Richard III: Madman, Murderer, or Maligned?
In a world where key facts go unreported because they would be too dangerous or damaging to a key figure, and newsreaders expect to be entertained, the truth is less important than how the story is told. This has always been true, and history is even more susceptible to this because we can’t go back in time to gather evidence. A prominent victim of a historical spin job is King Richard III. He is a popular villain in British history, yet he may be innocent of many of the crimes he is alleged to have committed. His reputation was largely manufactured by a play by William Shakespeare.
Richard III (first performed in 1593, first published in 1597) was partially based on The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York by the English historian Edward Hall and the Chronicles British historian Raphael Holinshed, yet the play itself surely cannot be considered true history. Many parts of it were added for dramatic effect, as the following synopsis should make clear to you.
Here is the history of Richard III according to Shakespeare. Richard of the House of York, power-hungry Duke of Gloucester, was deformed at birth and unloved by women. In the preceding play of the War of the Roses tetralogy, King Henry VI Part 3, Richard kills King Henry VI and Edward, Prince of Wales and son to Henry VI. At Henry’s funeral, he apologizes for these murders and is forgiven, then immediately courts Lady Anne, Edward’s widow. He justifies himself by saying he killed Edward because he loved Anne so much: “Your beauty was the cause of that effect; / Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep to undertake the death of all the world / So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.” When she is cold to his advances, he holds out his breast and asks her to kill him: she refuses.
Meanwhile, Richard works toward the death of the other heirs. He plays his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and his other brother King Edward IV against each other. “Plots have I laid, inductions of dangerous, by drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, to set my brother Clarence and the king in deadly hate the one against the other; / And, if King Edward be as true and just as I am subtle, false, and treacherous, this day should Clarence closely be mew’d up, / About a prophecy which says that G of Edward’s Heirs the murderer shall be,” Richard says to Edward. That G stands for George, and Edward interprets this as proof against Clarence and incarcerates him (with his execution pending). In the end, the G prophecy is fulfilled but in a different way: G is for Gloucester, and Richard himself will eventually the murders of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, children who are the sons and heirs of King Edward IV.
The play occurs during the War of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York; many nobles and citizens of the time fear and hate Richard. Queen Margaret, widow to Henry VI, is banished on pain of death; she then curses Buckingham, Hastings, Lord Grey, Earl Rivers (brother of Lady Anne), and especially Richard, but while she is naming the cursed, Richard interrupts and says the accursed one is Margaret herself. Eventually all those she curses receive their just desserts, and Margaret does not come to harm, however.
King Edward IV, meanwhile, is sick and dying. Near death, he makes peace between the houses of Lancaster and York; unfortunately, his order to cancel Clarence’s execution is delivered too late, and Edward passes away sadly.
After Edward’s death, Richard’s scheming continues. He bribes Lord Buckingham into his camp by offering the Earldom of Hereford in the case that Richard is crowned. Richard puts Lords Rivers and Grey and Sir Thomas Vaughan in prison in Pomfret for alleged treason. Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV, is greatly disturbed by this and cries the death of the country.
Richard, now protector of the heir, advises Prince Edward V, who is young, wise, and naïve. He ironically says not to trust a man by his “outward show”, that uncles are dangerous, and to stay away from false friends. Richard has Edward and the Duke of York sleep at the Tower of London. Meanwhile, Richard, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Lovel, and Sirs William Catesby and Richard Ratcliff plot to kill Edward V, now crowned king, but don’t get supports from Lords Hastings and Stanley. Upset, Richard plans to kill Hastings and Stanley for their resistance to the cause.
Even so, the other conspirators stay with Richard. Stanley has a dream that his and Hastings’s meeting with Richard will lead to their deaths; Hastings disagrees and insists they meet him anyway. Richard is jovial when he meets them, then leaves. Hastings says, “I think there’s never a man in Christendom / Can lesser hide his love or hate than he; / For by his face straight shall you know his heart.” Hastings feels Richard is in good spirits, and they will certainly survive. Almost immediately afterward, Gloucester has Hastings beheaded for treason on spurious charges of witchcraft, adultery, and alignment to kill Gloucester and Buckingham. Before his death, Hastings gives his own curse: he prophesises a fearful, wretched time for England.
After the execution, Richard mourns Hastings’s death and tells the Lord Mayor of London of Hastings’s confession to treason. Sensing he is closer to the crown, Richard launches a spin campaign. He says through Lord Buckingham that Edward IV was filled with lust for all women and preyed on them; also that his children are bastards: Edward V was begotten by a Lady Lucy rather than Queen Elizabeth. Richard builds himself up through compliments from Buckingham (who tells of his military prowess, humility, piety, virtue, wisdom, discipline, fairness and nobleness in mind, and bounty). Even after all this, the citizens are deathly afraid of Richard, and none respond to him. After more heavy campaigning, however, the Mayor and Alderman accept Richard as leader of England, and all of them plot to depose Edward V. Anne curses the woman who is to be Richard’s wife but eventually marries him herself.
