to reign. And like the Antichrist to come, he was confounded at his moment of greatest pride."
Strong stuff wouldn’t you say? And there’s the trouble. I don’t particularly want to take a side here but the idea that someone remains in the womb for two whole years is just plain damned ludicrous. To further suggest that Historia Regum Anglicae might be slightly less than accurate, when it talks about the history of Henry V it goes deep into his education but totally neglects to mention the Battle of Agincourt which speaks volumes.
Of course Rous is writing this under the view of Henry VII’s court. A court that needs Richard III to be the devil incarnate, I get that – but it destroys any credibility we can assign to any of Rous’ works as a source. We can be no more sure of Richard’s evilness than we can of his virtue. Rous as a source is too tainted with political intimidation, he is a historian writing what he is told to write by a patron.
In terms of deformity it is true, as confirmed by his skeleton, that he was afflicted with scoliosis which is an unusual curvature of the spine, however this is unlikely to have caused any particular difficulties and doesn’t appear to be that severe. Given that it did not interfere with him leading the vanguard at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471 I imagine it didn’t interfere much with the rest of his life either. In fact to reinforce this there was a TV show made “Richard III: The new evidence” where a man with a similar condition demonstrated such fighting after about 70 hours of training. With a life of teaching in war, being able to source bespoke armour and his disability being able to be adequately masked by clothing I’m not convinced this would be a major issue.
It even turns out that the classic portrait of Richard had also been doctored to show the hunchback. X-rays have since confirmed this. It all looks to me like a bit of a hatchet job.
Now there is also much wailing and gnashing of teeth that Richard usurped the throne, and so what?
On the one hand you can say that Richard’s claim to the throne was upheld by Parliament, and therefore it wasn’t an usurpation but an invitation. On the other hand he did have a whole bunch of his northern supporters and retainers camped outside London at the time so you could say some intimidation might have been at play.
But this really misses the point which is who the hell cares?
Seriously Richard was a medieval monarch AND a Plantaganet. That’s what Plantaganets do. They’re even more dysfunctional than Tudors. Want to see some other usurpers of the throne within this period? Well how about Henry IV, Edward IV and even Henry VII himself. You don’t see chapter and verse denouncing them for 550 years do you? In fact later on when William III usurped the throne we called it “The Glorious Revolution”.
Henry VII was just as much the usurper as there were at least ten people, including his own mother, who had a better claim to the throne than he did, and he gave us Henry VIII so I’m not convinced that long term it was a good thing.
This does lead us nicely into the Princes in the Tower. Now this is not to suggest that Richard did or did not kill the Princes in the Tower but just a plea to actually consider the evidence we have.
We have evidence that Edward and Richard Duke of York were taken into the King’s protection in 1483. We also have evidence that they were placed in the Tower of London, and that’s pretty much it. We could say we have no evidence that they were ever seen again. But that’s it. Everything else we have out there is rumour, opinion, speculation, and guesswork.
It’s possible that Richard had the rival claimants to the throne killed. He certainly has motive having taken the throne. He certainly has opportunity. But what does he gain? He already had the throne and if the deaths of the princes made that more secure then habeas corpus, produce the body.
It’s also possible Henry VII has them killed, after all he killed off pretty much every other living claimant to the throne he had taken, along with anyone who suggested they might be one so he’s got form. If they were still in the Tower when he rode into London then they wouldn’t be for much longer, and again, he doesn’t produce the bodies.
It’s also possible that nobody had them killed. There is no evidence to show that either monarch, or anyone else for that matter, had them murdered at all…. And this is our point.
I’ve seen leading historians in books announcing that Richard couldn’t have been in a particular part of the country at a particular time because if he was then he couldn’t have murdered the princes. This is a leading, famous historian with book deals and everything.
Richard the Third’s reputation might be bang on the money. He might be everything his detractors say he is… I’m sorry Richard III Society but he might. But that needs to be proven in either direction… …and until it is, Richard III’s reputation good or bad, remains undeserved.
Thanks for reading.