Villain or Victim?
Richard has not been a name of good augury for kings of England.
Richard I, the Lionheart, was the only monarch in British history to show
unusual talent as both a general and as a lyric poet. As a king, however, he was a
cipher. He spend only a few months in his country, he bled it dry to pay for
fruitless wars in the Middle East and later to pay his way out of an Austrian
prison, and he died of an arrow wound in the shoulder during a petty squabble
with one of his French vassals.
Richard II was considered a mollycoddle by his nobles because he favored
peace with France and introduced the use of the handkerchief into England. They
deposed him and murdered him.
As for Richard III, everyone knows him from Shakespeare, the most
durable villain that ever walked the English stage, "misshapen Dick...valiant
crook-back prodigy...unlick'd bear-whelp...indigested and deformed lump...
bottled spider....poisonous hunchbacked toad...lump of foul deformity ....elvish-mark'd .abortive, rooting hog!" In the course of a few bloody acts this Richard
kills the Duke of Somerset at the first battle of St. Albans (when, by strictly
historical reckoning, Richard was two years old); stabs the Prince of Wales after
the Battle of Tewksbury; murders poor saintly King Henry VI in the Tower of
London; lures his brother Clarence into a messy death in 126 gallons of Malmsey
wine; cynically woos and marries the widow of the Prince of Wales and
subsequently poisons her; beheads Lord Rivers; beheads Lord Hastings; usurps
the throne from his little nephew Edward V; murders Edward and his brother the
Duke of York in the Tower; beheads the Duke of Buckingham. The whirling
circle of his crimes is only broken when he is slain on Bosworth Field by the
righteous Henry Tudor, who becomes King Henry VII, founder of new and
happier line of monarchs culminating in Shakespeare's devoted fan Queen
The venom in Shakespeare's portrait comes from the historical account of
Sir Thomas More, who must have had access to innumerable eyewitness
accounts. He was also a man of high principles, devoted to the truth, who died a
martyr rather than kowtow to his master King Henry VIII.
However, truth did not enter into the equation when it came to came to
writing, at Henry's command, a history of the man who, if he had not been killed,
would have prevented Henry's father from grabbing the throne. More's account
of the life of Richard III is full of demonstrable errors of fact. His very first
sentence gets the date of the death of Richard's brother Edward IV wrong by
more than ten years. And he chose to get most of his information from interested
parties like Cardinal Morton, the chief plotter of Richard's overthrow.
The Tudor dynasty had only the shakiest claim to legitimacy and lived in
perpetual terror of conspiracy and revolt. To justify its own seizure of power, it
had to portray Richard as a monster, and Tudor historians therefore were of
necessity Tudor propagandists. John Rous, a priest and antiquarian, wrote about
Richard during his lifetime and described him as "mighty prince and especially
good lord." But after Richard's death he took it all back, and made his life a
series of horrors beginning before his birth - a monstrous birth indeed, for he
spent two whole years in his mother's womb and came out with a full set of teeth.
Shakespeare picked up the slander: "That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes/
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood "
History is written by the victors. The Tudor picture of Richard as a
bloodthirsty tyrant has been handed down through the standard histories of
England and the school textbooks for five centuries. There has been an obstinate
opposition however. Beginning with Sir George Buck in the 17th century, a series
of writers has insisted that Richard was not getting a fair break, that the Tudor
version was largely fabrication: far from being a monster, Richard was a noble,
upright, courageous, tenderhearted and most conscientious king. This anti-Tudor
version reached its definitive statement in the work of Sir Clements Marhkam, a
19th century eccentric who spend years of passionate research trying to prove that
the crimes attributed to Richard were either outright libels by, or the actual work
of, a pack of villains, most notably including Henry VII and Cardinal Morton.
Markham provided the material Josephine Tey when she came to write
her famous mystery novel about Richard, The Daughter of Time, which was
published in 1951. This book has been in print ever since and has gone on stirring
up emotions in all the English-speaking countries. "Not a year goes by," says
William Hogarth, chairman of the Richard III Society in New York, "that I do not
get letters from enthusiastic college kids who have just read Josephine Tey and
want desperately to know what they can do to re-establish the reputation of that
noble and most calumniated king"
The existence of a Richard III Society is in itself an indication of how
deeply feelings run after 600 years. Richard's reign of two years and two months
was one of the shortest on record. His character was nowhere so complex as that
of other English monarchs like the psychopathic Henry VIII and the profligate
Charles II. His death was dramatic, but as Shakespeare reminds us in Richard II,
the chronicles of the past are full of sad stories of the death of kings: "...some
slain in war,/ some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,/ All
Yet it is Richard III who has a 3,000-member society named after him,
working indefatigably to put up plaques and statues o his name and win a fair
hearing for their hero everywhere. On Bosworth Day, August 22, the Richard III
Society puts memorial notices in newspapers, though the New York Times now
refuses to run them on the specious grounds that if it did it would have to run
similar notices by mourners of Genghis Khan.
