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Truth and fiction in the character and crimes of Richard III

Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Royalty, Shakespeare on Thursday, 5 April 2012

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This edited article about Richard III originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 683 published on 15 February 1975.

Elizabeth Woodville and son Richard, picture, image, illustration

Elizabeth Woodville is persuaded to give up her son, Prince Richard, to her brother-in-law, Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, by Clive Uptton

The following notice appeared in the memorial column of the “New York Times” one recent August. It read: “Plantagenet – Richard, of York, Duke of Gloucester, King of England, who died 478 years ago today, the 22nd day of August in 1485, in battle at Bosworth Field, betrayed, slandered, his memory destroyed by the Tudors as was his body, a victim of malicious propaganda horrendously immortalized forever by W. Shakespeare . . .”

Stop! Wait!

These are strong words, indeed, to use about the memory of an English king. Strong – because the blunt facts about Richard III in the history books are quite clear. They tell us that he ruthlessly murdered the two sons of his brother, King Edward IV: Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York. Then, having seized the throne, he was killed fighting on Bosworth Field by the troops of Henry Tudor, afterwards Henry VII.

It was a fitting end, you might say, for a brutal and vicious child-murderer.

The city records of York, however, would disagree with you and the history books. On learning of Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, the Mayor and Aldermen authorized this entry to be made in the records:

“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.”

Well! What really happened?

Let us glance back a moment over his life. From the first, Richard’s was a success story. At the age of seventeen he had joined his elder brother Edward in the fight against the Lancastrians in the bitter closing stages of the Wars of the Roses. Before he was twenty he was the equivalent of a brigadier, and a good soldier.

When Edward became King, he had already learned to trust Richard implicitly, and it was to him that he gave the task of driving the Scots from the frontier town of Berwick.

At this time, too, Richard governed the North of England, and did so well that he was loved by the whole countryside.

When Edward IV died in 1483, Richard was most popular. By Royal Decree he had been appointed Lord Protector – sign of the trust his brother had in him. So the Kingdom was in his hands until the young Edward, Prince of Wales, was old enough to govern for himself. It was at this time, we are told, that Richard took the throne and murdered the Princes.

When Richard was crowned King the two boys were lodged in the Tower of London, which was then a Royal residence and not primarily a prison. And it was here, according to the Tudor historian Sir Thomas More, that they were murdered.

More claims that while Richard was resting at Warwick during his tour of the country after his coronation, he sent a knight called Sir James Tyrrell back to London with instructions to take the keys of the Tower from the Constable. Having gained entrance Tyrrell was to order his two chosen assassins – Dighton and Forrest – to smother the boys as they lay asleep. Tyrrell, More continues, did just this.

But, said More, the murders did not go unnoticed. During Richard’s lifetime rumours got around the country that the boys were dead – and here More is supported by other historians. They all agreed that Richard became unpopular as the rumour spread.

Richard, then, must have known about the rumour. Why did he not bring the boys out of the Tower and prove that they were still alive?

Whatever Richard thought about the rumour, it was taken seriously by the people, who discussed it with deep concern, for even in an age when great cruelty was tolerated, the killing of two small boys would create an uproar. It was on this wave of abuse that Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire from France, killed Richard at Bosworth Field, and was crowned Henry VII.

At face value the story seems to be plain enough. But some historians now insist that he never did murder the Princes, that the real murderer was Henry VII.

What a startling reversal of opinion! Richard III, the supposed hunchback, and the villain of Shakespeare’s play named after him may be cleared of the murder.

Yet it was the Tudor historians – people who accused Richard – who have prompted the modern re-examination of his case. For in their efforts to condemn him they failed to get their accounts to agree.

For instance, Sir Thomas More and Polydore Vergil both lived in Henry VII’s reign, had access to the same documents and the same witnesses – yet their accounts of the murder do not tally. They cannot even agree on Richard’s whereabouts at the time of the murder. More says that Richard ordered Tyrrell to kill the boys when he was staying at Warwick, while Vergil insists that he gave the orders at York some time later.

What about this man Tyrrell? In June, 1486 – nearly a year after Bosworth Field – he received a General Pardon from the hands of King Henry VII. This was a usual procedure at the time. In granting an officer of State a Pardon, a new King minimized the risk of his servant being blackmailed on account of something he may have done during the previous reign.

Yet in the following month Tyrrell received a second General Pardon. Soon afterwards, he was made Constable of the castle of Guisnes, in France. It was obvious he had done something between June and July which made his presence in England an embarrassment to Henry.

Then, in May, 1502 – nearly twenty years later – he was arrested and beheaded. No reason was over given for his execution until Sir Thomas More, in his history of Richard III, accused Tyrrell of the murder of the Princes.

It seems likely that Tyrrell did, indeed, arrange the murder. The question is, on whose orders? Certainly not on those of Richard III, claim the king’s defenders. They allege he had no motive, for there were no fewer than seven other legitimate heirs to the crown before himself, not just the two boys, as might be supposed if he had murdered them for the crown. And in his reign the heirs all lived safely, not only tolerated, but protected by Richard. On the other hand, why did Richard let it be publicly stated that Edward V was illegitimate if he was not anxious to prove that the boy should not be king?

But a more convincing argument presented in Richard’s favour originated from Henry VII himself! After Richard had been killed at Bosworth, he published a document in which all the previous king’s crimes were listed. But there was no mention at all of the murder of the Princes!

Is it just possible that when Henry reached London, the boys were still in the Tower unharmed? If they were, he had a motive for murder. As the sons of Edward IV, both boys had a far stronger claim to the throne than he had.

When it came to ridding himself of inconvenient heirs to the throne, Henry proved both ruthless and cunning. For he arrested the other seven heirs to the throne and held them in close confinement.

But during Henry’s reign Richard’s detractors were very busy. More and Vergil both published highly-sensational accounts of the late king’s life accusing him of at least three other murders besides those of the Princes.

That the Princes were murdered was proved in 1674 when workmen restoring part of the Tower discovered the skeletons of two young boys in a wooden chest. The bones were taken to be the remains of the Princes. Then, in 1933, the bones were examined by Professor William Wright. He gave the boys’ ages as twelve to thirteen and nine to eleven.

Unfortunately the two-year gap in the identification of the Princes’ exact ages is just sufficient to have made it possible for them to have been murdered by Richard or Henry – because Richard reigned for two years and one month.

So who was the culprit, Richard or Henry?

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