Thursday, January 12, 2012

In defense of Richard (for GBE2, History)

History is not always cut-and-dried, it-happened-and-it’s-over. Sometimes it hides its mysteries inside itself.

 Look at the following two pictures:

Which of these two men would you say looked more like a child murderer and regicide?

 Which looks more like an honest and trustworthy man?

 Bonus question: Which one looks like he has a hunchback and a withered arm? (Bonus answer: if you said “neither one,” you get a point. If you said “the bottom one,” you get two points.)

 Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is all by way of introducing my defense of Richard of York, Duke of Gloucester, known to history as King Richard III, last of the Plantagenet line, the medieval kings of England over four centuries. He is the man in the first picture.

 The man in the second picture, the one with the weaselly face and beady eyes, is Henry Tudor, known to history as Henry VII, and his sins go beyond fathering Henry VIII and unleashing that evil on the world. His sins include murdering a good king and taking the throne with no legitimate claim.

 History has not been kind to Richard, largely due to the Tudor propaganda that Henry began spreading as a means of legitimizing his usurpation (propaganda on which Shakespeare based his play, as he wrote in the age of Elizabeth Tudor).

Anne Neville, Richard's queen

Most people who have heard of Richard believe that he was nothing short of a monster: an ugly hunchback with a withered arm and even more withered heart who stole the throne of England from his nephew Edward and then imprisoned Edward and his brother in the Tower of London and had them killed.

In fact, the fate of the Princes in the Tower is one of history’s enduring mysteries. At the time, the Tower was a royal residence; many people lived in it, including children. There is no conclusive evidence that Richard had his nephews killed, nor even that they were killed at all. The story is based simply on reports that the boys weren’t seen again after they moved into the Tower. No bodies or bones have ever been conclusively identified as belonging to them, and there is much speculation that one or both survived.


There is also no evidence that Richard was hunchbacked, as a look at his portrait should show. Short, yes. Hunched, no. As for the charges of usurpation, they’ve also been trumped up and exaggerated. The facts are these:

Richard’s brother, King Edward IV, had named Richard Lord Protector of England and of Edward’s twelve-year-old son, the to-be Edward V, who had been living outside of London. Richard was aware that Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and her family were plotting to use the boy to seize power for themselves. History had shown that having a king who was a minor led to chaos and wars within a country, and England had already been long involved in the Wars of the Roses. It could ill afford a war of succession. Nevertheless, after Edward’s death, Richard escorted the prince to London and saw him lodged in the Tower,  and plans for Edward’s coronation went ahead.

Queen Elizabeth Woodville 

 Before it took place, however, the bishop of Bath and Wells revealed that King Edward IV had previously entered into a betrothal with another woman before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. At that time such a betrothal was considered to have the legal force of a marriage; therefore Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was declared invalid and his two sons to be illegitimate and thereby barred from the succession. Upon this discovery Richard was declared king by an assembly of nobles and commons and later confirmed by a Parliamentary decree.

Does that sound like a usurpation?

There is evidence that Richard was and would have been a good king, despite having to put down a rebellion by a former ally, Lord Buckingham, and having had only two years to serve in office before he was killed in the rebellion led by Henry Tudor.

Richard was very popular in the north of England, which he had administered as governor during his brother Edward’s reign. He instituted a court to which poor people could bring their grievances. He provided for bail for felony suspects before trial. He banned restrictions on printing and sale of books, and was a patron of William Caxton, England’s first printer. He set standards for education for public officials in hopes of lessening corruption among them. He was intensely loyal to his brother and even to some who didn’t deserve it. After his death the people of York recorded their grief at his being “piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.”

A Caxton book

And that murder was brought about by Henry Tudor, though it was not at his hands; no, Henry didn’t have the courage to face the king on the battlefield of Bosworth himself. He hid in his tent as Richard charged toward his lines, alone, and was killed by Henry’s men. Richard was largely alone because he had been betrayed by his expected allies, the Stanley family--one of whom happened to be married to Henry’s mother.

