It is not often you get to bury a king of England. The last time we did so was sixty two years ago. The next one will be in seven months’ time when the whole world’s eyes will be on Leicester cathedral. Then we will be burying, in befitting manner, a monarch who died 530 years ago – the only one with no known resting place; who was the last true English king; the last to lead his soldiers from the front and die as a consequence; the last of a 330-year dynasty and the last king of the Middle Ages. We speak, of course, of Richard III, Shakespeare’s ‘crookback Dick’.
More controversy has swirled around this king than perhaps any in our island’s long history. When he was originally buried by monks, they were so frightened and intimidated by the people who had killed him – and under such compulsion to get a move on – that they had no time even to find a coffin. Imagine that. A king of England who, earlier that day, had been their anointed sovereign dumped naked in an unmarked grave like so much flotsam. Minutes before, the badly hacked about, naked body had arrived on a donkey after a fifteen-mile journey from the battlefield of Bosworth and the populace had been invited to abuse it as it went by. One had even driven a dagger deep into an exposed buttock, striking the pelvic bone.
Richard died in 1485 in what we regard as the last of the many battles of the thirty-year dynastic struggle known to us as the Wars of the Roses. He was thirty-two years old. No monarch in all of English history has been so thoroughly traduced and demonised. What has led to this? We know he was utterly loyal to his brother Edward IV – a Yorkist – fighting his battles fearlessly and with great distinction. So trusted was he that at the age of nineteen he was asked to govern the turbulent north of England as a virtual Vice-Roy, which he did so successfully for the next eleven years that they came to love him and regard him as one of their own, hence York Minster’s own fierce battle to have him interred amidst its ancient cloisters.
That total trust of his brother, the king, even extended, when he was dying, to asking Richard to look after his two infant sons rather than their mother. The princes were housed in what was then a royal palace, the Tower of London, and it is their later disappearance which has landed Richard with the heinous charge, even for those brutal times, of murdering his own nephews, aged nine and twelve, in order to usurp their right to the throne. This has been the justification for the victor of Bosworth to set about vilifying Richard for posterity. But what are the facts?
Unfortunately for Richard’s detractors there is not one scrap of evidence to show that their deeply religious and loyal uncle killed them. Yes, he had the opportunity, but then so did several others. What if when Henry Tudor, after killing Richard, had arrived at the Tower to find the boys still alive? He would have been appalled. Rumour had it that they were dead and Henry would certainly have wished it so. Their continued existence would have posed a terrible threat to his rule, in fact it would have removed all legitimacy. May it not be that, when he made a show of looking for the bodies, he knew that they were not there but felt it necessary to make it look as if he believed they were by digging around? Murder, later of the princes, would have been his only option. Strange it was, if Richard was the killer, that Henry never did find the decomposed bodies. That would have damned Richard for all time and been perfect justification for Henry taking the throne. As it happened they were later discovered under a staircase, one of the first places to look, one would have thought. It would have suited Richard’s successor, Henry Tudor, very well on taking over to have found the decomposed bodies as it would have totally validated his killing of the king.
The fact of the matter is that Henry Tudor had a much stronger motive for disposing of the boys than their uncle. While they lived there was no way he could rightfully claim the kingship. His closeness in the line of succession was so remote it was almost laughable. One genealogist has placed him 16th in line.
Now comes the reason why Richard had no great reason to kill the boys. Rumour had widely circulated for years that they were illegitimate – that the king had married bigamously. Then, after he had died, the bishop of Bath and Wells came right out and, like another bishop would do, hundreds of years later, concerning the Duke of Windsor’s affair with Wallace Simpson, he blew the whistle and preached this openly in a sermon. The evidence was that strong for him to do so. The upshot was that Richard, as a consequence, was the rightful heir.
