Richard III: The Never-Ending Story

Richard III: The Never-Ending Story

The extraordinarily exciting news in the world of English medieval history for March 2015 is the reburial of King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.

The fate of his body had been a mystery for centuries. Where exactly had the long-vanished Greyfriars Abbey, site of Richard’s original and very quiet burial, been located? Were Richard’s bones still somewhere in Leicester? Or had his body been thrown into the River Soar centuries ago, as some stories had it?

Answers gradually came to light with the recent identification of the site of Greyfriars Abbey and the subsequent archaeological dig there. The almost immediate discovery of a skeleton triggered a media frenzy.

And the news was, indeed, staggering. The loss, and recovery, of Richard III’s body gives him a unique status among Plantagenet and Tudor monarchs.

With his reburial, every Plantagenet and Tudor monarch will now have a marked grave.1

Each succeeding story only heightened the interest, as the world learned of the DNA testing that made a firm identification possible. Then came bitter disputes over the site of Richard’s reburial, bitter disputes over the design of his tomb, and yet more bitter disputes over the unfolding details of the reburial ceremony.

Read More: The Burial and Reburials of Richard III

Even when this initial intense interest dies down, however, Richard will continue to be studied and debated, as he has been for the past five centuries.

What is it that explains Richard’s endless fascination? Why is this monarch – who ruled for only some two short years – the most polarizing of the royals?

No other English king has been so vilified and so sanctified, by royal enthusiasts, writers of historical fiction, popular historians and academics alike.

Richard3Richard III’s royal arms. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

At the heart of the interest lies the “evil legend” of Richard’s murder of his young nephews. But was Richard actually the cruel and deadly uncle of the Tudor chroniclers?

And, whether your answer be yea or nay, why would the accusation stir up so much controversy? Richard III’s ancestor King John, after all, is said to have murdered his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, without inciting bitter and rambunctious argument.

The answer undoubtedly lies in a confluence of circumstances.

A Confluence of Circumstances

One is the enigma that is Richard himself. Very few people contest that King John was an unsavory man, a disloyal brother and a bad king. Richard, however, was an intelligent and pious man, and the strong right arm of Edward IV.

Could such a man have turned on his brother’s young sons and murdered them? Did Richard sincerely believe that his brother’s children were illegitimate and he, therefore, the rightful heir? Or did ambition lead him to use slander and intimidation to seize the crown? Was Richard an amoral monster, or was he maligned and smeared by the “propaganda machine” of the Tudor monarch who deposed and killed him?

The second circumstance is the undoubted fact that Richard lodged his two young nephews in the Tower and they then disappeared. What happened to them? Who was responsible? Who stood to gain?

It comes as no surprise that many people, now and at the time, believed that the princes had been murdered on the orders of their uncle, who took the throne as Richard III. Three previous kings (Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI) had lost their crowns, been imprisoned and then secretly murdered after attempts to re-establish them on the throne had failed.

Former kings were focal points for dissent, unrest, rebellion and civil war. It was unlikely that Richard’s older nephew Edward, 12 years old in 1483, would forget or forgive his uncle. And, even if he did, would those who wished to destabilize Richard have left him in peace? By his very existence, Edward was an ongoing danger to the stability of Richard’s regime.

Courtiers-Conniving-1476There was no lack of intrigue at the royal court in the 1480s! Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

A living Edward was also, however, a roadblock to the aspirations of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, among others.

Could the murder of the princes be laid at their door, or perhaps at that of Henry Tudor’s ambitious and single-minded mother, Margaret Beaufort? Or were the princes not murdered at all but, instead, spirited away to the Continent? Could the “pretender” Perkin Warbeck, who was executed in 1499 by Henry VII, have been the younger prince, Richard, Duke of York?

All these questions combine to create the ultimate murder mystery. And, with the scarcity of reliable sources for Richard’s reign, we all turn into detectives and psychologists!

In doing so, we follow a long and venerable tradition, joining the ranks of the learned, the opinionated, the admirers, the detractors, the zealots and the cranks who flock to every possible side of the issue and have done so for centuries, fervently debating an issue that – barring new discoveries – may never be definitively settled.

