Robert Wernick, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
Home Page

Richard III

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 Elizabeth I.

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 murthered...."

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 Fauconberg.

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 plow it.)

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 Boar.

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 and rape.

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 the throne.

Richard of Gloucester was now the closest surviving legitimate male heir. On June 25 the Lords and Commons of England proclaimed him King Richard III.

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 sure.

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 further."

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


Robert Wernick
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
info@robertwernick.com