The Problem With Richard III

Richard III

Richard III is a tricky monarch to write about in a forum like this. His life and brief reign occurred during a particularly complex period in England’s history, and there’s an incredible level of controversy over even some of the most basic facts of his life. Compared with writing about other monarchs, Richard presents a unique challenge in that the devil is very much in the details, but I also try to write my historical posts in a way that makes them accessible for people with a more casual interest in English history or its monarchy.

That’s part of it. The other part is that few historical figures prompt as strong a reaction as Richard does. The second half of the Wars of the Roses has its own cult following akin to that of the Tudors (indeed, Richard’s closest peer in the canon may well be Anne Boleyn when it comes to sheer volume of ink spilled) and people tend to fall into two camps: those who believe Richard has been unfairly maligned and those who believe he is in fact guilty of murdering his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

So, Richard is polarizing, and still evocative. This is particularly true for “Ricardians,” or people who believe Richard is the victim of centuries of lies and propaganda. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that a good number of historians who have written about Richard traditionally fell into one of those camps, and as a result scholarship on him can be accused of having an agenda…and is in turn rejected by those who are biased one way or the other.

For example, two years ago I wrote a post about Richard III’s marriage to Anne Neville and cited historian Michael Hicks heavily throughout it since Hicks is one of Anne Neville’s very few biographers. Yet Hicks is definitely not a Ricardian and as a result I still get outraged comments from time to time by Richard fans. So, one has to tread carefully, which for the purposes of a <3,000 word blog post can be a tad overwhelming.

I was first introduced to Richard III via historical fiction when I was about 12 years old. At the time, nothing about him really jumped off the page for me, and I was instead more taken with Elizabeth Woodville. Over the next couple of years I became fascinated by the Wars of the Roses, but again, not particularly the Richard III/Princes in the Tower facet, so much as the entirety of the war itself. Frankly, I was more interested in defending Margaret of Anjou than anyone else. But…murder mysteries have a way of drawing you in.

The first time I truly focused on Richard III was when I was about 14 via Sharon Kay Penman’s “The Sunne in Splendour,” which was hands down my favorite book for years. I read it several times through high school, and even ordered a copy shipped to me when I was studying in Amman for a semester in college…no small (or inexpensive) feat. By then, of course, I had long turned to proper history  and left the novels behind, but I share this anecdote only because I think it’s indicative of how many of us are introduced to subjects like Richard…through someone’s bias.

Penman is an excellent novelist and as far as historical fiction goes, she follows the facts closer than most, but still, she had an agenda. She was an unabashed Ricardian and by the time I put the novel down, I wanted to believe that Richard III was innocent. And why not? There’s something very seductive about a proper historical conspiracy theory, and once you turn to the actual record, there’s a good argument to be made that Richard was in fact innocent.

There’s also a strong case to be made that he’s guilty, and in the last 15 years or so I’ve gone back and forth. I’m a big believer that when you hear hoofbeats you should look for horses not zebras (or however that saying goes), and Richard is the likeliest candidate for the Princes’ murder. The boys disappeared in 1483, the same year Richard took the throne and disinherited them. Contemporaries pointed the finger at him. He had access, authority, and motive. Several historians who I trust and respect name him carrying out the murder (or rather, ordering it) as the most reasonable conclusion. So, it’s all there.

But it’s also not a perfect fit. If Richard murdered his nephews, then some of his own actions in 1484 and 1485 don’t make a lot of sense. Nor do actions taken by people around him, including his nephews’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, their sister, Elizabeth of York, or even the king who succeeded him, Henry VII. Don’t even get me started on the puzzle that is Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham…but we’re getting off track. You see, it’s difficult to talk about Richard without getting in the weeds.

So, where does that leave us? Well, zooming in on Richard III is no small feat, and as you may have seen over the last year, there’s been a few periods of time when the demands of real life have absented me from writing here regularly. Recently, I’ve focused more on current royal news to the exclusion of history because frankly it’s a much, much lighter lift. But in the background I’ve actually been reading up on Richard III courtesy of new biographies on him, and I don’t know, he’s captured my fancy again. Arguably I relax in strange ways πŸ˜‰ I’ve been reading from both sides of the aisle, too – historians who revile him, and those who think he’s innocent of the ultimate crime. It’s been informative, a good catch up, and at least one book I’ve read in the last year has made me take seriously the less-favored theory that perhaps the Princes weren’t murdered at all.

Long story short, we’re going to cover Richard. Not in one post, but in several. And we’re going to end the series (if you will) with a deeper dive into the Princes in the Tower and the various theories that surround their disappearance, as well as the “Pretenders” who appeared in Henry VII’s reign. Throughout it I’m going to be relying primarily on two main sources – Desmond Seward (anti-Richard) and Matthew Lewis (pro-Richard) – who will be cited throughout as appropriate.

So, with that, I’m going to start working on the first post, and in the meantime, if you have strong feelings about Richard one way or the other, I highly recommend following Matthew Lewis and Nathan Amin on Twitter. They go back and forth with each other and it’s always interesting (and entertaining).

Until then, Happy Thursday πŸ™‚

5 thoughts on “The Problem With Richard III

  1. How surprised/excited were you when his remains were found? I was hugely excited (and I’m a fencesitter with the murder/conspiracy narrative) BUT for years have been fascinated with the princes in the tower.
    On another occasion, I remember feeling unreasonably outraged when they said that Bosworth Field was not the site of Richard’s death, ‘you mean I walked all round that field for nothing?’ Haha πŸ™‚

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    1. Oh my God, I was fascinated by all of it when they found his remains. That’s definitely one of those moments where I remember exactly where I was when I heard (at work, at which point I promptly stopped working) πŸ™‚

      I’ll definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts as we go along with the Richard posts.

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      1. I’m really looking forward to them. I’m lacking in medieval history knowledge. I can quote all the kings and queens from Edward III (it saved me during an MRI scan!) – before that I’m lost! And Richard the villian has always excited me – but even growing up – and like you, historical novels were a gateway for me, I wanted to solve the princes in the tower mystery. Actually, anything to do with the Tower and castles interested me. πŸ™‚

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  2. Richard iii was a very complex man with redeeming qualities and flaws. Painting him as a perfect saint is a disservice to the real man.
    He usurped the throne from his 12 old nephew, separated the boy from his closest associates, executed Hastings without a trial, he also had rivers, grey and others.
    The disappearance of his nephews (the princes) he is my number one suspect. This does not mean I believe he was an evil villain, but a medieval man he was, no worser than henry vii, Edward iv and other medieval kings.
    The real historical Richard was much more interesting than the white wash version.

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    1. Yes, that’s the real shame with how polarizing Richard III is, in my opinion. People become so fixated on defending or vilifying him that there’s no room for nuance and shades of grey. I do think some of the recent scholarship on him has done a good job on correcting that. I agree with you though that whether or not he’s guilty of murdering the “Princes in the Tower,” he certainly wasn’t a saint!

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