The entire nobility as well as the church rallied behind Richard. Apart from anything else they wanted no boy king. They had the good of the nation to think about. After thirty years of turbulent bloodletting they wanted a wise and proven administrator, a man of action to settle the affairs of state. England had been torn apart during those years and the aristocracy decimated. In one battle alone, Towton – fought during a blizzard – 28,000 men had been slain, the greatest number ever to fall on English soil. It represented 8% of the country’s population, as high a percentage in a single day as four years of World War l clocked up. No wonder there was enthusiasm for Richard. His coronation was the best attended in the whole of the Middle Ages.
The Tudors, after their victory at Bosworth, knew they had an uphill struggle to gain legitimacy in the face of Richard’s watertight claim to the 330-year Plantagenet line. History, as we know, gets largely written by the victors and finally, after a hundred years, the Tudors had the Bard, no less, to finish the job for them; and my, how he did it with his Richard III! ‘Crookback Dick’ became England’s true devil incarnate – and a twisted and deformed one at that; one even dogs barked at as he went by.
Unfortunately for the propagandists, after five hundred years, the wheel has come full circle and the truth is out. He was not a hunchback and he had no withered arm. He did have curvature of the spine (scoliosis), but people would have barely noticed the condition – just a slight stoop to one side. But what forensic science has also shown with this incredible find of the king under the car park is that Richard battled a painful infirmity just as heroically as he fought his brother opponents in battle. It is truly remarkable that he was able to function well under the weight of over sixty pounds of armour and wield a massive broadsword. His slight frame conformed more to that of a woman and his height was barely 5’5”. In today’s world, we would have nothing but praise for such magnificent stoicism. He would at all times have been in acute arthritic pain and, because of compressed lungs, only capable of short bursts of maximum energy before he became breathless.
When he finally succumbed in battle to his enemies, he did so in such a manner – and with so many witnesses – that even the great Tudor propaganda machine could not hide the truth of his incredible bravery. It was Victoria Cross stuff. He came within inches of killing Henry Tudor, having charged him from a thousand yards away, hacking his way to the pretender and cutting down his standard bearer, England’s leading jouster, a massive beast of a man. No English king in history ever led such a heroic charge – not even the magnificent Henry V or Richard the Lionheart – but even in this his detractors still had to have a dig, saying that it was really the mad frenzy of the defeated devil at work. But now time and science have laid bare the truth and it should be spoken loud and clear. Perhaps the Bard’s work should not be performed in future without a disclaimer along the lines of ‘Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely co-incidental…’ Certainly we must rewrite our history books.
There is, however, one note of puzzlement to me in all this. In view of the massive interest both here and abroad, how is it that we have not, to my knowledge, heard a single word from any of the royals? Are they not in the slightest interested? He was, after all, one of their own and an anointed head of state. Is it their intention to boycott the internment? We must hope not. That would be an act of the crassest folly. A proper response would be for the present sovereign to pay her respects and acknowledge that a terrible wrong has been done to her ancestor. It would be a way of saying sorry on behalf of all of us.
We are going to have to decide what to do with the remains of Richard III, should they prove genuine as seems likely. Richard was the last truly English king and the skeletal injuries confirm what even the Tudors could not deny: that he died bravely in battle – the last English king to do so.
As the Battle of Bosworth neared its conclusion, with Richard having been betrayed by his leading commander switching sides with his large force, he was now outnumbered. Yet having caught a glimpse of Henry in the distance, he decided on an all or nothing dash to cut him down. Henry was surrounded by his supporters and his chief body guard was a huge man – England’s leading jouster – but Richard, like the Furies, crashed through enemy ranks and unhorsed him. He then cut down Henry’s standard-bearer to bring himself within a sword’s length of Henry, before he himself was cut down. We see the grievous injuries on the skeleton: an arrow in the back and his skull cleft through. The autopsy may reveal more.
