Richard III: Hero or Villain?

Graphic of Richard III, showing Richard III in both a dark red and light blue light

When it comes to maligned monarchs in English history, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone higher up the list than Richard III. The unpopular 15th-century ruler was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty and the last king to die on the field of battle when he was felled at Bosworth Field. His death signified the end of the War of the Roses, heralded in the age of the Tudors and waved goodbye to the Middle Ages, a true turning point in English history.

For over 500 years Richard’s name was dragged through the mud, thanks mostly to Shakespeare’s play Richard III. His portrayal in the play as a villainous, scheming and murderous hunchback set the tone for how history would remember him.

But how true was the great playwright’s depiction of the monarch who ruled for a mere 777 days? Let us dissect the historical evidence and debate whether Richard III’s reputation is justified or whether it deserves an overhaul.

Background

Upon the death of his brother King Edward IV in April 1483, Richard was named as Lord Protector of Edward’s eldest son and successor, 12-year-old Edward V. Before the young lad could be crowned king, he and his brother were declared bastards when their parent’s marriage was declared bigamous, ending any chances they had of inheriting the throne.

A short while later, Richard was proclaimed king. The two boys, who were housed in the Tower of London, disappeared soon after, never to be seen again with many believing Richard ordered their deaths.

The apparent divisiveness of Richard and his actions led to a joint York-Lancastrian rebellion that saw the king toppled by Henry Tudor in late 1485.

Villain

The longstanding traditional view of Richard III firmly places the monarch in the category of villain. Thomas More’s History of King Richard III heavily influenced Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard. In short, More described the king as a monster, depicting him as ‘ill featured of limbs, crookbacked’ who quite frankly murdered his way to the top.

This analysis of Richard placed him firmly in the camp of a usurper, someone who stole the crown from its rightful owner, the rightful owner in this case being young Edward V. Edward was very close to his mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and the rise of the young prince fell very favourably for the Woodville family.

With ruthless decisiveness, Richard seized the initiative and had Edward and his brother placed in the Tower of London, supposedly under the guise of preparing them for Edward’s coronation. Edward’s uncle Anthony Woodville and his half-brother Richard Grey were thrown in prison (later to be executed) whilst Edward IV’s old friend William Hastings was swiftly executed for conspiring against him. Richard’s opponents have labelled the execution as nothing short of murder.

They also believed Richard pushed for his brother Edward’s marriage to be declared bigamous, a political move to ensure the young princes were robbed of their claims to the throne.

Although they had been removed from his path, their very existence was still a threat to the new king. This was the motivation, Richard's detractors argue influenced him to order their early deaths. Thomas More documented that a loyal servant to the king, Sir John Tyrrell, later confessed to smothering the two boys with a pillow at the order of Richard III. Although his direct involvement has never been proven, it would seem the smoking gun lay in the hands of the king.

15th-century Historian John Rous then laid another monstrous act on the doorstep of the sitting king, accusing him of killing his wife with poison. The king was married to Anne Neville and rumours circulated after her death that Richard had poisoned her to marry Elizabeth of York, his niece. Richard’s advisors apparently lampooned his ideas and begged him to change course.

If the traditional accounts are to be believed, it is hard to see Richard as anything more than a villainous usurper, devious in nature, murderous in spirit and loyal only to himself.

Hero

In recent years, Richard III’s reputation has undertaken a remarkable transformation. In large part due to the work of The Richard III Society, whose mission statement declares, ‘…that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable,’ the king is now being regarded as the victim of one of the earliest character assassinations in English history.

Supporting this theory is the fact that a great deal of the material we have on Richard comes from sources writing after his death, who did not know the king personally. Many, including Thomas More, were ardent Tudor loyalists who wrote to tarnish Richard's name; a move to help cement the Tudor claim to the throne. In short, the writings were mostly propaganda.

Shakespeare was heavily influenced by this tainted material and leaned on it to create one of his most iconic evil characters. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard so defined the king’s legacy that the truth was forever blurred with the fictional.

So what about all the accusations that have been laid at Richard’s feet, are any of them true? It can’t be denied that Richard acted swiftly and somewhat ruthlessly to cement his political influence after the death of his brother. However, this was no different to the kings who’d come before him, all had gone through their fair share of political manoeuvrings and their hands were hardly clean of blood. Richard, quick frankly, was a man of his times.

When it comes to the princes in the Tower, at that time the Tower of London had yet to garner its bloody reputation and was often used to house those in preparation for a coronation. There is no historical evidence linking Richard to their deaths and the confession of Sir John Tyrrell has to be placed in question given the source material was Thomas More. It has also been suggested that others benefitted more from the demise of the young boys than Richard, including Henry Tudor.

The accusation that Richard killed his wife seems to be nothing more than just that. By most accounts, she died of tuberculosis, a common killer at the time. Richard was documented as crying at her funeral and was so enraged by the accusations he wished to marry Elizabeth that he sent her away and did all he could to distance himself from those rumours.

His apparent seizure of the throne could also be disputed as the position was offered to him by Parliament and approved by them. Therefore, Richard was not a usurper because its very definition it is someone who seizes power; in this regard, power was offered to Richard. Many at the time were suspicious of the motives of the Woodville’s and did not disapprove of Richard’s assuming the top spot.

When it came to his short stint in charge, those wishing to revise Richard’s reputation have suggested that he was far from unpopular. Unlike many during that period of history, Richard actually ruled in favour of the common man introducing laws and reforms that bettered their interests and liberties.

Before Henry Tudor ascended to the throne John Rous spoke highly of Richard, changing his tune only after the king’s death. Rous described Richard as a 'good lord' who punished the 'oppressors of the commons’. Over a hundred years later, King James I described Richard as ‘a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people’.

As for Richard's apparent hunchback, again it seems this was an exaggeration. Richard's remains were discovered beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012. The body of Richard showed signs of curvature of the spine, however, it would not have caused him to have a hunchback but rather one shoulder slightly higher than the other.

So it seems that when it comes to Richard III, all is not what the history books would have you believe.