Richard III, villain or victim? Shakespeare Theatre and acclaimed book paint different pictures

The death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, from an 18th-century illustration. Image: Wikipedia.org
The death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, from an 18th-century illustration. Image: Wikipedia.org
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By Peggy Carroll

Richard of Gloucester.

You know him. He was the monster, the malformed hunchback, the evil husband and uncle who killed his wife, imprisoned and then murdered his young nephews, a usurper who stole the throne of England.

Right?

Well, that’s how Shakespeare painted him. If you go to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey  production of the bard’s Richard III ( it opens Oct. 5, 2016), that’s what you’ll see.

But like all good stories, this one has other versions.

Villain or victim?  Richard III, whose bones were discovered under a parking lot in 2015.
Villain or victim? Richard III, whose bones were discovered under a parking lot in 2015.

Since 1924, for example, the Richard III Society has been working to remove the tarnish on Richard’s reputation. Members say he has been maligned, libeled, slandered and treated with total disrespect and that he should be known, really, as “good King Richard.”

You can find their pro-Richard arguments in one easy-to-read volume. The bible of Richard’s supporters is, curiously, a detective story.

It was the last work of mystery writer Josephine Tey, a book she called Daughter of Time. It is title taken from an old adage: “Truth is the daughter of time.”

It is a fine book. In 1995, the book was rated number four among the top 100 mystery novels of all time by the Mystery Writers of America.

It is also a very different kind of mystery. Tey uses her detective hero, Alan Grant, the hero of several of her previous works, to sort through the alleged crimes of Richard.

Here’s the Plot.

Grant is confined to the hospital with a broken leg and in an era when there were no televisions in hospital rooms and certainly no iPads, he is bored to tears. An actress friend, knowing how the detective prides himself on reading a person’s character simply by looking at his face, brings him a sheaf of prints from London’s National Portrait Gallery.

And they play a game.

What do you think of this person, she asks, showing him a print without revealing who it is. And when Grant examines the portrait of Richard, he describes him as gentle and kind and wise.

daughter of timeEven when he learns who it is, he refuses to believe he was wrong How could anyone believe this man was a murderer? How could he be wrong?

From his hospital bed, he launches an investigation, using then-modern police techniques and enlisting friends, colleagues and researchers to join him in the hunt.

In his search, Grant discovers a basic flaw of history: That some events are accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence and/or any logical plausibility. It depends, he found, on who controls the history.

He concludes that Richard was the victim of Tudor propaganda. Not only did the spoils of war go to the victorious Tudors, but their version of history.

Propaganda?

Here’s some of his reasoning:

The story of Richard as villain originated largely with a book by Sir Thomas More, who was a chancellor to King Henry VIII.

True, they later disagreed – fatally. When he refused to accept Henry as head of the English church, More was accused of treason and was beheaded. He  later was named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

But while More worked for the king, he also worked on a History of King Richard III, which was published after his death. Historians say the book is notable more for its literary skill than for its historical accuracy. In it, More paints Richard as a notorious tyrant.

Grant believed that Thomas, whom he sarcastically called the “sainted More,” was justifying why Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty and father of Henry VIII, had seized the throne of England, wrested from Richard in the War of the Roses. This was the civil war between the Yorks and Lancasters. (Richard was a York; Henry VII had ties to the Lancasters.)

By making Richard a villain, he was making Henry VII a hero. He had freed England from a monster; he was the rightful king.

But actually, according to historians, Henry VII didn’t have great legitimacy.

His main claim to the English throne came from his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III, and his third wife Katherine Swynford.

Katherine was Gaunt’s mistress for about 25 years; when they married in 1396, they already had four children, including Henry’s great-grandfather John Beaufort. (Got all that?)

So Henry’s claim was rather weak. It stemmed, heaven forbid, from a woman, and by illegitimate descent. In theory, it’s been said, the Portuguese and Castilian royal families had a better claim.

The second person who vilified Richard was, of course, Shakespeare. The Bard was not averse to borrowing material, as long as it was a good story, and he nicely used his verbal alchemy to turn these borrowings into gold. His source for this play was Thomas More.

