King Richard III polarises opinion today: even 570 years after his birth in 1452, and 537 years after his death at the Battle of Bosworth, he still fires imaginations and sparks heated debates worldwide.
For a man who was only King of England for just over two years, between 26 June 1483 and 22 August 1485, it is astonishing that he still garners such interest. Yet, it should come as little surprise. His reign is a story of high politics, rebellion, death on the battlefield, and the fate of his two young nephews, remembered by history as the Princes in the Tower.
Richard III is alternately remembered as a cruel tyrant and a worthy sovereign. Given the scarcity of evidence and the problems with the available material, the disputes are likely to continue for some time yet.
So, why exactly is Richard III controversial?
The second half of the 15th century is a bare, rocky chasm between the rich shores of the monk chronicles of the previous centuries and the fertile plains of government records that evolved in Henry VIII’s reign under Thomas Cromwell. There were a few citizen chronicles, such as Warkworth’s, which ends in 1474, and Gregory’s, which concludes even earlier in 1470. They provide useful information but stop before Richard becomes a central figure.
Monks generally no longer kept their local or national accounts of events. They had scribbled away in their cloisters in previous centuries and came with their own set of problems. Still, they were frequently reasonably well informed and at least kept long-term records of the significant events within the kingdom. Knowing a source’s problems is always vital in making the best use of it.
Those sources that refer to Richard III’s accession and reign are frequently compiled later, after his death, and during the rule of the Tudor family, who defeated Richard. They often speak in terms of rumours, too, because it seems even those living through some of these events were never quite sure exactly what had gone on.
The Crowland Chronicler is one of the most politically informed commentators but wrote anonymously in 1486, after Bosworth. Despite this apparent freedom to criticise Richard and bolster the fledgling Tudor regime, he actually has some nice things to say about Richard. Most telling of all, his only comment on the Princes in the Tower is that as part of the October Rebellions in 1483, “a rumour was spread that the sons of king Edward before-named had died a violent death, but it was uncertain how”.
The writer never offers his opinion of what happened to the sons of Edward IV, only that a rumour of their death was begun to swell support for a rebellion against Richard. If Crowland didn’t know what had happened, it seems likely no other commentator would.
Mancini: French spy?
“I was insufficiently apprised of the names of those to be described, the intervals of time and the secret designs of men in this whole affair.”
This is how Domenico Mancini begins his account of the events of 1483. He explains that his patron, Archbishop Angelo Cato, has twisted his arm to write down what seems to have been a popular after-dinner talk Mancini had been giving. Thus, he writes:
“… you should not expect from me the names of individuals and places, nor that this account is complete in all particulars: rather it will resemble the likeness of a man, which lacks some of the limbs, and yet the viewer clearly designates it as a man.”
Failing to take his work with a pinch of salt when he has warned us to do so would seem reckless.
Mancini’s patron, Angelo Cato, was in the service of Louis XI of France. Mancini wrote his account in December 1483, by which time Louis had died, leaving behind a 13-year-old son. By 1485, France was embroiled in The Mad War, a civil war for the regency that lasted until 1487.
France had been on the brink of renewing hostilities with England when Edward IV died, shortly followed by Louis XI. It is possible that Mancini was in England as a French spy in the spring of 1483, and certainly, he tailored his story of the terrible English to appeal to a French ear. Speaking no English and bearing a potential political agenda, Mancini is right to urge us to caution in relying on his testimony.
Sir Thomas More
One of the sources most often cited for condemning Richard III is History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More. More, a lawyer who rose high in the service of Henry VIII, only to fall foul of the executioner’s axe when he refused to back Henry’s break with Rome, is a fascinating figure.
Many consider his testimony almost unquestionable: he would surely have checked his facts as a lawyer and later a saint, had no reason to lie and he had access to people who had lived through the events. Born in 1478, More was five at the time of the events of 1483. He wrote his account from about 1512, left it unfinished, and never published it. More himself never meant us to read it. His nephew finished it and published it years after More’s execution.
In the 16th century, history was a branch of rhetoric. It was not the investigation and retelling of facts as we understand history today. More’s Richard III appears to be a work of allegory. He points to this in his very first sentence. “King Edward of that name the Fourth, after he had lived fifty and three years, seven months, and six days, and thereof reigned two and twenty years, one month, and eight days, died at Westminster the ninth day of April”. Edward IV actually died 19 days short of his 41st birthday. So much for fact-checking.
Interestingly, Henry VII died aged 52. If More’s Edward IV is meant to be read as Henry VII, then Edward V is the promise of a new, young king, which is what everyone expected from Henry VIII in 1509. Richard III represents the destruction of that promise and descent into tyranny, which can be seen in Henry’s early actions, including the executions of Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. They were killed for doing as Henry VII had instructed them, sacrificed to court popularity.
Perhaps More stopped writing as he rose in royal service, believing he could effect change from the inside. When we consider More’s reliability, like Mancini, his own words should give us pause for thought.
Believing that Shakespeare should be accepted as a historical account of any history is akin to watching Downton Abbey and taking it as an accurate account of the Crawley family in the early 20th century. Like More, there is an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III that has him hanging a contemporary political message on the mannequin of Richard III. If Shakespeare remained a staunch Catholic, as some theories suggest, he might have pointed to Robert Cecil, the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief minister.
Robert is known to have suffered from kyphosis, the forward curvature of the spine that Shakespeare’s villain displayed. Richard III’s skeleton has demonstrated that he had scoliosis, but not a limp or withered arm. The audience watches as Richard explains his plans to disrupt the succession and murder anyone in his way, just as Robert Cecil was orchestrating the Protestant succession of James VI of Scotland.
So, a large part of the reason debate continues about Richard III’s reputation and the events of 1483, in particular, is the lack of source material to help reach a definitive conclusion. This creates space that only a subjective assessment can fill.
Most people approach the story of Richard III with a firmly embedded pre-conception, and the lack of evidence means that all sides of his story can be argued convincingly, while none can be proven conclusively. Unless new evidence is uncovered, the debate seems likely to continue.