Questions about …
The responses to these questions have been written by members of the Society's research committee and other members and represent their opinions and views. In a Society with several thousand members it is not possible to represent all the views of all the members but it is hoped that the following provides a balanced response to some of the controversies surrounding King Richard.
More in-depth answers to some of the questions can be found under the Richard III section of the website.
Questions about The Society
Richard's Alleged Misdeeds
- Wasn't Richard unpopular from the very beginning of his reign?
Any succession by a king displacing the anticipated heir is followed by unrest as was the case with Edward IV and Henry VII as well as King Richard. However, his royal progress, following the coronation, was successful.
- Wasn't there an uprising a few months after he became king?
Yes, the loyalty felt by some towards the late king and his son led to an uprising which took place in the autumn of 1483 and which was quickly and successfully suppressed.
- Did Richard kill Edward of Lancaster (the Prince of Wales), Henry VI and the Duke of Clarence?
No. There is no contemporary evidence to support any claim that Richard murdered these people. He may have been present in the Tower on the night of Henry VI's death but it is generally accepted today that the responsibility for the demise of the late king rested solely with King Edward. Contemporary sources state that Edward of Lancaster died in battle at Tewkesbury and suggestions of Richard's involvement only emerge in the Tudor period. The duke of Clarence was privately executed following the successful passing of the Bill of Attainder against him in a parliament assembled for this purposes by King Edward. It was judicial murder and the responsibility lay with Edward IV, not Richard. There is no evidence that Richard was in any way involved in Clarence's death.
- Didn't Richard seize the young king Edward V, imprison and eventually execute his supporters?
Richard was reacting to a volatile and uncertain situation. Everyone had his own agenda in April 1483. As the king's royal uncle and the potential Lord Protector, Richard had every right to escort the king to London, and he was sufficiently alarmed by the Woodvilles' haste in preparing to crown Edward V and suspicious of Earl Rivers in moving the king on to Stony Stratford prior to his meeting with Richard in Northampton that he pre-empted any further action by the king's maternal relatives and arrested them.
- Wasn't this 'tyrannical'?
In due course Rivers, Vaughan and Grey were executed and whilst this can be viewed as an arbitrary action by Richard these were harsh times and he was doubtless conscious of the precedent of the late earl of Warwick in cutting down his enemies swiftly. Under pressure, perhaps Richard decided to follow this course of action for minimum bloodshed.
- What is the truth about the execution of Lord Hastings?
It was a time of great political tension with many changes of allegiances and much jockeying for power. Hastings loyalty was solely to the young king. He was also no doubt concerned at the rising influence of the duke of Buckingham which could have led to a reduction in his own status. Once Hastings learned that Richard may have had ambitions towards the crown – perhaps because he was sounded out or because he already knew of the complications of the pre-contract between King Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler or he came to believe Richard was determined to be king – Hastings would have taken action and by default Richard became his enemy.
Richard accused Hastings of plotting against him and wrote letters asking for assistance. Whilst this is usually dismissed as insufficient evidence of conspiracy, Richard's actions after Hastings' execution – further arrests and the implementation of a thorough investigation – indicates that Richard believed in the complicity of Hastings in a plot against him.
- How can you defend Richard III’s accession to the throne? Wasn’t he a usurper?
Historians have a wide variety of explanations for Richard III’s accession.
It is wrong to call Richard III a usurper because we simply do not have sufficient evidence to be certain of exactly what prompted him to assume the throne. Naturally this lack of evidence has led to a variety of theories.
Many would argue that we should accept the explanation that was presented in parliament in 1484. That is: shortly after Edward IV's death, Richard learned that Edward had made a secret marriage to a certain Eleanor Butler, prior to marrying Elizabeth Woodville. Consequently, Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was invalid and their children were illegitimate. Edward V could not inherit the throne. (The precise case in canon law is complex but readers interested in this should consult Helmholz's article in Richard III: Loyalty, Lordship and Law). In this situation, Richard had a legal and moral obligation to take the throne himself and was certainly not a usurper.