The Wars of the Roses between the Lancaster and York families had created many enemies for Edward and Richard, including the Lancastrian Henry and his mother, Margaret Tudor Stanley. It was Margaret who egged Henry on to challenge the king. Henry had a very weak claim to the throne himself, being descended from an illegitimate line.

After Richard’s death his body was stripped, thrown on the back of a horse, and taken to a monastery for burial in a humble grave; later his bones were disinterred and thrown into a river. He is the only king of England not to have a permanent burial site.

Richard’s death and Henry’s subsequent marriage to Richard’s niece effectively ended the Wars of the Roses but ushered in one of the bloodiest eras in English history, the Tudor era. The Tudors were ruthless in disposing of their enemies and anyone who stood in their way or represented a threat. Henry managed to kill off all of the remaining members of the House of York so that they couldn’t threaten his tenuous claim.

Did this include the Princes in the Tower? Some have speculated so. Oddly, Henry did not charge the late Richard with the murder of the princes. Could that be because he didn’t know for certain whether or not they were dead? In later years Henry would be challenged by “pretenders” to the throne claiming to be either one of the princes or a nephew of Edward’s; they garnered considerable support, indicating that there was no common knowledge that the princes had died during Richard’s reign.

Honorable members of the jury, I have presented only a few points in the case for the defense. Much better and more complete arguments can be found in the classic novel for Ricardians and Ricardian converts, Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time,” as well as Paul Murray Kendall’s biography, “Richard III,” and Bertram Fields’ “Royal Blood.” And the Richard III Society has many more resources.

History won’t give up its mysteries to us. We can only try to interpret the evidence. I have this dream that when I get to the World Beyond, everything will be revealed….what happened to the princes? Who built Stonehenge? Who was really responsible for Kennedy’s assassination? And on and on.


  1. Very interesting and to be honest, I have never even wondered about King Richard and now I know!

  2. Thanks Elaine. I love bits of history distilled by a scholar.

  3. Fascinating, and so well done. I love history, but knew very little of the Tudor or King Henry(s) history. Thank you for a wonderful look into the personality of history!

  4. My only knowledge of this part of history came from Shakespeare's plays, and I always kind of suspected he took a lot of poetic license. Enjoyed reading this.

  5. I'll bet that a good percentage of all history is a bit muddled--or fully manipulated.

  6. So you mean the history of Richard given to us by Shakespeare isn't real? How DARE he :-)

    This is well done and I enjoyed the reading of it. Thank you

  7. Excellent as usual, Elaine. Nice use of pictures too.

  8. I must confess, I was first drawn to that cute dog on the right. Awwww. He's much cuter than Richard and Henry (who look like they could be the same person at a different age and angle). There is so much mystery in history. I hope and pray we know the answers in the end.


  9. Have to admit, I adored the Plantagenet dynasty, but I also loved every single Tudor. I know 'Hal' wasn't the nicest of guys, and yeah he had commitment issues, but he remains a huge figure, a real king and he produced one of the best and most beloved monarchs we have ever had, Elizabeth I. (I'm talking about the love shown by the common folk here, not the scholars who see these things from lofty perspectives)If it hadn't have been for these guys I would never have fallen in love with the Lionheart (for all the good that would have done me!) and Robert Dudley (whose graffiti signature I have touched on the walls of the Tower of London - http://www.flickr.com/photos/7925153@N06/3256204160/) I love that we can reach out and touch history like that (although under plexi-glass now). Sorry... waffling... Great piece :o)

  10. Thanks to everyone for reading my little polemic here. I was hoping I wasn't getting too carried away and boring everyone. Mojo: I'm humbled to have an English person reading this, and I hope my anti-Tudor rant didn't offend you. I do think Elizabeth was the best of them, and one of the best monarchs in history. I'm interested in your remark about Richard the Lionheart--he was way before the Tudors, so I'm wondering how they spurred your interest in him. And I loved being in England and so close to history that goes back well over a thousand years! We don't have that in the U.S., unfortunately.

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