Lost in Memory, A Study of Richard III in History and in Literature

12 Dec


“‘King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was thrugh grete treason of the duc of Northefolk and many othre that turned ayenst hyme, with many othre lordes and nobilles of this north parties, was pitiously slane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie,”  So goes a recently unearthed manuscript, now on display at the Yorkshire Museum in England.  The king in question – Richard III.  

Most of what people know about the English monarch, last in the Plantagenet line killed in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth, is mostly Tudor propaganda.  When Henry Tudor won the war for England’s crown and became Henry VII, his claim to the throne as a descendant of Edward III through his mother Margaret Beaufort was unstable at best.  Though his was right of conquest and there were indeed no more male Plantagenets living, he still needed an acceptable reason to be on the throne, thus came the birth of the first stories of the hunchbacked tyrant many believe Richard III to be to this day.  The facts, however, are anything but.

Aneurin Barnard portrays Richard of Gloucester in The White Queen alongside his Yorkist brothers (Max Irons and David Oakes)

Aneurin Barnard portrays Richard of Gloucester in The White Queen alongside his Yorkist brothers (Max Irons and David Oakes respectively)

Richard was born as the youngest son to Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and his wife Cecily on the second of October in 1452.  He grew up in a time of civil war, when the Wars of the Roses kept England from having a stable ruler.  From 1455 until his death, the two halves of the Plantagenet family, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, would clash again and again for each other’s claims to power.  The king at the time of Richard’s birth was the unstable Henry VI of House Lancaster, who came to the throne as an infant and was husband to the fierce Margaret of Anjou, who acted as co-regent as well as queen.  The name of the wars refers to the sigils of the familys’ houses – York’s white rose and Lancaster’s red.


When Richard was only nine years old, he became Duke of Gloucester following the coronation of his elder brother as Edward IV, the first of the Yorkist kings.  Richard trained to become a knight and had an independent command as the sole Commissioner of Array for the Western Counties by the age of twelve.  Between then and 1471, his brother would be overthrown and restored to the crown following the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury.  A year later, Richard married Anne Neville, widow of the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, who was killed in the battle, and daughter of the Earl of Warwick, one of the most powerful men in England who earned himself the title of Kingmaker.  Their marriage caused conflicts between Richard and his brother George, Duke of Clarence, whom was already married to Anne’s sister Isabella, over the estate the two sisters were to inherit from their mother, Countess Warwick.  However, Isabella died in 1476, thus the lands were forfeited to Anne.  Clarence was convinced that his wife had been murdered, but today it is thought that her death was the result of pulmonary tuberculosis or childbed fever.  He was later arrested for treason against his brother the king and killed, traditionally by drowning in Malmsey wine.

 Stained glass window at Cardiff Castle depicting Richard III and his wife Anne Neville

Stained glass window at Cardiff Castle depicting Richard III and his wife Anne Neville

Though very little is written of it, Richard and Anne’s marriage seems to have been a happy one.  The two had one child together, a son named Edward, who predeceased both of his parents at the age of ten.  Anne, a weak and sickly woman, would follow one year later in March 1485.  Richard was said to have wept at her funeral.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey, though there was no memorial to her until 1960, when the Richard III Society placed a bronze plaque behind the High Alter to mark the spot of her burial.

As for Edward IV, he was pressed through the Earl of Warwick to enter an alliance through marriage, as he believed he could rule through the king.  Instead, Edward secretly married the widow of a Lancastrian sympathizer, Elizabeth Woodville, in 1464, forcing Warwick to turn on him.  Edward and Elizabeth would go on to have twelve children of their own; one would go one to become a queen and mother to the notorious Henry VIII.

With the death of Edward IV in 1483, the throne was to be passed to his eldest son, a twelve-year old prince also called Edward.  Richard was named as Protector of the Throne until the boy was old enough to rule on his own, but this never happened.  Edward and his brother instead were confined to the Tower of London, from which they would never leave, becoming known as the Princes in the Tower and thus beginning the downfall of Richard, who was rumored to have murdered them.  This is a prominent point in William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Richard III, though the truth of these rumors is still unknown as Shakespeare was writing under the Tudor monarchy at the time, who, as previously stated, had great reasons to tarnish Richard’s name.  What is certain is that the Princes would never be seen again after the summer of 1483.  There is no record of a funeral, but two bodies thought to be of the boys were found during the reign of Charles II nearly two centuries later, buried under a staircase in the Tower and later interred in Westminster Abbey.  No examinations of the bones have been conducted since 1933 by orders of the current royal family, thus we may never know for sure if these are indeed the bones of the boy king and his brother.

An 1878 painting of the Princes in the Tower by John Everett Millais

An 1878 painting of the Princes in the Tower by John Everett Millais

What is certain however is that Richard became the next King of England the same year after a proclamation called Titulus Regius, which declared that Edward and Elizabeth’s children were illegitimate because of the marriage being conducted in secret, thus it was never proven to be legal.  Richard was immediately crowned King of England and his wife Anne became Queen.  He would rule England for a short two year period.

On 22 August 1485 at the age of thirty-two, Richard III died fighting in the Battle of Bosworth.  He was the last English king to die in battle and the Plantagenet dynasty died with him.  Upon his victory, Henry Tudor was crowned as Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor Dynasty.  To cement his claim to power, he had Titulus Regius revoked and married Edward IV’s eldest surviving daughter, Elizabeth of York, now legitimized and heiress in her own right.  Their union put an end to the Wars of the Roses and united the Houses of Lancaster and York.  The two had four children that lived to adulthood – Margaret married James IV of Scotland and became grandmother to Mary, Queen of Scots, mother of England’s James I; Mary would briefly become Queen of France following her marriage to Louis XII and after becoming a widow, married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and was grandmother to the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey; Arthur, the eldest, became heir apparent, but died young, thus making his brother King Henry when their father died in 1509.

As for Richard’s body, which was unearthed and positively identified in 2013, was buried at the Greyfriars Church in Leicestershire, apparently simply by being dumped their and buried under the floor, and lost after the Church’s dissolution under orders of Henry VIII when he left the Catholic Church to marry his second wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn.  The bones were found to show a gruesome death, apparently with several blows to the head with bladed weapons.  He was also shown to have scoliosis, which caused his spine to have a sideways curve, which Shakespeare would later dramatize into the hunchback story many know today.

A reconstruction of the face of King Richard III

A reconstruction of the face of King Richard III based on his skeleton.

As for the man behind the story, of the tyrant derived from the play, historians today, particularly the Richard III Society, are beginning to restore his good reputation and shoot down the stereotype of the king.  Indeed, he had been praised in Northern England during his reign and the public genuinely mourned his death at the time.  He has been described by his subjects as a “good lord” who punished “oppressors of the commons”, adding that he had “a great heart”, in the words of historian John Rous.  He even introduced bail, banned restrictions on printing and selling books, and created a court that the poor could apply to in order to have their grievances heard (Court of Requests).

As time goes on and more evidence continues to be uncovered, I’m sure that Richard’s story will be unveiled one day, moreso than what it is today.  Maybe one day the general public will understand that he was not the monster that the generations have passed him down to be in fiction, but a man of the people who loved his country and died for that love.

1 Comment

Posted by on December 12, 2013 in British Royalty, Wars of the Roses


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