Richard III is the victim of Tudor character assassination
It is now five years since King Richard III was re-interred: this time respectfully in Leicester Cathedral with honours appropriate to the last of a dynasty which had ruled England for 331 years. The discovery of his body under a car park proved a worldwide sensation. The confirmation of his terrible injuries as he stood, surrounded by his enemies – a small, spinally afflicted man – fighting like a Viking berserker, evoked pity as well as admiration. Notwithstanding Richard’s lifelong belief in leading from the front, history has judged him both a tyrant and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, a monster – England’s own Ivan the Terrible. It is my belief that this is a false judgement and that it is time to create a more balanced narrative.
The writing of history from the victor’s perspective began with Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars. Such was the genocidal brutality of that campaign that it is estimated a quarter of France’s then population was wiped out. Rather than Veni, Vidi, Vici, it should have read Veni, Vidi, Dedi – I came, I saw, I slaughtered. A thousand years later, William the Conqueror gave his own (literally) coloured justification for usurping the throne of England in the Bayeux tapestry, and on the way to another thousand years Napoleon portrayed his Egyptian campaign as a glorious success when in fact it was an abysmal failure. We must be careful, then, when we show ourselves willing to place undue credence on the winning side’s account.
The England Richard grew up in was convulsed in the domestic bloodletting of the Wars of the Roses. The twists and turns of that brutal struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster – both branches of the Plantagenet family – are immensely challenging, even for historians, who to this day still argue about events. Five kings came and went in the space of twenty-five years. Richard’s Yorkist, elder brother, Edward, gained the crown after the bloodiest and longest battle ever fought on English soil. Fighting the whole day long, on Palm Sunday in 1461 in a snowstorm, twenty-eight thousand perished. That represented almost a tenth of England’s then population.
Richard, therefore, grew to manhood not just in a time of unparalleled violence, but also of disconcertingly shifting alliances. Nobody knew who could be relied on. When we examine Richard’s record following the unexpected death at forty-one of his brother, the king, we really have to think hard on all these things. As well as betrayal from every quarter, much of the violence was gratuitous and mindless.
Richard’s was always with a purpose and that purpose, many would argue, was in the interest of his country as well as the preservation of his own, threatened, life and Yorkist line. As a third son, he never expected to be king and after the death of his brother gave no indication, initially, of a wish to become one. He enthusiastically backed preparations for his twelve-year-old nephew’s coronation. His brother, on his death bed, had appointed the ever-loyal Richard to act as the boy’s guardian during the years of his minority.
At the request of the king, eleven years earlier when he was nineteen, Richard had been sent to the troublesome north with vice-regal powers. He managed not just to pacify but gain the respect and even love of his northern charges. His campaigns against the marauding Scots gained England large tracts of land including the important border fortress of Berwick on Tweed, which has stayed English ever since. With his legalistic mind, Richard proved an able and just administrator which, added to his bravery on the battlefield, made him the ‘perfect prince’. These qualities, it should be noted, were exactly the ones his country needed if it were not to fall back into the miseries of renewed violence under a boy king. The nation wanted nothing more than a continuation of the much-valued peace from what was originally known as the Cousins’ War, which his brother’s stable rule had brought.
Ever mindful of a reversion to the bad old ways, Richard knew that only he had a chance of holding the country together and that it was essential, therefore, for him to carry out his brother’s wishes and govern the realm for the next several years. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that he would not be allowed to. His late brother’s non-aristocratic, but stunningly beautiful, wife with her immense family of hated and ambitious hangers-on gave every indication that they intended to take over. Were this to happen, the country would be plunged back into factionalism and warfare. Just as certain was Richard’s own fate. In those troubled times, he would have been a dead man walking. The low-born late Queen’s family had stirred up great resentment among the ruling magnates by the way they had inveigled their way into the king’s favour, gaining titles, lands as well as high offices of state. Everything that followed, which has been so much portrayed to Richard’s detriment, must be viewed in the light of these circumstances. Richard’s success during his long period of service and vice-royalty in the north had made a great impression on the country. Almost all right-thinking subjects would have preferred him to the upstart Woodvilles, the dowager queen’s family.
Another feature of Richard’s character was his decisiveness. In his present, life-threatening predicament, it would be much needed. He was, in today’s terms, a genuine action man. When he saw how heavily the dice were being loaded against him, he knew he had to act fast and he, being Richard, did exactly that. When he had cleared what was, admittedly, a very fraught path to taking up his duties as Lord Protector, a sermon was preached by the bishop of Wells and Somerset which claimed that both of his nephews – one of whom was the new king Edward V – were the illegitimate offspring of a bigamous marriage. This had been talked about in palace circles for some time. In addition to this, his own brother, the late king, had a questionable pedigree which was rumoured to be the result of a dalliance that his mother had had with a French archer during a period of estrangement from her husband, the king. Certainly, when Richard’s remains were forensically examined after that famous discovery under a Leicester car park, they bore absolutely no brotherly resemblance either in build, height, colouring or facial appearance to the strapping blond, Edward IV.
