Was Richard III Really the Villain That History Depicts Him As?

Alice Roberts

5 mins

25 Oct 2019

Since Richard III sat on the throne of England, his reputation has been compromised by extreme, inaccurate and sometimes entirely fictitious reports. Most problematically, they have often been accepted as true.

Whether he was an evil villain who murdered his nephews for power, or a worthy sovereign fallen victim to Tudor propaganda, it is yet to be resolved.

Let’s take a look at how the legend developed.

Contemporary evidence

There is certainly evidence that Richard was considered evil in his own lifetime. According to the London ambassador Philippe de Commynes, Richard was ‘inhuman and cruel’, and

‘more filled with pride than any king of England these last hundred years’.

Dominic Mancini, an Italian in London writing in 1483, proclaimed the people ‘cursed him with a fate worthy of his crimes’. In the Crowland Chronicle, written in 1486, Richard was described as a ‘demonic king’, who saw demons as he rode into battle.

A depiction from 1483 of Richard III, his queen Anne Neville, and their son, Edward, who predeceased his parents.

Although these accounts could easily be dismissed as common slander, they still prove that there were several unrelated contemporary sources who considered Richard as villainous.

Certainly, objective historic events could support these damming reports. Rumours that he had poisoned his wife, Anne, proliferated so strongly that he was forced to publicly deny it.

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Tudor dawn 

The turning point for Richard’s reputation was 1485. He lost the Battle of Bosworth to Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII.

Across this time, several sources changed their tune dramatically – probably to gain favour with the new monarchy. For example, in 1483, an employee of the Nevilles named John Rous praised Richard’s ‘fully commendable rule’, who earned the ‘love of his subjects rich and poor’.

Yet when Henry VII was king, Rous described Richard as the ‘antichrist’, tainted from birth,

‘emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders’, ‘like a Scorpion combined a smooth front and a stinging tail’.

A stained-glass window depicting Richard III and Henry VII, who led their armies at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Likewise, Pietro Carmeliano (an Italian poet who arrived in London in 1481) praised Richard in 1484 as ‘outstanding, modest, munificent and just’. Yet two years later, under the service of Henry VII, he vigorously condemned Richard for murdering the princes.

Even the pub where Richard stayed the night before Bosworth was reportedly changed from ‘The White Boar Inn’, to ‘The Blue Boar Inn’, to distance itself from the recently deceased king.

There’s nothing new about subjects writing complimentary accounts to gain favour with their monarch, and it is unsurprising the Tudors wished to blacken Richard’s name.

Their rule was plagued by Yorkist threats – Richard Pole was recognised as King of England by the French, who supported his attempts at invasion. Margaret Pole plotted against Henry until her dying day, when she was finally executed in 1541.

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The ‘black legend’

Over the following century, a host of Tudor subjects successfully developed a ‘black legend’. Thomas More’s unfinished ‘History of Richard III’, cemented Richard’s reputation as a tyrant. He was described as ‘piteous, wicked’, and responsible for the ‘lamentable murder of his innocent nephews’.

Another work was Polydore Vergil’s ‘Anglia Historia’, the first draft written under the encouragement of Henry VIII in 1513.

Vergil argued that Richard’s awareness of his isolation and demonic reputation gave him reason to create a façade of religious piety. He was ‘frantyke and mad’, the awareness of his own sin plaguing his mind with guilt.

More’s account of Richard has been celebrated more as a great literary work than for its historical accuracy.

Even paintings were altered. In one painting of Richard, the right shoulder was raised, the eyes overpainted to a steely grey and the mouth turned downward at the corners.

This was no ‘touch up’, but an assertive effort to blacken a name. This image of Richard as a mad, deformed tyrant was embellished by writers such as Edward Hall, Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed.

Now we come to Shakespeare’s play, written around 1593. Although Richard III brought out the best of Shakespeare’s literary genius, Shakespeare dragged Richard through the mud as a hog, dog, toad, hedgehog, spider and swine.

Shakespeare’s Richard is a villain of pure and unapologetic evil, who enjoyed a Machiavellian rise to power. Unlike Vergil’s Richard, who was plagued with guilt, Shakespeare’s character delighted in his wickedness.

William Hoagrth’s depiction of the actor David Garrick as Shakespeare’s Richard III. He is shown to awake from nightmares of the ghosts of those he has murdered.

His deformity was taken as evidence of immorality, and he is described as ‘crook-back’, a ‘dreadful minister of Hell’ and a ‘foul misshapen stigmatic’. Perhaps Richard is one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, his hideous wickedness thrills audiences to this day – but did this fiction correlate in any way to the real man?

A reputation restored?

The following centuries offered a few attempts to challenge Richard as a ‘dreadful minister of Hell’. However, like the Tudor writers before them, they tended to have vested interests and are plagued with inaccuracies. The first revisionist, Sir George Buck, wrote in 1646:

‘All accusations of him are not proued, And he built churches, and made good law’s, And all men held him wise, and valiant’

Of course, it turns out Buck’s great grandfather was fighting for Richard at Bosworth.

An 18th century illustration of the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, although Shakespeare’s play was enjoyed by audiences far and wide, several historians and academics gave credibility to Richard’s innocence.

In 1768, Horace Walpole provided a positive reassessment and intellectuals such as Voltaire requested copies of his work. It seemed the ‘Tudor propaganda’ was losing its authority.

The Richard III Society was founded in 1924, known as ‘The Fellowship of the White Boar’. This small group of amateur historians existed purely to promote a positive view of Richard, dispelling the idea that he was a tyrant.

Josephine Tey’s detective novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ (1951) and Laurence Olivier’s film ‘Richard III’ (1955) both revived public interest.

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Why has Richard’s legend survived?

The big question (apart from ‘Did he murder his nephews?’), is why Richard’s legend has survived and developed throughout the centuries.

Firstly, the mystery regarding ‘the princes in the tower’ has never been solved, keeping the debate alive and vivacious. Secondly, as the star of More, Walpole and Shakespeare’s greatest works, whether true or not, he is undoubtedly exciting. Even if Richard was innocent of such crimes, the extent to which his name has been blackened creates further intrigue.

When considering the commercial value, Richard’s story is thrilling – an easy sell. Could the same always be said about a debate over church documents or law codes?

Richard Mansfield as Richard III in 1910.

Thirdly, the brevity of Richard’s reign limits the amount of historical record demonstrating his actions – if he had lasted a decade longer, his dodgy path to the throne may have been swept under the carpet , and overlooked by other achievements.

The body under the carpark

Since 2012, interest in Richard skyrocketed when members of the Richard III Society discovered his body under a carpark in Leicester.

Richard was treated as a revered monarch, receiving a full funeral by the Archbishop of Canterbury and current members of the Royal Family.

Richard III’s tomb reveals his motto, ‘Loyaulte me lie’ (Loyalty binds me). Image source: Isananni / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Although Shakespeare’s character has largely been taken as fiction, there is no conclusive evidence to disprove Richard a murderer.

Either way, it was Shakespeare’s Richard who seemed most aware of his fate, lamenting, ‘Every Tale condemns me for a villain’.