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Richard III, king of northern hearts
He obviously did it
As Robert Tombs put it in The English and their History, no other country but England turned its national history into a popular drama before the age of cinema. This was largely thanks to William Shakespeare’s series of plays, eight histories charting the country’s dynastic conflict from 1399 to 1485, starting with the overthrow of the paranoid Richard II and climaxing with the War of the Roses.
This second part of the Henriad covered a 30-year period with an absurdly high body count – three kings died violently, seven royal princes were killed in battle, and five more executed or murdered; 31 peers or their heirs also fell in the field, and 20 others were put to death.
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And in this epic national story, the role of the greatest villain is reserved for the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III, the hunchbacked child-killer whose defeat at Bosworth in 1485 ended the conflict (sort of).
Yet despite this, no monarch in English history retains such a fan base, a devoted band of followers who continue to proclaim his innocence, despite all the evidence to the contrary - the Ricardians.
One of the most furious responses I ever provoked as a writer was a piece I wrote for the Catholic Herald calling Richard III fans ‘medieval 9/11 truthers’. This led to a couple of blogposts and several emails, and even an angry phone call from a historian who said I had maligned the monarch.
This was in the lead up to Richard III’s reburial in Leicester Cathedral, two and a half years after the former king’s skeleton was found in a car park in the city, in part thanks to the work of historian Philippa Langley. It was a huge event for Ricardians, many of whom managed to get seats in the service, broadcast on Channel 4.
Langley, the Telegraph reports, believes the princes ‘were not murdered by Richard III but spirited to Europe and later tried to retake the crown… She believes that a duo dismissed by history as pretenders to the throne – Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, who each launched failed bids to depose Henry VII in the late 15th century – were the real princes.
‘The evidence – collected by some of the 300 volunteers recruited for Ms Langley’s Missing Princes Project – is laid out in a Channel 4 documentary, The Princes in the Tower: The New Evidence… Ms Langley, who led the successful search to locate the grave of Richard III in 2012 and is a passionate Ricardian, said she expected some historians to disagree with her theories.’
The Telegraph report concludes dryly: ‘It is unclear how the latest theories fit with a previous claim from the Missing Princes Project, made in 2021, that the elder prince lived out his days in a Devon village under the name John Evans.’
It remains an entertaining fantasy and yet, although we can never be certain of events so far back, the overwhelming likelihood is that the Princes in the Tower died in the autumn of 1483 and that their uncle had them murdered.
So what explains Richard III’s continual popularity?
It is true that the former Duke of Gloucester was often unfairly maligned. He wasn’t responsible for the death of his brother Clarence in a vat of wine, which was an invention, nor most likely for the death of Edward of Westminster, the heir to the Lancastrian line who died at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. After that battle, which finally ended the House of Lancaster’s claim, Westminster’s father Henry VI died of ‘melancholy’ while prisoner in London, probably murdered, and while Richard was also blamed for that too, we can’t be too sure (although it is possible).
But he probably did murder his nephews. It was Richard who had them placed in the Tower of London in the summer of 1483, after seizing the throne, and they weren’t seen again after September. There is plenty of evidence that people at the time believed he had murdered them, a rumour that made him deeply unpopular; it was therefore in Richard’s interests to produce the boys, which he couldn’t do, having murdered them.
The Ricardian movement dates back to Sir George Buck’s revisionist The History of King Richard the Third, written in the early 17th century. Buck had been an envoy for Elizabeth I but did not publish his work in his lifetime, the book only seeing the light of day a few decades later.
Certainly, Richard had his fans. Jane Austen wrote in her The History of England that ‘The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man.’
But the movement really began in the early 20th century with the Fellowship of the White Boar, named after the king’s emblem, now the Richard III Society.
It received a huge boost with Josephine Tey’s bestselling 1951 novel The Daughter of Time in which a modern detective manages to prove Richard innocence. Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard the Third, published four years later, was probably the most influential non-fiction account to take a sympathetic view, although there are numerous others.
One reason for Richard’s bizarre popularity is that the Tudors were indeed pretty awful, and that the writers who lived under this dynasty did serve as propagandists.