Edward IV's reputation makes the account of a secret marriage to Eleanor Butler very plausible, but, in the absence of any corroborating evidence, many remain sceptical. Some historians argue that the story of a prior marriage was a pragmatic invention. In the summer of 1483 there must have been considerable anxiety in the political community at the prospect of another child king: the reigns of Richard II and Henry VI had ended disastrously. There was also concern that Edward V would be too much influenced by his relatively low-born maternal kinsmen, the Woodvilles. It is quite possible that Richard III was persuaded to take the throne in order to provide the kingdom with a more secure and stable monarchy. A large number of lords and notables who had gathered in London for Edward V’s first parliament drew up a petition asking Richard to assume the throne. It is helpful to compare the lords’ decision to despatch this petition to Richard in 1483 with parliament’s refusal to accept Richard’s father’s claim to be king 23 years earlier. Powerful and determined lords could not usually force their will upon the political community without resorting to battle.
Of the eighteen English kings between the death of Edward the Confessor and the accession of Richard III, exactly half took the throne in similarly contentious circumstances. Some are remembered as conquerors or tyrants, others as liberators, but only Richard III is still habitually called a usurper. That is how it suited the Tudors, and later moralising historians, to consider him. We cannot truly know what the legality of his accession was, but it is illogical to judge him more harshly than we do so many other medieval kings.
- Who killed the princes?
After more than five hundred years the fate of the so-called Princes in the Tower remains an unsolved mystery. Nobody knows for certain whether they were murdered, disappeared, or even survived. Richard has been accused of ordering their deaths even though there is no direct evidence to convict him. Similarly the duke of Buckingham, Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort, and the duke of Norfolk have also been suspected of committing the crime, but once again there is no direct evidence to convict them.
The truth of the matter is that we are no closer to discovering what really happened to the princes than we were in 1483 when they first disappeared from view. But following Richard's death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 Tudor propagandists turned this uncertainty into a definite murder and laid it firmly at Richard's door. Since then Richard has become established as an unprincipled usurper of the throne and a ruthless killer of defenceless children. Although there is not enough surviving evidence to prove that a murder actually took place, English history has by and large deemed that Richard remains guilty until proven innocent.
- Weren't there rumours about the murder of the princes by Richard circulating during his reign?
These rumours were circulating mainly on the continent and were possibly supplied by exiles from England. Dominic Mancini, in his account written shortly after leaving England in July 1483, recorded that there was concern for the princes but other domestic sources were all written after Richard's death. Rumours, however, do not make a fact.
- Did Richard kill his wife?
No, it is fairly certain she died from tuberculosis. As there was an eclipse of the sun on the day she died this was taken as an ill omen.
- Was Richard a tyrant?
What is a 'tyrant'? To the ancient Greeks it simply meant a sole ruler who had come by power unconstitutionally, and did not necessarily imply bad rule. Nowadays we interpret the word as 'someone who rules cruelly and arbitrarily'. A tyrant sets his cruel whims above the law, or changes the law at whim, and is obeyed because people are too frightened to defy him.
How was a tyrant defined in Richard's day? Sir John Fortescue, the Chief Justice of the King's Bench in the reign of Henry VI, who accompanied Margaret of Anjou and her son Edward of Lancaster into exile in 1463 and returned with them in 1471 to defeat at the battle of Tewkesbury, was pardoned by Edward IV and spent his last years (the early 1470s) writing a treatise 'On the Governance of England'. In it he says '... it mey appere that ... it was bettir to the peple to be ruled politekely and roialy, than to be ruled only roialy. ...What Nembroth [Nimrod] be myght for his owne glorie made and incorperate the first realme, and subdued it to hymself bi tyrannye, he wolde not have it governyd bi any other rule or lawe, but bi his owne wille .. and therfore ... holy scripture disdeyned to call hym a kynge ... but [he] oppressyd the peple bi myght, and therfore he was a tirraunt.'
Some people may have perceived Richard as acting tyrannically when he disinherited Edward V, whom many saw as the rightful heir of the previous king, and executed some of his adherents. Also, in the aftermath of Buckingham's Rebellion, Richard, through necessity, replaced the local magnates in the south with northerners to fill the vacuum and this could perhaps have been seen as tyrannical, in the sense that it was arbitrary.
