Saturday, 27 April 2013

Richard III: Life and Legacy

ANNE: Never hung poison on a fouler toad.
Out of my sight. Thou dost infect mine eyes.
RICHARD: Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.

William Shakespeare, Richard III (1592)

This month, the BBC announced that relatives of Richard III, England's last medieval king, are launching a legal challenge over plans to bury him in Leicester Cathedral. The mooted burial place of England's most controversial king have inspired furious debate amongst devoted Ricardians, academics, and the general public as a whole, following the sensational news that the body unearthed in a Leicester priory was really that of the defamed king, killed at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. The Plantagenet monarch's supporters commonly believe that Richard should instead be buried at York Minster, due to Richard's strong associations with the North - where he was much esteemed - during his lifetime.

In an article I wrote earlier this year for my university newspaper, which can be accessed here (, I explored the brief outline of Richard's controversial life and the sensational legacy he continues to exert today in modern Britain. How controversial Richard's life and legacy really are can be glimpsed in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine, where academics differed wildly from one another in their judgements of Richard. Chris Skidmore, MP and historian, insists that Richard deserves a state funeral, in order for people to 'reassess' this maligned monarch. Nigel Saul, respected medieval scholar, suggests that the bones of the two sons found in the Tower should be DNA-tested in order to see if they really are those of Richard's nephews. Nigel Jones is especially vehement in wishing 'that the strange cult of this murderous little tyrant would also lie down and die', and insists that he should remained buried in a Leicester car park due to his status as 'a serial-killing child murderer', while Alison Weir agrees somewhat, noting that 'his bad press was probably well deserved'. Yet Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, strongly disagreed, instead hoping that 'people will start to read about this monarch who did much for this country'.

The sensational nature of Richard III's reign and comparatively short life have meant that he has left a long-lasting legacy in Britain today comprised of controversy and mystery, which ferociously divide those who believe he is a victim of cruel Tudor propaganda and those who, like Nigel Jones, view him as the epitome of evil. This conflict was witnessed during Richard's own lifetime. John Rous, a medieval English historian writing in the fifteenth century, praised Richard as a 'good lord' who punished 'oppressors of the commons', and insisted that he had 'a great heart'. Certainly, Richard's excellent reforms of the English legal system and his desire to provide aid for the poor are well recognised by medieval historians. But the bloody death of Richard at Bosworth Field, and the subsequent triumph of the Tudors, blackened Richard's name beyond redemption. Notoriously, Shakespeare depicted him as deformed, cruel, scheming and evil, stopping at nothing - not even poison and murder - to achieve his ambitions. Thomas More condemned Richard, portraying him as 'little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed... hard-favoured of visage', while Polydore Vergil opined that he was 'deformed of body... one shoulder higher than the right'. For years, devoted Ricardians insisted that this was all nonsense, designed to tarnish the king's reputation beyond redemption, but the unearthing of Richard's body at Leicester goes some way to proving that these writers were truthful in their claims.

However, praise remained for Richard in the early modern period. The late Elizabethan historian William Camden praised his 'good laws', although remarking that he had 'lived wickedly'. Francis Bacon concurred, suggesting that he was 'a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people'. Again, therefore, we can see that while Richard may have alienated nobles and the elites at court, he was popular among the common people for his successful reforms and desire to improve their lot. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, contrastingly, the depiction of Richard as evil and corrupt became the dominant description. David Hume castigated his 'fierce and savage nature'; he had 'abandoned all principles of honour and humanity'. Respected historian James Gairdner believed that Shakespeare and More's views of the king, while exaggerated, were essentially correct. Twentieth century historians have arguably become fairer in their assessments, focusing less on Richard's moral qualities, with Charles Ross believing that 'like most men, he was conditioned by the standards of his age'. Yet other writers, such as Weir, believe that he was highly corrupt and believe that he was responsible for the murder of his nephews, the 'Princes in the Tower', in 1483.

As proof of the controversy and passionate emotions Richard inspires today, I received several comments on my article insisting that Richard could not have been responsible for that heinous crime, the murder of his nephews - the disturbing event which has overshadowed all other events of his short but bitter reign. This has been disputed ferociously by historians, scholars, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, and a host of other professionals to this day. Katherine Emery, fellow student at Exeter, explored who may have been responsible for the murder of the Princes in the March 2013 issue of The Historian, sifting through a variety of evidence which could point towards the murderers being either Richard, Henry VII, the Duke of Buckingham, or Margaret Beaufort. But she concluded that evidence overwhelmingly suggested that Richard was indeed responsible for his nephews' deaths.

On a balance of probabilities, I agree that Richard is the most likely culprit for his nephews' deaths (but that is not to say that he physically killed them himself!) One of the most commonly raised arguments, but one that I wholeheartedly agree with, is that if the Princes were still alive after 1483, why did the King never produce them in London publicly to counter harsh criticism and increasing suspicion that he had murdered them? Henry VII was to do a similar thing during his reign with a pretender who challenged his throne. Rumours swirled in London during Richard's reign that he had 'put to death the children of King Edward, for which cause he lost the hearts of the people.' In Danzig, Caspar Weinreich's contemporary chronicle recorded that 'Later this summer, Richard, the King's brother, had himself put in power... and he had his brother's children killed'. The Croyland Chronicler, who was in fact a royal councillor at court, later wrote that 'the children of King Edward', were 'avenged' at Bosworth through Richard's death. The evidence is convincing.

Richard's reputation was blackened, it would seem, almost beyond repair by other disturbing allegations about him during his own lifetime. Following his queen Anne Neville's premature death in March 1485, it was believed that Richard had murdered her, perhaps by poisoning her, in order to marry his own niece Elizabeth of York. Richard was also condemned for his savage treatment of Hastings, executing him before his coup in 1483, and later ordered the execution of his most erstwhile supporter the duke of Buckingham for rebelling against him. While the rumours about Anne are almost certainly scurrilous, the other charges are correct. If Richard was not the poisonous, cruel, murderous tyrant immortalised in Tudor propaganda, he was certainly scheming, ruthless, and desperate to retain his power at all costs.

Richard's controversial life and sensational legacy will mean that he will always provoke fierce debates and bitter beliefs. But where should the king be buried? Since he was extremely popular in the North, and enjoyed considerable success there, perhaps it is only right that he should be buried at York Minster. The Queen has made it discreetly clear that she will not tolerate a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, which many people seem to agree with. But, although he remains tainted with the crime of murder (including of children), it seems clear that York Minster is the most fitting place for this king to be buried - particularly if it, finally, ends the tiring debates as to where his final resting place should be.


  1. Hi, interesting post. Can you please reference where you got this from though: The Queen has made it discreetly clear that she will not tolerate a state funeral in Westminster Abbey - is this the case?
    He is likely now to be buried in Leicester, despite many Ricardians (myself included) disagreeing with this decision.