In Shakespeare?s Richard III, the last Plantagenet king is an ambitious, heartless and scheming hunchback.? As Richard of York, he marries Anne Neville, saying he will get rid of her when she has served her purpose (provided him a wealthy estate).? He murders a number of people, including his brother Clarence and his two nephews, sons of the deceased Edward IV.? Unhorsed in the final act at the Battle of Bosworth, he cries in despair, ?A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.?? He is slain and the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, takes the throne.? If this were an oater, Richard would wear a black hat and Henry Tudor a white one.
Real life was not very kind to the dead king.? He was so despised by the victors of the battle that his body was mutilated and defiled before being dumped into a shallow grave at a friary in Leicester, the Church of the Grey Friars.? Years later the friary was destroyed under the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII (son of Richard?s bane) and an outhouse later became the new neighbor of Richard?s grave.? Henry Tudor would have appreciated that.? Then the University of Leicester, the city of Leicester and the Richard III Society (who have long contended that Richard got a raw deal in life and in history) started a search for poor Richard (no relation to the almanac by Ben Franklin) and announced on September 12, 2012 that they had found his remains under a parking lot.? After making a study of his bones (all that was left), they would re-bury him in Leicester Cathedral with pomp, circumstance and a 1.6 million dollar monument and museum about him.? So Richard will soon rest in glory (deserved or not) in Leicester Cathedral, right?? Well, maybe not.? Richard seems to be involved in as many battles in death as he was in life.
It seems that some descendants of Richard in the Plantagenet Alliance have a bone to pick with the Leicester group.? They claim dibs on Richard?s ribcage and all his other ossien remains, wanting them buried in York Minster.? Although one court has ruled in favor of Leicester, another has allowed the Plantagenet Alliance?s suit filed this month to proceed against Leicester?s claim.? Although Justice Haddon-Cave has warned both sides against having this become a ?War of the Roses Part Two? (referring to the decades-long feud between the rival Plantagenet branches of York and Lancaster that was ended when Richard was killed and the Tudors ran away with the crown),? they are going after poor Richard like two dogs after a bone.? Or bones.? (Click here)
So, was Richard really the villain portrayed by Shakespeare?? If not, why did the Immortal Bard make him such a misshapen cad?? The answer to the first question will vary from historian to historian, but the current view is that he was a pretty good king, initiating some legal reforms and dealing fairly with the people (the commons).? Even a number of Tudor toadies who later called him evil wrote of his legal fairness. On the charge of murdering his brother, Clarence, I find him innocent.? Clarence was mentally unhinged and plotted against his brother, King Edward IV.? It was the king who prosecuted him and had him privately executed, although we may never know if he was really drowned in a vat of malmsey (wine) as legend has it.? Did he kill his nephews, the twelve-year-old Edward V and the nine-year-old Richard?? Probably.? They were all that stood between Richard and the throne he wanted, and disappeared while under his care.? Whether they were the skeletons found in the Tower of London in 1674 or not, we may never know.? Some claim Henry VII eliminated them in the manner the Tudors eliminated all possible claimants of the throne, but the lads disappeared before Henry grabbed Richard?s crown.? If Richard did have the lads killed, it was a dastardly deed.? But they were dastardly times.? Was Richard the hunchback with a withered arm of Shakespeare?s play?? Highly unlikely.? He was tall and fought valiantly in many battles.? When he was struck down at Bosworth, he was charging at Henry Tudor to fight him mano a mano.? History probably would have been changed if he had succeeded, since Henry was no warrior.? Richard?s bones do indicate severe scoliosis, which would have made his right shoulder higher than his left, (click here) but no hunchback and it never stopped him from being in the thick of the battle.? So why did Shakespeare make Richard so unsympathetic?? Maybe a bit of kissing up and maybe a bit of self-preservation.
Anyone who criticized the Tudors when they were in power would end up in the tower or under the executioner’s axe.? Thomas More, a ?friend? of Henry VIII and loyal subject to him, ended up a bit shorter and dead when he refused to acknowledge Henry as the head of the church in England instead of the Pope.? What better way to endear himself to the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I than to vilify the man from whom her ancestor seized the crown?? The nastier he could make Richard the better.? Forget all those the Tudors killed to get and? keep the crown, make Richard the ultimate bad guy.? And the propaganda worked. To this day, Richard III is synonymous with twisted evil both in body and in soul.
With a new battle looming, one of suits and torts instead of swords and shields, maybe Richard would have rested more in peace if he had been left under the asphalt of the parking lot.? Shakespeare?s grave in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, has this inscription:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones
Too bad he never wrote such an epitaph for Richard.
Bravo! Excellent piece I’ve never studied Richard III. Thanks.
Glad you enjoyed it. Richard III is one of those complex characters who is neither a hero on a white horse, nor the epitome of evil.
I remembered the cry, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”, from a film I saw as a child, but the line was disembodied till I read your history. Thanks!
So many Shakespeare lines are faint memories without context for us. He wrote historical plays, but not history. My personal favorite is Henry V and Kevin Branch did a masterful portrayal in his film.
Thanks. History is full of laughs. Unfortunately, history textbooks are not. If they were, more kids would like history.
Ron, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I like the way you mixed in a few laughs with history.