I have long been fascinated by the figure of Richard III.
My early interest was triggered by Shakespeare’s portrait of the man – the evil one, the great dissembler and manipulator of men.
Here is Sir Lawrence Olivier showing us the evil smirk of a dastardly man.
Of course, Shakespeare lived in Tuder England — and the Tudor dynasty had come to power by usurping Richard’s throne. So there was a strong incentive to make the usurpation look more like an act of moral necessity than a power play.
Slanting history to this end started immediately after Richard’s death in battle, and continued through the reigns of the usurper, Henry VII, his son Henry VIII, on up to Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare’s time. Thus we see observations like this
chronicler John Rous (c. 1420–92) … swiftly stopped praising Richard as a “good Lord” when Henry VII was crowned, and instead recalled how Richard had taken two years to gestate before eventually being born with teeth, long hair to his shoulders, and a hunchback.
Yikes! You get the idea. Richard had to be a monster, and chroniclers knew that. Painting him thus would win rewards. So they did.
But what was Richard III really like? In fact, it may not have been so much Richard’s evil cunning that set him apart, but his aggressiveness. Whatever he was, he was not a warm and cuddly sort of dude. Consider
- Richard had a terrible scolioosis of the spine (a curvature), which likely caused him constant pain and required extra physical effort and willpower just to play the role of medieval leader. Imagine donning armour, riding a horse into battle, and engaging in face to face combat with that sort of disability! His recently unearthed bones show that by the time of his death (at age 32), that pain had increased by the onset of arthritis. My take – Richard’s main personality traits were willpower and determination rather than long term calculation. This is stuff we tend to associate with Henry V, a guy who gets much better press than Richard. Shakespeare got it wrong.
- Meanwhile, despite his disability, Richard had proved to be a loyal and capable military and administrative leader for his brother, King Edward IV, throughout the so-called “Wars of the Roses”. Stevenson’s portrait of the young Richard in his novel “The Black Arrow” might not have been far from the mark: a bellicose fighting man who was ready to fight to the death. Don’t expect a huge amount of empathy from this dude. From the Telegraph
He had seen his father, brother and guardian die violent deaths on the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses. He had grown up in an atmosphere of fear, treachery, plots and open violence culminating in another brother, King Edward IV, ordering the judicial drowning of his remaining brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in a butt of Malmsey wine in the Tower. Small wonder, then, that at his own coronation Richard was seen to be playing with a dagger at his side, drawing it in and out of its sheath, while shooting suspicious glances around him
- Richard’s brother, King Edward IV, died young, at the age of 41. Richard was just 30. Richard was still in his prime which he knew would not last very long. If he wanted to “play the power game” it would have to be
- Edward IV’s son, the presumptive heir Edward V, was only 12 years old when his father died, and his mother was Elizabeth Woodville, who many thought had not been a suitable match for a king. The Woodvilles were power hungry and they made the first move to cut Richard out from the transition. They would regret that dearly. My take – Richard’s loyalty to his brother died when his brother died. After that, he was motivated solely by power realities. Grab power, or it will grab you!
- Richard had his own son and heir who might have succeeded him had he survived (in fact, Richard’s son died just one year after Richard usurped the throne).
In light of all of the above, it is not a huge surprise that Richard would make a grab for the throne, and he did. After he did, he lived it up! Analysis of his bones indicate that his diet became much richer and he started consuming roughly a bottle of wine per day. Live for the moment, dude! He was winning the game — at least as far as he could tell!
Did he have the princes in the tower murdered? We do not know and probably never will. And this is perhaps less important than the fact that many suspected Richard’s guilt at the time. Whether he really was guilty or not, the suspicion damaged him politically and he took no steps to distance himself from the ugly rumors. This is odd, given that Richard was not stupid and was ruthless. You would have thought that he would have come up with something. But he never did. That doesn’t mean that he is guilty. It does mean that strategically, he failed to cope with the crisis at hand..
Just a few years after usurping the throne. Richard arrived at Bosworth Field to meet yet another aspiring usurper, this time to his throne. While Richard arrived with a superior force in terms of manpower, his army seemed strangely unable to overcome the other side in the clinch. Some fighters on his side apparently just simply “melted away”. A lack of conviction for the cause? BTW, this tells you something about Richard’s inability to instill loyalty – they were fighting an unknown guy, supported by French troops, who had at best a weak claim to the throne. Huh?
Perhaps realizing the game was up, Richard gambled all on a final cavalry charge aimed directly at Henry. Classic Richard! Bold! Decisive! Damn the odds! Go for it! Kill or be killed! And my guess is that when Richard got close to Henry (within a sword’s distance) Henry peed his pants. Here is the young Henry
But victory for Richard that day was not to be. Nobles who had been on the sidelines jumped into the fight on Henry’s side. Richard’s small force was overwhelmed, he was dismounted and killed fighting in battle. And no, he was not calling out for another horse to get away when he got pole axed, probably from behind. He was the last English king to die in combat So it goes, Richard had charged into history.
BTW, in case you are wondering, the chivalrous knight who saved Henry Tudor’s ass was Sir William Stanley.
Later, Henry would have him executed for treason. Yes, Henry VII would turn out to be kind of nasty himself. There is a reason why More called him the “Winter King”. But that is another story.
So it was back then. Warm and cuddly? Think again.