I'm the last Plantagenet,
Beaten by Henry in the Wars of the Roses
The Tudor dynasty
Didn't care that much for me,
Now I'm painted as a baddie, that's why, one supposes.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485), crowned King Richard III in 1483, was the sixth son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and brother of King Edward IV of England, who had seized the throne from the reigning Lancastrian king, Henry VI. (The complicated relationships of the various branches of The House of Plantagenet were the principal cause of the "Wars of the Roses", in which Richard distinguished himself.) On Edward's death, he seized the throne from Edward's son (called Edward V, though he was never actually crowned), declaring him and his younger brother Richard of York bastards. (Traditionally, Richard had his nephews murdered in the Tower of London; this has been much disputed since at least late Tudor times.) A rebellion led by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, arose, and Richard was killed fighting for his kingdom at Bosworth Field, the last English king to die in battle.note
Richard's traditional reputation was largely formed by Sir Thomas More's History of king Richard the thirde, which (possibly based on the reminiscences of John Morton, Bishop of Ely) depicts Gloucester as a hunch-backed, withered-armed Machiavellian villain. More's account formed the basis for William Shakespeare's Richard III, which has probably been the most influential account of Richard's life and character — despite its obvious historical shortcomings — and has indeed tended to color perceptions of the entire Late Mediaeval period.
Nevertheless, Richard's rehabilitation started fairly early. In the reign of James I (i.e., after the death of the last of the Tudors), the antiquarian Sir George Buck discovered the suppressed Titulus Regius that set forth the Parliamentary explanation for Richard's assumption of the throne and claimed he had seen a letter (now lost, if it ever existed at all) from Edward V's sister, Elizabeth of York, which established the friendly relations between them, and wrote his History of King Richard III in an attempt to moderate the king's negative image. Unfortunately, Buck died insane, and his history was published only after his death, by his grandson (1646). The view that Richard had been slandered by Henry Tudor gained a strong following, and has influenced historians, either positively or negatively, ever since.
The basic facts are that Richard, who had been a loyal supporter of his older brother all their lives, was named Lord Protector of Edward's son, Edward V, upon the older Edward's death. In the political chaos that followed, Richard struck against Edward V's maternal relatives (who were undoubtedly moving to strike against Richard) and produced a document and a witness (in the form of an elderly priest) that indicated Edward IV's marriage to the boy's mother had been invalid due to it being bigamous. This made Edward V and his younger brother ineligible for the throne and Richard the rightful king. The truth of this convenient claim has been much discussed, disputed and speculated upon. Edward IV was a womanizer and his secret marriage to the commoner Elizabeth Woodville had caused immense scandal and a great deal of conflict and spilled blood. It was not out of the question to think Edward had entered into another secret marriage prior to that, if only as a way to get into bed with an attractive widow. Did Richard or one of his supporters invent this story so they could seize power? Did Richard, who knew his brother well, know the story was true or at least believe it could be true? Did Richard, understandably,note fear the Woodville faction would eliminate him and take control of the boy, or that young Edward (who had essentially been raised by his mother's family) would be biased against him regardless? Was Richard acting out of ambition, or from the desire to avoid putting a third boy king on the English throne in just over a century, after the civil wars caused by the reigns/usurpations of Richard II and Henry VI? Was it, as is most likely, a combination of factors? Whatever the case, Richard seized the throne and his two nephews later disappeared from the Tower of London.
The fate of the princes was never certainly established. The last sighting of the boys alive seems to have been around July 1483, shortly before Richard's coronation. Stories of their death varied wildly: some said they had been poisoned, others drowned, others stabbed — but the most accepted version was that attested by Thomas More, that the princes had been smothered and buried secretly under a staircase in the Tower. Bones found there in 1674 under a staircase (as More had said, though he also said he had heard that Richard had had them disinterred and buried elsewhere) were declared to be theirs by the then king, Charles II. The identification is by no means certain; the bones were last examined in 1934, and it was determined at that time that not all of them were even human. Their age, sex, and date of burial have been disputed (though most experts agree they are pre-pubertal); there has even been some speculation that they're the remains of ceremonial sacrifices from Roman times. On top of that, the bones were found at a depth of at least ten feet lower than bones buried in 1483 would have been. The dean and chapter of Westminster Abbey, where the bones are interred, have refused to allow further testing, as did Queen Elizabeth II, who would not allow DNA analysis of the remains or of available remains of any known relatives of the Princes.