Richard is crowned but desires the deaths of Edward V and the Duke of York anyway. Lord Buckingham balks, but Richard orders James Tyrrel to kill Edward and York and also has Ned Plantagenet, son of Clarence killed.
With Richard crowned King Richard III, Buckingham asks for his agreed-upon bribe of the Earldom of Hereford. While he’s doing this, Richard is pondering about Henry VI’s prophecy that Richmond would be king and a bard’s prophecy that Rich will not live long after seeing Henry, Earl of Richmond. Richard ignores Buckingham’s request, and Buckingham turns against him.
At this point, things start to go bad for Richard. Marquis Dorset flees to the army of the same Earl Henry. Queen Anne dies of illness. Queen Margaret flees to France; Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, curse the king. In a meeting between Queen Elizabeth and Richard, Richard says that he desires Elizabeth’s daughter and Richard’s niece, also named Elizabeth, and says he will repay her in exchange for her hand in marriage. Elizabeth mocks him but later changes her mind about his request.
The powers of England rise against Richard. Earl Richmond, Sir William Brandon, Earl Oxford, Buckingham, and assorted Lords from the houses of both Lancaster and York rebel against Richard.
Richard buys Lord Stanley’s support by taking Stanley’s son hostage in exchange for loyalty. Reneging on this loyalty would lead to Stanley’s son’s death.
Buckingham does not last long. His army is wiped out by a natural disaster, and he is captured. Earlier, we find that Buckingham had prayed that he be killed on All Souls’ Day if his conspiracy against Richard were found out; instead, he is executed by Richard for treason against the crown.
The night before the battle between Richard and Henry, the ghosts of those killed by Richard appear to curse Richard and bless Henry. Richard awakens and hates himself, realizing his deeds. Henry faces the new day heartened and refreshed.
At the final battle, Lord Stanley’s army turns on Richard, but Richard does not know it until it is too late. Even after losing his steed, Richard fights desperately: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” he cries. It is to no avail. Henry slays Ricard in battle and after his triumph, he is crowned King Henry VII. He weds Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward IV, and establishes the Tudor dynasty which would rule until 1603. The play ends on a note of hope for the ravaged kingdom of England.
As you can see, Shakespeare portrays Richard as an evil genius who is responsible for countless deaths in the family. The true history is much less settled.
Richard was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1452. In 1461, his eldest brother became King Edward IV; in the same year, Richard was named Duke of Gloucester. Richard was loyal to Edward and a skilled military commander. In 1472, their other brother, the Duke of Clarence, fell out with Edward and was executed for treason, while Richard was made Great Chamberlain and Lord High Admiral and ruled the north of England, where he was much loved.
In 1483, Edward IV died, making his 12-year old son Edward the king. The government was put in the care of Richard, who was named protector of the realm. The Woodvilles, the family of Edward V’s mother, Queen Elizabeth, attempted to seize power; Richard crushed their conspiracy; he named Hastings a part of the plot and had him executed. After Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was publicly declared invalid and Edward V and his siblings were declared illegitimate, Richard was declared king by Parliament and crowned in July 1483. Edward and his brother Richard, Duke of York, were then put in the Tower of London. Richard is widely believed to have had them killed, but there is no proof of this crime.
Richard tried to govern well but lacked support from many of the supporters of Edwards IV and V. The nobles of York and Lancaster both plotted against him and helped Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and of the House of Lancaster, to invade England from his exile in France. Henry won the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, killing Richard, and was crowned King Henry VII.
The skeleton of Shakespeare’s play follows the history, but there isn’t proof that Richard killed all the nobles in the manner Shakespeare portrayed: most egregiously, Richard could not possibly have killed King Henry VI because he was just nine years old at the time of Henry’s death. The play also does not mention the Woodvilles’ revolt. Richard receives none of the credit he deserves for improving the lives of northern Englishmen. Besides that, the famous Shakespearean image of Richard as an old, deformed monster is pure theater: he died at age 32, and if he were a humpback like Shakespeare says, he couldn’t have been such a great fighter.
The motivation for Shakespeare to portray Richard so unfairly is obvious, however: the Tudor Queen Elizabeth ruled England at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, and her nephew James I succeeded her, so negative portrayals of Richard helped legitimize the ruling family’s rebellion and reign. Since Richard had died more than a hundred years before, no one was left to gainsay Shakespeare. Granted, Richard was no angel, but his rule and character will likely never be fairly evaluated.