I’ve been intrigued by the controversy surrounding Richard III for most of my adult life. My interest in all this began when a college friend gave me a copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I read it and was off to the races, digging for anything I could find on the topic. The internet wasn’t so wide-ranging then, so finding references wasn’t as easy as it is now.
The picture at left is from my December 2013 visit to the temporary museum erected in Leicester’s Guildhall after Richard III’s remains were found.
The traditional (i.e., Shakespearean) view was dominant when I first became interested in this topic. Reading Tey’s book reminded me that getting one’s history from a playwright, even one so well known as Master Shakespeare, isn’t always wise. The bard’s Richard III is a wonderful dramatic creation but shouldn’t be considered an accurate reflection of the king.
Shakespeare wrote in the reign of the Elizabeth I, whose grandfather Henry VII came to the throne by defeating Richard III. Henry had a shaky claim to the throne through a bastard line, which may be why he chose to blame his predecessor for everything he possibly could. Contradicting the official Tudor line about the former king could’ve gotten Shakespeare’s play banned.
Over the years, I’ve read widely about King Richard and his nephews, and I’ve given presentations on Richard III and the Wars of the Roses to college classes studying the Shakespeare play. I presented a paper on the marriage of Edward IV and its effect on Richard III’s claim to the throne to the Annual General Meeting of the Richard III Society (American Branch).
There’s always something new to discover, like the recent PBS Secrets of the Dead episode, “Resurrecting Richard III,” which examined the king’s physical condition and the effects of his scoliosis on his military capabilities. John Ashdown-Hill, MBE, recently wrote a wonderful book, Eleanor The Secret Queen: The Woman Who Put Richard III on the Throne, about Lady Eleanor Talbot, whose clandestine marriage to Edward IV was found by Parliament to invalidate his marriage to his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and render their children bastards–meaning they weren’t eligible to inherit the crown.
Parliament subsequently passed an act called Titulus Regius declaring Edward IV’s lone surviving brother, Richard III, the rightful heir to the throne.
One of the first books I found that challenged the traditional view was Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III. It’s classed as a biography but is also highly interpretive. It has been in print since 1955, which says a lot for its appeal. Less well known is Thomas B. Costain’s Plantagenets quartet, which presents a more moderate view of Richard III in the final volume, The Last Plantagenets.
There’s a wealth of Ricardian fiction out there. I loved Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, a novel in the same vein as the Kendall biography, Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason, Elizabeth Peters’ The Murders of Richard III, and many others.
Turning over what I read, playing “what if,” one of my favorite games, led me to write The Herald of Day and the rest of the Boar King’s Honor trilogy. The trilogy takes its name from Richard III’s chosen heraldic emblem, a white boar. I used to read everything I could find about him, but the discovery of the king’s bones, followed by his reburial in Leicester, led to such an outpouring of books about him and updates of prior books about him that I can’t possibly keep up.
I don’t believe the historical evidence supports the traditional view that he was a power-mad, murderous hunchback. While I would never say that it’s impossible for him to have murdered his nephews, I haven’t seen anything that convinces me unequivocally that he did. Without that proof, he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
If you’d like to see all the arguments set out, before no less august a jurist than the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, you can find a video of the arguments on C-SPAN. It’s worth noting that Rehnquist was not exactly known for being soft on murderers.
The traditionalist view levels numerous other charges against King Richard. When one looks closely at the historical record, however, there is little or nothing to support these charges, which I won’t argue here. If you’re interested in the alternate viewpoint, there are many options. Royal Blood by Bertram Fields is a superb legal summation of the case in the king’s favor, as it should be since Fields is an attorney.
The late Jeremy Potter’s Good King Richard? An Account of Richard III and his Reputation also makes an excellent case for the king but may be difficult to find in hard copy. Other books I particularly like are The Mystery of the Princes by Audrey Williamson, Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson, Richard: The Young King to Be by Josephine Wilkinson, and Richard III and the Murder in the Tower by Peter A. Hancock.