Defenders of Richard have pointed out that murdering his nephews would have done him little good without proof of their deaths, as he would have faced imposters claiming to be them much like Henry Tudor later claimed to. note It also makes little sense that Richard would not attempt to explain their absence, which he did not. If he had murdered them, he could have also blamed the Duke of Buckingham, who was executed for treason and would have made a convenient scapegoat. Traditionally, Ricardian historians have pointed the finger at Buckingham for the boys' deaths while more mainstream ones have still argued that it was Richard who had motive, means and opportunity. In recent years, however, some historians have been exploring the possibility that Richard sent the boys away and that they were alive at the time of Richard's defeat. These historians point out that Richard cared well for his nephew by his brother George (another Edward) and that boy also had a superior claim to the throne that was nullified through legal means.
After their remarkable success in finding Richard's remains, Phillippa Langley and The Richard III Society launched a project seeking evidence that Richard sent the boys into exile. In November 2023, Langley released a book and an accompanying ITV documentary which revealed their evidence for the claim that both boys survived to launch failed attempts to overthrow Henry Tudor. Most of the evidence consists of accounting records that seem to indicate the princes were alive after the Battle of Bosworth Field, but the document that has garnered the most attention is an account of the life of Richard of York, dictated to a scribe, chronicling how he escaped to the continent, residing in among other places, Paris and Lisbon. The document has been examined and determined to be authentic to the era, though skeptics dismiss it as part of a fraudulent campaign to put Perkin Warbeck on the throne. However, Ricardian historian Matthew Lewis argues that Richard's sister, Margaret of York would have no reason to come up with imposter princes while she had living nephews who had strong claims to the Yorkist crown. Lewis, Langely, and other Ricardian historians argue the two major rebellions crushed by Henry Tudor, allegedly by imposters Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, were in fact undertaken on behalf of Edward V and Richard of York, with the testimonial document being part of Richard of York/Perkin Warbeck's attempt to prove his identity.
Whatever the case, the fate of the princes still remains, for now, officially unsolved but Ricardians believe that it is only a matter of time before their survival becomes accepted.
As a King, Richard III reigned for a mere two years, but during that time he oversaw several progressive social reforms. Among the legal reforms made in his time was the creation of the Court of Requests, a court for poor people to present their grievances if they could not afford the legal fees. Richard also made it easier to provide bail for lower orders and protected their property from seizures. Such reforms had its roots in Richard III's time at the Council of the North. Under his reign, all the laws and statutes were ordered by decree to be translated from Old French into English, and he also removed the restrictions on the printing and selling of books. The efforts of greater centralization that would characterize the reign of Henry Tudor more properly began in Richard III's reign.
Popular depictions of Richard since Shakespeare's plays have generally veered back and forth from outright evil (Richard may be considered the patron saint of the Historical Villain Upgrade) to a revisionist version in which Richard, though appearing a somewhat cynical Deadpan Snarker, is nevertheless a fundamentally decent human being — often the only decent human being in what is otherwise a Decadent Court. Villainous takes, especially Shakespeare's, often cast him as a creepy old man even though he died aged only 32. He was also a Warrior Prince and the best warrior in England, second only to his brother Edward. Indeed, quite unlike the picture of him as a weakened Machiavellian, he died leading a daring cavalry charge in an attempt to kill Henry Tudor (who was ironically said to have just hid among his men during the attack and made no attempt to fight) that was repulsed and ended with Richard fighting to the death while surrounded after falling from his horse.