Writers tend to serve the interests of the ruling class. In the years following Richard III’s death John Rous said of the previous king that ‘Richard spent two whole years in his mother’s womb and came out with a full set of teeth and hair streaming to his shoulders.’ Rous called him ‘monster and tyrant, born under a hostile star and perishing like Antichrist.’
However, when Richard was alive the same John Rous was writing glowing stuff about him, reporting that ‘at Woodstock… Richard graciously eased the sore hearts of the inhabitants’ by giving back common lands that had been taken by his brother and the king, when offered money, said he would rather have their hearts.
Certainly, there was propaganda. As well as the death of Clarence, William Shakespeare - under the patronage of Henry Tudor’s granddaughter - also implicated Richard in the killing the Duke of Somerset at St. Albans, when he was a two-year-old. The playwright has him telling his father: ‘Heart, be wrathful still: Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill.’ So it’s understandable why historians might not believe everything the Bard wrote about him.
Later Richard, now aged seven, is seen persuading his father that it wouldn't be wrong to attack Henry VI, telling him: I cannot rest/Until the white rose that I wear be dyed/Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry's heart.’
Which is quite precocious, if true.
There are other reasons for Richard’s cult. Despite - or perhaps because of - his lack of legitimacy, Richard III was considered a wise lawmaker. Under his rule he allowed each Justice of the Peace to grant bail to any felony. He outlawed forced loans. He exempted books from import duties, and ruled that every writer, printer, and bookbinder could do business ‘of whatever nation or country he may or shall be’ - global Britain before it was fashionable.
There were also laws protecting innocent men from predatory neighbours using perverted legal forms. Indictments brought by unqualified juries were declared void. In 1484, Parliament passed acts preventing an accused person's goods from being forfeit before they were convicted.
Richard III was intelligent and known for his courage and decisiveness. He was also very loyal to his eldest brother, Edward IV, staying by his side through all his ordeals, including the 1470 overthrow in which their brother George, Duke of Clarence sided with the Yorkists’ enemies.
Because of this, his subsequent behaviour has often puzzled historians. Indeed, Richard had been so loyal that Edward named him lord protector in his will, to look after the country until the new king was of age. During his lifetime Edward also made his younger brother effective ruler of the north, previously dominated by the pro-Lancastrian Percy family.
That is another large reason for his popularity – northern regionalism. Although the House of York were a largely southern dynasty, with estates in Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire, Richard spent a good deal of his childhood in Middleham Castle in Yorkshire under the care of his cousin the Earl of Warwick.
Raised in the north, Richard may even have spoken with a northern English accent, certainly the only English monarch to do so, and especially unusual considering that most medieval kings rarely ventured past the Trent (indeed, they rarely ventured far from the Thames, where most royal residences were situated).
After seizing the throne Richard installed many northerners in positions of power, so that by 1484, two-thirds of sheriffs south of the Thames and Severn were from the north, perhaps the only time in English history northerners have ruled over the south. As was said at the time, it would have been far more appropriate to bury Richard III in York rather than Leicester.
It is worth noting that the founder of the Richard III Society came from the north – ironically a Lancastrian – and Langley grew up on the borders of Yorkshire and Co. Durham, Richard III’s heartland.
Yet despite all this, Richard’s innocence seems very unlikely. Having taken his nephew Edward into his care, Richard had his brother’s sons proclaimed illegitimate and instead claimed the throne for himself. Following the coronation, Edward, twelve, and his ten-year-old brother Richard were placed in the Tower and seen less and less; from July, they were spotted only occasionally and, after September 28, when they were witnessed playing in the Tower, they were never seen again; by November it was widely believed they were dead.
An Italian visitor noted that many thought they had been murdered and were too upset to talk about it. People clearly believed Richard to be responsible, and in the autumn, there was a plot to free the boys, involving up to 50 London men from all backgrounds, four of whom were beheaded.
At an address to the Paris Estates General in January 1484, the chancellor of France mentioned that the English king had ‘done away with his nephews,’ and the French denounced Richard taking the throne in ‘orgies of crime’. This was widely believed in England and it was in the king’s interest to prove otherwise.
