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.