Richard was a known stickler for legality who, among other things, had long standing views on legitimacy so that when the estates of the realm started to press him to assume what they believed to be his right to the crown, and bring certainty and adult kingship to the realm, he may well have considered that he had a duty to listen to them. If church law held his nephews to be bastards, that made him the undoubted king and not a usurper. As a patriot at a pivotal moment in his country’s history, he would have felt a heavy burden of responsibility to save the realm and his Yorkist line from falling back into the hands of the Lancastrians. His lavish coronation, attended by high and low, bears testament to a will strongly felt generally, and by Londoners in particular, to see a continuation of the stable government that the country, under his brother, had enjoyed for years.
Richard was a hugely pious man. During the two years of his kingship, he enacted a string of measures that can only be described as enlightened, even by today’s standards. He encouraged widespread use of the newly invented printing press, which the powers of the day were highly suspicious of and which acted as a spur to translate the Latin monopoly of the Bible into English. Inevitably, that would have led to the churches’ monopoly of possession of the ‘Good Book’ being broken and the common people gaining their own copies and starting, perhaps, to place their own interpretation on holy writ.
Most incredibly, Richard would brook no censorship in what could be printed. All were encouraged to speak their mind. This hardly speaks of a man with dark secrets. He did away with the ability of the rich and powerful to lock a man up and keep him there awaiting trial, sometimes for years. Bail was introduced. Although a fluent French speaker – having spent part of his early life in Burgundy – Richard insisted that Parliament conduct its business in the vernacular and not Norman French. This same view applied to other agencies of the state. Another of his hates was corruption. Richard attacked and sought to do away with Indulgences, the practice which allowed the rich and powerful to purchase public offices. It was a landmark step towards a well-governed country. Richard, as we have noted, had a great interest in law and would sometime conduct a case in court himself. His passion for justice for the underprivileged may well have had its origins in his own experiences. Suffering, as is known, will often give a person greater empathy for the less fortunate.
Although – somewhat unkindly, I feel – it has been remarked the Richard had ice in his veins, he was observed to weep when his wife died and doubtless he did the same when his infant son – his only heir – did likewise. The calumny that was later put about by the Tudors, that he killed his wife so that he could marry his niece, we know to be false. His wife died of an illness, probably tuberculosis, and he was negotiating the marriage of his niece to the Portuguese royal house. Unlike his handsome, womanising elder brother, the king, Richard kept faith with Anne, his wife, after they married, something unusual for aristocrats right up to modern time.
There was much personal tragedy in Richard’s life. His father died on the battlefield when he was a boy, as did his uncle. His erstwhile older brother, Clarence, who had habitually rebelled once too often against his own older brother, the king, was condemned to death by Attainder. While the king upheld the verdict, Richard begged for clemency. The act is said to have been carried out by the bizarre method of drowning Clarence in a vat of malmsey wine in the Tower of London. Perhaps that’s because Clarence couldn’t stop imbibing on stuff that they held to be the culprit in sending him off the rails. They thought giving him a double dose would be a suitable punishment.
To add to the litany of misfortune which fell upon Richard, at around the age of eleven he was struck down with the debilitating and painful affliction of scoliosis – a warping of the spine. Little allowance has been made for these tragedies in Richard’s young life, but they must have caused him severe distress and had a profound effect on him. Furthermore, as a small man – around 5’6” – he must have felt hugely overshadowed by his magnificent, 6’6”, muscular, blond brother, the king, who to add to the mix was extremely handsome as well a gregarious. Perhaps these were very same attributes that a lonely queen, years before, had found irresistible in a French archer.
Richard must have felt a desperate need to do something to prove that he was a true Plantagenet. That led him – despite his growing disability and a skeletal frame revealed by recent forensic examinations to have female characteristics, particularly his pelvis – to take up battlefield training so that, with a superhuman effort, he eventually morphed into a warrior who could cope with sixty pounds of armour and wield a heavy mace.
In his final dash to cut down Henry Tudor, he came within feet of him, crashing through his bodyguards and taking down Henry’s standard bearer before he himself was surrounded and cut down in a fury of sword and Halbert thrusts. Ten wounds struck the battling Richard through to the bone: two of them lethal. There may have been many more flesh wounds. But most shocking of all, considering that he was an anointed king, there were a series of what are known as ‘humiliation wounds’ – struck after death. There were some to the head and one up through the posterior to the pelvis. Considering the closeness of Henry Tudor to the action, he must have watched this happen and that represents a shocking indictment of him that he permitted such desecration of a crowned monarch.
On the matter of his alleged killing of his nephews – the most damning of all the charges levelled against Richard and the deaths his enemies made the most capital of – it is universally agreed that no prosecutor would ever have gained a conviction against him. There is not a scrap of evidence linking him to their disappearance. Several suspects, beside Richard, are in the frame. My own prime suspect is his sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, who, having charge of London in his master’s absence far away, may have felt he would do him a favour by carrying out an act which he knew Richard couldn’t. There had already been one attempt to spring the princes from the Tower and there were likely to be more. Buckingham knew that while they lived, they could act as a focus for Richard’s enemies. Their elimination would settle the matter once and for all. When the question is posed, why did Richard not denounce Buckingham on his return, he must have asked himself, who will believe me? Better to let sleeping dogs lie and the mystery of their disappearance remain unsolved.