Richard, however, cannot be judged as king in isolation from his earlier career and from 1471 until 1483 he acquired a reputation as being a fair administrator in the north where disputants were prepared to let him judge their cases.
- Why is Shakespeare's play so popular?
It's superbly written with wonderful speeches. It's a very good yarn. The characterisation of Richard is so compelling. He is the archetypal 'trickster', an anti-hero whom we should hate but we can't. Baddies are always so much more interesting than goodies. He invites the audience to join with him in his career to the throne and confides in them, inviting them to be complicit in his villainy. He is such an out-and-out villain that audiences find themselves fascinated by him, despite his crimes. But his 'determination to prove a villain' belongs to the realms of psychology rather than history.
We should bear in mind that the play is the culmination of a hundred years of propaganda against the last Plantagenet king and the playwright used the character created by Sir Thomas More who was one of the earliest exponents of the 'Tudor myth' about the life and character of Richard.
- What were the Wars of the Roses really about?
The Wars of the Roses was a civil conflict that consisted of four 'miniature wars'. The first was the Yorkists v. the Crown (1455-1461) and was a reaction to royal favouritism which became a power struggle fuelled by the weak kingship of Henry VI and was settled by Edward, Duke of York taking the crown and defeating his enemies at Towton. The second was the rebellion by King Edward's kinsman and former supporter, the earl of Warwick, who had become 'over-mighty', and his alliance with the Lancastrians. The conflict concluded in 1471 with the defeat of Warwick and the Lancastrians at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury respectively. The third phase of the wars was the reaction to the 'usurpation' by King Richard and culminated in the invasion of England by the exiled Henry Tudor whose army defeated and killed the king at Bosworth. The final chapter concerned the opposition to Henry VII, leading to the battle of Stoke in 1487. Although this was the final battle, hostilities continued into the 1490s with the activities of the pretender known as Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be the younger of the two Princes.
- What were Richard's laws?
Richard had the law translated from Latin and French into English. This new translation was then published and displayed in public areas so that all his subjects would be able to understand the laws and statutes that governed them.
Richard created the system of bail to protect suspected offenders from imprisonment before trial. In medieval times not all cases came to trial so this saved suspects from being imprisoned indefinitely. Richard also made it illegal to seize a man's property until conviction of the crime of which he stood accused.
Richard ensured that only men of good character and owners of property could serve on a jury. Before this bribery and corruption were rife in the jury system. He also strengthened an earlier act to correct dishonest officials at courts that arose during markets and fairs that required quick and reliable justice for itinerants and traders.
Richard introduced published title to property so that unprincipled sellers of land would be unable to sell the same property several times to unsuspecting buyers.
- What else did Richard do?
Richard instigated what would become known as the 'Court of Requests' by making himself accessible to the poor who could not afford legal representation. He also instructed his judges to dispense justice without regard to a person's wealth and power, or position in society.
Richard was the first king to speak his coronation oath in English. Before him it was in Latin. Richard wanted his people to understand what he was swearing to.
Richard was the first king to lead his people in prayer. This took place in 1483 at York Minster during Richard's royal progress.
Richard standardised the system of weights and measures to protect consumers' rights and also lifted the restrictions on printing and book sales.
Richard founded the College of Arms.
- Why did Richard lose Bosworth?
This is not a particularly well documented battle and it is difficult to know anything for certain. It appeared that Richard had superior forces but he lost control of the battle in its early stage due to the good generalship of the earl of Oxford. This set-back probably helped Thomas and William Stanley, both notorious trimmers, finally to make their decision as to which side to support and Richard's charge towards Henry Tudor afforded the latter the opportunity to cut down King Richard and his entourage.
- Did Henry Tudor have a good claim to the throne?
No. He was the grandson of an illegitimate son of a younger son of Edward III, and his family had been disbarred from the throne by an Act of Henry IV. However, he prudently took the throne by right of conquest.
- How did Tudor become the heir of the House of Lancaster?
Henry Tudor combined his claim as a descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, with affinity to the late Henry VI (his grandmother was King Henry's mother). Tudor's mother, Margaret Beaufort and presently wife to Thomas Lord Stanley, was an ambitious and powerful woman who saw an advantage with the bastardisation of the Princes to promote the interests of her son.