Members of this society, like Rex Stout, who had his defective Nero
Wolfe throw his copy of Sir Thomas More's Utopia out of his library in protest
against More's shabby treatment of Richard, wear Richard's badge of the White
Boar on their lapels and call themselves Ricardians. Those on the other side they
call antiRichards. Ricardians have made considerable strides in recent times,
including the induction as patron of the Society's London chapter of a member of
the current Royal family, successors of the man who usurped Richard's crown at
Bosworth. He is Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the first time in 500 years that this
fateful conjunction of names has been allowed to reappear), and he stands not
much further from the succession to the throne than his namesake did in 1471.
But he is an eminently respectable Duke, his back is straight as a ramrod, and no
princes are expected to die in the Tower in his lifetime.
The antiRichards have not been disarmed for all that. The same year that
saw the publication of Jeremy Potter's Good King Richard? (the question mark
was quite superfluous) saw the appearance of Desmond Seward's Richard III,
England's Black Legend, which not only accepts all the crimes reported by More
and Shakespeare but goes them one better with the murder of the Bastard of
Ricardians and antiRichards have come to blows over a whole series of
burning questions. Was Lord Hastings' head chopped off on the 13th or 20th of
May? (Choice of the right date had great bearing on the question of whether
Richard had planned to usurp the throne long in advance, though what the bearing
is, is uncertain, since both friends and foes of Richard have used both dates to
support their positions ) Would Queen Elizabeth Woodville would have let
daughters leave the church in which they had taken sanctuary if she thought
Richard had murdered her sons? (If you think so, say the Ricardians, you don't
understand a mother's heart. If you don't think so, say the antiRichards, you don't
understand the mind of a vain designing woman.) Were the bones found in a
chest under a stairway the Tower in the late 17th century those of the two missing
Princes? (Scientific tests, say some, have proved they were. The tests, say others,
were not scientific, and really prove nothing except that the bones were
prepubertal, and, since architectural evidence proves only that they were pre-1684, they might have the bones of a pair of Roman girls which had lain there for
a thousand years.
In the smoke and din of controversy, it is hard to keep a neutral stance.
Old tales of murky plots and royal murder are fertile breeding grounds for
passionate controversy. All the more so because in the this case there is very little
solid information: the imagination is free to rearrange and re-interpret, in any way
rit.pleases, the few bare facts that have come down from contemporary sources.
One of the few things that seem reasonably certain about Richard is that
he was not deformed. The hunchback, the withered arm, that malignant face, the
twisted dwarfish body, were all inventions of Tudor propagandists. The only
contemporary reference to anything odd about his appearance was one statement
that his right shoulder was higher than his left. Perhaps, it has been conjectured,
the perpetual thrusting and slashing which a young man of the 15th century had to
do to keep in shape for battle caused the muscles of his right arm and side to look
swollen on his slight frame. The Countess of Desmond told friends at the court of
Queen Elizabeth I that she had danced with Richard when she was a young girl
and "he was the handsomest man in the room except his brother,." but as she
would have had to be well over a hundred years old if this story was true, perhaps
her memory was faulty.
Richard was said to be short and dark, like his father, quite unlike his
great blond brother, King Edward IV. The surviving portraits of him show a firm,
bony, reasonably handsome face, full of intensity and sense of uneasiness. In most
of the portraits he is toying with a ring on one of his fingers, and the Tudor
historian says he was always biting his lower lip and pulling his dagger halfway
out of its scabbard and pushing it back. (There is a rich field for amateur
psychoanalysis here, but so far none of Richard's many biographers has cared to
The uneasy look can be ascribed, by those with an antiRichard prejudice,
to a bad conscience. Equally, it can be ascribed to the fact that he lived in
disquieting times, when no man could be sure what ax was being sharpened to cut
off his head.. Richard, like any one else, has to be measured by the standards of
his time and place. As Horace Walpole, one of his early biographers, put it,
"It is shocking to eat our enemies; but it is not so shocking in an Iroquois as it
would be in the King of Prussia."
Richard came to manhood in the bloody anarchic times generally known
as the Wars of the Roses fought between the rival houses of Lanccaster and York.
