Good or Evil? Let us talk rather of shades of grey, for that is what all real people are made up of. And what is often forgotten is that, just like you and I, King Richard III was a real person, a man of his times, yes, but a man with hopes and dreams, with fears and disasters that made him who he was. The recent discovery of his grave has kindled the spark of interest in England’s most maligned monarch but it is fascinating that this spark was still there, following only two years as king and over 500 years after his brutal death. Scrape at the surface of this king’s story and the façade thrown up by Tudor writers, reaching its apex with Shakespeare’s epic portrayal of evil and ambition untamed by morality, crumbles like a brittle mask.
The list of crimes of which Shakespeare has made generations believe Richard is guilty is long and fascinating. I watched The Real White Queen on BBC, presented by Philippa Gregory to accompany The White Queen series, with anticipation. Would some of the glaring factual errors be explained and put right? Nope. The section in episode two on Richard III began promisingly from the perspective of those keen for a re-evaluation of his reputation with an assertion that he didn’t kill the Princes in the Tower, then descended into latching onto the strangest rumour about his reign, expanding it and representing it as fact.
So how easily can we debunk the crimes of King Richard III? The first thing to consider is that the source material is limited and open to interpretation. John Rous, a chronicler of the Neville family, wrote the Rous Roll in 1485, describing Richard in glowing terms during his reign. He was a ‘good lord’, praised for punishing ‘oppressors of the commons’. Immediately after Henry Tudor came to power Rous, clearly frightened for his own position, wrote his Historia Regum Angliae, suddenly presenting Richard as a monster who spent two years in his mother’s womb and was born with a full set of teeth and shoulder length hair. Very unlikely, but it demonstrates the necessarily fickle nature of the material available. I imagine Rous in a panicked fluster trying to round up copies of the Rous Roll in the wake of Bosworth and deciding to write his later piece when he couldn’t account for all of the manuscripts that he knew existed. The primary source for most of this period is Polydore Vergil, a man hired by Henry VII to write his personal history and therefore necessarily partisan.
Shakespeare’s account, though ingrained in the popular consciousness as the true Richard, is flawed. Perhaps its greatest achievement is telling us that a lie is the truth until we all believed it. It is also possible that Shakespeare didn’t mean us to see King Richard III in his play, but that is another story.
So to the crimes. A court of criminal law requires proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil law measures guilt on the balance of probability. Can Richard be convicted of any of the crimes of which he is accused by either of these yardsticks? Let us see.
Though out of chronological order, we will look first at the issue surrounding Elizabeth of York, since The Real White Queen has brought it once more to the fore. When Richard’s wife died on 16th March 1485, a rumour arose that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth also happened to be the woman Henry Tudor had vowed to marry should he take the throne, a clear play for the support of disaffected Edwardian Yorkists. Apparently on the advice of Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir William Catesby, Richard issued a public declaration that he did not intend to marry his niece. He spoke before the mayor and aldermen of London and wrote to others of his disgust at the malicious rumour. Public denial does little to establish guilt or innocence, yet this is odd for a man silent about the fate of his nephews.
A guilty conscience? Perhaps. Yet it ignores the fact that Richard opened negotiations to marry Joana of Portugal, an arrangement that was to include Elizabeth’s marriage into the Portuguese royal family to the king’s cousin Manuel, Duke of Beja at the same time. This was not simply a random, convenient match. Richard was attempting to play Henry at his own game. Philippa, a daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and sister of Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had married into the Portuguese royal family and the blood of Lancaster flowed strongly there. Stronger and more legitimately than it did in the veins of Henry Tudor. Richard was seeking to attract Lancastrian support just as Henry looked to draw disaffected Yorkists to his cause by unifying the feuding Houses.
It also disregards another vital fact. Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate by Parliament along with her brothers. She would hardly have been a suitable match for a king. Henry VII was to ensure that this obstacle was officially removed before he would marry her, so how could Richard, the man who had put the obstacle in place, overlook it? It seems doubtful that a Papal dispensation would ever have been granted for such a close blood relationship. It would certainly have been required, yet was never sought.
Why would this rumour surface from nowhere? It is possible, in a repeat of the misinterpretation of Henry II’s desire to be rid of the troublesome Thomas Beckett, that Richard exclaimed his desire to have Elizabeth of York married to rid himself of the threat of Henry Tudor marrying her. This frustrated aspiration could have been misread as the king proclaiming a desire to marry her himself, or it could have been seized upon by his enemies as a mark of the lack of support he suffered from and of the propaganda tactics employed by the Tudors throughout their time in power. To muddy the waters further, Henry Tudor was so uncertain as to Richard’s intentions that he apparently sought an alternative match with Katherine Herbert, sister of William, Earl of Huntingdon, a staunch Yorkist in whose father’s care Henry had spent some time, risking the loss of Woodville support. This may be a symptom of the lack of certain information reaching Tudor in exile, but it confirms that at least the rumour was all too real.
In The Real White Queen, it was asserted that Richard had an affair with Elizabeth, but there is absolutely no evidence for this beyond rumour and Richard’s refuting of the rumour. Indeed, an extra-marital affair seems deeply unlikely whether the rumours of impending marriage were true or not. It was also claimed that part of the reason Henry VII delayed marrying Elizabeth was to ensure that she was not pregnant by Richard. Henry was crowned on 30th October 1485, just over two months after his victory at Bosworth. He married Elizabeth on 18th January 1486 and had her crowned on 25th November that year. Elizabeth’s Yorkist support had helped to propel Henry to the throne and his delay demonstrated his desire to rule in his own right as a descendant of Edward III, through his mother’s line to Edward’s son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He could not tolerate accusations that he held power by virtue of his wife’s Yorkist blood. Beyond even this, a Papal dispensation was sought for the marriage because of the blood relationship between them and the couple had to wait or this dispensation to be granted and to arrive.
I do not believe that any crime was committed in this case. I cannot accept that Richard ever intended to marry or had an affair with his own niece, an illegitimate daughter of a woman he may have considered an enemy. It might have crossed his mind in a darker moment as a way to prevent anyone else, including Henry Tudor, from marrying her, but his solution appears to have been to seek a marriage for her into a foreign royal family. This seems a far more reasonable, suitable and effective solution. A criminal court would throw this out for lack of evidence. Even at the time none seemed certain what was happening and in the end, nothing did come of it. On the balance of probability? I do not think that Richard could be convicted by this measure either. His actions bear witness to his solution to the problem that the rumours sprang up around. I suspect that the rumours and the public announcement were a measure of just how far Richard’s grip on power had slipped by this point; how desperate a widowed, childless king struggling to galvanise support had become.