There are few better examples of the maxim “history is written by the winners” than Richard III.
Most people, if they know anything about the last Plantagenet king of England, know that he was a devious hunchback who, after long years of eyeing it from afar, usurped the English throne. He killed the son of the reigning king, Henry VI; then killed the king himself; then Richard’s own brother; and finally — and most notoriously — Richard had his young nephews killed in the Tower of London to prevent them from contesting his royal claim.
How do people know all this? Because William Shakespeare told them so, of course. And before him, Sir Thomas More told them much the same thing.
With the announcement Monday that bones found in a Leicester parking lot were found by researchers to be “beyond reasonable doubt” the remains of Richard III, comes an opportunity to re-examine the legacy of a man who may be the most villainous character in all of Shakespeare — quite a feat in a crowd that includes Macbeth, Iago, Shylock and many other malefactors.
The basic facts of Richard’s life and death are not obscure. He was born in 1452, the youngest of three sons of Richard, duke of York. The York branch of the Plantagenet tree believed they had been wrongly denied the English crown after the death of Henry V, and fought several battles (known as the Wars of the Roses) with the Lancaster branch of the tree.
When the future Richard III was 9 years old, the Yorkists were finally victorious and Richard’s brother was crowned King Edward IV. When the king died in 1483, Richard was named protector of his brother’s two young sons, the elder of whom was to be named king. Instead, the young princes were taken to the Tower of London and never seen again, while their uncle had himself proclaimed King Richard III. He ruled for a tumultuous two years, until he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 — becoming the last English king to die in battle. Shakespeare’s famous scene at the end of Richard III has the king yelling, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” before he’s killed.
His death ended both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty; the new king, Henry VII, was a Tudor, a distant Welsh relation of the Plantagenets.
In his book Shakespeare’s English Kings, Peter Saccio writes of the enduring image of Richard III:
“This lurid king, hunchbacked, clad in blood-spattered black velvet, forever gnawing his nether lip or grasping for his dagger, has an enduring place in English mythology. He owes something to the facts about the historical Richard III. He owes far more to rumor and to the political bias, credulity, and especially the literary talent of Tudor writers.”
Those writers include Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England best known as the author of Utopia. In the early 1500s, More began work (he never finished it) on a history of Richard III. Even had he wanted to, More was hardly in a position to write anything fair about Richard, whose death had allowed the current Tudor dynasty to ascend to the throne. The new king, Henry VIII, was already showing a distinct fondness for chopping off the heads of people who displeased him. And More’s patron — John Morton, bishop of Ely — had participated in a few plots to remove Richard III from the throne.
So More’s version of Richard III is, in Saccio’s words, “a gem of ironic narration that established the popular image of the king (the crooked shoulders, the withered arm, the gnawed lip),” as well as the story that he killed his nephews. Saccio does note that More reported many of these details as rumors or possibilities, but his readers “tended to accept them as fact.” The image of the evil, sniveling, usurping weasel as king had taken root.
Decades later, here comes William Shakespeare. Like all actors and playwrights, he’s reliant on the permission of the monarch to perform anywhere in England — and the reigning monarch is still a Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare has every reason not to challenge the popular conception of Richard III.
Besides that, Shakespeare loved to tell a story. Bad guys make great stories — and Richard III was made to order. So, starting in Henry VI Part 3 and continuing through Richard III, Shakespeare has Richard:
| Murder the son of Henry VI (even though the prince died in battle).
| Go to the Tower and kill Henry VI himself (even though most historians believe that the new king, Edward IV, ordered the old king killed).
| Woo his wife over the corpse of her father-in-law, then immediately plot to get rid of her at a later date (never happened, Saccio says).
| Have his brother Clarence killed, famously by drowning in a bottle of wine (Clarence had plotted against his brother, Edward IV, numerous times, and Edward probably just got tired of it).
| Had his two young nephews killed in the Tower of London after their father died.
There it is — that last one is the deed that has clung to Richard III throughout the centuries, more than any other treasonous thing he may or may not have done. And it’s one that Richard’s defenders have never convincingly knocked down. (Josephine Tey’s classic detective novel The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, postulated that Richard III was completely innocent of killing his nephews. That book is a great read, but its historical findings have been challenged in several quarters.)
The facts remain that Richard’s brother died in April 1483, his sons were taken to the Tower of London weeks later and never seen in public again, and Richard had been crowned king by June. Any medieval king, especially one who usurped the crown, would be a fool to leave the rightful heirs to the throne alive in such a situation.
So maybe, despite all the historical distortions required by the politics of the time, and the centuries that have passed, there’s a kernel of truth at the center of the story of Richard III.
Or maybe more than one. For years, some of Richard’s defenders have rejected the hunchback description; Saccio calls it “quite unlikely.” But among the bones unveiled by the University of Leicester on Monday is a spine that shows signs of scoliosis, which would have twisted his back and caused him to stoop several inches, researchers said.