Contemporary portrayals, such as The Sunne in Splendour and The Kingmaker's Daughter (and its TV adaptation The White Queen) have continued to rehabilitate Richard's reputation, in part, by focusing on Richard's life before he seized the crown, portraying him accurately as a devoted supporter of Edward IV and their brother George, Duke of Clarence, as the one who made several attempts to usurp Edward. Richard, on the other hand, fled into exile with Edward when he was briefly deposed by the Lancastrian faction and Richard's military prowess at the Battles of Barnet and Teweksbury helped Edward retake his throne. Additionally, Richard's tenure as Constable of England helped him develop a reputation as a fair arbiter of justice and, as mentioned above, planted the seeds for the legal reforms he later made as king. Richard spent most of his adult life ruling his northern territories on behalf of his brother, where he was well liked by the local population and developed a strong power base.
His advocacy for the printed word seems rooted in his own intellectualism as he owned a library of books, including both printed and handwritten manuscripts, on topics like history, philosophy and theology and he personally made notes in the margins. He owned a copy of the Bible in English and a lavish Book of Hours that was likely a coronation gift from his Best Friend Francis Lovell. His book collection also indicates a strong interest in the history and culture of the north of England, which does lend credence to the stories of him favoring the north and eventually, as king, alienating various southern factions.
He married his childhood companion Anne Neville, and whether this was a love match or a practical arrangement between two people who needed one another, contemporary sources indicate they were Happily Married. It may have even counted as a Rescue Romance, since a popular legend states that Richard's brother George, who was married to Anne's sister and wanted their entire fortune for himself, dressed Anne as a servant and forced her to work as a kitchen maid in an attempt to prevent Richard from seeing her. What is certain is that Richard took the widowed and vulnerable Annenote to sanctuary, and the brothers fought bitterly over their wives' fortune before Richard and Anne could finally marry. The fact that Anne was the daughter of the powerful northern baron Richard Neville, The Earl of Warwick helped Richard gain popular support in that region, and evidence suggests she sometimes stood in for him in matters of local government while he was away.
Richard did gain a bit of a reputation as an uptight family man in his brother's decadent court, despite his own premarital illegitimate children, and is thought to have been frustrated by Edward's excesses and his enablers. Anne and Richard had only had one child, Edward of Middleham, who died about half-way into Richard's reign. The boy's mother followed him to the grave soon after, and Richard was reportedly devastated by these losses. One rumor that did circulate during Richard's lifetime that is that he poisoned Anne in order to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. There is an eyewitness account of him angrily denying this and declaring his love for the recently deceased Anne.note He was, in fact, negotiating political matches for himself and Elizabeth with a Portuguese princess and prince.
After his death, his body was hurriedly buried at a monastery in Leicester. The monastery (including his tomb) was torn down during the reign of Henry VIII. By the 19th century there was no marker of where the grave had been and it was rumoured that the remains had been thrown into the nearby river. A few historians attempted to trace the site of the grave and concluded its location now lay under a car park in central Leicester. In 2009, Richard III Society eventually launched a project to find the grave. In 2012, Richard's remains were unearthed from the carpark — astonishingly, he was the first one found on the first day of digging — and using DNA from two descendants of his sister, identified as his in 2013. He was reburied at Leicester Cathedral in 2015; a visitor centre now exists on the site of the original grave.
Remarkably, the remains showed signs of severe adolescent-onset scoliosis (a spinal column with a C-curve) — which likely gave him uneven shoulders and ribs but certainly didn't make him a hunchback — but there were no signs of the other deformities claimed by Tudor propagandists. In 15th-century England, though, Richard's back alone would have been seen as a divine punishment. Even though he may have kept it hidden until his death, gossip about it would have added to a poor reputation, and obviously time didn't help. Further studies on his body and contextual reconstruction with scoliosis patient Dominic Smee demonstrated that medieval armour and cavalry weaponry does not hinder a scoliosis sufferer from being an effective cavalry fighter — although it would definitely tire them out in on-foot combat. The entire sequence of Richard's actions in Bosworth suggest that this is what happened; he led a cavalry charge that was repulsed before being unhorsed, rendering him vulnerable. It was also found that despite his increased vulnerability after being unhorsed, he really did go down fighting — his skeleton showed that he suffered over a dozen injuries, three of which would have been fatal fairly quickly. Of those three injuries, one could have only been inflicted after death. This was the blow to his pelvis, which would have been armoured at the time of his death. The other two, a blow from a sword and another from a halberd-type weapon, both to the skull, were more likely the fatal wounds. In brief, whatever your opinion on the man might be, he was most definitely a Real Life Handicapped Badass.