Richard3-SealThe seal of Richard III.

Enter Shakespeare

The third circumstance is the most powerful, the most terrible and the most delightful. His name is William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare first introduced his Richard not in the play that bears his name, but in the final two plays of a slightly earlier trilogy, “Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three.” These three plays are thought to have been written between 1590 and 1592, with “Richard III” following a year or two later. Note: All quotes given are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, edited by William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1941).

Richard in “Henry VI Part Two”

It cannot be emphasized enough that Shakespeare’s great “history plays” are NOT history. They were not meant to be. They are fiction, a reshaping and reimagining of England’s past by a skilled and popular dramatist.

This is obvious in Richard III’s Shakespearean debut, which occurs in “Henry VI Part Two.”

Shakespeare presents a meeting between the Duke of York (our Richard’s father) and King Henry VI that actually did take place at Blackheath in early March 1452. In the play, the Duke calls on his two sons, Edward and Richard, to serve as surety for his allegiance. In 1452, Richard had not yet even been born.

Read More: Richard III’S Childhood Home

Shakespeare does establish two “facts” about Richard in Act 5 Scene
1. One, he is brave and aggressive. When Richard’s older brother Edward says he will stand as surety “if our words will serve,” Richard adds “And if words will not, then our weapons shall.” Two, he is in some way physically deformed, “crooked.”

Richard in “Henry VI Part Three”

It is in the following play, “Henry VI Part Three,” that Shakespeare gives us the fully imagined Richard.

In Act 1 Scene 2, an aggressive Richard argues that his father should seize the throne. Richard’s ambition for the crown on his father’s behalf resonates ominously with an audience that knows what the future will bring. Richard says

“… And, father, do but think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.
Why do we linger thus? I cannot rest
Until the white rose that I wear be dy’d
Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry’s heart.”

York-WhiteRoseThe white rose was a Yorkist symbol. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

In Shakespeare’s account, Richard then fights bravely by his father’s side. In Act 1 Scene 4, York describes his son’s valiant efforts:

”Three times did Richard make a lane to me,
And thrice cried, “Courage, father! fight it out!”
… And when the hardiest warriors did retire,
Richard cried, ‘Charge! and give no foot of ground!’
And cried, ‘A crown, or else a glorious tomb!
A sceptre, or an earthly sepulchre!’“

The pair become separated, and York is killed.

In fact, Richard was only eight years old in 1460 and not present when his father was killed in battle.

Later, in Act 3 Scene 2, in a scene set sometime in 1463 or 1464, Richard muses on the men who stand between him and the throne. He names his oldest brother who is, by now, King Edward IV; his older brother George, Duke of Clarence; King Henry VI, who is still alive, but deposed and imprisoned; and Henry’s son, Edward of Lancaster.

It is here that we meet the full-fledged monstrous Richard of legend – secretive, twisted by nature and ambition, and plotting murder.

Richard first describes himself as having a withered arm, a “mountain” on his back, and legs of unequal length. He then muses on his options, in a lengthy soliloquy (here truncated)

“… Then, since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown
And, whiles I live, t’ account this world but hell
Until my mis-shap’d trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown
For many lives stand between me and home …

Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile,
And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions…
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.”

Richard did not have a withered arm, a “mountain” on his back, or legs of unequal length. Shakespeare himself described Richard as a vigorous warrior, not simply a behind-the-lines strategist. Great strength was required to wield a sword and manage a warhorse, while armored.

Shakespeare’s audience, however, would have ignored the unlikelihood of a fully-functioning combatant being so acutely disabled. They would have accepted the theatrical convention of a man’s outer appearance matching and revealing his inner character.

Neither is there evidence that the youthful Richard had the long-standing intention of taking the throne by destroying the “many lives” standing in his path.

Instead, until the death of Edward IV in 1483, Richard was his brother’s loyal supporter. Shakespeare’s audience, however, knew how the story would unfold and shivered in delight at this black-hearted (fictionalized) character who would, ultimately, meet his comeuppance.

