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Richard III - re-assessing his reputation in a modern light (Part 3)


In Part 2 we took a close look at the question of who killed the princes in the tower, if anyone in fact did. In this final part we will examine the rest of the major accusations levelled at Richard III to see if they have any merit.

But first I want to address an issue related to the discussion on the princes in the tower. It has been pointed out by others that when people talk about the princes' possible survival, it's always Richard of Shrewsbury that they refer to. For example, Perkin Warbeck was taken by many to be Richard of Shrewsbury returning to take the throne that was actually his. Other pretenders were also said to have been Richard the younger prince escaped from the tower. It's never Edward V who survives the imprisonment in the tower, and I find that very interesting. Why could this be? It has been speculated that Edward V actually died of natural causes in the tower, and that's why he is never mentioned in connection with surviving the Tower of London or the later pretenders that rose up during the reign of Henry VII. Food for thought indeed.

Right, on to the remaining accusations aimed at Richard III. Let's go through them one by one and see if we can't unpack them.

Richard III was a deformed hunchback

In the play Richard III, Shakespeare depicts his anti-hero as a deformed hunchback with a withered arm. In medieval times physical deformity was synonymous with inside evil. So was Richard III physically deformed? Thanks to the discovery of the monarch's bones in Leicester in 2015 we can now say definitely not. First, he did not have a withered arm. Second, he was not a hunchback, although the skeleton's spine shows he suffered from scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. This would have made made one shoulder appear higher than the other and would have been very painful. But it would not have made him a hunchback. History is written by the winners and his physical deformities were exaggerated by Tudor propaganda. Shakespeare's Richard III is a fictional invention.

Richard III plotted to have his brother George, Duke of Clarence killed

Again in Shakespeare's play, Richard III is seen plotting and scheming his way to the throne right from the start. His machinations ultimately result in Edward IV executing George, Duke of Clarence, the middle brother. But is this was what really happened? Well, no. Edward IV was already aggrieved enough by his brother's behaviour and actions to come to that fateful decision on his own. Firstly, Clarence had joined Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the so-called Kingmaker) in a rebellion against Edward by supporting and restoring the Lancastrian regime, nominally headed by the ineffective Henry VI. Warwick was eventually killed at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471; the restored Edward IV chose to be magnanimous to his brother and forgave him. Even then Clarence did not make things easy for himself. In 1476 his wife Isabella (daughter of the aforementioned Earl of Warwick) died in childbirth giving birth to son called Richard, who died shortly after. Clarence. never the most stable of personalities, went into a downward spiral that eventually landed him in the Tower of London. He was finally executed in 1478 by being drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine as the legend goes. It did not require Richard to plot or scheme against Clarence for this happen; George brought it upon himself as a consequence of his actions.

That's not to say, however, that there was no love lost between the two brothers, Richard and George. As we've already said, Clarence had married Isabella the daughter of the Earl of Warwick in 1469. Richard had married Warwick's other daughter, Anne Neville, around 1472. The brothers fell out over the question of inheritance of the Warwick estates. Finally, Edward IV had to intervene. That does not mean, however, that Richard was in any way responsible for his brother's death. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that this was so.

Richard III murdered Henry VI

The Battle of Tewksbury on May 4 1471 and its aftermath was the ascendant moment for Edward IV. His forces had won the day. The Lancastrian heir and son of Henry VI, Edward of Westminster was killed in the battle; his mother Margaret of Anjou (the true power behind the throne) was defeated and broken. Two weeks later, around 21 - 21 May Henry VI himself died in the Tower of London; he had been languishing there ever since the resurgent Yorkists had re-taken the capital. From then onwards until his own death in 1483, Edward's reign was relatively quiet and peaceful compared to the years and decades' worth of fighting that had come before. The official story was that Henry died of melancholy after hearing of his son's death and his wife's defeat. However, rumours abounded that he had been killed in order to prevent and discourage further Lancastrian plots and uprisings. After all, Edward IV had already spared his life once and a rebellion had sprung up in his name. So it's likely that the deposed king was indeed murdered. But was Richard the one who killed him?

There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Richard killed Henry VI personally. Some historians have mentioned that as Constable of England Richard would have been the one responsible for conveying the execution order to the tower. But that doesn't mean he did the deed himself; it could easily have been one or more persons already employed within the Tower of London for this very reason. The most Richard could have conceivably done was relay the kill order to the tower. And even if Henry VI had died by his hand, it's hard to believe that he would have struck a single blow without express permission from Edward. So the ultimate responsibility for Henry's death lies with the king, wanting to secure the throne once and for all. The idea that Richard murdered Henry VI looks to be nothing but revisionist Tudor propagandists wanting to further blacken his name by assigning to him every possible murder.

