Sometime next year, more than half a millennium after he was killed by the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth, King Richard III of England will finally receive a proper royal interment at Leicester Cathedral. His bones have recently been recovered and identified, and his fans are raising money to erect a handsome tomb.
His fans? Richard the homicidal hunchback has fans?
Indeed he does. For close to a hundred years, Richard’s apologists, known as “Ricardians,” have striven to present a more “balanced” view of the murderous monarch that most people know only from Shakespeare.
The Ricardians have a point. Historians have long since acquitted Richard of certain crimes that the Bard lays to his charge, such as the murder of his brother George, Duke of Clarence. And, as the discovery of Richard’s skeleton makes clear, he had neither the hunchback nor the withered arm that Shakespeare foisted on him.
But was Shakespeare merely a “Tudor fink” as some Ricardians have claimed?
O.K., so Richard wasn’t a hunchback. But his skeleton proves that he had a curved spine, which would have made one shoulder higher than the other. In a superstitious age, any bodily deformity would have been taken as proof of a twisted nature. And maybe he didn’t drown his brother George in a barrel of sweet wine as Shakespeare says, but what about his other crimes?
Richard lived during the closing stages of a brutal dynastic feud known as the Wars of the Roses. For nearly 30 years, the white roses of the House of York had vied with the red roses of the House of Lancaster over who had the better claim to the English crown. The House of York won a “final” victory in 1471 when Richard’s older brother defeated the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, and assumed the throne as Edward IV. (Conveniently for the Yorkists, Henry VI died soon after, more than likely done in by Richard on Edward’s orders.)
A dozen years of peace followed, during which time Richard served his brother loyally as a sort of governor-general of England’s northern counties. But when Edward died unexpectedly in 1483, Richard made his move.
The new king was Edward’s 12-year-old son, Edward V, who was then in the west of England under the care of his mother’s brother, Lord Rivers. On his way to London to claim his crown, the boy was intercepted by his uncle Richard, who promptly arrested Rivers and several of the young king’s other guardians. These men would shortly be summarily executed.
Richard’s apologists have attempted to excuse this power grab by arguing that Richard was acting not out of ambition but sheer survival instinct. Edward IV had married a commoner named Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth had brought a tribe of greedy and ambitious relations with her to court. Richard had been named lord protector of the realm by his brother’s will. But had the dowager queen and her rapacious crew taken control of the young king, Richard would probably have been elbowed aside and then executed on a trumped-up charge. So he can hardly be blamed for striking first.
But even allowing that these were ruthless times, it is hard to justify what happened next. On reaching London, Richard inveigled custody of Edward V’s younger brother, the nine-year-old Duke of York, and installed both boys in the Tower of London—ostensibly to prepare for Edward’s coronation. Instead, Richard had them declared illegitimate and excluded from the succession. When Lord Hastings, an old friend of Edward IV, refused to countenance the coup, Richard branded him a traitor and had him executed on the spot without trial—the hapless earl being hastily beheaded on a log of wood when no block could be found.
With all opposition thus eliminated or else terrorized into inaction, Richard had himself crowned king. But one threat remained: his nephews. Even bastardized and confined to the Tower, they were still a potential focus for plots against the new regime. Richard’s apologists insist that he never murdered the boys, and there is not enough courtroom evidence to prove Richard guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But still, four damning particulars remain: First, the boys disappeared from sight over a year before Richard was killed at Bosworth Field. Second, it is unlikely that anyone but Richard would have taken the responsibility for ordering their deaths. Third, if anyone else had killed them, such person was never charged with the crime. And fourth, as rumors spread throughout England that the boys had met with foul play, Richard could have easily silenced the wagging tongues by producing his nephews alive. He never did.
These rumors are in themselves cogent evidence that the “black legend” surrounding Richard III was not fabricated later on by Tudor propagandists. It was rooted in what his subjects thought of him while he was still alive.
In reply, Richard’s apologists attempt to portray him as a deeply pious man who would never have stooped to murdering children. They make much of the many chantries—that is, chapels for the celebration of masses—that Richard endowed. What they neglect to mention is that most of these endowments were for the celebration of requiem masses, which suggests that Richard was uncommonly anxious that the souls of the departed should rest in peace.
Likewise, Richard’s fans point to the excellent laws enacted by Parliament during Richard’s brief reign. Among these “good actes” were measures to reform the property laws, curb corruption and establish a system of bail. Yet Richard’s role in promoting these laws is unclear and, even if they were introduced at his behest, his motive may have been nothing more than a frantic attempt to boost his popularity by posing as enlightened ruler.
For if Richard was the just and wise king that his partisans make him out to be, we might reasonably expect him to have been popular as well. How did it happen that “good King Richard” was so easily toppled by an obscure Welsh adventurer?
Henry Tudor had little to recommend him as a Lancastrian pretender. His claim to the crown was sketchy at best. Also, in addition to being Welsh, he had spent half his life as an exile in France. Nevertheless, he was able to land in England unopposed with a few followers and to mount a successful uprising against Richard, enlisting even Yorkists under his banner.
As Henry’s strength grew, Richard’s supporters began to slip away. He could sense his impending doom. Yet for all his sinister reputation, it must be admitted that Richard III possessed at least one royal virtue; one that even Shakespeare does not grudge him. He was brave. His skeleton confirms contemporary descriptions of him as short and slightly built. But he was nonetheless a fierce warrior.
The last sight we have of Richard at Bosworth is one upon which Shakespeare and the historians concur. We see Richard unhorsed, bloody, betrayed and outnumbered, and yet refusing to flee the field. The words that Shakespeare gives him then are entirely in keeping with what we know of his character:
I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die…
Whatever vices Richard III may have had, cowardice was not among them. He was the last English king to die in battle. He deserves his handsome tomb for that distinction alone.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.