We all know the story behind Richard III (1452-1485), the usurper of the throne and murderer of small children to retain his stolen reign of power. That history was painted by the victors and the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. With the discovery last September of ancient bones under a car park, and confirmation this morning of the identity of those remains, will history now be re-evaluated in light of the discovery?
Fifteenth Century Europe was not a calm and inviting place, life was harsh for the poorest of the poor and while royalty had a better life, I wouldn’t put it’s quality of life much higher. Political intrigue and jockeying for position were as vital as food and shelter. Richard III was born to the Duke of York, who was a strong claimant to the contested throne of Henry VI (1421-1471), thus plunging young Richard into the very heart of the War of the Roses. Eventually, The House of York wins the war and his eldest brother is crowned king in 1461, Edward IV (1422-1483).
Young Richard marries well, acquires all the trappings of wealth and power expected for a brother of the ruling King and victor of a war. He was also quite skillful at warfare playing a vital role in many military campaigns, including the War with Scotland in 1480. Richard’s primary interests, politically and militarily lay in the North of England, and seemed content with his life until the death of the King in April 1483.
Upon his death, Edward IV was succeeded to the throne by his twelve year-old son Edward V. Richard is named Lord Protector of the young monarch and he immediately begins to play his chess pieces to prevent Queen Elizabeth and her family from gaining control of the throne. (Elizabeth was the eldest child of King Edward IV and thus older sister to King Edward V and niece to Richard III, and thus a natural, familial choice to the young king to turn to for advice).
Richard was a master of the political game of his day and quite quickly he had all of the children of his eldest brother, King Edward IV, declared bastards and as such ineligible to inherit the crown. The now former King Edward V is locked in the Tower of London with his younger brother Richard for company. The Titulus Regius declared Richard the rightful ruler of England in 1484, thereby legitimatizing his accession and coronation as monarch on 6 July 1483.
We all know how the story goes at this point, the evil King Richard III has the poor young, innocent rightful king and his younger brother murdered in the Tower of London. But that story almost entirely comes from the play Richard III from William Shakespeare. The play served a political purpose for Shakespeare, for it confirmed the Divine Right of Kings and what happens to those that contravene the will of God. Shakespeare paints the portrait we all know of Richard III, hunchbacked, deformed, power hungry, and evil. The political undertone of the play was quite simply the right man, as ordained by God, Henry VII (first House of Tudor monarch and grandfather of the ruling monarch Queen Elizabeth) , was crowned monarch eventually despite the political machinations of Richard III.
So did the Bard paint the rule of Richard III correctly or is it a case of the victors writing history? This has been, and will continue to be, a point for historians to discuss, argue, and pontificate upon for years. I don’t think the announcement that the bones found in Leicester are those of Richard III will change the color of the lenses that Richard III is viewed through. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, power hungry yes but murderer of innocents I doubt. Murdering his nephews would have eliminated one source of potential rebellion yes, but the boys has been declared illegitimate and were too young to have a political or military power base of their own. There were far too many other men and women who were after power and wealth following Richard’s accession to power for the disappearance from history of young King Edward V and his little brother Richard.