The story of Richard III who ruled England for two turbulent years, 1483 - 1485, is a controversial one. Many historians have waded in with different versions. Some claim that the image of Richard III as a monster is largely a product of Tudor propaganda which wished to make the last member of the preceding house of Plantagenet look as bad as possible. Richard's biographer Michael Hicks tends towards this view. Others, such as Alison Weir, present a more traditional picture of Richard as an evil monarch. Clearly it is winners who write history, and this influences what is said. Thomas More and Polydore Vergil wrote an account of Richard's rule, during the reign of Richard's successor Henry VII. Some commentators have claimed that their position as official historians to Henry VII meant More and Vergil were obliged to portray Richard in a bad light. The story of Richard III no doubt does have elements of later propaganda within it. The idea that he was in the womb for two years has to be nonsense. And physical deformities, the famous hunchback and withered arm were either invented or more probably exaggerated. Thomas More repeated these rumours, but added cautiously "either men of hatred report the truth, or else nature changed her course in his beginning" (quoted by Alison Weir in The Princes In The Tower P29). On the other hand there are clearly problems with evil Richard simply being a product of propaganda. Polydore Vergil and Thomas More were respected historians, and as Michael Hicks says, unlikely simply to falsify their history. Thomas More in particular was not the sort of man to meekly write propaganda. He was a man of principle, who was eventually executed by Henry VIII for not accepting England's conversion to Protestantism. In the case of Richard III it might be that much of the story as written by Thomas More was in essence correct. Historians in trying to discern a more accurate picture simply muddied the waters. The story that follows is as much a story of how history gets written, as it is a story of one man.
Butt of malmsey wine in the Bowyer Tower at the Tower of London
Richard III's father was Richard of York, a descendent of Edward III, and one of England's most powerful nobles. Richard of York had tried to control the country as protector when Henry VI lost his sanity in 1453. Eventually York decided that Henry VI had to be removed completely. In the struggle that followed, known as the Wars of the Roses, York never managed to take the throne himself. But his three sons, Edward, Richard and George, carried on where their father left off. It was Edward who was to defeat Henry VI's army at the Battle of Towton and become Edward IV in 1461. This, however, wasn't the end of the struggle. The powerful Earl of Warwick, who up to now had supported Edward IV, decided to switch sides. Warwick actually managed to return Henry VI to the throne for a short time in 1470 - 1471. But following the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 Edward IV's power was consolidated and he was once again king. King Edward's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, meanwhile, had been busy expanding his power in northern England. He had been ruthlessly pursuing his own interests, whilst remaining completely loyal to King Edward. This of course did not stop him taking advantage of the victory at Tewkesbury. After helping to defeat the Earl of Warwick, he married Warwick's daughter Anne Neville, in a successful attempt to channel loyalties shown to Warwick towards himself. The rebel sons of the Countess of Oxford also lost their land to Richard. Richard then showed his ruthlessness in going after the inheritance of the Countess of Oxford herself, which legally he was not entitled to do. No violence was threatened directly, it was merely suggested that should the old lady not hand over her inheritance, she would be making a long trip through freezing weather to custody in Middleham. The countess knew she was unlikely to survive such a journey and submitted. King Edward understood what was going on, but he also knew his younger brother had always been loyal, which many other nobles had not, so he turned a blind eye. By 1480 Richard was appointed lieutenant of the North. Next he asked for, and was granted, Cumberland as his own personal kingdom. Richard had been ruthless in building his northern power base, but his behaviour, as Michael Hicks points out, was not very unusual for the time. He had remained scrupulously loyal to the king, while many of his fellow nobles had plotted and schemed for King Edward's downfall. Even his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, had joined the Earl of Warwick's rebellion against Edward. George was executed in the Tower in 1478, supposedly by being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, with the suggestion of Richard's involvement.
Richard of Gloucester was about to attempt expanding his influence into Scotland when Edward IV died on 9th April 1483. By 26th June Richard had taken the throne. What happened between these two dates is a complicated tangle of rumour, plot, counter plot and propaganda. The bare facts are as follows:
White Tower at the Tower of London
Following the death of Edward IV on 9th April 1483, his twelve year old son legally became king the next day as Edward V. We know that the new king was at Ludlow in the care of Earl Rivers. On 1st of May Richard and the Duke of Buckingham arrested Rivers, and Edward V's half brother Lord Grey. On the 8th May Richard of Gloucester was appointed lord protector. Edward V was taken into custody, and sent to the Tower some time between the 9th and 19th of May. At first he was there as a young king, but his status soon changed. Edward IV's widow, Elizabeth Wydeville, took refuge in the Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, in fear for her life. Inspite of the long tradition of Westminster as a sanctuary, Richard crossed the bridges of what was then an island, and entered the Sanctuary. He demanded that Edward's younger brother, Richard Duke of York be handed over. Elizabeth had no choice but to comply, and the Duke of York joined his older brother in the Tower. On 13th of June Gloucester burst into a council meeting at the Tower, had the influential moderate Lord Hastings executed immediately without trial, and imprisoned the other nobles present. On 24th of June at Pontefract Earl Rivers, Lord Grey and Sir Thomas Vaughan were executed. Edward V's reign ended on 25th June, and on the 26th Richard III's reign began, quickly followed by his coronation on 6th July. Meanwhile in the Tower of London young Edward and his brother were traditionally confined to what is now known as the Bloody Tower, then known as the Garden Tower. In reality according to Alison Weir, they were almost certainly held in the upper floors of the central White Tower, where important prisoners had been confined since the twelfth century. There are many theories surrounding the princes' fate, but no certainties. It is likely that Richard III, sending orders from Warwick Castle, had them both executed in September 1483. This is what More said. His narrative seems to be bourne out by the finding of a chest containing skeletons of two boys during excavations of a staircase foundation in 1674. More described murder by suffocation, followed by burial in the foundation of a staircase. Tests conducted by medical experts in 1933 confirmed that the 1674 skeletons were those of two boys of the ages of the princes. A number of historians have claimed that More's narrative is incorrect, Audrey Williamson, John Leslau, and Clements Markham for example. But it seems possible, even likely, that More was right all along.
