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.
I have written four articles on the ‘King under the Car Park’ – Richard III – and this must surely be my last. The juxtaposition between a car park and a medieval king is a strange one. In his wildest dreams the dead king could not have imagined such a scenario. For a start, neither he nor anyone else at that time could have got their heads round car parks, much less the horseless carriages which were stabled there. As for those carriages being able to hurtle forward at unimaginable speeds, it would all have been too much for him. Just as amazing would be the fact that almost all the future subjects of his realm would own one and would be able to travel in perfect comfort and quiet on surfaced roads from one end of his kingdom to the other in hours. His bumpety, bump, clacktity, clack journey would have taken weeks.
It was the longest of long shots that led Philippa Langley, the Scottish Secretary of the Richard III Society, to Leicester’s city centre car park. For years she had obsessed about finding the only English king with no known burial place. They knew he wasn’t buried on Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he was cut down following his Victoria Cross-like heroics. His body was stripped naked and slung over a horse and paraded the fifteen miles to Leicester. That much was known.
Rumour had it that he may have been interred in a long vanished monastery. Others said that his body had been thrown in the river Stour. Yet more, that it was a mystery which would never be solved.
Philippa Langley – the hero of our tale – backed the monastery theory. I imagined she reasoned that although they weren’t going to give him a king’s funeral – usurper and murderer of his child nephews as they alleged him to be – they were most likely to hand his brutalised remains over for burial in consecrated ground such as a monastery.
Furthermore, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian winner of the battle that unseated him, knew that if he was going to keep his newly won crown he would need to reach an accommodation with the Yorkists. Denying one of their own, a Yorkist prince of the realm – and an anointed king at that – a Christian burial was going to make that next to impossible. There would have been outrage in the Yorkist camp. Even a sinner, if that is what he was, was entitled to the sacraments and Richard’s frenzied, pitiless killers knew that. And even the meanest in the land took their Catholic faith extremely seriously at that time. Hell and damnation awaited anyone who offended against God’s law in a matter like that.
So Philippa’s hunch had a good chance of being the right one. By great good fortune the whereabouts of the monastery – although it was entirely gone – was known to the city authorities. By equally great good fortune – since it was city centre – it had no buildings over the site. That would have totally scuppered any excavation.
Philippa set about raising the considerable sums needed for a major archaeological dig. She also set about rallying the support of city authority who owned the car park, as well as its university which had the disciplines in all the relevant fields to cover the extensive research needed if she was to succeed in finding and authenticating the missing king.
It was all not so much a ‘whodunit?’ as a ‘where is it?’ affair. Both Leicester City and the university realised that success would bring massive rewards in terms of PR and tourism and put both on the map worldwide like nothing they had ever done before.
Even so, a very big if hung over the whole enterprise and a fiasco seemed much the likeliest outcome. Heavy industrial plant moved in on the site ready for the opening day of the dig. All stood prepared to excavate the entire car park if necessary. Every square metre of ground material would have to be carefully sifted. No one expected a quick result. All were steeled for plentiful egg on their faces.
Step forward our hero. “Where shall we begin?” asked the foreman of works. “There, where it says R,” indicated Philippa, pointing her finger. She had months before said, “the first time I stood in that car park the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought I am standing on Richard’s grave.”
In a particular part of the car park was a bay with a big R for reserved marked on it and it seemed as good a place as any to begin. Minutes passed after the tarmac was lifted and the subsoil carefully brought up. And like something yanked straight out of fiction, that very spot yielded a result. At only about three feet down a femur came into view. Though gratifying, that in itself was not cause for jubilation. The evidence was strong that this was where the monastery had been and that this was the area where bodies most likely had been laid to rest.
Following the sighting of the femur, more earth was removed. This time not by plant but gingerly by trowel. Then more excitement as the spine came into view. As the troweling moved up the spine from its base, a shriek was heard. The spine was veering off to one side from the vertical. It carried all the hallmarks of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – just like Richard was said to have.
This was all too good to be true, even though their hopes were tempered by the knowledge that scoliosis was not that rare. They had managed to establish that it was a man. But did this man die violently? Then the skull was reached and there was exultation. Clear, unmistakable signs revealed that the deceased had died in battle. It was a Eureka moment for everyone, but most of all for Philippa. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Much had yet to be done forensically to authenticate beyond all question, but she had no doubt that her long search was over. A man, born in Canada, would later prove through DNA that the skeleton was of Plantagenet origin. The rest is history. One of the greatest hunts in all of archaeology had come to an end.
Four days of ceremonies will begin on 22nd March. There will be an honour guard of mounted soldiers and a 21-Gun Salute at the battlefield; two hundred children will display medieval, pennants they’ve designed; and four horses will draw the brake on its final journey to the cathedral where it will go on display before the final laying to rest of a monarch who fell in battle 530 years before. How the Tudors would have hated it all.