- Why is 1485 regarded as a watershed - the end of the Middle Ages?
Although of Plantagenet descent, Henry VII is regarded as the founder of a new dynasty by historians. The Middle Ages is a term introduced by a 19th century historian, which in this context should perhaps be forgotten. Henry VII's reign is perceived as a new era when in reality it was just a continuation of the old Yorkist and Lancastrian kingship.
- Was Edward IV illegitimate?
The story of Edward IV's alleged bastardy surfaced in 1469 during the defection of the earl of Warwick and the duke of Clarence. Dominic Mancini reports of the duchess of York's horror on learning that King Edward had married Elizabeth Woodville and that she declared him illegitimate:
Even his mother fell into such a frenzy, that she offered to submit to a public enquiry, and asserted that Edward was not the offspring of her husband the duke of York, but was conceived in adultery, and therefore in nowise worthy of the honour of kingship.
At this time, Cecily and Edward's relationship deteriorated considerably. Cecily was sent to the relative poverty of Berkhamsted Castle and also joined Warwick and Clarence to initiate the forbidden Clarence/ Isobel marriage. The behaviour of Clarence after this time and to his death in 1478 has also never been adequately explained unless he was convinced, by then, of his legitimate right as king.
The recent theory put forward by Dr Michael K Jones in support of Edward's illegitimacy is a compelling one. The timing of Edward's conception against the date of his birth and the whereabouts of the duke at that time is interesting but, as today, early births were not uncommon. And, although unlikely, there is no evidence to suggest that the Duchess Cecily did not visit her husband whilst he was on active service. However, the extreme contrast between the christenings of Edward (1442) and Edmund (1443) in Rouen is strongly suggestive and raises many difficult questions. Edward's christening was a very private, low key event, while Edmund's was very public and full of grandeur. Jones also cites two (Yorkist) sources which assert, in suspicious and overly apologetic detail, Edward's conception at Hatfield in England (which would give Cecily a pregnancy of 11+ months) and his 'conception in wedlock'.
The characters of both Richard of York and his wife need also to be taken into consideration. On the one hand, the duke was a proud man, well aware of his lineage and claim to the throne. If he had suspected that Edward was a bastard, it seems inconceivable to many that he would have tolerated this child, and yet it appears that York enjoyed a good relationship with Edward and they worked as a team to promote the interests of the House of York. The duchess was known as 'Proud Cis' and it has to be asked whether she would have sufficiently forgotten her status as to take an archer as a lover. Her attitude to her son's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville testifies to her sensibilities with regard to rank and position. However, it must also be noted that Richard Duke of York had no affinity; only two sisters with no powerful brothers to support him. In this respect, he was wholly dependent upon the most formidable affinity in England – that of his wife's. Cecily brought with her the mighty Neville's, her fierce and vigorous brothers. Would the duke have risked this affinity by rejecting Cecily and her bastard? Might this have given Cecily a powerful footing in their relationship, one that would allow, and make amends for, an indiscretion?
In Titulus Regius, King Richard did stress his own legitimacy but whether this was to reinforce the illegitimacy of Edward V and his brother, the Duke of York, or the illegitimacy of King Edward IV is open to interpretation.
Finally, we must take into account the crucial and much ignored Cromwell source from the reign of Henry VIII. A story had reached the ears of the Imperial Ambassador of Spain, Chapuys, that, in mid-1483, Duchess Cecily of York made a statement before witnesses to the effect that the late King Edward IV was a bastard and not the son of the late Duke of York. Thomas Cromwell was asked by Chapuys whether the story was true and Cromwell replied in the affirmative, adding that Richard III had forced her to do it.
- Could the late earl of Loudoun have been the real king of England?
No. Henry Tudor took the throne of England in 1485 through right of conquest and his descendants have been the de facto kings and queens of England ever since.
The purported claim of the late Earl, through his descent from George, Duke of Clarence is invalid due to the attainder of the Duke. Attainders can be reversed but only by a duly elected parliament called by the Sovereign.
- Was Richard deformed?
