‘Loyalty Binds Me’

Is there a more maligned king in English history than Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets? There are a few candidates, but none have had their name so systematically blackened as this one. Denounced as a child-murderer, his image is that of a psychologically twisted, physically deformed hunchback, who died on the battlefield at the Battle of Bosworth, hacked to death after being betrayed by his own barons.

Richard, for anyone who isn’t familiar with him, was king of England for just two years, from 1483 to 1485, having succeeded his elder brother Edward IV after disinheriting his two nephews, known ever after as the ‘Princes in the Tower’, after their mysterious disappearance from the Tower of London and presumed murder. The circumstances of Richard’s accession to the throne were dubious and his hold on power was always precarious, yet he seems by all accounts to have been a good and just ruler, sometimes startlingly modern in his thinking and for the most part well liked by his subjects.

So how did he come to be saddled with this terrible reputation?

Part of the answer to that question lies with the dynasty that supplanted and succeeded him, the Tudors. They were brilliant manipulators of public opinion, operating a ruthless propaganda machine that would be the envy of many a modern-day dictator. Henry VII, his flamboyant son Henry VIII, and above all Elizabeth I, were all highly conscious of the public image of their dynasty, and worked overtime to disguise the fact that, at its heart, it was a usurper regime that had come to power by means of violent revolution and invasion.

Part of that effort – a big part – involved destroying the very idea that Richard III had ever been a legitimate ruler. They started on the day of the battle itself, denying him the dignity of a royal burial, having him secretly interred in a churchyard in Leicester and then putting about the idea that his remains had been flung into the River Soar. It was only when his skeleton was discovered beneath a car park in 2012 that he was given a more fitting burial site in Leicester Cathedral, 530 years after his death.

From the moment he died the Tudors went out of their way to ensure that his reputation would be mud for all eternity. And not only Richard, but his supporters, too: one of Henry Tudor’s first acts was to date the beginning of his reign to the day before the battle, thus making anyone who fought on Richard’s side on Bosworth field a traitor.

By the time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the state apparatus had become quite adept at using all kinds of outlets to guide public opinion, including the theatres. By the mid 1590’s, a hundred-odd years after Bosworth, the leading playwright in London was one William Shakespeare. Though he was not the first to write a play about Richard (there were at least two earlier efforts), it is to him that we have the received image of the king: crooked of back, twisted of limb, an evil, ruthless Machiavellian manipulator who schemes and murders his way to the throne. Of course he gets his just come-uppance at the hands of – yes, you guessed it – the glorious young Henry of Richmond, soon to become Henry VII and the progenitor of the Tudor dynasty.

Shakespeare and others (notably Thomas More) laid crime after crime at Richard’s door. He connives at the death of poor, half-mad King Henry VI; he kills the noble Lancastrian Prince of Wales and then in an act of breathtaking cynicism marries his widow; and he plots the death of his elder brother, George Duke of Clarence. When he finally gets the throne, he kills off counsellor after counsellor as his paranoia grows. But probably his most heinous crime is the purported murder of his two nephews, the sons of his brother King Edward VI. Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt that Richard had the two boys murdered by a couple of his henchmen. This act, more than any other, has cemented Richard’s reputation in history as an unmitigated villain.

One can hardly blame Shakespeare for taking what must have been the commonly understood facts of Richard’s life and turning them into one of the greatest plays in the canon. In the process he created one of the most fascinatingly evil characters ever to appear on the stage (though Shakespeare, in his usual way, still leaves us with a kind of sneaking sympathy for his antihero, whose whole life is driven by a kind of maniacal over-compensation for his physical deformities). No doubt he was pretty sure that the authorities would be very happy to approve his interpretation for performance on London’s stages.

The trouble is, most of Shakespeare’s version is either just plain wrong, or else seriously contested. Take his supposed deformities. Almost no contemporary description of Richard mentions anything of the kind. He was a formidable military commander, and in an age when that meant actually taking part in combat on the field, he was known as a skillful swordsman and fighter. Could a man who limped, with a withered arm and a hunchback have worn heavy armour and wielded a sword? It seems unlikely – though it turned out that there was a grain of truth behind the idea that he had something wrong with his body; when Richard’s body was finally exhumed, it was discovered that he did in fact suffer from scoliosis, causing a quite startlingly severe curvature in his spine; however, modern medical opinion is that while this condition might have cause him some pain, it would not have disabled him.

A replica of Richard’s skeleton at his museum in Leicester, clearly showing his deformed spine.

Then there is the matter of his so-called usurpation of the throne. Richard was far outside the line of succession for most of his life. He had an elder brother, George of Clarence, and of course there were the two princes, Edward and Richard, standing in line before him. Clarence was a fickle creature, who rebelled against his brother Edward IV several times before the king finally had enough of him and locked him up in the Tower of London. His eventual death there is mysterious, but there is no evidence that Richard had any hand in it. When King Edward died, he named Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, as Lord Protector over his two young sons, until such time as the elder boy, now King Edward V, should come of age and be able to govern on his own.