Another reason why I find it difficult to believe that Richard was culpable is that it would have been profoundly abhorrent to such a devout man. He was an ascetic, almost in the mould of the puritans who would come two hundred years later. He forswore the wearing of gorgeous apparel, which was the mode amongst aristocrats of the time, preferring to dress simply, almost like the common man who was forbidden to wear clothes above his station. He endowed more monasteries and places of learning during his thirty-two years of life than any other monarch. But even if Richard did give the order – and it remains a big if – he would not be the first to kill close to home. History is littered with similar acts. His own brother, the king, had allowed his sibling, Clarence to be killed. Two of history’s ‘Greats’, Peter and Constantine, killed their own sons. Reasons of State, some hold, override everything. Is it not just such a reason as allows us today to square our consciences over the firebombing of German cities and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima?
Had Richard been victorious at Bosworth, as he would have been but for the treachery of the fence-sitting Lord Stanley and his 2,000 contingents, that would have been the last hope of the Lancastrians. Richard would have gone on to reign unopposed and, judged on past performance, particularly his rule of the north, we might be reading a very different account of him.
As an accomplished warrior, much in the mould of Henry V, I believe he would have taken up the challenge of the recently lost lands in France and won them back for England. The Hundred Years War might well have had a different ending.
When you consider the merits of the man who succeeded Richard, one finds it hard to mount a compelling narrative. It was an increasingly unhappy, even miserable reign. The penny-pinching, grasping and murderous Henry Tudor cannot stand against the principled, brave defender of the law and peoples’ champion, Richard. Henry is even said to have had an opportunity to sponsor Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, but turned it down as being too risky. If so, it was a blunder of titanic proportions. All of the continent, south as well as north, would have accrued to the English crown and the miser filled his boots with its mountains of silver and gold so that he would likely have gone mad at his miraculous good fortune.
The son who went on to succeed the ever-suspicious first Tudor, Henry VIII, would become known on the continent of Europe as Henry the tyrant. He would plunge England into two centuries of bloody conflict with the Catholic church. To fill his own boots with the sale of church lands during the dissolution of the monasteries, untold scores of beautiful Abbeys were destroyed. Had they survived, they would be the glory of our land today and be earning us untold tourist receipts. The wonder is that the second Henry’s butcher and vandal-in-chief, Thomas Cromwell, didn’t turn his attention next to the cathedrals. But he didn’t have time. His master had him begging for the headsman’s axe rather than suffer the fate Henry intended – the grisly end of a traitor. It is as well that the poor man’s mentor and former boss, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey – himself the son of a butcher – had previously died on-route also to face Henry’s vengeance.
So, I come back to the successful character assassination that the Tudors carried out. It has been the accepted version for five hundred years now. To this day, the royal website refers to Richard as the usurper. The first of the new Tudor dynasty’s claim to the throne was so nebulous that it is hardly worth detailing. A whole clutch of aristocrats were better placed in line of succession. Furthermore, what claim Henry Tudor did have came through the normally disallowed female line which was, itself, tainted with illegitimacy. Knowledge of this made both of the Henrys paranoiac; they murdered all the better claimants they could lay their hands on including the frail and saintly, 67-year-old Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, who was raised to sainthood in later centuries. Does Henry’s seizure of the crown by force of arms, and in these circumstances, not make him an undoubted usurper?
It is ironic that the second Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Moore – another to be beatified – bowed to the royal pressure and lent his much-respected support to the Tudor campaign of Richard vilification. His reward came later on the headsman’s bloc. Henry’s double-crossing of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace and the lethal vengeance taken afterwards represents yet another chapter in a bloody reign, which attracts nothing of the criticism levelled at Richard.
Finally, to complete the work of the victor writing the narrative the great bard, Shakespeare prostituted his otherwise gifted pen. Seeking to please Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, he wrote a favourable play concerning her father and a true stinker concerning Richard. Such a fantastic, crowd-pleasing horror story of a play is Richard III, that the world has preferred to believe that this is how it must have been. That tainted version of events included incest, gross deformity, ugliness, usurpation, infanticide and unwarranted, murderess violence. Dogs barked, according to Shakespeare, when Richard went by.
It has taken modern forensics half a millennium to demolish Shakespeare’s caricature of an ugly, limping, hunchback with a withered arm. Richard was not any of these things. Actually, after a reconstruction of the face according to his facial bone structure, he turned out to be quite pleasant looking. Why would the bard’s depiction of Richard’s character traits be any more accurate? It is now the job of historians to do their work; a task which should be evidence-based.
Shakespeare would have won no history prizes at school. Just as Scots are not taught about bad King Macbeth – he was, in fact, so safe on his throne during his 17-year reign that he went on pilgrimage – equally, there is no bad king Richard. We must start teaching something which more closely resembles the truth concerning Richard, not just give him a decent, final funeral.