Extension History Essay – Sarah Goldfinch, 2008

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in

King Richard the Third of England – an evil and murderous usurper, or a maligned king whose name has been slandered throughout history? It has been debated over the years whether his accession to throne in 1483 was legitimate, or if he killed his two young nephews and any other who posed a threat to his throne. The popular view of the evil and deformed king, largely painted by William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Moore, has tended to ignore significant facts that may in fact prove that Richard is innocent of the supposed crimes. An approach to rehabilitating Richard III’s name is emerging more and more, with historians such as Horace Walpole in the 18th century and Bertram Fields in the 20th contributing. With the increasing interest in attempting to prove Richard III’s innocence modern day court trials have taken place and the Richard III Society was formed.

The son of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville and born on 2 October 1452, Richard Plantagenet received the title Duke of Gloucester, after his oldest brother Edward defeated the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, in November 1461. Richard’s family were of the House of York and had been a part of a series of civil wars against the House of Lancaster for England’s throne, now known as the War of the Roses, for a number of years. Edward had secured the Yorkists’ hold on the throne and became King Edward IV. When Edward died in 1483 Richard was made Lord Protector of the heir, his nephew Edward.

Just before the coronation of Prince Edward, a number of lords in the House of Commons presented Richard, Duke of Gloucester, with a Bill that requested he take the throne as his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid thus making their children illegitimate. Prior to Edward IV marrying Elizabeth Woodville he was pre-contracted to Eleanor Butler, a step that was legally binding. Parliament passed an Act called Titulus Regius, or the royal title, which confirmed Richard was the rightful king of England based on the invalid marriage of his brother and illegitimacy of his nephews. The Act would also prohibit the son of Richard’s second brother, George Duke of Clarence, to ascend the throne as George had been found guilty of treason, executed and an Act of Attainder prevented his children from ascending the throne. As a result of the Act, Richard was crowned in Westminster Abbey on July 6 as King Richard III of England. Only one copy of Titulus Regius has been found as King Henry VII (Richard’s successor) ordered the Act and any related documents be destroyed. About a century after his death it emerged that Richard was invited by parliament to take the throne which is significant in showing he was not a scheming usurper, but a maligned king.

A number of aspects of Richard’s life and own character have been debated since his death in 1485. One of those being his physical appearance and the existing portraiture has played an important role. In most portraits, Richard is shown to have a humpback, a shrivelled arm and twisted nose. Shakespeare (I.I. 2005) also examines the king’s appearance as Richard describes himself as being ‘cheated of feature by dissembling Nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up and that so lamely and unfashionable’. When the Broken Sword Painting was x-rayed in 1973 by the Society of Antiquaries, it was discovered the right shoulder had been replaced with a new section to make the shoulder appear higher, half the necklace was painted by a new artist and the eyes had been narrowed. These alterations were added ten to twenty years after the painting was created in 1518. The x-rays are evidence that may prove Richard III was innocent of the accused crimes as they raise questions as to why portraits were altered to give the impression of an evil man. One could also conclude if Richard’s physical appearance has been deliberately altered than other aspects of his life may have also been misrepresented.

When examining Richard’s personality his only parliament sitting in January and February of 1484 may be considered as it is a clear example of the king’s devotion to his country and his strong leadership. Richard III’s parliament introduced eighteen private statutes and fifteen public statutes. The private laws settled matters or wants of important English citizens and private institutions. The public statutes all had a common aim of improving aspects of the legal system and economy, and protecting and developing domestic trade and markets. The most notable of the public statutes being Titulus Regius. It is unlikely an evil and malicious man would work so hard to look after the state of his country and its population.

