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 Henry IV, 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 in the south 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 or may not 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. 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 responding to a volatile situation and the circumstances surrounding this have been widely debated. There were many conflicting interests at play in the summer of 1483. In particular, Edward IV’s close friend, William Lord Hastings, resented the power and influence of the Woodvilles (the family of Edward V’s mother), as did the duke of Buckingham (a kinsman of the royal family who had had very little influence in Edward IV’s reign). Those who had formed Edward IV’s council (including Hastings and some of the Woodvilles) met after his death. After some argument they agreed to follow the precedent of earlier English royal minorities: they would establish a council led by the king’s uncle as Protector to govern for Edward V. The council summoned Edward V to travel from Ludlow with his guardian, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and they fixed a date for the coronation as soon as possible.
According to Mancini (who was writing late in 1483), Hastings wrote to Richard and presented the council’s decision as an insult to Richard who could have been chosen as Regent (a more powerful role based on French practice) and who had no input into deciding when the coronation should occur. In council, Hastings suggested that the young king’s escort be restricted in number to prevent the Woodvilles from assuming control of Edward V. Queen Elizabeth agreed to this restriction in an attempt to reduce the friction. Prior to 1483, there is no evidence of animosity between Richard himself and the Woodvilles.
Consequently, Richard’s arrest of earl Rivers, Rivers’s nephew Richard Grey, and Thomas Vaughan took everyone by surprise. Our only sources were composed in hindsight, after Richard III’s accession, so it is impossible to be sure of his motives. Richard recorded that they were planning an ambush. Many historians argue that in reality Richard was motivated by concerns that the Woodvilles would be able to influence the young king more than he himself would. Buckingham’s role in these events is intriguing, especially since his animosity towards the Woodvilles seems to have originated prior to 1483.
As Protector designate, it was entirely appropriate for Richard to be the one who escorted Edward V into London. Hastings publicly expressed his delight at the arrest of Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. However, at a council meeting on 13 June it was announced that Hastings himself had been plotting with the archbishop of York and the bishop of Ely. The clerics were imprisoned while Hastings was executed on the spot. Rivers, Grey and Vaughan were probably tried by the earl of Northumberland and were executed on 25 June.
- What is the truth about the execution of Lord Hastings?
This remains one of the enduring mysteries of the summer of 1483. What we do know is that on 10 June Richard wrote to the city of York asking for help against the queen and her adherents. Hastings was not mentioned, and he could not really be described as one of Elizabeth’s adherents. Presumably it was shortly afterwards that something happened which brought Hastings under suspicion. Hastings’s principal loyalty was to the young Edward V and he may have expressed alarm on hearing rumours that the legality of Edward IV’s marriage was being questioned. Or possibly he resented Buckingham’s meteoric rise in influence and sought to oppose this. According to Mancini, Buckingham reported to Richard that Hastings was meeting secretly with the archbishop of York and the bishop of Ely; on 13 June Buckingham then led his soldiers to the Tower to seize and execute Hastings. This was reported to be on Richard’s orders. The Crowland Continuator (writing c. 1486) gives very little detail on this but later Tudor chroniclers asserted that it was Richard who entered the council chamber to accuse Hastings of plotting treason and whose men seized and executed him. It might be that these later chroniclers were better informed than Mancini if their source was the bishop of Ely. However, on 21 June 1483 a letter writer mentioned that all of Hastings’ men had joined Buckingham’s affinity. This may support Mancini’s impression that Buckingham was central to Hastings’s downfall. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know exactly what happened, or what people’s motivations were.
- Was Richard III's accession legal?
We do not have sufficient evidence to be certain of exactly what prompted Richard to assume the throne. Naturally this lack of evidence has led to a variety of theories.
One approach is to 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. Lords and commoners who had gathered in London for Edward V’s parliament consequently brought a petition to Richard asking him to accept the throne which he did as Edward IV’s legitimate heir. This was subsequently ratified in parliament the following year.
Others argue that the story of a prior marriage was a pragmatic invention, either because the political community were anxious about the prospect of another child king or because events in the early summer of 1483 led Richard to fear for his own survival. It is quite possible that Richard was persuaded to take the throne in order to provide the kingdom with a more secure and stable monarchy that could control the rivalries among lords. It is helpful to compare the lords’ decision to petition Richard to take the throne 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.
It is important to remember that direct inheritance was more an ideal than a reality in the middle ages: 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. It is illogical to judge Richard III 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, escaped, were secretly moved abroad, died of sickness as children or lived into adulthood in captivity (all these possibilities have been suggested). 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, the duke of Norfolk and the earl of Oxford 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 Mancini recorded that they had disappeared from view. Some early rumours implicated Richard and/or Buckingham but Henry VII avoided making an explicit public accusation and made no recorded effort to discover any bodies for respectable reburial. Later Tudor writers turned uncertainty into a definite murder and laid it firmly at Richard's door. Ever since, 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?
Dominic Mancini, an Italian visitor to England in June 1483, wrote his account of events that December (while in France). He described Edward V and concluded: I have seen many men burst forth into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight; and already there was a suspicion that he had been done away with. Whether, however, he has been done away with, and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered. Other Continental reports also mentioned rumours that Richard or the duke of Buckingham were thought to be responsible for the boys’ deaths. Sources for the rebellion in the autumn of 1483 similarly imply that many believed the princes to be dead since men previously loyal to Edward IV were prepared to support ‘a new king’ (ie not Edward V) in place of Richard III (but our only records of specific allegations in this context were written after Richard’s death). Such rumours commonly circulated in similar circumstances (eg false rumours that Henry VI’s queen had been murdered by Edward IV). They do not actually prove that the princes were dead or who was responsible.