No surviving source from Richard’s lifetime refers to any remarkable physical features, although there are various indications that his short stature was noted. As early as 1486 the Warwickshire antiquary John Rous wrote that Richard was ‘small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower’ (BL Cotton Vespasian A XII – this can be viewed at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/john-rous-history-of-the-kings-of-england The words ‘left’ and ‘right’ were added into gaps in the manuscript at a later date, suggesting that Rous had to check this out).
When Richard’s skeleton was discovered the spine had a pronounced curve. According to osteologists, this is evidence of adolescent onset scoliosis which ‘may have meant that his right shoulder was noticeably higher than his left’. This curve would also account for his shorter stature. More evidence about his spine can be found at http://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/science/spine.html. Useful information about scoliosis can be found at http://www.sauk.org.uk/scoliosis-information/what-is-scoliosis and http://www.sauk.org.uk/types-of-scoliosis/idiopathic-scoliosis.
When a person with scoliosis bends forward a part of their back may appear particularly prominent. This has given rise to suggestions that it was the sight of the king’s naked body thrown over a horse after the battle of Bosworth that led to the first rumours of a ‘hunchback’.
While Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III is famous for equating physical ‘deformity’ with moral depravity, recent scholarly studies have emphasised the fact that there were many different responses to such physical conditions in the middle ages. They were by no means universally assumed to be a sign of wickedness or incompetence. A useful introduction to this with further reading can be found at http://research.jyu.fi/jargonia/artikkelit/jargonia21_kuuliala.pdf.
- Why go in search of Richard's grave?
The search for Richard’s grave was essentially two searches in one. The Looking for Richard Project, instigated and conceived by Society member, Philippa Langley, set out to discover Richard’s lost grave, whilst also searching for the historical Richard III. Richard was one of only a handful of British monarchs who had no known resting place. It therefore seemed right to locate him, and give him an honourable reburial, particularly as part of the proposed search area was up for sale and threatened by redevelopment. Thanks to the work of many Tudor writers and, of course, Shakespeare’s play, Richard III has become one of our most controversial monarchs. Therefore, the opportunity to identify Richard’s remains via his recently discovered mtDNA sequence and to shed new light on the historical Richard on UK television seemed particularly appropriate in the nationally important year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee.
- Why were Richard’s remains described as 'hunchbacked' at the grave site?
When the remains were uncovered it was clear that the spine was curved. In addition, the head was upright with the chin resting on one shoulder. It therefore appeared that he might have had kyphosis (a curvature of the spine that causes the top of the back to appear more rounded than normal). However, when the remains were analysed, it was discovered that the spine exhibited a sideways curve (scoliosis) and that the grave had been cut too short for the body. The head had been pushed forward when the body was lowered into the grave. On 29 May 2014, the University of Leicester published its findings in The Lancet confirming that Richard was not ‘hunchbacked’ but that the sideways curvature was ‘well-balanced’ so that his head and neck were straight.
- How can we be sure that the facial reconstruction is how Richard really looked?
Prof Caroline Wilkinson, at the University of Dundee, is one of the country's leading anthropologists and experts in craniofacial identification. She has been undertaking facial reconstruction work for almost 20 years. The reconstruction begins with an extremely detailed, and intricate, 3D CT scan of the skull. The reconstruction follows a process based on the anatomy of the head and neck, where anatomical standards are used to interpret the skeletal structure and predict facial features. The skull and muscle structure are directly related to each other and the proportions of the skull determine the proportions of the face. Tissue depth data from living individuals is used to predict the amount of fat and skin over and above the muscle structure.
The finished head is replicated in plastic by a process known as stereolithography and after this the hair and eyes are added. At this point, Caroline and her team would have researched the portraits of Richard to get an idea of the colour of the skin, hair and eyes, and the style of the hair.
The facial reconstruction process has been blind tested at the University of Dundee using living people, CT scans and facial photographs, and the accuracy tested using recognition levels and anthropometry. These blind tests suggest that the reconstruction should be recognisable and facial features such as the nose and eyes have high levels of reliability. This is why we can be sure that the face is the most likely depiction of Richard III based on the available material.