Remember that Shakespeare  hardly was going to write anything that smeared the Tudors. His monarch was Queen Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII and daughter of Henry VIII. There was a good chance that she might see this play. (And remember what happened to Mary Queen of Scots.)

And the real and true story of what happened to Richard was hardly a credit to the Tudors.

A SHOW OF DISRESPECT

Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field on Aug. 22, 1485 – the last real battle of the civil war.

The death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, from an 18th-century illustration. Image: Wikipedia.org
The death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, from an 18th-century illustration. Image: Wikipedia.org

He lost his horse, an event immortalized in Shakespeare’s play. Even those who have never seen it know the line: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.”

He died at the age of 32.

Even in death, he was treated with disrespect. His body was stripped naked, thrown over a horse and taken to Leicester where it was put on public display. It then was buried in a crude grave in the church of the Greyfriars Friary in Leicester.

Following the friary’s dissolution in 1536 (that’s when Henry VIII was busy suppressing Catholic monasteries) and subsequent demolition, Richard’s tomb was lost.

For this king of England, there was no tomb in Westminster Abbey or even a tombstone in a country church yard.

FIVE CENTURIES LATER

Through the years, Richard’s whereabouts were a matter of mystery and speculation.
There were claims that his bones had been thrown into the river Soar – but there were others who believed they knew another likely place.

In 1975, the Richard III Society published an article suggesting his remains were buried – under the Leicester City Council’s car park.

It made some kind of sense. That was where the old friary was thought to be located.

In this century, interest in finding the missing king gained new supporters. The search for Richard took on steam with what was called the “Looking for Richard, The Search for a King” project.

It was a joint undertaking, supported by the Leicester City Council, Leicester Promotions, the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, Darlow Smithson Productions (responsible for a TV show) and the Richard III Society which paid some of the initial costs.

So the archeologists plotted out a likely burial site and, admitting it was a long shot, zeroed in on that same city parking lot. Then they began excavation.

They were, as the Brits say, “spot on.” On the very first day of digging in September 2012, they found a human skeleton. It belonged to a man in his 30s and showed signs of severe injuries. It also had several unusual physical features, most notably a severe curvature of the back.

Examination showed that the man had probably been killed either by a blow from a large bladed weapon, probably a halberd, which cut off the back of his skull and exposed the brain, or by a sword thrust that penetrated all the way through the brain. Other wounds on the skeleton had probably occurred after death as “humiliation injuries,” inflicted as a form of belated revenge.

The age of the bones at death matched that of Richard when he was killed and they were in line with the physical descriptions of the king.

Then came that modern miracle for confirming identity, one not available to Josephine Tey and her detective: DNA.

Scientists extracted DNA from the skeleton and matched in with two matrilineal descendants, one 17th-generation and the other 19th-generation, of Richard’s sister Anne of York. (How’s that for genealogical research!)

On Feb. 13, 2013, the University of Leicester announced “beyond reasonable doubt” this was Richard’s skeleton.

FROM CAR PARK TO CATHEDRAL

There were those who wanted Richard’s bones placed with other kings at Westminster Abbey, or at least in York Minster. He was a York, after all. But the city of Leicester, in giving permission to dig up the parking lot, added a condition: If the bones were found, they would be required in Leicester Cathedral.

Benedict Cumberbatch at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2014. Photo by Ibsan73.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: Will he ever play his royal ancestor? Benedict Cumberbatch at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2014. Photo by Ibsan73.

So, interment took place in Leicester on March 26, 2015, this time with pomp and ceremony. It was a televised service held in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and senior members of other Christian denominations. Richard, it should be noted, was not a member of the Church of England. It did not exist until Henry VIII.

Among the notables were Sophie, Countess of Wessex, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Among the celebrities: Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relation of the king.

During the service, the Right Rev. Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said: “People have come in their thousands from around the world to this place of honor, not to judge or condemn but to stand humble and reverent.

“From car park to cathedral. Today we come to give this King and these mortal remains the dignity and honor denied to them in death.”

So, how do we rate Richard? Good king or bad king? Monster or martyr?

Judge for yourself. Go see the play, it is a powerful piece of drama.

And read Daughter of Time. It is a powerful piece of advocacy.

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