The “Crimes” of Richard III – Myth vs Fact

Myth 1 – Richard was a hunchback, with a withered arm

Myth 2 – Richard murdered Edward, Lancastrian Prince of Wales

Myth 3 – Richard murdered the deposed King, Henry VI

Myth 4 – Richard contrived the execution of his brother, George, Duke of Clarence

Myth 5 – Richard forced Anne Neville into marriage and poisoned her

Myth 6 – Richard, without just cause, usurped the throne from his nephew, Edward V

Myth 7 – Richard was a cruel tyrant

Myth – Richard was a hunchback with a withered arm

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them

William Shakespeare, Richard III (Act I, scene i, ll. 18-23)

This dramatic portrait painted by Shakespeare influences many people’s image of Richard III. Shakespeare’s sources were chroniclers writing in the time of Henry VII & Henry VIII who naturally were hostile to Richard to justify the new administration. Shakespeare presumably also wanted to reinforce the medieval moral concept that an evil mind must dwell in a twisted body.

When reading the comments made by eyewitnesses, or when examining portraits of King Richard, a rather different picture emerges. The Society of Antiquaries owns an early copy of a portrait originally painted during Richard’s lifetime, which show him with no sign of a physical deformity. Later portraits, also from the lost originals, and painted to fit in with the established myth, show greatly uneven shoulders and a villainous countenance.

The infamous portrait of Richard from the royal collection in Windsor castle, owes its deformed shoulder to a later alteration. Also, the lips had been thinned and the eyes narrowed — as X-ray examination revealed.

None of the contemporary sources remark upon any deformity. Since the discovery of his remains in Leicester in 2015, we now know that he had scoliosis, with a spine that curved sideways. A good tailor would have disguised the uneven shoulders that resulted from this curvature. Even the hostile witnesses agree on Richard’s bravery and prowess in battle, so the disability was not enough to affect his use of weapons or the control of his horse.

Never has so much spirit or greater virtue reigned in such a small body”

Archibald Whitelaw, Scottish envoy to the English court (1484)

“…three fingers taller than myself, …also much slimmer; he had delicate arms and legs, also a great heart”

Nicolas von Poppelau, Silesian visitor to Richard’s court (May 1484)

Myth – Richard murdered Edward, Lancastrian Prince of Wales

Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabbed in my angry mood at Tewkesbury…

(Act I, scene ii, ll. 240-241)

The earliest “crime” attributed to Richard III is the murder of Edward, the last Lancastrian Prince of Wales, on the battlefield of Tewkesbury on May 4th 1471.

The first reference to Richard’s involvement is found in the Tudor history, Anglica Historia (1534) by Polydore Vergil, which states that Edward was “crewelly murderyd” by the Duke of Clarence, Lord Hastings and the Duke of Gloucester.

It is in the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, first published in 1577, that Richard of Gloucester alone is accused of the murder of Edward. Holinshed’s Chronicles was the standard history text of England, and Shakespeare made extensive use of it as source material for his plays. Shakespeare developed the crime for dramatic purposes as the first in a series of pre-meditated murders that paved the Shakespearean Richard’s path to the throne.

Neither of these sources was written concurrently with events or from first-hand knowledge.

However, two major and nine minor contemporary sources which refer to the battle at Tewkesbury (including Dr. John Warkworth, Master St. Peter’s College, Cambridge), all state or imply that Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales was “slain on the field”.

Myth – Richard murdered the deposed King, Henry VI

…for I did kill King Henry…

(Act I, scene ii, l. 179)

“(Richard) slew with his own hands King Henry VI, being prisoner in the Tower, as men constantly say, and that without commandment or knowledge of the King (Edward IV), who would undoubtedly, if he had intended that thing, have appointed that butcherly office to some other than his own born brother.”

Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard III

Henry VI died in the Tower on May 21st 1471, the day that Edward IV returned to London after his victory at the battle of Tewkesbury, which was the final defeat for the Lancastrian cause.

Richard, as Constable of England, was in Edward’s entourage, and lodged at the Tower on that day. No contemporary accounts attribute the death of Henry VI to him.

