Richard III on Trial #
The fact that historians do not share Shakespeare’s biases on Richard III does not detract from Richard III as a dramatic work of art. We have to remember that Shakespeare worked for a Company sponsored by the Tudor Monarchy and he may be producing propaganda to show the Tudors in a good light while smearing the House of York.
All histories are written by the victors so must be treated with great skepticism. It is well known that King Henry VII destroyed a lot of documents and doctored his narratives to support the Tudor claim as rightful heirs to the throne.
As to the murder of the Princes in the Tower, recent evidence brought to light by an SBS documentary fairly conclusively indicates that the young boys were rescued, taken to Europe and both made failed attempts to raise armies to reclaim the Yorkist right to the throne.
The trashing of Richard began with an article written by Sir Thomas More, generally regarded a respectable scholar, but in this case he may have had a axe to grind in that one of his ancestors had died at the hands of the Yorkists.
In 1985 Richard III, dead 500 years, was put on trial in London for the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Historians appeared as witnesses to present evidence for and against Richard, and a jury came to a decision.
If you had only Shakespeare as evidence, what would your verdict be? (The verdict of that jury was ‘not guilty’, because they were not certain.)
Shakespeare clearly shows Richard as the murderer - not only of the Princes, but of many other people as well.
For many of you, this will be the only picture you have of this part of history. It is important therefore that you are able to decide whether the picture you are given is an accurate one.
Richard III - A good story, great literature, a great film - but great History?
But does the play present the story fairly and does it even present the story accurately? Is it good History? Remember, it was written by Shakespeare over 100 years after the events described.
A number of elements of the historical record are in dispute, but we can look at what is the best available state of knowledge on a number of elements looked at in the play, and compare them to the ways in which the play deal with them.
To help decide, look at the following information on a number of themes. Then compare this to the best available historical knowledge (which in some cases is uncertain).
At the end, decide how accurate you think the play is as history.
Richard’s appearance #
Richard was born in 1452, and died in 1485. There are no contemporary portraits of him in existence. The earliest portrait, a copy made in 1590 of one done from life, shows no deformities.
Some portraits show him as having a hunched shoulder - these seem to be fakes, with the deformity added after the original painting.
There is no reliable evidence of any physical deformity.
Richard as warrior #
At the Battle Tewkesbury, in 1471, he played a minor role.
His first battle as a leader of an army was at Bosworth, in 1485, where he died fighting valiantly against Henry, Earl of Richmond.
Richard as murderer of Henry VI’s son, Prince Edward #
The best available evidence has Prince Edward dying on the field of battle at Stokes in 1487.
Richard as murderer of Henry VI #
The best available evidence suggests that if he was murdered, it was done at the orders of King Edward IV.
Richard as seducer of Anne Neville, the widow of Prince Edward #
Richard and Anne Neville would have known each other as children. Anne was 16 when her husband was killed Tewkesbury. For the times, this was a logical and good match for each.
Richard as murderer of his brother, George Duke of Clarence #
Clarence had actually fought against his brother, King Edward IV, and was therefore a known traitor. He was married to Henry VI’s greatest supporter, Warwick’s eldest daughter (the sister of Anne Neville) and was expected to support Henry VI’s side Tewkesbury. but he betrayed him and supported his brother instead. Clarence was given the seized lands of Warwick, and he and Richard fought over the lands - Richard wanted them also. The dispute was settled by 1473 when the lands were shared between them. Clarence was imprisoned in 1478 for plotting to harm the heir, his nephew Edward, and for opposing his brother and trying to build sufficient power to challenge and oppose him. A warrant was issued for his execution. There is no evidence that it was ever cancelled.
Richard as murderer of others
There can be no doubt that Richard was responsible for the killing of Queen Elizabeth’s brother Rivers. Hastings, who opposed Richard’s succession as king, was brutally executed. Buckingham, who led a revolt against him, was equally quickly killed.
Richard as murderer of the Two young Princes
Nobody knows exactly what happened to the Princes. They were last seen in the Tower of London in August 1483. There is clear evidence they escaped to Europe where both launched failed attempts to overthrow the Tudors.
Richard as King #
Many historians assert that Richard ruled well during his short time as a king. He was a man of the people who provided parks and social capital for his subjects, and was pious and fair. His major contribution was his enactment of fairer legal procedures
Bail for anyone merely accused of a crime.
Protection from Arbitrary taxation,
Clear Land Titles.
For his legal reforms see:
The other view has him as a reformer. Extensive legal reforms whose effects we are feeling to this day. Richard III invented the system of bail– he did not think it appropriate for offenders of small crimes to be detained of their liberty before trial.
Richard III legislated that the law of the land must be in the language of land. Prior to Richard, those unaware of either Latin or Old French did not know what the law was. It was a Ricardian measure that had the law translated and posted in public market places for all to see and read.
Richard III standardized the system of weights and measures. A yard of cloth did not necessarily measure the same from merchant to merchant. A pound of beef did not necessarily weigh the same. With standardization, consumers were assured of consistency.
Richard III abolished the system of benevolences. This was a system whereby members of the gentry could actually pay for high offices (for example, positions on the judiciary without necessarily having qualifications). It was Richard’s belief that the best man should be presented with the job most suited to his talents regardless of birth.
When Henry VIII attempted to a gain from the city of London, it used the precedence of Richard III to deny him.
T.S. Eliot claims Richard III was one of England’s best kings.
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, became King Henry VII in 1485 and married Elizabeth of York a few months later.
History has not been as kind as Shakespeare to Henry VII as it records that Henry VII actually backdated his reign before Bosworth, so that those who fought for Richard could be executed for treason.
Was Shakespeare attempting to curry favour with his patron, the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I? How dare you even think of it!