The enigma of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ is the most debated aspect of Richard III’s life. After Edward IV died, Richard travelled to Northampton to bring Prince Edward, the heir, back to London for his coronation. Edward was placed in the Tower of London, as follows tradition of all monarchs before their coronation ceremonies. Meanwhile his younger brother, Richard Duke of York was in sanctuary with his mother, Elizabeth, and sisters in Westminster Abbey. Richard later sent him to the Tower to escort his brother to the ceremony. Whilst the boys were in the Tower, evidence finding them illegitimate emerged and Richard agreed to take the throne. After this the boys were sighted occasionally, but eventually their whereabouts became unknown. Their disappearance was where Richard’s maligned name emerged when their deaths were rumoured, maybe murdered by their scheming uncle.

Sir Thomas More’s account of the murders of Princes Edward and Richard is detailed and dramatic. More claimed Richard ordered Sir James Tyrell to kill the young princes in the Tower. Tyrell instructed the princes’ keepers, Miles Forest and John Dighton to commit the crime while the boys were sleeping by “keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while smothered and stifled, their breath falling, they gave up to God their innocent souls…” (Dockray 1988).

William Shakespeare also dramatised the supposed deaths of the princes in his play Richard III. In Act four Richard and the Duke of Buckingham discuss the problems of the princes still living and although Richard is king and the boys are illegitimate, his throne will not be secure until they are dead. Forest and Dighton carry out the murders by order of Sir James Tyrell. Richard also refers to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, as an enemy and sarcastically suggests to Buckingham that perhaps he too should be murdered.

Both More’s and Shakespeare’s versions of the murder of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ can be explained by the time period they are writing in and their own contexts. Sir Thomas More wrote his History of Richard III in 1515 and Shakespeare wrote his play around 1592, both during Tudor reigns and being aware of the penalties of anti-Tudor material. More was a member of King Henry VIII’s Privy Council and became Lord Chancellor in 1529, providing significant reason for his anti-Richard views. Shakespeare was also loyal to his Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, and was also a great reader of Sir Thomas More and used More’s works as his main source for the play.
It must be noted that Thomas More’s historiography of Richard III was never finished for reasons that are not known. Perhaps his position in the Privy Council took up his time or his perspectives on Richard changed altogether as evidence proving his innocence emerged. A theory emerged that More wrote his historiography to prevent the truth that one of the princes was alive, being revealed. It was thought that perhaps the prince who was not killed married More’s adopted daughter and took on a new name.

Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII in 1485, is also a questionable character in relation to the supposed murder of the princes. It was noted by late eighteenth century historian, Horace Walpole that no investigation was made into the princes’ disappearance for eleven years until a young man by the name of Perkin Warbeck emerged. It must be queried as to why Henry made no attempt to prove Richard either guilty or innocent, and why he went to so much trouble to destroy related documents and the memory of his predecessor. Tudor may also be considered a suspect for the murder of the princes. If he had found them alive after defeating Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, he would have wanted them dead so he could become king of England.

Horace Walpole released his historiography Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third in 1768 that contained a new perspective on Richard and provided evidence proving his innocence. A significant result of the book was Richard’s reputation of being a murderer was weakened not only in England, but also in France. King Louis XVI had the book translated into French to assist in lessening the resentment towards the maligned king. Walpole continues to be known as Richard’s greatest defender due his extensive investigations and attempts to prove the king’s innocence. Walpole celebrates Richard as ‘an excellent king …who enacted many wise and wholesome laws’ and therefore does not believe he was capable of committing such heinous crimes.

For Richard to murder or plan the murder of the young princes does not make sense when considering the issue of primogeniture. Richard’s only legitimate child died in 1484 and as the House of York’s hold on the English throne was of paramount importance, Richard would have wanted his nephews alive to inherit the throne if he died. To avoid the House of Lancaster taking power once more, Richard would have been aware of the significance of his nephews remaining alive and as king he would have held the power to dismantle Titulus Regius to legitimise them. If Richard did want his nephews dead to remove any threat to his hold on the throne it must be questioned why he did not murder the son of his other brother, the executed Duke of Clarence.