I’m grateful to my family and friends for fueling this interest, which my husband occasionally calls an obsession. Thanks to him and to our friends in the UK, I’ve been able to explore sites that were important in Richard III’s life. I’ve stood by the memorial stone to him that lay in Leicester Cathedral before the Looking for Richard project found his remains. That stone has since been moved to the King Richard III Visitor Centre.
You can see that the stone refers to King Richard’s burial at the Church of the Grey Friars in Leicester. John Ashdown-Hill’s research and the energy Philippa Langley and others put into the Looking for Richard Project led to the discovery of the church’s ruins. King Richard’s bones were found near the spot where the high altar would have been.
Years ago, the dh and I went to see Castle Gardens, Leicester, and its statue of Richard III, which has been relocated to the grounds of Leicester Cathedral. We walked the battle lines at Bosworth Field, where giving King Richard another 20 yards or so would’ve changed the history of England, and stood across from 36 Bishopsgate Street in London, the original site of Crosby Place, the king’s home in the city when he was Duke of Gloucester.
For a long time, the last remnant of Crosby Place, the great hall, (which survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was subsequently moved to Chelsea) was owned by a British educational federation, and people could visit it for a small fee. It has since passed into private hands and is no longer open to the public. I’ve always been glad we visited it when we could.
We traveled to Middleham Castle, where the future Richard III lived when he was Duke of Gloucester and headed the Council of the North for Edward IV. We poked around in the ruins and climbed the tower to look over Wensleydale and down into the area that was the castle’s bailey. The castle has had some wonderful reconstruction work done, so it’s possible to stand at the level of the keep’s great hall.
York was one of Richard III’s favorite cities, and he was much loved there, as the city chronicle’s report of his death notes. Pictured at left is Micklegate Bar, the gate used by visitors entering from the south.
We also found the Kings Arms pub, which has a portrait of Richard III on one of its signs (pictured in the second photo from the top above) and his coat of arms on the other, and visited the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey in Museum Gardens, York (pictured in the third paragraph below at right). The Yorkshire Museum has an interesting exhibit about Richard III.
A friend and I went to Leicester in 2016 and toured the excellent King Richard III Visitor Centre. We also stopped by the king’s tomb in Leicester Cathedral, which is pictured at right.
When I plotted The Herald of Day, I chose the Duke of Buckingham as the culprit in the murders of Edward IV’s sons because he fit my story scenario. He was also one of the earliest alternative suspects to cross my horizon. He rebelled against Richard III in 1483, around the time the two boys were reportedly last seen at the Tower, and there was no parliamentary act declaring that the duke should sit on the throne. He arguably had more of a motive to do away with them than King Richard did.
After all, Richard III’s right to the throne had been established by Parliament. As the characters in The Herald of Day note, Henry VII really did order all copies of Titulus Regius, the act of Parliament declaring Richard the rightful king, burned unread, and the Croyland Chronicle did set forth the text. Two sets of bones were found under a staircase at the Tower of London in 1674 and were presumed to be those of Edward IV’s sons, Edward V and Richard Duke of York. Those bones are now interred in Henry VII’s beautiful chapel in Westminster Abbey.
Whether the bones actually are the remains of Edward IV’s sons, however, is open to debate. Modern scientists have taken issue with the forensic examination of the 1930s, and the Crown refuses permission for an examination with modern DNA techniques.
The theory I’ve always liked was that Richard III had the boys spirited out of the country as the threat of Henry Tudor’s invasion loomed. I first read this in The Mystery of the Princes by Audrey Williamson, which won the 1978 Golden Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association, but there are many books proposing other theories.
Modern historians range all along the spectrum of opinion from those who think Shakespeare had it pretty much right to those who think pretty much every wrong laid at Richard III’s feet is bogus. That’s part of the fun of reading about this and weighing the different arguments.
In the end, I think, what we conclude about Richard III is dependent on what we assume his motives were. As the late Jeremy Potter, a former chairman of the Richard III Society parent group, in the UK, noted in Good King Richard, “Tell me what you think Richard was, and I’ll tell you what you are.” In other words, what we assume about this king says a lot about our basic assumptions of human nature.
Facial reconstruction based on Richard III’s skull