In Shakespeare’s version, Richard’s dark thoughts become reality when he murders the imprisoned Henry VI. Henry was, indeed, murdered but the responsibility lies squarely with Edward IV. Was Shakespeare whitewashing Edward, who was, through his daughter Elizabeth of York, the ancestor of the Tudors? Or, did he simply relish piling sin upon sin?

In a memorable scene at the end of the drama, in Act 5 Scene 6, Henry VI faces Richard, saying:

“The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sang.
Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump.
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou cam’st to bite the world… “

Henry6-1476Responsibility for Henry VI’s murder cannot be laid at Richard’s feet. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Richard then stabs Henry. He also, however, explicitly lays out the (imagined) inner workings of his mind and heart:

”Then, since the heavens have shap’d my body so,
Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word ‘love,’ which the greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me. I am myself alone.”


Here we have the motivation that has given the “fictional Richard” life through the centuries. Bitterness, humiliation, and isolation unite to take a man beyond the bounds of humanity into sheer evil. Shakespeare has indeed created a violent and disruptive villain. Richard is also, however, made three-dimensional, magnetic in his perversity and credible in his suffering.

Richard in “Richard III”

In contrast, Richard’s actual namesake play, “Richard III,” presents little motivation for his evil deeds and evil nature. There is only a mention in Act 1 Scene 1 that since, due to his (supposed) deformity, “I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain.” This Richard seems to turn to wickedness less out of passion and angst than out of inborn malevolence and sheer slithering boredom!

The play is, however, notable for its memorable language and its unforgettable Richard. The play is entirely and completely his, from his first soliloquy:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

to his immortal, desperately courageous, and entirely imaginary last words in Act 5 Scene 4:

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

In between, Richard plots, connives, woos, inspires, disrupts, and horrifies in equal quantity.

Among the most remarkable passages are those in Act 1 Scene 2 describing Richard’s courtship of the Lady Anne Neville, the widow of Henry VI’s son Edward.

In Shakespeare’s version (not history), Anne blames Richard for personally killing her husband and her father-in-law. She berates him as a “foul devil,” a “lump of foul deformity,” a “hedgehog,” and a “fouler toad.” She even spits on him. He, in turn, names her a “divine perfection of a woman” and attributes his behavior to her “beauty, which did haunt me in my sleep.”

In a final and impassioned plea, Richard urges her:

“Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.
If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword,
Which if thou please to hide in this true breast
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke
And humbly beg the death upon my knee.

Nay, do not pause; for I did kill King Henry,
But ‘twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch, ‘twas I that stabb’d young Edward;
But ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on.
Take up the sword again, or take up me.”

This is a courtship of wit, boldness, intensity, and an absolutely appalling and ruthless audaciousness. And it works!

Richard himself seems amazed, musing:

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?”

Richard and Anne Neville did marry in 1472, about a year after the death of her husband Edward and her father-in-law Henry VI. There is no indication that she (or anybody else at the time) blamed Richard for their deaths.

Shakespeare is, at least, historically correct in depicting Richard as a brave warrior. In his final oration to his troops in Act 5 Scene 3, he exhorts:

”Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to’t, pell-mell:
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell…

Hark, I hear their drum!
Fight, gentlemen of England! fight, bold yeomen!
Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head!
Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood…

A thousand hearts are great within my bosom.
Advance our standards, set upon our foes;
Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George,
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!
Upon them! Victory sits on our helms.”

Richard did ride out on 22 August 1485, only to be killed in battle at Bosworth Field. The winner that day, and Richard’s successor on the throne, was Henry Tudor.

Read More: Richard III’s French Connection

Henry’s right to the throne of England was slender indeed, apart from the time-honored claim of victory in battle. Richard was hastily buried, with no public ceremony, in the church of the Greyfriars in Leicester. His grave was left, for decades, in obscurity.

It left public view altogether during the reign of Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII, who dissolved England’s monasteries and religious houses in the mid 1530s. There was no outcry or even public comment when Greyfriars and, therefore, Richard’s grave, passed into private hands.