Seen through modern eyes they look not so much like wars as like gangster
brawls. Nor were they, strictly speaking, of the Roses. The Red Rose of
Lancaster, an invention of his supplanter Henry VII, was meant to symbolize the
reunification of England when he married Richard's niece Elizabeth of York. His
Lancastrian predecessors generally fought under the banner of the White Swan of
Bohun. The Yorkists sometimes used the White Rose as their symbol, but Edward
IV preferred his own device, the Sun in Splendor, and Richard used the White
The battles in these wars called for no great tactical skill. Generally the
two armies (a few hundred or at most a few thousand men on each side) would
fire their arrows and their newfangled cannon at each other. When they ran of
projectiles, they would come together and hack at each other with sword, bill or
battle-ax, till the leaders on one side or the other were killed or captured and their
surviving followers took to their heels. Noblemen taken captive would be
beheaded at traitors and their lands declared forfeit, to be divided by the victor
among those he expected to fight for him in his next battle.
All these wars were fought with a very materialistic goal: getting
possession of more land, which was almost the only source of money and power
in those days. Land revenue had fallen when the Black Death carried off more
than a third of the population and sent the cost of labor soaring. To keep their
power and their prestige, noblemen had a desperate need for more and more real
estate. To get it, a lord would sell his sword and those of his retainers to the rival
kings of York and Lancaster, he would fight for them or betray them as he judged
profitable, and in between dynastic battles he could plunder his neighbors' manor
houses, kidnap heiresses, forge wills, take bribes from the King of France. Life
expectancy was low under these conditions, and the chronicles of the times are
largely concerned with the bloody squabbling of headstrong boys, It was noted of
Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales in 1467, that he would talk of nothing
but "cutting off heads or making war." He lost his own life at the battle of
Tewksbury four years later. By the time this battle was over, the royal blood of
England had run so thin that the Lancastrians had to go far afield to find a
claimant to the throne: Henry Tudor's claim was derived from his great-grandmother, a daughter born out of wedlock to John of Gaunt, the third son to
survive King Edward III.
These rapacious youths had their gentler side. They loved music, they
collected illuminate manuscripts, they were often fervently religious, they
devoured tales of chivalry like Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, first printed
during the reign of Richard III and eventually to provide John F. Kennedy with his
idea of Camelot. They saw no contradiction between their knightly dreams and
the sordid realities of their endless intrigues, betrayals and killings, any more than
they minded that Malory spent a good part of his life in prison for armed robbery
Richard of Gloucester, brought up in this world, was not originally
intended to play the role of King. He spent most of his first 30 years in the
shadow of his brilliant older brother, King Edward IV, the handsome giant who
never lost a battle or met a woman he could not seduce. Richard was at Edward's
side through exile, poverty, triumph and riches, always true to his motto, Loyaulte
me lie (Loyalty bind me, the motto of Ricardians to this day). Edward repaid him
by showering hi with confiscated estates, honor and titles: Duke of Gloucester,
Admiral of England, Ireland and Aqutaine, Constable of England, Chief Justice of
North Wales, Warden of the West Marches. At the age of 19 he was given the
rule of the whole north of England, and for ten years he fought successfully
against the Scots and won the devotion of the local population for his good
administration and evenhanded justice. He was just 30 when the news came from
London that King Edward was dead suddenly - of a surfeit, presumably, of food,
drink and sex - and the realm of England was in crisis.
It was a crisis of Edward's own making. In the days when he was first
king, and a hot-blooded boy of 20, he was smitten with the charms, the heavy-lidded eyes and the long golden tresses of a penniless young widow, Lady
Elizabeth Grey, née Woodville, and after she vowed to stab herself rather than
submit to unchaste advances, he married her. Though she was descended on her
mother's side from the Emperor Charlemagne and from the fairy Mélusine (the
ancestress of the Lusignan kings of Cyprus and the most beautiful woman of her
time, though she changed into a snake below the waist on Saturdays), Lady
Elizabeth was regarded as a vulgar upstart by the older nobility of England. The
misalliance provoked a revolt which almost cost the king his throne and life.
Edward went on sleeping with every woman in sight, but he remained devoted to
his queen and, more ominously, to her swarming, pushing family, the Woodvilles.
She had six sisters and five brothers. Edward was more than generous to
them all, he gave the titles and manors and offices in the government. He
arranged for them to marry into the oldest and proudest families. The nobles
didn't like it, but they had to do what they were told, even when the king told the
Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, then pushing 80 and possessed of an immense
fortune, to marry John Woodville, who was not yet 20.