As for the TV broadcaster covering the event, it has gone bonkers. It’s been said there will have been nothing quite like it since television hit the airwaves. Britain’s reputation for eccentric, yet moving, theatre will have received a mighty shot in the arm. Quite what the rest of the world will make of it no one knows. They’re gobsmacked at it all, yet captivated. And they’ll all be watching.
The present monarch should have attended the reinterment. That much will be very apparent when she sees how her people have risen to the occasion. Richard’s own vile treatment in death will at least have been washed away by a £2.5 million effort of repentance by a remorseful people.
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.
I have been pondering the proper course that should be adopted should the ‘king under the car park’ (Richard III) be validated by DNA tests. Assuming that the tests are positive, which seems likely, the find is of great significance.
Richard is one of the few English kings known around the world thanks to the story told about him by the world’s greatest playwright. Shakespeare undoubtedly has earned his place as a playwright of genius, but the same cannot be said of his powers as an historian. When the facts are examined his depiction of Richard lll can be argued to be nothing less than a character assassination. In two short years as king Richard performed an astonishing array of good works, some of which, such as the Bail system and the standardisation of weights and measures remain with us today. We know also that he was extremely pious, and endowed many monasteries and colleges of learning as well as ending the practise of buying public office. For him, merit alone counted. None of Richard’s achievements are acknowledged by Shakespeare; instead we have the depiction of a murdering ogre of grotesque physical appearance.
Were Shakespeare to be right then Richard’s dethronement would have been fully justified, even perhaps by someone with as thin a claim to the throne as Henry Tudor, the victor of the battle of Bosworth. But was Shakespeare right? We know what the record says about Richard’s achievements. Soon we may know what forensics say about the bones. Was it a hunchback with a withered arm, as Shakespeare said? It is known that Richard, after a heroic dash to cut down Henry Tudor, was himself cut down after being surrounded and that the butchery that took place against his person was truly dreadful. He was even stripped naked – no way to treat a king – and slung over a horse before being paraded for all to see to the nearby city of Leicester. Interestingly, the body under the car park did die violently. There is an arrow in the back and the skull has been impacted twice with an axe or a sword. Further examination may reveal more injuries.
As fascinating as these battlefield injuries undoubtedly are, what will be the clincher will be the integrity or otherwise of the spine and arm. You see, Shakespeare was adamant that Richard was grossly deformed; a hunchback, no less with a withered arm. Early examination suggests no such thing – just a slight curvature of the spine (certainly not a hunchback) and a perfectly normal arm. We cannot know whether he was of evil look mien as again suggested by the Bard, but portraits of the time show a perfectly normal countenance. Laughably, our Will said that even dogs barked when they saw him.
The person chosen to provide DNA evidence is a man who lives in Canada. He is of Plantagenet ancestry – the bloodline of the 300-year-old dynasty of English kings of which Richard was the last. Always assuming that the tests prove positive, then Shakespeare will stand exposed as a liar. He told porkies also about Macbeth. Let us be kind – in view of his colossal eminence – and call him an arch propagandist for the Tudors. It was, after all, under their patronage that he wrote and they insisted on nothing good ever being said concerning Richard, except that he died bravely. And in that matter there were too many witnesses to pretend otherwise.
But the fact will remain that because of him we and the world for five hundred years have vilified a progressive and enlightened English king. It surely must be right to do our best to make recompense. Justice dictates that the remains be treated with the respect and receive full honours as an English monarch – the last as it happens of truly English stock and the last to die in battle. After Richard came monarchs from Wales, Scotland and Germany. He should be laid to rest where many of his ancestors lie, in Westminster Abbey. This particular monarch’s end marks not only the end of the dynastic, thirty years bloodbath of the Wars of the Roses, but even more significantly the end of the Middle Ages and the start of modern times. So for all these reasons and many more Richard was an important king.
In ordinary circumstances fallen warriors of distinction were buried in the cathedral nearest the scene of battle, in this case Leicester. Then my thoughts turned to York – the Minster there – where his most devoted followers were located. He was a prince of the House of York and its famous white rose he many times carried into battle fearlessly against the red rose of Lancaster. Finally I plumbed for Westminster. Why? Because these are not ordinary circumstances. We have a major player in the great saga of English kingship and one, who I am convinced, has been grievously wronged. His interment, with due ceremony, in the home of English kings where he was crowned would be a way of saying sorry. It should be attended by the present monarch. It cannot make up for the generations who have lived and died believing Richard to be England’s most villainous king, but it would, at a stroke, set the record straight and be the right thing to do. Incidentally, I would hazard a guess that just about all the world’s media would be there to record the event. Westminster Abbey would be more on the tourist trail than ever. Most of all we would be able to take quiet satisfaction from the knowledge that after half a millennium truth has finally triumphed.
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.