Richard III - Malignant or Maligned Monarch?
Created | Updated Apr 11, 2023
Richard III - is he the most maligned man in English history? Probably. Shakespeare portrayed him as a deformed hunchback snarling his lines at a terrified audience. However, contemporary pictures of the man reveal him to be a quietly handsome chap with little or no physical disability.
The popular image of Richard Plantagenet (1452-1485) is that he plotted against his brother Edward IV, usurped the throne, murdered the Princes in the Tower, and held a terrified England under his evil thrall for two unhappy years. Then brave Henry Tudor (later to become Henry VII) of the House of Lancaster rode in on his pony, challenged him on the field of battle and led the country into an age of enlightenment and peace.
So much for 16th Century propaganda. Take a bow William Shakespeare.
Modern politics are pretty tame in comparison to that of the 15th Century - even accounting for those conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's assassination. This was the time of the Wars of the Roses in England, a civil war between the House of Lancaster and the House of York.
Murder and mayhem were daily occurrences at this time. Regicide (murder of a monarch) was rarer - but it did happen. Richard almost certainly did commit regicide when he was Duke of Gloucester. He was heavily implicated in the mysterious death of the Lancastrian King Henry VI in May 1471, which allowed his elder brother Edward to finally assume the throne, as Edward IV, following victories for the Yorkists at the battles of Tewkesbury and Barnet.
Edward IV died in 1483, when his son - the originally monikered Edward V - was a mere 12-year-old stripling. Richard was named Protector of the Realm, and this was when his problems really started. As Protector, he was charged with guiding the young king through the maze of politics and diplomacy that was the royal court. Fortunately for most of us, court intrigue is a closed book; suffice to say there was an awful lot of it about. Richard faced opposition from many factions - the most powerful of which was led by Elizabeth Woodville, the young King Edward's doting mother. Elizabeth led the court against Richard during his time as Protector - effectively plotting against her own son.
Ostensibly to protect his youthful charge, Richard whisked Edward and his brother to the Tower of London. These were to become the ill-fated Princes in the Tower.
More intrigue followed. Richard was promptly declared King of England by government, grudgingly assuming his throne on 26 June, 1483. However, the nobility, on whom the King depended, almost immediately began to plot against him, the very man they had declared the first among their equals.
It was rumoured the Princes in the Tower had been killed. When Richard was unable to produce the children on demand, the rumour gathered momentum. It prompted the Duke of Buckingham to lead an unsuccessful rebellion against him - paying for his treason with his life. However, the anti-Richard seeds had been sown. The cause of Henry Tudor (later to be Henry VII) was quietly gathering pace behind the scenes, despite his somewhat dubious claim to the throne. He was the 15th Century equivalent of the Queen's sister's lover's cleaner's nephew's illegitimate love child. As claims to the throne go, it was pretty weak.
As monarchs go, Richard was halfway competent - unusual in this period of unrest in England. Certainly, Henry VI had been about as much use as a chocolate fireguard during his reign. Richard instituted many financial reforms, and promoted trade with the rest of the known world; he laid the foundations for the booming economy and relative wealth of the country enjoyed and boasted about by the Tudor monarchs. During his reign, the country enjoyed more stability, peace and prosperity than it had done for many years. But it was too late. Henry Tudor's dubious claim to the throne was being secretly supported by many in court.
Richard's monarchy was doomed almost before it began. From his installation as Protector of the Realm, he faced opposition from most of the royal court, who became surprisingly unified in their bid to rid themselves of this man. With this in mind, his actions become a little more understandable. If he'd wanted the throne, he could have taken it before Edward IV was cool in his grave. He didn't, probably because he saw a better future as the power behind Edward V's throne - the 1480s 'Kingmaker'1, if you will. Furthermore, the evidence against him for the murder of the Princes in the Tower remains to this day purely circumstantial, and - given the level of anti-Richard propaganda - open to interpretation.
Henry Tudor, exiled in France, timed his return to England to perfection. On 22 August, 1485, the two forces met at Bosworth Field. Richard's much-needed support melted away on the battlefield. He lost the battle and his life that day. Henry was crowned Henry VII of England, and promptly set about building on the progress started by his predecessor, a monarch despised by his nobles, betrayed by his followers and left to rot by his people.
With the crown on his head, Henry set about legitimising his monarchy. He had won it on the field of battle, which, at the time, was regarded as pretty conclusive. He then had it ratified by Parliament, making it legally legitimate. And, to gild the royal lily, he married Elizabeth of York, uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York permanently. That made him fairly invulnerable and allowed him to take the credit for what Richard had started, building an enduring dynasty in the process and enabling him to rewrite history in his favour.
Someone once was paraphrased as saying, 'history is written by the winning side'. In the case of Richard III, this couldn't be more accurate. It is unfair to enforce 21st Century Western morality on 15th Century England; politics at the time were as much about the sword as they were the debating chamber.
When he was alive, Richard was the victim of a hate campaign the likes of which modern British tabloids would be proud. In his death, his memory was abused, despoiled, distorted and made up.
So, Richard - the mad, hunchbacked monarch of a desperate and terrified nation? Unlikely. Richard - a man under terrible pressure, a ruler given no chance to prove himself and the victim of a subjective history, written by those seeking to justify their claim to the throne? Closer to the mark. Why else would his memory be so vilified in an era when such levels of intrigue in court were daily occurrences?