- Did Richard kill his wife?
No she died from an illness lasting at least two months (this may have been tuberculosis). As there was an eclipse of the sun on the day she died this was taken as an ill omen.
- 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 is a name used by modern historians to describe a variety of conflicts during the fifteenth century, usually perceived as four 'miniature wars', in which local politics often played as much of a role as national politics and which was far more complex than simple opposition between the houses of York and Lancaster. Fifteenth-century propaganda generally portrayed the origin of all conflict as Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne in 1399, but historians usually argue that in reality the conflict that broke out in 1455 had much more immediate origins. The first ‘war’ saw Richard duke of York, his sons, and their principal Neville kinsmen opposing the duke of Somerset and eventually the Crown (1455-1461). It was a reaction to royal favouritism and the weak kingship of Henry VI. It was settled by Edward duke of York taking the crown as Edward IV and defeating his enemies at Towton.
The second (1469-71) comprised three rebellions by Edward IV's kinsman and former supporter, Richard Neville earl of Warwick and the king’s brother George duke of Clarence who both desired greater power. Only when their initial rebellions failed did they resort to an alliance with the Lancastrians which briefly reinstated Henry VI. The conflict concluded with the defeat of Warwick and the Lancastrians at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury respectively.
The third phase of the wars (1483-5) was the reaction to Richard III’s accession. It originated with a 1483 rebellion by former supporters of Edward IV. After their defeat, they allied with a descendant (via an illegitimate line) of the dukes of Lancaster, Henry Tudor. This culminated in Tudor invading England: his army defeated and killed Richard III at Bosworth. Tudor married Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth, and his use of rose imagery to celebrate his alliance with her family inspired the modern name for the conflict.
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 in the tower’.
- What laws did Richard enact?
In his single parliament, Richard extended the system of bail, enabling justices of the peace to grant immediate bail to persons arrested on suspicion of all types of crimes: in the Middle Ages not all cases came to trial so this protected 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; until that time, the normal practice had been to seize the goods of the accused at the time of arrest.
In an attempt to stamp out bribery and corruption in the jury system, Richard decreed that only men of good character and owners of property could serve on a jury.
He also strengthened an earlier act to prevent the officials in charge of occasional courts, that were held to try offences arising from fairs and markets, from abusing their position in order ‘to trouble those to whom they bear ill will’.
Richard took steps towards regulating the increasingly complicated system of land tenure, legislating to prevent the concealment of rival titles to the land in order to protect purchasers against subsequent claims from third parties. He also abolished the Crown's absolute right to seize the lands and bodies of child heirs because it was to the 'great hurt and thraldom [enslavement] of his subjects'.
Another lucrative practice of Edward IV’s that Richard outlawed for the benefit of his subjects was that of raising revenue for the Crown by means of ‘benevolences’ or forced gifts.
- Why did Richard lose Bosworth?
This is not a particularly well documented battle and it is difficult to know anything for certain. It appears 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. 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 and married Edward IV’s eldest daughter whom many believed now had the greatest right to the throne.
- 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). The more legitimate and superior lines from John of Gaunt had married into foreign royalty so were less attractive potential monarchs.
- Why is 1485 regarded as a watershed - the end of the Middle Ages?
Across Europe, the end of the fifteenth century is seen as a turning point in history because of the impact of the Renaissance and the Reformation, as well as new political structures and technical advancements (eg printing). In practice the shift lasted centuries but, since the Enlightenment, historians have found this a convenient division for study. In England the idea of that turning point has been focussed on 1485 because Henry VII is regarded as the founder of a new dynasty – he was the first king who was not descended from Henry II (d. 1189) in a direct male line.
- Was Edward IV illegitimate?
Almost certainly not. Allegations of illegitimacy were routine in medieval political propaganda. The earl of Warwick seems to have been the originator of this slander in 1469 (and was very probably also the source of the same slander against Edward of Lancaster a decade earlier). It has been argued that Edward’s parents were not together at the time of his conception – Cecily was in Rouen and Richard duke of York was in Pontoise – but evidence for this has never been clearly published and even if York was based in Pontoise he could have returned briefly to Rouen during the appropriate time, or Edward could have been born two weeks before term. When Edward was only three, Charles VII was seriously considering arranging for Edward to marry one of his own daughters. This would have been inconceivable if there had been any doubts about the child’s legitimacy at that time. Mancini believed that Cecily duchess of York had herself made the assertion in her anger at the news of Edward IV’s marriage (twenty years before his visit), but none of the many records of responses to the marriage in 1464 make any mention of this. Chapuys’s claim, during Henry VIII’s reign, that Richard III had forced his mother to declare that Edward IV was illegitimate belongs to the same school of anti-Ricardian propaganda as Polydore Vergil’s assertion that Richard claimed the throne by claiming Edward IV was a bastard rather than Edward V. No surviving document originating from Richard himself suggests that Edward IV was illegitimate.
- 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 sealed it by marriage to Elizabeth of York. 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.