Most important of the brood was the oldest brother, Anthony, Earl Rivers,
a charming rake, scholar and mystic, the fanciest jouster of his time and the
translator of the first book printed in England. The Queen had appointed him to
be Governor of the Prince, in charge of the education and upbringing of the child
who would one day be Edward V, "whereby," says Thomas More, "her blood
might be rooted in the prince's favor."
Now old Edward was dead, and young Edward, a child of 12, was King.
The Woodvilles were ready to take over the whole government, the whole
kingdom. Sir Edward Woodville controlled the fleet. The Marquess of Dorset, the
Queen's son by her first marriage, controlled the royal treasure piled up in the
Tower of London. They sent urgent messages to Rivers, telling him to bring the
boy from his castle of Ludlow in the west straight to London to be crowned.
Other urgent messages were being sent at the same time from Lord
Hastings, the late king's closest friend, to Richard of Gloucester in the north.
Richard had been named by Edward IV to be Protector, ruler of the realm, till the
young king came of age. But kings' last wishes are easy to set aide, and Hastings
warned Richard that if the Woodvilles got the young king crowned they would
take ver everything, and it would be all up with the Duke of Gloucester, and with
Lord Hastings. Everyone remembered that in the past century two Dukes of
Gloucester had governed when their nephews came to the throne as boys, and
both uncles were murdered.
. . Richard was a man of quick decisions. With a band of 600 men, he caught up
with Rivers and the young king. He invited Rivers to a gay evening of feasting,
then had him arrested and sent off to the north where in a few weeks he would be
beheaded. He told the 2,000 men accompanying the king to go home, and they
unhesitatingly obeyed. Then he personally took charge of his little nephew, who
could do nothing more than burst into tears. This was on the 10 th of April.
The little king and his Protector rode on into London, where they were
received with great enthusiasm. The Woodvilles scuttled in panic. Plans were
drawn up for a lavish coronation for Edward V.
Then came a thunderclap of drama. Richard discovered (Ricardian
version) that Lord Hastings, vexed at not getting rich enough rewards for his
services, was conspiring with the Woodvilles to get rid of the Protector, Or he
discovered (antiRichard version) that faithful old Hastings would never condone a
plot to usurp the throne. At all events, on June 13 (or 20) Richard angrily accused
Hastings of treason, and had him beheaded without trial.
A week later Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells (a stalwart old
servitor of the crown or a time-serving ecclesiastical bureaucrat, take your pick)
came forward with what he said was a secret he had kept for 20 years: sometime
before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV had fallen in love with
another noble lady, Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and he
had gone through a ceremony of betrothal with her, a ceremony to which Bishop
Stillington was the only waitress. Eleanor Butler, quickly abandoned by her royal
lover, was long since dead in a nunnery, but it made no difference. Under church
law of the period, this "precontract"made Edward's marriage to Elizabeth invalid,
and by an Act of Parliament, Edward, henceforward known as Edward the
Bastard, and he and his brother the Duke of York were barred from succession to
Richard of Gloucester was now the closest surviving legitimate male heir.
On June 25 the Lords and Commons of England proclaimed him King Richard
The whole coup d'état had taken a bit more than two months. It all went
so smoothly, it is no wonder that many contemporaries and most later historians
have assumed that Richard had plotted it all out in detail. But recent historians
tend to see it as a series of hasty, often desperate, improvisations, in a rapidly
changing situation where his own head was at stake. No one will ever know for
Nor, in all probability, will anyone ever know for sure exactly what
happened to King Edward V and his brother boys were lodged in the Tower, not
primarily a prison then as it later became, but a combination of palace, fortress,
arsenal, treasury and zoo. They were seen playing and practicing archery on the
grounds. They were seen staring out of windows. Then they were seen less and
less often, and after about the month of August they were not seen at all.
According to Tudor historians, Richard had them strangled in their beds
by one of his henchmen, Sir James Tyrrell. But they also record rumors that one
of both of them were smuggled out of the country to Flanders. In the reign of
Henry VII, a young Flemish lad named Perkin Warbeck announced that he was
the rightful Duke of York, and he convinced people at half the courts of Europe,
including the Duchess of Burgundy who was an aunt of the two boys in the
Tower. He raised an army, and invaded England, and almost succeeded. If he had
succeeded, he would presumably have reigned happily as King Richard the
Fourth, with his subjects perfectly content.
