Richard III England's Cruellest King?

Richard III, the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, is remembered by history as a humpbacked child-killing monarch. He is the chief suspect in the longest murder investigation in English history and has been represented since his death in 1485 as the most sinister and evil of Kings. The recent archaeological dig by Leicester University has possibly found the remains of Richard III, bringing him into the public eye once again.

Richard Plantagenet was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1452, the fourth son of Richard, Duke of York and so far along the line of succession. His childhood was affected by the Wars of the Roses, living with various families across the country. When his brother Edward seized the crown in 1461, Richard aged only nine years old, became Duke of Gloucester and began his apprenticeship in governance.

Richard was a loyal young man, consistently supporting his brother Edward IV. He represented the King in the north of England, and is shown as being just and fair in his dealings in the City of York records. Richard fought alongside Edward against the Lancastrians in the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, enabling Edward to re-gain the throne from Henry VI in 1471.

Richard III  England's Cruellest King?
Until Edward’s death in 1483, Richard appears to have been an able soldier, a faithful husband and a loyal brother. However, it is the last two years of Richard’s life that have set him in the popular mind as a monster. Upon Edward IV’s death, his eldest son became Edward V. But at twelve years old, Edward was deemed too young to rule.

The late King had nominated Richard as Lord Protector, but this was resisted by Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s widow. She feared that her brother-in-law might try to take the throne for himself, and arranged for Richard’s protectorship to be replaced by a regency council with a coronation to be carried out as quickly as possible. The plan was foiled, and Richard took the young King Edward V and his brother to the Tower of London. Richard then had the royal children declared bastards, and took the throne for himself as his brother’s true heir. The princes in the Tower were never seen alive again.

Richard III’s reign ended after only two years and two months, on the battlefield near Market Bosworth in 1485. Richard led a cavalry charge and was slain in action, the last King of England to die in battle. When the battle was won by Henry Tudor, Richard’s body was slung over the back of a horse and taken to Leicester for burial in the Greyfriar’s Chapel.

The Tudor propaganda machine then took control of Richard’s image, to support the Tudor dynasty’s position. No contemporary images or personal correspondence of Richard III survive, it is however a commonly held view that he was of a twisted frame, with a hump back – a sign of the devil to the medieval mind. Shakespeare then set Richard’s memory in stone in the eponymous play, where the evil Richard cheerfully commits murder and claws his way to power.

The archaeological finds at Leicester provide an opportunity to look again at the history of Richard Plantagenet and to re-assess if he was truly monstrous or truly misrepresented, or perhaps a little of both.

by Elizabeth Lewin