Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 20 September 2012

King Dickie lies buried in a hole...

 I'm not evil, alright? It's just a squint.

 …probably. The discovery of a medieval skeleton in the remains of the Choir of Greyfriars church has inspired a lot of excitement in recent days, for the bones could well be those of King Richard III, one of the most controversial figures in English history.

It almost seems too good to be true, but it certainly sounds like our man: Richard, as every schoolboy knows (or did, before they discovered the pleasures of happy slapping and crack cocaine) was said to be deformed, and was very definitely killed in battle against the ragtag army of the Welsh usurper, Henry Tudor, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The man found under a council car park near a ring road in Leicester has an arrow-head in his back, pronounced scoliois or curvature of the spine, and a mangled skull:

Just to be sure, a DNA test is now being conducted, with the bones being tested against the DNA of Richard’s living descendents, which will take about three months to complete:

Whether or not the bones really are those of Richard III, what is undeniable is the emotional response from many quarters to his possible discovery. Despite being over 600 years dead, Richard has a great many fans and admirers, often termed ‘Ricardians’, and there is even a Richard III Society dedicated to cleaning up his rather murky historical reputation. Since the discovery of the bones journalists have been lining up to say nice things about the man and his brief reign, such as this, um, interesting piece in The Telegraph calling for a state funeral and comparing Richard favourably to ‘bloodthirsty maniacs’ such as Edward I and Henry VIII:

Whatever is finally done with Richard’s remains – assuming they are his – it would be nice to think that his discovery and burial will lead to a more balanced assessment of a man who was neither hero nor villain, toad-like hunchback monster or maligned hero-king. It’s difficult to attempt a balanced picture of such a complex and divisive figure in a few glib paragraphs, but I’ll give it a try.  

King Richard III was memorably vilified by Shakespeare as a matchless villain who intimated his evil thoughts to the audience and slaughtered his way to the throne, mowing down Edward of Lancaster, Henry VI, his brother George, Duke of Clarence, William Lord Hastings, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers…and of course, his two nephews, the famous ‘princes in the Tower’, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York.

Of this rather impressive list of victims, Richard certainly had Hastings killed in a shocking and illegal fashion, and Anthony Woodville and his nephew Richard Grey were both seized and executed on Richard’s orders. There is no direct evidence that he had a hand in the deaths of most of the others, and none at all that he murdered the princes.

Various arguments and justifications have been put forward justifying Richard’s apparently ruthless and self-serving behaviour leading to his seizure of power in 1483. The pulse-quickening joys of contemporary documents such as Titulus Regius and the Stillington Precontract are often wheeled out in Richard’s defence as part of explanations for his actions, and in 1984 he was even granted a televised trial for his alleged murder of the princes (verdict: Not Guilty). It has also been pointed out that up until 1483 he was a model subject, absolutely loyal to his brother Edward IV, and never showed any signs – unlike his grasping brother Clarence – of harbouring treacherous ambitions.

The man does not lack for defenders, then, but in this blog’s view none of it is enough to wipe his slate clean. The principal charge against Richard’s reputation, the murder of his nephews, may never be proved conclusively one way or the other, but at the time of their disappearance from public view in 1483 he had the prime motive and opportunity to be their assassin. Other suspects have been put forward – principally the Duke of Buckingham and Henry Tudor – but none, to my mind, are convincing.

Whether or not Richard was capable of ordering the deaths of innocents depends on your reading of the man. He was raised during The Wars of the Roses, during which time much of England’s baronage wiped each other out in an orgy of battlefield deaths and drumhead executions. Richard’s own father was killed in battle, and from an early age he was used to violent death and bloodshed: at the age of just 17, he took part in the treason trials of Henry Courtenay and Lord Hungerford, and at 18 he fought at the Battle of Tewkesbury, where the last Lancastrian army was defeated and butchered with a cruelty typical of the age. Thus Richard grew up in an atmosphere of murderous realpolitik and bloodstained paranoia, where a man learned to act in ruthless and predatory fashion if he wanted to survive.

Above all, Richard learned the importance of striking quickly at those that threatened him, hence his actions in 1483. Remarkably little sympathy is wasted on those that definitely did fall victim to Richard, and some effort has been made to justify his actions by portraying them in a negative light: Lord Hastings, for instance, in reality one of the most loyal and capable supporters of the Yorkist regime, has been depicted in fiction as a murderous paedophile. The fact that Richard’s thugs dragged Hastings out of a council chamber and hacked his head off, without waiting for even the semblance of a trial, is made much more palatable if Hastings can be vilified.

In the end, propaganda works both ways. Richard suffered from it for many centuries, and now it seems that some of those who wish to recast him as a tragic hero are prepared to exercise it on his behalf. The grim and unexciting reality is that Richard III was a competent, ruthless aristocrat, typical of his class and time, who got greedy and paid for it on a bloody August day in 1485.

Rest in pieces, Your Highness…


  1. Brilliantly put David. As you know I like Richard and strangely enough, after listening to both sides of the arguments lately feel that the vehement support of some of the overzealous Ricardians who behave quite incomprehensibly defensive of the man should give up the ghost. Richard was as you say, a man of his time. He made some terrible judgements even for the time and his repuation paid for it for awhile, but to suddenly do a u-turn and turn him into a saint is totally ludicrous, dare I say it. As a re-enactor and interested foremost in the military skills of kings and historical persons, he excelled at warfare but he was also a competent administrator who may have ruled efficiently, but ruthlessly if he had lived.
    As you said, he paid for his mistakes on that bloody day in 1485 and I hope he is resting in peace

    1. Amen, Paula! 'Terrible judgments' is about right. He blundered.

  2. Hi David!

    I would like to thank you (but I do not know how to express my gratitude) for recommending Henry's blog on FB. Don't ask me how I have learned about your most kind and generous gesture. I have my ways ;-) We- I mean Henry and I- are both happy and honoured.
    If you would like to post a text on our blog, we would be happy to welcome you in our Lesser Land :-)

    Oh, and the text about Richard III is brilliant. I appreciate your balanced view :-) Wish I could be less partial to King Dickie :-) and his elder brother.

    Thank you again,


  3. Hi Kasia,

    No problem - your blog is excellent. In just five minutes of reading it my knowledge of Henry the Young King tripled!

    Thank you for the offer of a guest post on your blog, I may well take you up on it ;)

    Now come on, take the plunge and join the Facebook army! :))


  4. Hi David,

    I admit, I'm reconsidering :-) I just need to think it over :-)