Now, I am no apologist for Richard. He may well have murdered his nephews in the tower, but then so equally could others – including the victor of Bosworth whose claim to the throne was extremely weak. Richard’s claim was not, however. He was the last in a 300-year line of Plantagenets. In ordinary circumstances the princes had prior claim over Richard, being sons of the late king. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
The evidence is strong that Richard’s brother, the late king, had made a bigamist marriage. In high circles this was talked about, though never, of course, in the king’s presence. Then the Bishop of Bath & Wells waded in after he had died with an open address, making it public knowledge. The two princes were declared bastards and not entitled to succeed. Parliament and the nobility concurred and Richard was duly crowned. So Richard had no need to kill the princes, his nephews; merely to keep them locked up and out of harm’s way. But potentially they were a rallying point that disaffected opponents of Richard might seek to use.
It is entirely possible that Richard’s dilemma was solved behind his back, unilaterally, by close supporters in the same way that Henry II’s was solved when knights dashed off to Canterbury Cathedral to make an end of Thomas Beckett who had become a thorn in Henry’s side. It is acknowledged that Richard took his catholic faith extremely seriously, and it takes some believing that he would kill the children of the brother he loved so dearly and served so faithfully.
So what about the things Shakespeare had to say about Richard? Well, Shakespeare was a very poor historian. His depiction of Macbeth is very wide of the mark. We Scots have a very good opinion of him, and we should know; he was one of the very few medieval monarchs secure enough in his people’s affections to be able to absent himself for a year on pilgrimage. He had no worries about plotters conniving behind his back. What’s more, he kept his throne for 17 years.
The Tudors knew that they were not legitimate claimants and spent their time trying to boost their credentials in any way they could, discrediting Richard in the process. Possible claimants, however remote, were ruthlessly – some say paranoiacally – murdered.
When Shakespeare came along they had found themselves the world’s greatest propagandist. He truly was manner from heaven. His depiction of Richard is so grotesque that even if his usurper had little right to the throne, history would have endorsed his takeover. In Richard was made manifest the devil himself, Shakespeare implies. He had to be got rid of.
But what does the record show? No foreign ambassador ever reported back home of a hunchback sitting on the English throne with an evil countenance and a withered arm – the same arm that served Richard so well in battle. In fact, they all spoke well of him with some saying he was of fair countenance. Richard, by 30, had had an exemplary career, being utterly loyal to his brother and fighting his battles with great valour. On his estates in the north of England people actually loved him.
In two short years as king he proved himself progressive and an able administrator. To him we owe the Bail system, which continues to this day both here and around the world; the standardisation of weights and measures – an immensely complicated project; the banning of rich people buying public office (in Richard’s world, merit alone counted); the common man being able to understand what was going on in court (he banned Norman French and elevated, after 300 years, our own wonderful language to be supreme in the land). And he was extremely pious, endowing many colleges and monasteries. None of this adds up to a monster. Would that our present Prime Minister had done as much in his two years.
Cruel things were done in the Wars of the Roses (it was a cruel age) and Richard was no crueller than his peers. Even if he was responsible for his nephews’ deaths – and remember, that is a very big if – what about another Richard, the much revered Lionheart, England’s only king with a statue outside Parliament? He killed not two, but perhaps thousands of Muslim children. His legacy is so toxic that even today mothers quieten their small children by whispering to them ‘hush, hush, King Richard is coming’.
‘Crookback Dick’, I pray, will soon get justice. He was a brave, enlightened and legitimate king. The Queen should recognise that and do penance for us all. And congratulations I hope are in order for that dogged society The Friends of Richard III who have sought justice for their hero for so long. I hope your time has come.
So let’s give Richard his due after 527 years of lies and calumnies. Truth matters, and if the big furore of the ‘king under the car park’ making headlines around the world serves no other purpose but to set the record straight then it will have been a worthwhile exercise. The tyrant Tsar, Nicholas II, who did no good and was murdered by the Communists and whose bones were found 20 years, ago was given a decent burial. We can do no less. The Queen should go to Leicester Cathedral – the likely burial place – to pay proper respects to a much maligned ancestor.