Richard III is not to be confused with the current Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Queen Elizabeth II's first cousin, who is (so far as we know) not planning to usurp the throne. He is, however, a patron of the Richard III Society UK.
Richard's defenders have long called themselves Ricardians, and this may be one of the earliest examples of a Fan Community Nickname.
Works associated with Richard III:
- In the DC Comics miniseries Knight and Squire, Ricardian researchers create a clone of Richard, which somehow has all the original's memories. But Richard really is a villainnote and is soon joined by other wicked kings. Together, they attempt to take over England through the power of... Twitter.
- Tower of London, a 1939 Universal horror film starring Basil Rathbone as Richard, and its 1962 remake, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price.
- Notable in that Price played Clarence in the Rathbone version.
- The 2022 film The Lost King is about the discovery of Richard's remains underneath a car park in Leicester. Richard himself is depicted in a performance of Shakespeare's play, and he later appears as a ghost who only Sally Hawkins can see. Both versions of him are played by the same actor, Harry Lloyd.
- In the Anno Dracula series, Richard is the villain of "Vampire Romance", and more of a monster than in Shakespeare.
- Alexander Tagere from the Arcia Chronicles is a Fantasy Counterpart of Richard, portrayed in a very sympathetic light. His life up to the battle of the not-Bosworth Field is pretty much a word-for-word retelling of Richard's biography, transplanted into the High Fantasy setting of the series. That the author is an active Ricardian probably explains it.
- Richard of Gloucester is an ambivalent figure in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Black Arrow (1888), which has been adapted for televison and film several times, notably in 1911, 1948, and 1985.
- Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time is probably the 20th century work that re-started the revisionist view of Richard. It involves her long-time detective hero Alan Grant bored in the hospital and piecing through the evidence in search of the "historical" Richard.
- John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting has a pretty sympathetic Richard III...in an Alternate History setting with Werewolves and vampires.
- Richard, the Princes in the Tower, and his reputation are the focus of The Hellequin Chronicles prequel novella Infamous Reign, which features Nate Garrett a.k.a. Hellequin being sent to deal with the matter of the missing Princes (Nate had backed Richard's accession and his superiors therefore felt that it was his mess to clean up). Richard is depicted as a decent man who had the spine to stand up to an angry Nate despite being plainly terrified of him, and wasn't to blame for the Princes going missing. As it turns out, the Princes were descended from King Arthur through their mother, and Nate's Arch-Enemy Mordred, who had a fixation on preventing Arthur's descendants from ever taking the throne, kidnapped them. Nate rescued them and smuggled them into exile, but shortly after, the Battle of Bosworth happened, Henry Tudor took the throne, and Richard's reputation was thoroughly smeared - something that even Henry concedes he didn't deserve (but which he also considers politically useful).
- The I, Richard Plantagenet Series consists of five novels chronicling Richard's life from early childhood to his death from a first person perspective. Strongly Ricardian, the novels portray Richard as a brave soldier and honorable man but whose Horrible Judge of Character, impulsiveness and habit of making dangerous enemies leads to disaster.
- Richard III in the 21st Century, a sci-fi trilogy in which a research team rescues Richard at his moment of death and brings him to the year 2004, where he must learn to adapt to a very different world than the one he left behind.
- Rob Roy: Richard III's vilification is alluded to by Diana Vernon when she talks about one Yorkist ancestor of hers who was "sorely slandered by a sad fellow called Will Shakespeare, whose Lancastrian partialities, and a certain knack at embodying them, has turned history upside down, or rather inside out".
- George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is an Epic Fantasy that is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses and is filled with echoes of "The Princes in the Tower" and several characters - Stannis Baratheon, Ned Stark, Theon Greyjoy - are loosely patterned or direct expies of the historical Richard, with the fan favorite Tyrion Lannister, a deformed Deadpan Snarker dwarf, matching the rhetorical splendor of Shakespeare's Richard III, though all four of these characters are among the most popular. Arnolf Karstark seems to be a straight Expy of the theatrical Richard, but without his rhetorical splendor.