One of the questions that vexes historians with regard to the events of Richard's usurpation is whether Richard planned it all from the beginning. Thomas More was a writer who wished to tell a moral tale in his history. History had a point and a purpose for him, as it did for almost all writers of the time, influenced as they were by strong religious convictions. Thomas More considered people to be in charge of how things went. People's action shaped destiny, and it was those actions for which they had to answer to God. According to Michael Hicks, More's narrative tended to suggest that Richard had a contingency plan for the death of Edward IV, which was immediately put into effect when the time came. While Thomas More may well have written a surprisingly complete portrayal of Richard III's reign, his view of Richard's masterplan might be a subject where he was not so accurate. As we already know Richard had not shown any signs of wanting to oppose Edward IV, unlike many of his fellow nobles. Whether Richard really orchestrated everything is not clear, and perhaps given the confused nature of real life, not all that likely. In the end it comes down to how you view life. If you have a sense, like the famous nineteenth century historian Bishop Stubbs, that people direct history then you might be more inclined to see Richard pulling levers at every turn. If like nineteenth century novelist Leo Tolstoy you see history as having a power of its own, then it is less likely you will see things this way. Personally I tend towards the Tolstoy view of history. In fact it is possible that Richard felt trapped into making a bid for the throne. As a known threat to young King Edward, Richard might have felt vulnerable to an attack on his life by the family of his mother, the ambitious Wydevilles. The only way to defend himself was to take the throne. There is then a strong likelihood that Richard had no plan, but in the confusion of events through May and June 1483 an opportunity presented itself, and a combination of fear and his undoubted ruthless ambition tipped him into making a fateful grab for the highest prize. Even if Richard had been in control of events during his usurpation, this control did not last. His power base was in the north, a fact bitterly resented by people in southern England. Richard III's usurpation was in some senses seen as an "invasion". The Duke of Buckingham, organised a rebellion within months, which ended with Buckingham's execution. Richard III tried unsuccessfully to turn national feelings against France, to heal the north south divide which was creating so much powerful hostility against him. There was also a desperate attempt to secure an heir to his throne. His wife, Queen Anne, suffering from worsening illness, was not proving helpful in that regard. Then in April 1484, Richard's only son died. While Anne declined, the king started courting, of all people, his niece, the elder sister of the princes in the Tower, Elizabeth of York. This of course made sense dynastically, since a marriage to Elizabeth would link Richard with the family of the former king. On 16th March 1485 Anne died, and although there is no evidence of murder, it was not surprising that accusations started flying.
Meanwhile in France a man named Henry Tudor felt he had a claim to the English throne. His claim dated back to the scandalous relationshoip of his grandfather with a queen of England. Owain ap Maredadd ap Tudwr ap Goronwy, known to history as Owain Tudor had joined Henry V's army in France, and had later served in the household of Henry V's wife Catherine de Valois. To general consternation Owain, who was basically a servant, married his boss, Henry's widow Catherine. This caused a great scandal, but Owain and Catherine remained together and had five children. Their eldest son Edmund Tudor married Margaret Beaufort, a descendent of Edward III, and their son Henry Tudor came to the conclusion that he had a claim to the English throne. Richard's enemies focused on this man as their savior. Following a failed first attempt in support of the Buckingham rebellion, Henry gathered his forces, and in 1485 landed in Milford Haven to stake his claim. Richard gathered his forces at Nottingham Castle. On 22nd August 1485 at Bosworth Field near Leicester the armies of Henry Tudor and King Richard met. The battle was hard fought, and certainly no foregone conclusion, but Henry won. And then as a winner he had the chance to write his own history. How far he did so is the crux of Richard III's story. We can be fairly sure that the principles of More and Vergil aside, if Richard had won, history would have been written rather differently.
I think the final word in this endless debate about truth in history should go to Shakespeare. His play King Richard III is usually credited with being the most powerful factor behind the "mistaken" image of Richard as a monster. Watching a performance of Shakespeare's King Richard III is in some ways to experience the power of Tudor propaganda. But the play isn't simply a distorted portrayal of a historical figure. There's a touching scene where twelve year old King Edward V tries to distract himself from his fears on entering the Tower by asking the Duke of Buckingham and Richard of Gloucester about the castle's history. He thinks that history should be passed down the generations: "Methinks the truth should live from age to age" (3.1.76). Richard thinks people this sensible won't live long. It seems that only a child would think that history would be the truth. Audiences at the Globe might think that historical truth is being passed down to them in the play they watch, but Shakespeare is quietly telling them that it isn't. The truth can be obscured by propaganda, or by historians who think they've got to find a new story. One way or another the truth of history involves a lot of illusion. This is perhaps the most accurate observation to come out of the dark story of Richard III.