There were a number of people who came forward claiming to be the younger prince, Richard, during the early years of Henry VII’s reign. In 1491 a young man appeared in Ireland who resembled the Plantagenet family and had extensive knowledge of the private lives of the royal family. Perkin Warbeck caused fear amongst those who opposed Richard III and the Yorks, especially Henry VII. He was about eighteen years of ages, the same age Prince Richard would have been. Warbeck claimed that he had been smuggled to Flanders in Europe and lived there until he was old enough to act independently. Warbeck believed that his older brother, Edward was no longer alive. It was now that Henry VII began to investigate into the murder of the princes that had supposedly taken place in 1484 and was determined to prove his predecessor was guilty.

There were a number of people who did accept Perkin Warbeck as the younger prince. The Scottish king, James IV welcomed Warbeck into his court as Richard IV of England and gave his blessing for Warbeck to marry a member of the Scottish royal family, Katherine Gordon. James IV gave Perkin Warbeck military and financial support and marched some troops down into England to rally support for the prince who was the rightful heir. Warbeck was also recognised as the younger prince by his aunt, Margaret Duchess of Burgundy who committed herself to supporting her nephew and promoting him as the rightful king of England. The Stanleys were strong Yorkist supporters and were members of Margaret of Burgundy’s court. In 1495 Sir William Stanley stated that if Perkin Warbeck was the real prince of England, he would not fight him. This statement is significant as it shows Stanley recognised that the two princes may not have been killed by Richard or anyone else (Fields 1998), and that when he saw Warbeck he also saw a resemblance of the Plantagenet’s.

The interest in proving Richard being merely a maligned king has continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with help from further evidence emerging since the end of the Tudor reign in 1603. Advancements in technology have also played an important part for historians examining existing materials and assisting in locating additional information. The way Richard’s history has been told and presented has also developed over the centuries. In 1924, Doctor Saxon Barton formed the Richard III Society with the aims of promoting research into the life and times of Richard, ensuring historical materials relating to Richard are reassessed and passing on essential findings to other branches, media and educational institutions. Branches of the society have since been set up around the world to cater to the increasing interest in the historiography of Richard III.

Two trial proceedings have also taken place in America and England. On 16 February 1984 in London, a judge and jury passed a historical judgement which was decided upon the basis of probabilities after hearing evidence provided by a number of historians, writers and other professions, including Doctor David Starkey. After historical material, including x-rays, portraits, documents and the issue of ‘the bones’, was heard from both sides, the jury gave a verdict of ‘not guilty’. The result of the trial demonstrates that perhaps significant evidence was overlooked in the past, and due to the technology and different political context of today a more broad opinion and range of sources may be examined.

In 1998 Bertram Fields, an American attorney, published Royal Blood: King Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes. Again modern legal methods were employed as Fields re-examined and evaluated existing evidence in an attempt to further shed light on the debated events surrounding Richard III. Shakespeare and More were identified as the two prime sources that maligned the king as a murderer and usurper. Fields sceptically studies these two writers as well as other evidence that points to a ‘guilty verdict’ and shows that they are not reliable, but rather propaganda produced by biased parties.

King Richard III was most likely a much maligned man who has fallen victim to historians who when researching and documenting his life, have ignored or have not seen significant pieces of evidence which in fact prove he was not a murderer. It has been wrongly thought for six centuries that the Duke of Gloucester needed his nephews dead in order to secure the English throne for himself. The dramatised works of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare have provided the populist view of how many people see the fifteenth century king and have been the two sources which largely contributed to Richard’s maligned name. Since the post-Tudor era, more and more evidence has emerged that has rehabilitated Richard’s reputation. Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts was the historiography that caught the interest of many people and caused people to question if Richard was actually a murderer. With the assistance of advanced technology and new approaches to history, investigations have continued including those carried out not only by Bertram Fields but by a growing number of historians, into the documents that maligned the name of Richard III and branded him a murderer. These investigations have successfully challenged the traditional view of Richard and gained him a more worthy reputation.


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