- Sandra Worth's the Rose of York Series contains three novels about Richard and his wife Anne, with them being the clear protagonists and a villainous take on Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.
- Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour is a Door Stopper epic detailing the Wars of the Roses, which focuses on a very sympathetic Richard.
- Ripped off in Anne Easter Smith's A Rose For The Crown, which is by no means bad but is definitely inferior to the above in every way that counts.
- Rosemary Hawley Jarman's We Speak No Treason is a long romance novel about Richard of Gloucester and the woman who loves him for all time.
- A short story by C. J. Cherryh has a young woman who's been sentenced to the Tower of London meet several of the ghosts haunting it — including the two little princes. Edward V tells her that Richard was believed to have murdered them, but adds, "But he didn't, you know."
- The Virgin Widow is a novel by Anne O'Brien from the perspective of Richard's wife, Anne Neville, and portrays Richard as a powerful, sometimes ruthless, but decent young man who loves Anne.
- Richard is a supporting character in Eleanor Fairburn's The Wars Of The Roses Quartet, a series about his mother Cecily Neville. In the story, he's a loyal son and only takes the throne when his mother reveals Edward IV's bigamy.
- In the first Blackadder series, Richard III (played by Peter Cook) was actually a pretty good ruler who reigned for a long time (long enough for his nephew and heir, Richard, Duke of York to grow up and have fully grown children of his own) and was accidentally beheaded by his great-nephew Edmund during the Battle of Bosworth Field when he was mistaken for a horse thief. Most of his reign (and all of Richard IV's) were later Retconned by Henry Tudor to have never happened.
- The Doctor Who audio play "The Kingmaker" featured a ruthless, but fundamentally decent Richard III who sounded suspiciously like Christopher Eccleston.
- Horrible Histories gives Richard a song about how he's a nice guy who was unfairly vilified by Thomas More and William Shakespeare.
- In the miniseries The White Queen, which is based on Philippa Gregory's The Cousins' War Series novels, Richard is played by Aneurin Barnard, who is presented as a loyal supporter of his brother Edward IV, plus a romantic and (mostly) good husband to Anne Neville, the tritagonist of the story. It's notable for being the most sympathetic note and the most attractive note live-action portrayal of Richard. It's also very controversial for including an affair between him and his niece Elizabeth of York in the final episode. Being among the first post-exhumation portrayals of Richard III, the year the series was running (2013) was also the same year the rediscovered remains of Richard III was beyond doubt confirmed to be his.
- The 2016 cycle of The Hollow Crown (which adapted the Minor Tetralogy of Shakespeare below) features Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard IIInote . His portrayal of the king reflected a curious mix of traditional anti-Ricardian iconography and the most recent historical/forensic evidencenote . Furthermore, he does not start off as a cackling villain, and more a son of York hardened, betrayed and embittered by the years—which lends his atrocities and ambition a tragic edge.
- "The Ballad of Richard III" by Gwydion Penderwenn which takes a pro-Richard stance.
- William Shakespeare's Henry VI (Parts II and III) and Richard III. That last one is such a negative portrayal of the King that his name has basically became synonymous with villainy for a few centuries. And yet, the play's deliciously villainous Deadpan Snarker Richard is by far the richest and most interesting character in the play and early on started to be subjected to the Draco in Leather Pants treatment. He's like the Darth Vader of Elizabethan drama, you're supposed to hate him but he's so darn competent and things are so much more exciting when he's onstage.
- The noted American playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote a little-known play called Richard and Anne. In it, the ghost of Richard III interrupts a production of Richard III in order to angst about his everlasting love for his wife Anne. And Henry of Richmond shows up as a vulgar music tutor.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! The Duelists of the Roses, a game loosely based on the War of the Roses, King Richard III goes under the name Richard Slysheen as his appearance is based on Heishen, the Big Bad of Yu-Gi-Oh! Forbidden Memories.
- This crossover parody of Horrible Histories' Richard III song with footage from The White Queen is entertaining because the lyrics fit perfectly with the selected clips.