Born on 2 October 1452, just two-and-a-half years before the Wars of the Roses broke out, Richard III’s life played out almost entirely against the backdrop of the power struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster.
The man who become Shakespeare’s villainous hunchbacked king, as well as a fine warrior and general, was the twelfth child of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, one of the main instigators of the Wars. The duke’s personal ambitions set him up against the Lancastrians fronted by King Henry VI – son of the warrior King of Agincourt – and his wife, Margaret of Anjou.
After enjoying initial success which saw him capture the king, the duke was killed at Wakefield in 1460, along with the future Richard III’s younger brother Edmund. Richard was consequently sent to the Low Countries until the pendulum swung back in his family’s favour at Towton, where another of his brothers, Edward, defeated Margaret’s army.
From student to admiral
Richard then spent time under the tutelage of the Earl of Warwick, who would later become known as the “Kingmaker”, where he learned to fight despite a condition known as idiopathic scoliosis, which gave him a twisted spine.
However, in one of the many twists of the civil war, Warwick fell out with Richard’s brother Edward, who was by now king, having deposed Henry following Towton. Warwick then defected to the exiled Queen Margaret in France. Rejoining his elder brother, an 18-year-old Richard fought with distinction at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury against Margaret’s resurgent forces.
Analysis of casualties amongst Richard’s household guard shows that he was in the thick of the fighting. Edward regained the throne after losing it briefly to Henry, who was then killed to prevent another war of succession. Richard, who stayed loyal to Edward, unlike their brother George, was rewarded with titles – including that of Admiral.
Richard showcased his abilities as a general, fighting the Scots in the latter years of Edward’s reign – and all the while remaining scrupulously loyal to his brother until the king’s sudden and early death in 1483.
The “Princes in the Tower”
It was at this point that Richard’s hitherto hidden ambitions came to the fore. In one of the most infamously villainous moves in British history, he captured Edward’s two sons, Edward and Richard, and used evidence of an old marriage to declare them illegitimate. They then suspiciously disappeared from all records.
With all rivals out of the way, Richard was officially crowned as King Richard III. But despite successfully putting down a rebellion by the Duke of Buckingham, a former friend, Richard’s reign was to be a short one.
The Battle of Bosworth (Field)
An invasion by the last son of Lancaster, Henry Tudor, gathered support in Wales before meeting Richard’s troops at the Battle of Bosworth (or the Battle of Bosworth Field as it is also known). Richard once again fought nobly, even trying to kill Henry himself and almost succeeding. But treachery from one of his lords doomed his army to defeat and he was killed in the fighting.
Henry was then crowned as the first Tudor monarch.
Richard’s body, which matched contemporary descriptions of him, was found beneath a Leicestershire car park in 2012, relaunching debates about this famous figure as he was propelled back into the limelight.
Though Richard’s seizure of power was undoubtedly ruthless, it reflected troubled times where wars over succession had led to thousands of deaths, and he did have many qualities of a good monarch. Ultimately, however, it is Shakespeare’s portrayal of the last Plantagenet king that has proved to be the most enduring – though the question of whether that is fair will no doubt be debated for many more years to come.