Richard became increasingly unpopular during his reign and after an uprising led by his former confederate the Duke of Buckingham – a very unattractive figure whom some Ricardians blame for the killings - more than 500 opponents of the regime could be found in Brittany where Henry Tudor hosted a growing band of exiles, both Yorkists and Lancastrians.
Tudor's claim to the throne was extremely tenuous, but he had an advantage over most of the other claimants in not being dead. He landed in Wales in June 1485 and defeated Richard in August outside Leicester, where the tyrant was buried in a friary which would later become a car park.
After Richard’s defeat and death his body was stripped naked and horribly mutilated. The chronicler of Crowland remarked dryly of the abuse of Richard’s corpse that ‘many other insults were heaped upon it...not exactly in accordance with the laws of humanity.’
This may reflect a widespread disgust at the usurper, yet not everyone was happy about his death. The Recorder of York wrote in the city records that: ‘This day was it known that King Richard, late mercifully ruling over us was piteously slain and murdered, to the great hevines of this citie.’ It wasn't until October 22 that authorities in the town, the north’s largest, formally acknowledged Henry Tudor as king by dating their minutes by his reign. Clearly, Richard was popular in the region, and remained so afterwards, while Tudor’s hold on power was precarious - and marred by pretenders claiming to be the Princes in the Tower.
The first was a boy called Lambert Simnel, who turned up in Dublin saying he was Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of Richard’s brother Clarence. This was a strange claim considering that Warwick was still alive, and in custody.
Simnel was from a humble background, the son of an organ builder, but at the age of 10 he was taken in by a priest called Richard Simons, who noticed that he had a strong resemblance to Edward IV’s sons and so groomed him to talk like an aristocrat in order to pretend to be the younger, Richard. However, at some point Simons heard that Warwick had died in prison and so changed the story.
Despite this rather implausible tale and, as it turns out, Warwick still being alive, Simnel’s story was believed by many. In Dublin the leading nobleman, the Earl of Kildare, supported his claim and so in 1487 at Christ Church Cathedral he became the only English ‘king’ crowned in Ireland, as Edward VI. He was also supported by one of Richard III’s other nephews, John de la Pole, who planned to simultaneously invade and also claimed to have helped this ‘Warwick’ escape from the Tower.
This led to an invasion and a battle, at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire, perhaps larger than Bosworth; here a mixed Swiss, German and Irish army was defeated by Henry’s troops, with 4,000 invaders killed. Simnel was pardoned, and he ended up working as a cook in the royal household, living another 35 years.
Then in 1495 another pretender turned up with an army, this one even more improbable, a Fleming called Perkin Warbeck. The son of a boatman, Warbeck had arrived in Ireland in 1491 and while walking through Cork dressed in his master’s clothes someone pointed out that he resembled Richard, son of Edward IV. Tudor had Warbeck put in the Tower, but after trying to escape in 1499 he was executed, along with the Earl of Warwick.
These pretenders may have been chancers, but their popularity reflected the lack of legitimacy in the new regime. Yet almost certainly the princes were murdered.
In 1674, workmen at the Tower dug up the skeletons of two children, and in July 1933, the urn was opened and dentists looked at their teeth, estimating that they were twelve or thirteen and ten, which would be consistent with their being murdered in 1483. However, there have never been DNA tests.
But unlike the princes at the end of 1483, the Ricardian movement is very much alive. After almost 100 years of campaigning by the Richard III society, the Tower of London even declares that there is no evidence the boys were murdered.
As well as the pageantry around his reburial, there is now a Richard III pub in Leicester and even a Richard III infant school in the city. Considering that historical figures now get their names taken off institutions because their second cousin owned slaves or they did a racism in 1806, Richard III’s immunity to cancellation is impressive. Some even jokingly suggest that the king had a hand in helping Leicester City’s miraculous 2016 title win.
Yet the discovery of the king’s body did rather vindicate Shakespeare’s black myth, showing that Richard indeed had a curvature of the spine. Although the king was 5’8”, slightly above average height, the abnormality would have made him appear much shorter and walk with his right shoulder higher than his left – a hunchback, in other words.
To paraphrase Orwell, some things are true, even though the Tudor propaganda machine says they’re true.
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