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Richard was respected as a man of integrity who was loyal, humane and kindly but he became the most persistently vilified of all English kings.
He was killed in battle without leaving a surviving heir. Charles Ross points out Richard ruled England for only twenty-six months after he accepted his dead brother Edward IV’s throne when it was offered during a desperate crisis. His nephews were declared illegitimate after shocking revelations Edward IV had committed bigamy when he married Elizabeth Woodville. It was one of the shortest reigns in English history.
Richard’s record as a commander and a fighter towards the end of the Wars of the Roses contradicts claims he had a disability. Richard was short, like his father, and the slight wiry type who are stronger than they appear.
V B Lamb says the elderly Countess of Desmond remembered dancing with Richard, as the Duke of Gloucester, in her youth and described him as the second most handsome man—apart from his brother Edward.
Few royal letters survive, with less than ten actually refer to Richard’s so-called usurpation in 1483. Nearly all narrative sources were mostly written by those hostile to northern interests, or by foreigners who repeated gossip and hearsay.
Some historians consider Henry VII the real usurper, not Richard, as he was determined to destroy his predecessor’s reputation for posterity. Henry Tudor had gathered support by promising to marry Elizabeth of York, but by 1489, he was very unpopular as he modelled, according to Carolly Erickson, his style of rule from Italian despots using financial control, treachery and intimidation. He was determined to destroy Richard’s reputation for posterity as a monster.
Polydore Virgil was commissioned to write an official history, and he was given unrestricted access to official documents. Henry VII also shared his personal experiences during his years in exile. Virgil’s account is very unreliable regarding dates and events, as they are muddled and vague. Vital information including the Woodvilles’ attempted takeover after Edward IV’s sudden death was omitted.
Historian Alison Weir revealed further hostility towards Richard was found in the Croyland Chronicles—written between 1459 and 30 April 1486. The author disapproved when Richard scheduled an execution on a Sunday! His manuscript was suppressed in the interests of dynastic security, including several copies of the Act of Settlement, or the Titulus Regius (1484), setting forth Richard’s claim.
Chantry priest John Rous likened Richard to the Anti-Christ, a deformed monster, a tyrant who poisoned his wife and imprisoned his mother-in-law in his account. Rous alleges Edward V and his brother, along with the ‘holy man’ Henry VI, were murdered on his orders. (No real evidence survives to incriminate Richard.)
Rous, determined to attract royal patronage from Henry VII, blackened Richard’s name when he edited the Latin version of his illustrated history of the Earls of Warwicks. [The original one in English—which remained intact—is now in the British Museum.] He was under pressure to invent stories of Richard’s abnormal childhood—born as a hunchback, with teeth and shoulder-length hair after his mother was pregnant for two years!
Thomas More mixed truth with lies and hearsay, despite eyewitness accounts. He incorrectly named Elizabeth Lucy, not Lady Eleanor Butler, as Edward IV’s first wife.
Richard’s reputation took a further beating during Elizabeth I’s reign. Shakespeare’s primary concern was pleasing Henry VII’s granddaughter and box office success, so historical accuracy was of no real importance.
However, an original draft of the Titulus Regius was discovered among long-forgotten documents in the Tower of London after Elizabeth I’s death. It was published in 1611
Sir George Buck wrote The History of King Richard III in 1619, believing Richard was innocent of the crimes mentioned by previous writers. He drew on his Yorkist family’s history as well as carefully researching documents and manuscripts from reliable sources. (His great-grandfather was a member of Richard’s household.) The controversy regarding Richard began in earnest as Buck’s biography was believable.
Later historians including Horace Walpole and William Hutton came to Richard’s defence. Hutton wrote The Battle of Bosworth Field which was published in 1788. Hutton says, “Richard’s character, like every man’s, had two sides … though most writers display but one. …”
Richard III is one of the few Englishmen to revel posthumously in the labours of a Society dedicated to his name—a distinction he shares with Cromwell, Marlborough and his alleged victim, Henry VI.
Erickson, Carolly, Royal Panoply, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2003
Fraser, Antonia [Editor], The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, (reprinted 2005)
Lamb, V B, The Betrayal of Richard III: An Introduction to the Controversy, Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud, UK, 1959 [Reprinted 1996]
Ross, Charles, Richard III, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999
Weir, Alison, The Princes in the Tower, Pimlico (an imprint of Random House), London, 1992
Richard III has his own Facebook page.
The Richard III Society (includes details for Branches and Groups in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand).
© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 18 August 2008.