Richard III: His Reputation and the Discovery of His Bones


Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

Reputation

Richard III was a soldier, and proved an ‘excellent’ king – laws were to be followed, forced loans were abolished, and he protected the rights of the Church.[i] This is a more modern view. However, Richard III is often considered to be the most ‘evil’ of our nation’s kings.[ii] This idea has been built on from Tudor propaganda which was used to strengthen the Tudors own claim to the English throne. The main incident which inherently damaged the reputation of Richard III was the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower around 1483. It provoked ‘shock and indignation’ particularly as the princes were still children and had done nothing wrong.[iii] People believed that the Princes were in danger even before they vanished. People believed in Richard’s guilt. But this has more significance historically than whether Richard actually committed the crime.[iv] The disappearance of the Princes rather than the death, adds fuel to the idea that Richard was in fact innocent of their murder.[v] Edward IV displayed the body of Henry VI after his death, so that people would know he was dead, and not use him as a figurehead for rebellion.

Richard III’s reputation was made by William Shakespeare, who made him one of the greatest villains in all of his works – he accused him of murdering his brother, murdered his two nephews and murdered his wife to marry his niece.[vi] These things all happened (well, apart from marrying his niece), but was it really Richard’s fault? Anne Neville probably wasn’t murdered, but died tragically young like her sister, Isabel. Clarence’s death happened under Edward IV, and all we know of the Princes is that they vanished. The Richard III Society has much of the credit for rehabilitating the image of Richard III.[vii] It was this society which pushed for the dig which discovered the remains of the last Plantagenet king.

The idea that Richard was a soldier is enhanced by his behaviour before the Battle of Bosworth; he mustered troops, collected weaponry and sent men to the coast. He was ‘keen’ to do battle and defeat his ‘adversary’.[viii] Richard III was a sharp contrast to the later years of the ‘miser’ king Henry VII.[ix] In essence then, the Tudors were ‘shaped by their fifteenth century past’.[x] Richard III’s behaviour and reputation affected views of him in the future. It is the power of fiction that has created Richard III’s reputation, and not history, as there have been many modern interpretations, not least The White Queen and Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time.[xi] As two cities (Leicester and York) are now vying for Richard’s remains, ‘maybe his reputation is finally turning a corner’.[xii] We can but hope that this maligned king will be at least a little rehabilitated.

Bones Discovered

Skeleton of Richard III found in a car park in Leicester 2012
Skeleton of Richard III found in a car park in Leicester 2012

Many historians weren’t convinced by the myth that Richard III’s bones were thrown into the River Soar.[xiii] Hence, the trail to discover his bones began. Philippa Langley, who pushed for the dig to find Richard’s bones, had a premonition when standing in the car park where he was eventually found, and an ‘R’ was painted on the floor. She knew that he was buried there.[xiv] When Richard III’s bones were discovered under a car park in Leicester, one of the most shocking things was that the Tudor claims (often seen as propaganda) that Richard did have a ‘deformed’ spine, was actually half true, in that he definitely would have had one shoulder higher than the other.[xv] The so-called ‘hunchback’ was not actually a hunchback (technically kyphosis), but severe scholiosis, a condition not a disability.[xvi] The skeleton was discovered in exactly the same position as it was said that he was buried, however, his feet and one lower leg bone were missing due to Victorian building works.[xvii] A pity, but it is amazing that the rest of the skeleton remained undisturbed and basically in one piece.

There were five initial aims: discover the Greyfriars friary, find out about the position of the buildings, locate the church and the friary, and find Richard III if possible. The last was ‘not seriously considered possible’.[xviii] It sets a precedent for what is possible to find, if you have the guts, the intuition and the ambition and determination to do it. The DNA was traced through the generations of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York, to Michael Ibsen, Richard’s oldest living relative, who is his great nephew 17 times removed.[xix] This is how it was confirmed that the bones were in fact those of Richard III.

It has been suggested that Richard’s injuries, sustained in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 physically demonstrated his failures as an English king – he failed to ensure peace.[xx] Ten separate wounds were found on the skeleton; two of which would have been fatal, and several others bear witness to a sustained attack at the end.[xxi] When Richard died in the battle his corpse was buried in the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Leicester, but his grave was despoiled during the Reformation.[xxii] The discovery of the bones of Richard III have possibly set a precedent for other bone discoveries, like those of the missing Princes in the Tower, Henry I and Stephen.

(No page numbers on the Langley book because it was an ebook).

[i] Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: the Family Story (London: Chatto & WIndus, 2013) p. 61

[ii] Peter Ackroyd, Foundation (London: Macmillan, 2011) p. 160

[iii] Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower (London: Vintage, 2008) p. 183

[iv] Weir, Princes in the Tower, p. 184

[v] Leanda de Lisle, ‘Does the Reputation of Richard III Deserve Rehabilitation?’ (Sept 2013) [http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2013/09/24/does-the-reputation-of-richard-iii-deserve-rehabilitation/]

[vi] Linda Rodriquez McRobbie, ‘The Battle Over Richard III’s Bones … And His Reputation’ (Feb 2013) [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-battle-over-richard-iiis-bonesand-his-reputation-14232878/?no-ist]

[vii] Richard III Society [http://www.richardiii.net/]

[viii] Amy Licence, Richard III: the Road to Leicester (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2014) p. 54

[ix] Lisle, Tudor, p. 121

[x] Lisle, Tudor, p. 398

[xi] Leanda de Lisle, ‘Does the Reputation of Richard III Deserve Rehabilitation?’

[xii] Rodriquez McRobbie, ‘The Battle Over Richard III’s Bones … And His Reputation’

[xiii] Licence, Richard III, p. 75

[xiv] Philippa Langley & Michael Jones, The King’s Grave: the Search for Richard III (London: Hachette, 2013)

[xv] Lisle, Tudor, p. 44

[xvi] Langley, The King’s Grave

[xvii] Licence, Richard III, p. 80

[xviii] University of Leicester [https://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/archaeology/wherewedug.html]

[xix] Maev Kennedy, ‘Richard III: the Dead King who Brought the World’s Gaze to a Leicester Car Park’ (Dec 2013) [http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/23/richard-iii-archaeologist-leicester-car-park-king]

[xx] Lisle, Tudor, p. 399

[xxi] Licence, Richard III, p. 81

[xxii] Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families: the Complete Genealogy (London: Vintage, 2008) p. 145

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