What Was Richard III Really Like? A Spy’s Perspective

M. J. Trow

Middle Ages
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‘I wish that my kingdom lay upon the confines of Turkey; with my own people alone and without the help of other princes I should like to drive away not only the Turks, but all my foes.’

This was Richard III, talking, perhaps in Latin, perhaps through an interpreter, to the Silesian knight Nicholas von Popplau at dinner in the king’s castle at Middleham, Yorkshire in May 1484 and the meeting throws a unique spotlight onto the life of a man whose reputation has been shredded for five hundred years.

Depictions from Tudor times

Traditionally, thanks to the Tudor apologists who wrote for Henry VII and then Shakespeare, Richard Plantagenet was depicted as a deformed monster, cruel and ambitious, who murdered his way to the throne. Shakespeare credits him with eleven such murders.

It has been an uphill struggle to remove the propaganda and blatant falsehoods of the Tudors; witness the fact that there are still historians today who stand by these claims, especially that Richard had his nephews – the princes in the Tower – murdered for political gain.

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It was not chance that brought von Popplau to Middleham. A skilled jouster and diplomat, he worked for Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, and, whether Richard realized it or not, the Silesian was actually a spy.

Snooping at royal courts

Such visits by European dignitaries were commonplace; in an age before electronic surveillance and counter-intelligence, snooping at royal courts was almost the only way to gain important political information. But von Popplau was clearly taken with Richard.

Nicholas dined with the king twice, at Richard’s request, and their conversation was wide-ranging. The quotation at the beginning of this article refers to the rising threat of the Ottoman Turks who had captured the Christian capital of Byzantium, Constantinople, in 1453.

Undoubtedly, Richard’s reference to defending his kingdom alone was in the context of Vlad III Dracula, the Impaler, killed in battle with the Turks eight years earlier.

Vlad III, the Impaler, with Turkish envoys, Theodor Aman (Credit: Public Domain).

Dracula has come down to us as a monster of a different kind from Richard, but a monster nonetheless. In reality, he was a hard-nosed realist and probable sociopath who fought the Turks alone to defend his kingdom of Wallachia because other European rulers refused to help.

Richard’s enemies

Richard, too, had his enemies. He became king in July 1483, after thirty years of intermittent civil war in which serious losses occurred among the English nobility. The previous October, the Duke of Buckingham had rebelled against him, and across the Channel in France, Henry Tudor was plotting an invasion with French money and French troops.

Only a month before von Popplau enjoyed the king’s company, Richard’s eight year old son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, had died, of causes unknown, in the very castle where the two warriors sat talking.

Various accounts today refer to the Silesian as a giant of a man, but we know from von Popplau’s own words that Richard was three fingers taller than him, with a slim frame. We also know, from the king’s body found recently in the famous Leicester car park, that Richard was 5ft 8 inches tall. Had von Popplau been a giant, the king of England would have been off the scale.

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A moment of calm

The meeting between Richard and von Popplau represents a tiny moment of quiet and sanity in an otherwise insane world. True, the conversation was about war and crusade, which is only to be expected when two Medieval soldiers met, but otherwise, it represents an oasis of calm.

Richard was eight when his father was hacked down in battle at Wakefield and his head impaled on Micklegate Bar in York. He was nine when Henry VI’s Lancastrian forces attacked the castle at Ludlow and ‘roughly handled’ his mother, Cecily Neville. He fought his first battle, commanding the left wing in the thick fog of Barnet, at the age of nineteen.

All around him, from childhood, was intrigue, bloodshed and treachery.

Detail from the Rous Roll, 1483, showing Richard framed by the crests and helms of England, Ireland, Wales, Gascony-Guyenne, France and St. Edward the Confessor (Credit: Public Domain).

His motto, Loyaulté Me Lie – loyalty binds me – marks him out as an unusual man in a murderous age. His contemporaries, Vlad the Impaler and the Italian prince Cesare Borgia, faced similar problems and responded to them with far more savagery than did Richard III.

When, in the months that followed their meeting, rumours began to spread that Richard had had his own nephews murdered to secure his throne, von Popplau refused to believe it. His meetings with the king were brief and he cannot have known all the complexities of English politics.

But in those meetings, in those spring evenings in the great hall at Middleham, can we glimpse, just once, the quiet, rather introverted man who now wore the English crown? Was this, beneath all the veneer of lies and distortion, just a little of the real Richard?

M.J. Trow was educated as a military historian at King’s College, London and is probably best known today for his true crime and crime fiction works. He has always been fascinated by Richard III and has at long last written Richard III in the North, his first book on the subject.

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M. J. Trow