The Shakespearean Drama and Richard

The dimming memory of Richard was revived by the success of Shakespeare’s compelling and vivid portrayal. Shakespeare’s retelling of Richard’s story was historically inaccurate. He did not, however, personally invent it. Shakespeare drew on the chroniclers of earlier Tudor times, who thoroughly blackened Richard’s reputation.

His sources included Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia, not published until 1534 but almost certainly completed before 1513. Whether or not the details are true, Vergil’s depiction of Richard’s habits is amazingly lifelike.

Vergil wrote (in modernized language, transcribed from Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, Comprising the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, edited by Sir Henry Ellis; London: Camden Society, 1844):

“He was little of stature, deformed of body, the one shoulder being higher than the other, a short and sour countenance, which seemed to savor of mischief, and utter evidently craft and deceit. The while he was thinking of any matter, he did continually bite his nether lip, as though that cruel nature of his did so rage against itself in that little carcass. Also, he was wont to be ever with his right hand pulling out of the sheath to the midpoint, and putting in again, the dagger which he did always wear. Truly he had a sharp wit, provident and subtle, apt both to counterfeit and dissemble; his courage also hot and fierce, which failed him not in the very death…”

An even more supposedly reputable source took up the story slightly later. Thomas More, later to be Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and then the martyred saint, wrote an unfinished history of Richard III circa 1513.

He gave Richard a very bad character indeed, saying (in modernized language, transcribed from More’s History of King Richard III, edited by J. Rawson Lumby; Cambridge University Press, 1883):

“… he was malicious, wrathful, envious. He was close and secret, a deep dissimulator, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill; disputatious and cruel, not for evil will always, but often for ambition…”

More, however, ends his account in a singularly cool and detached way
“But of all this point there is no certainty, and whoso divines upon conjectures may as well shoot too far as too short.”

This was a warning Shakespeare ignored. His Richard does indeed shoot too far and, in doing so, Shakespeare created a blazing, luminous, captivating, black-hearted star of an anti-hero. Shakespeare’s imaginary Richard, in his oversized personality and magnificent language, dominates the stage – and is a magnet for performers and directors.

Through the centuries, many great actors have played Richard. Beginning with Shakespeare’s own Richard Burbage, through Colley Cibber and David Garrick in the 18th century, to Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth in the 19th century, and John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier and Christopher Plummer in the 20th. Their performances were ephemeral, known only through reviews.

With the advent of cinema, however, several widely varying interpretations of Richard III have been captured for posterity. Laurence Olivier created a timeless interpretation of evil in 1955; forty years later, Ian McKellen’s film version hearkened back to the 1930s and the rise of fascism. In both films, the female roles were severely cut.

A greatly anticipated version being produced by BBC2 (airing scheduled for 2016), starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard and Dame Judi Dench as Queen Margaret of Anjou, promises to remedy that! Cumberbatch’s description of Richard as a “complex, funny and dangerous character” bodes well for Ricardians and lovers of Shakespeare alike.

NOTE1: A stone slab honoring Richard III was laid in the floor of the chancel of Leicester Cathedral in 1980. At the time, Richard’s actual burial site was unknown. As of 26 March 2015, Richard will be buried in Leicester Cathedral, under a new “table tomb.” The other king who doesn’t fit the rule is Edward V, who has a marked tomb but might not actually inhabit it. Edward was one of the two “princes in the Tower,” who may or may not have been murdered by their uncle Richard III. The older son of Edward IV, and the expected heir, Edward V was never actually crowned. His inclusion in the “numbered line-up” is a courtesy only. The skeletal remains of two children were discovered in a secret grave at the Tower of London in 1674. They were identified at the time as Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. They were reburied in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey in a marble urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Forensic testing carried out in 1935 seemed to confirm this identification, but numerous issues have been found with the results and the conclusions remain ambiguous and highly contentious. Additional testing has not been permitted. Even if the bones were, someday, to be identified as those of young Edward and Richard, the unanswered question remains: Who was responsible for their deaths?