“Truth is the daughter of time” – Sir Francis Bacon
Society, headed by King Henry VII and William Shakespeare, has generally sought to stain the reputation of arguably one of England’s most talented rulers. Richard Plantagenet ruled for just 2 years between 1483 and 1485, but his reign and legacy has become one of the most debated in the history of the English/British monarchy. One image casually flung around popular historiography is of a hunchbacked, moral-less tyrant; a child-murderer and power-obsessed villain. This article argues that such imagery clouds other assessments of history – namely, that Richard III’s interests lay in the health of his dynasty, not in his own personal power, and in fact, that Henry Tudor, upon discovering them alive and well in the Tower of London, murdered the Princes Edward and Richard Jnr. for his own security.
The Rosy Context
Perhaps as significant as what is termed the ‘English Civil War’, the War of the Roses, in which our King Richard III acted, divided English politics for several decades. Two sides of a single family, stemming from English statesmen John of Gaunt (considered the richest man of his time), developed into rival factions, based in York and Lancaster. The Lancastrians boasted Kings Henry IV, V and VI, the last of which lost England much influence in France won by his father and grandfather. Discontent with Henry VI led to a Yorkist rebellion and the crowning of Edward IV in 1461, and although the new King and his brother Richard (our dear Richard III to be) had to put down a Lancastrian resurgence in 1470, by Edward’s death in 1483 the line was secure enough to constitute a direct heir.
Richard was highly respected during his time as Edward IV’s right hand man. The Duke of Gloucester as he was, and as he is known in Shakespeare’s play, ruled much of the north of England, and set up councils and administrative centres for the proper management of resources and human capital in the region. He is generally regarded as a fine practical ruler; he had the creativity of his predecessors combined with the level-headedness and pragmatism of his successors.
The General Consensus
In pure fact, upon the death of his brother, Richard was appointed Lord Protector to his nephew Edward V. What is also given is that soon after, Richard proclaimed himself King and hid the young King and his brother, also called Richard, in the Tower of London. Shakespeare’s play makes out that Richard III had taken on some form of paranoid, Machiavellian trait and had locked up the princes purely in order to claim the thrown for himself. It thus follows that Richard, to ensure that the boys did not trouble him again, murdered the princes but remained publically ambiguous about their well-being. This is the story that Henry Tudor and co. came out with after the Battle of Bosworth, in which Richard was killed, in 1485.
The Alternative Theory
Strategically, and on the basis that Richard’s interests – shown by his loyalty to his brother and the health of the English state – were in fact in the protection of his dynasty and not his own power, it did not make sense to kill the princes. Richard III considered himself a stronger king – while it may have been illegal to depose his own nephew, he almost certainly was a more able candidate for the throne – and took the crown in the interests of keeping England together as a nation (a policy that Henry Tudor subsequently adopted). By keeping the princes alive and well in the Tower of London, but out of sight and very safe in order to prevent their assassination, Richard was in fact building the defence of the Yorkist claim to the throne vis-à-vis the growing dissent from the new Lancastrian figurehead, Henry Tudor, who by his grandmother, was a distant heir to the Kingship via Henry V. It can be said that Richard simply did not have long enough as King to build his basis and then relinquish control of the country in favour of his nephew.
Hence, upon Richard’s death at Bosworth, Henry Tudor rode to London to find, to his dismay, two candidates for the crown of England with significantly more legitimacy than himself. It is equally likely that Henry rather than Richard killed the princes, in order to get rid of any last Yorkist claim. Then, as Henry VII, he silenced all notion of civil war by marrying the princes’ older sister, Elizabeth of York, uniting the two sides of John of Gaunt’s family and creating the Tudor dynasty that would rule for over a century.
Richard III was a loyal and determined ruler; he was the last English monarch to die in battle, and the first since on home soil since Harold II was killed by William the Conqueror in 1066 at Hastings. The discovery of Richard’s remains in Leicestershire has prompted a reburial next year; it is certainly hoped by Ricardians that the monarch will be remembered for the good that he did for England as a country, and not as the crooked hunchback fantasised by Shakespeare and projected into popular culture. For further reading, consult the publications of any of the three Ricardian historical societies, or Josephine Tey’s book The Daughter of Time.