Richard, whose personal motto was ‘Loyaulte me Lie’, or ‘Loyalty Binds Me’, at first showed every sign that he intended to respect every letter of his late brother’s will. Why would he not? Unlike Clarence, his own loyalty had always been exemplary and unwavering. The problem he faced was his brother’s wife Elizabeth Woodville and her relatives, a scheming lot who appeared to want to control the new king themselves. That plan was foiled in a series of dramatic manoeuvres, and everything was set to move towards Edward’s coronation as the new king of England.

Edward Millais’ touching painting of the Princes in the Tower

But then a disturbing story came to light. The late king had, it seemed, been secretly married to a woman named Eleanor Butler before he married Elizabeth Woodville. This made him a bigamist and his sons illegitimate. The truth or otherwise of this claim could never be proven to a standard that we might accept today (the charge was brought by the priest who performed the ceremony, but the lady herself was long dead), but illegitimacy was a serious thing in the 15th century, and so the two princes were declared bastards, and their uncle Richard ascended the throne as King Richard III. Contemporary reports suggest that this outcome was accepted by nobility and the common people with equanimity, if not outright relief that then kingdom had avoided the risks of rule by a juvenile.

What happened to the two young princes thereafter is one of the great mysteries of English history. They disappeared from view in the summer of 1483 and were never seen again. It is generally assumed that they were murdered, with Richard as the chief suspect. That idea was reinforced over and again by the Tudor monarchy and its propagandists, notably Sir Thomas More (upon whose account Shakespeare drew heavily).

But some modern historians have questioned that theory, arguing that Richard had no need to dispose of the boys, since they were no rivals, their bastardy barring them from the throne. True, they would always have been a focal point for insurrection against a regime whose own legitimacy was shaky, but whether that would have been enough of a motive to have them killed is a moot point. It would have been a particularly brutal and heartless thing to do for a man who might well be ruthless (he could not afford to be anything else in the snake pit of 15th century royal politics), but who had never before exhibited murderous tendencies.

If Richard was not the murderer, then who was? Always assuming that the boys were in fact murdered and did not die of natural causes, several culprits have been advanced. One is Richard’s sometime ally, Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, who, it is suggested, did away with the boys on his own initiative, either out of loyalty to Richard or to further his own ambitions to become king. He did eventually rebel against Richard, failed and was executed; the fact that Richard did not denounce Buckingham as a child-murderer after his death is one of the arguments made that the duke could not have done the deed.

Then there is King Henry VII himself. There is a certain plausibility to this idea. Though he had won his crown on the battlefield, Henry needed to add layers of legitimacy to his claim to the throne. One of those was his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the elder sister of the two princes. But of course if the two princes were illegitimate, she would be illegitimate too; as king he could reverse that, but that would also legitimise her brothers, who might then become a focal point for rebellion. A real double bind, whose solution must have seemed simple: eliminate the two princes entirely. Henry, a genuinely Machiavellian character, was perfectly capable of coming to that decision and having it put into effect with great secrecy, but again there is nothing but the most circumstantial evidence that this might have happened.

So if Shakespeare’s villainous depiction is caricature – splendid and nuanced to be sure, but a caricature nonetheless – what was Richard really like? His record in the short period of time that he governed England, just two years during which he was beset with political crisis after political crisis, is that of a wise and benevolent king, concerned for the welfare of his people, and quite advanced in his ideas of good government. He was genuinely loved in the northern part of the country, where he had ruled as his brother’s Lieutenant of the North for many years. He seems to have genuinely loved his wife, Anne Neville, and was devastated by her death and that of their son Edward. Not, on the whole, a tyrant.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the museum that has been erected in Leicester over the king’s original grave. Among the many fascinating exhibits was this reconstruction of his face. It struck me then as a rather melancholy, sensitive face, that of a serious young man trying to do his best. Not that of a murderer.

But then again, any detective would probably tell you that murderers rarely look murderous.

Want to know more?

Richard’s reputation has been renovated in recent years by a number of biographers who have become interested in separating the facts from fiction. David Baldwin’s biography is typical and well-written. And if you’d like to know more from the Tudor perspective, read Thomas Penn’s The Winter King, about Henry VII.

I first became interested in Richard through fiction, way back in 1971 when I read Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s splendid novel We Speak No Evil; a little dated in style, it is still a great read. Sharon Penman also tackled Richard’s story in her huge book Sunne in Splendour. And for a more off-beat approach, try Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which has a fictional private investigator take on the case of the missing princes.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close