In Defence of Richard III

I know what you're thinking. Richard III, that awful, evil king who did away with the innocent Princes in the Tower, declared his nephew illegitimate and lurked, scheming in the shadows during his brother's reign, for an opportunity to seize the throne. 

When history is presented as one-sided as this, I get suspicious. And for the last five hundred years or so, we've been riffing off a version of Richard passed down to us by the Tudors. William Shakespeare portayed him as the paranoid, back-stabbing (literally, in the case of Henry VI?) Duke of Gloucester that murdered his nephews to obtain the crown. Their portraits of Richard show him scowling, hunched over on account of the curvature of his spine. The discovery of his skeleton in Leicester did show he had a curved spine, but it was thought not to have been as visible to onlookers as the Tudors have lead us to believe. To them, Henry VII was the victor, saving England from the 'tyranny' of Richard III. Richard was so-called evil, monstrous and the enemy, and the people needed to believe it. Hence the propaganda. 

A representation of Richard III made during his lifetime. 
Richard III. K├Ânig von England - Austrian National Library, Austria - Public Domain

Richard certainly had enemies from the beginning of the reign. He acceded in the summer of 1483 and by the autumn of that year influential nobles and courtiers (among them previous supporters) plotted to try and oust him from power in what is now known as the Buckingham Rebellion. Some historians cite one of the reasons for this rebellion as the fate of the Princes in the Tower - the sons of Richard's brother Edward IV and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville. The theory is that Richard had them quietly murdered to eliminate any threat they may one day pose to his rule. But while we pore over the smallest details of these events, we have been unable to find, in five centuries, convincing evidence that this was actually the case. There is always the possibility that the brothers died from a contagious illness or another accident while in the Tower. Richard wouldn't have wanted to broadcast news of their deaths precisely because everyone would think he had them secretly murdered. Which is what has happened anyway.  

Of course, Richard was a shrewd and calculating politician, but in other kings, this has been considered an advantage. For example, Henry VII has long been considered an intelligent and crafty ruler, but is widely celebrated as the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Richard was also extremely loyal to his older brother Edward IV when he ruled, taking part in his military campaigns, controlling the influence (and wealth) of prominent Lancastrian supporters during the Wars of the Roses and creating a power base in the North of England. The steps he took to diminish Woodville influence immediately after Edward's death were harsh and brutal, but later kings (hello, Henry VIII) also took strong measures to eliminate enemies. We often forget that when Richard seized the throne from the twelve-year old Edward V, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (yes, the Wars' effects were felt across the islands) had been affected by a thirty-year civil war caused by a boy inheriting the crown while powerful nobles grasped ruthlessly for power. 

Richard's dealings with his wife Anne too, have slipped into Tudor legend. Anne has been viewed as a depressed and tragic figure, sobbing when overhearing gossip that she was already dead, Richard wanting her 'rid out of the way'. But then this comes from the Tudor Thomas More's biography on Richard III. More had it in for Richard, calling him 'little of stature, ill featured...  crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage … he was malicious, wrathfull, envious, and from afore his birth, ever frowarde'. Any of the Tudor monarchs would have loved it. Evidence presented by Sarah Gristwood and other historians actually point to Anne being a capable and confident queen. It's just a shame that evidence about her is so lacking, but it's perhaps understandable considering she was queen for less than two years, and Richard up until now has pretty much dominated the couple's narrative. 

It's important to remember that Richard was human; a complicated and three-dimensional figure like any one of us. He was popular in certain circles, but had enemies - in this respect he was like any other king of England before or after him. An able and successful military commander and soldier, he was dedicated to the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses and loyal to his brother's rule. The actions he took to seize control of the crown in the months after Edward's death are therefore puzzling, and can only be explained by ruthless ambition or a need to secure England's safety and prevent another civil war. And while we're on the subject of the princes, it's certainly possible he had them murdered, but we'll likely never know for sure. Richard was many things, certainly a ruler with faults who struggled to maintain popularity and support - he wouldn't be the only one of those. But there's one thing he wasn't, and that's the wholly evil king the Tudors made him out to be. 

What do you think? Should we give Richard a chance? Let me know in the comments below. 

I explore many of the women in Richard's life in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. They include Cecily Duchess of York, Elizabeth Woodville, Jane (Elizabeth) Shore and of course Anne Neville, his queen. We also delve into some of the nurses and servants that worked for him. Order your copy here. 

Liked this? You might like Book Review: The Killer of the Princes in the Tower, The Kings of the Wars of the Roses and The Woodville Brides

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