For what subjects wanted of their kings in 15th-century England was not
an impeccable pedigree or a virtuous character. They wanted a strong ruler who
could give them order and stability and save them from the commotions and the
horrors of civil wars like those of Lancaster and York. Richard may have done
more harm to his own cause by distributing land and offices too freely to the
friends he had made in the north, to the outrage of southern nobles, than by
having the princes put to silence.
Despite heroically ingenious efforts to place the blame for the murders of
the princes on the Duke of Buckingham, or the Duke of Norfolk, or King Henry
VII, there seems little doubt that Richard III was responsible, as some members of
the Richard III society will admit when they know no one is eavesdropping.
Mounting a throne in medieval England, or medieval anywhere else, was a game
of winner-take-all, and there was no place at the table for losers. A deposed king
was, usually very rapidly, a dead king. Edward II of England, was killed on the
orders of his wife Isabelle, the she-wolf of France, and her lover Roger Mortimer.
Richard the Second was either butchered or left to die of starvation on the orders
of the usurper Henry IV, the first Lancastrian. His grandson Henry VI died in the
Tower, "of pure displeasure and melancholy" says one Yorkist account, but more
likely of a blow in the head ordered by his jovial Yorkist cousin Edward IV.
All these killings were done in the dark, and though there must have been
plenty of witnesses, few or none came forward to give evidence. It was better for
ordinary folks to turn away their eyes on such occasions, since "these matters be
kings games," in the words of Saint Thomas More, "as it were stage plays, and for
the most part played upon scaffolds. And they that wise be would meddle no
So there was not slightest public outcry over the death of the little princes
in the Tower, any more than there would be a few years later when Henry VI I
chopped off the head of the young Earl of Warwick, or when a generation later
Henry VIII chopped off the head of the blameless old lady the Countess of
Salisbury, as well as the heads of the Earl of Suffolk, the Duke of Buckingham
and the Marquess of Exeter, solely because they had better-documented claims to
the throne than the two Henries. .
There was no popular uprising against Richard when Henry Tudor, the
remote Lancastrian pretender, invaded England. He had been exiled in France for
14 years. But he saw a chance to supplant Richard and, quickly raising an army of
French mercenaries, he borrowed a fleet from the king of France, landed in Wales
and marched to Bosworth. He might have left his bones there, but it was Richard
who was killed in the fighting, only because Sir William Stanley, who had been
waiting on the sidelines with his private army of 3,000 men to see which way the
wind was blowing, decided at the last moment to come in on Henry's side.
Little good it did him: Henry had his head cut off ten years later.
Richard reigned too short a time to make possible any serious evaluation
of his merits as a king. Defenders point to his zeal for justice, the progressive acts
that were passed by his only Parliament, his encouragement of the arts, his
anachronistic tendencies toward mercy (if only he had cut off a few more heads,
they way, notably those of the Countess of Richmond and the Bishop of Ely, he
might have had a chance to show his true worth before dying in bed). His
detractors point to what they call fearful errors in judgment, financial
carelessness, reckless diplomacy.
He certainly lacked one of the prime requisites of a successful king, which
is luck. If his agents had turned up an hour earlier try might have caught Henry
Tudor escaping from Brittany into France, and there would have been no invasion
and no Tudor dynasty. At Bosworth, he gambled everything on one bold cavalry
charge in which he unhorsed Sir John Cheyney, the biggest knight in England.
Then he killed the man carrying Henry's banner with one stroke of his battle-ax.
If that stroke had been to his right instead of to his left, he might have killed
Henry and won the battle and saved his kingdom on the spot.
It may be that his bad luck followed him till his very last moments on
earth. According to a recent student, when Stanley ordered the charge which
decided the outcome of the battle, he did not mean to betray Richard, he meant to
betray Henry. But in the dusty confusion of the battle-field, Stanley's soldiers
went for the wrong man. And though Richard swung his ax like a madman,
shouting "Treason! Treason! Treason!" they bore him down by weight of numbers
and killed him, the last English king to die in battle.
The new king paid the niggardly sum of ten pounds one shilling for
Richard's coffin, which is said to have been dug up later and used as a horse
trough, while the bones were thrown into the river Soar.
"Darkened and dishonored"was his name, and so it was to remain for
centuries. And it still is wherever school textbooks on English history are written
and Shakespeare's plays are produced. But today if you visit Bosworth, up on
Ambion Hill where Richard looked down on his enemies on the dawn of the
fateful day, you can see a battle-standard of the White Boar planted by Ricardians
for the faithful to rally around in their campaign against 500 years of calumny..
©1985 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine March 1985