Speaking of which, Richard has also been accused of murdering the aforementioned Edward of Westminster. However, again there's no sure-fire way of confirming the veracity of this. There are stories of Edward running away from the battlefield only to be cut down and run through by none other than George, Duke of Clarence, as he desperately pleads for his life. Another tradition states that he was taken before Edward IV before being dispatched. Assuming this scenario is true, could Richard have been the one who dispatched him? It's possible, but it's also equally possible it could have been George, the other brother. We may never know which version of events is true.

Richard III wanted to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York

This one is actually a two part accusation. The first part involves his wanting to marry his own niece, Elizabeth of York, in order to secure himself on the throne. The second is poisoning his wife, Anne Neville, in order to achieve this. But is there any truth to either accusation?

I don't believe that Richard intended to marry his niece. Far as I can tell the rumour seems to have come from a ball in which Elizabeth of York and Anne Neville were seen dressed in identical clothes. Certainly, the rumour was widely believed in Richard's time; even Henry Tudor (in exile in France at the time) heard of it. In fact, Richard had to make a public statement in which he emphatically denied wanting to marry his niece, which must have caused him some embarrassment. In reality, shortly before his death in 1485, Richard had been negotiating for the hand of Joanna, Princess of Portugal. So I don't believe the rumour that was swirling around at court regarding his niece.

I don't believe that Richard poisoned his wife Anne Neville either. Anne seems generally to have had a sickly disposition that lasted all of her life. She probably died of tuberculosis or plague, which is why Richard stayed away from her during her final days. His doing so because he didn't love his wife and wanted to be rid of her doesn't ring true to me. Indeed, he seems to have been beside himself with grief when she died.

Final thoughts

With the above I think we've been able to disprove some of the accusations levelled at Richard III. In general, he seems to have wanted to be a fair-minded and judicious ruler; for example he did away with the much disliked practice of benevolences (forced gifts of money) and even introduced some law reform (the concept of bail for example). He was personally brave and militaristic; even his enemies acknowledged his valour at Bosworth. He was at least conventionally pious; a ransack of his camp after the Battle of Bosworth revealed a well worn book of prayers with his personal notes scribbled on it. He seems to have treated would be (and actual) conspirators with remarkable leniency. Above all he was loyal to his brother Edward IV. However, his reputation was tarnished, even in his time. He was widely believed to have murdered the princes in the tower and his usurpation of the throne did not go down well either. He suffered a serious of plots, rebellions and conspiracies, most designed to replace him with Henry Tudor, which finally happened at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Later Tudor propagandists were very good at blackening his name further, accusing him of as many murders as possible. His mild disability of scoliosis was twisted into a hunchback and withered arm. He was always plotting and scheming, never really loyal to Edward IV but waiting and conspiring towards the throne. The propagandists seem to have been vindicated by the fact that Richard suffered a sort of cosmic karma for his apparent misdeeds: first his wife died, then his son and heir (Edward of Middleham in April 1484, himself a chronically sickly child) and then Richard himself at Bosworth: he lost everything he held dear.

Unfortunately for Richard, his enemies found something they could latch on: the murder of innocents. The killing of children was as heinous back then as it is now. The usurpation was a second rate affair by comparison. And since the Tudors won the Battle of Bosworth, they were then able to layer a whole litany of crimes on top, no matter how farcical and far-fetched some might have been. Richard III the nuanced and morally complex character of history became Richard III the sinister and bloodthirsty monster. Had Richard III been able to shake off the stigma of the usurpation and murder of his nephews, had he been able to win the Battle of Bosworth, he might have risen to become an effective king. But it was not to be. Richard III was no saint, but he was no monster either: he was merely a product of time and circumstance, and that's how he should be remembered.

Conclusion and selected bibliography

Thank you very much for reading my three part discussion on the reputation of Richard III, one of England's most controversial, reviled and (at the same time) fascinating monarchs. If you want to find out more about Richard III and the times he lived in, I heartily recommend the books below. Please note, however, that this is not an exhaustive list. In no particular order then:

Richard III, Chris Skidmore

The Hollow Crown, Dan Jones

The Brothers York, Thomas Penn

Lancaster and York, Alison Weir

Good King Richard?, Jeremy Potter

Richard III: The Maligned King, Annette Carson

Richard III, Paul Murray Kendall

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