“He had yielded to a pitiable death, by the order of Edward, who was then king of England”

English Petition (1494) to Pope Alexander VI,
for removal of Henry’s body to Westminster Abbey

It is now accepted that Henry VI was probably murdered in the Tower on the orders of Edward IV as a matter of political expediency.

Myth – Richard contrived the execution of his brother, George, Duke of Clarence

I’ll in, to urge his (Edward IV’s) hatred more to Clarence
With lies well steeled with weighty arguments;
And, if I fail not in my deep intent
Clarence hath not another day to live:

(Act I, scene i, ll. 147-150)

The execution of George, Duke of Clarence for treason was authorized by his brother, King Edward IV and his council after a trial by the peerage. There are no contemporary sources implicating Richard.

Clarence had been in dispute with Edward IV for some time over a variety of matters, challenging Edward’s authority as king, disputing his legitimacy, and even taking arms against the king in 1470/71. In 1478 events finally came to a head when Clarence took the king’s justice into his own hands and executed two of his own servants, suggesting they had been agents of the king and responsible for poisoning his wife and child. Clarence was arrested, charged with treason, tried and sentenced to death.

” for then was to be witnessed a sad strife carried on before these two bretheren of such high estate. For not a single person uttered a word against the duke except the king; not one individual made answer to the king except the duke…Parliament, being of opinion that the informations which they had heard were established, passed sentence upon him of condemnation, the same being pronounced by the mouth of Henry, Duke of Buckingham.”

Croyland Chronicle

His execution by drowning in a butt of malmsey wine is another enduring myth, for the Croyland Chronicle goes on to state that “..the execution, whatever form it took, was carried out secretly in the Tower of London.”

Historians today do not doubt that George, Duke of Clarence was judicially executed by Edward IV for treason, and not as a result of nefarious plots concocted by the Duke of Gloucester.

Myth – Richard forced Anne Neville into marriage and poisoned her

…I’ll have her but I will not keep her long.

(Act I, scene ii, l. 230)

Polydore Vergil openly suggested that Richard rid himself of Anne. He has Richard causing “a rumour…to be spread abroad of the queen his wife’s death…” A short while later, Anne “…whether she was dispatched with sorrowfulness, or poison, died…”

Richard would have known Anne Neville from the days during the early 1460’s when he was under tutelage to the Earl of Warwick, Anne’s father. While romantics like to think they were childhood sweethearts, marrying for love, marriages in the 15th century were first and foremost business arrangements. Anne was co-heiress of one of the country’s greatest landowners, the other heiress being Anne’s sister, Isabel, married to George, Duke of Clarence. It is evident George and Richard argued bitterly over the division of land, wealth and power.

However, it is possible to speculate that their marriage was successful. There is no hint of scandal or mistresses. Richard’s two acknowledged illegitimate children were both born before his marriage. And, as reported in the Croyland Chronicle, upon the death of their only child, Edward of Middleham, “you might have seen the father and mother, after hearing the news…almost out of their minds when faced with the sudden grief.”

Edward was the only live child resulting from their 12 years of the marriage.  If Richard had wanted to take a new wife in order to beget another heir, he did not need to murder Anne.  The couple were cousins restricted from marriage by the laws of consanguinity, and a dispensation from the Pope was required to allow them to legally marry.  Richard failed to acquire that necessary dispensation before their marriage.  If he wanted out of the marriage, he had only to claim that it was technically invalid, and he would be free to marry again.

Anne apparently suffered from some debilitating disease–possibly tuberculosis. The Croyland Chronicle remarked that doctors had advised Richard to stay away from Anne’s chambers, to avoid the contagion.

Of the accusation that Richard poisoned Anne, there is no contemporary evidence. Richard’s enemies spread such rumours after Anne died, and alleged that Richard intended to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. This latter slander Richard publicly denied.

Myth – Richard, without just cause, usurped the throne from his nephew, Edward V

There; at your meet’st advantage of the time,
Infer the bastardy of Edward’s children.
Tell them how Edward put to death a citizen
Only for saying he would make his son
Heir to the Crown…

(Act III, scene v, ll.74 -78)

It is agreed that Edward IV specified that Richard was to be Protector of the realm in the event of a minority. The initial period following Edward’s death suggests that Queen Elizabeth and her supporters were aiming to crown 12-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales, allowing Elizabeth to act as Regent, before Richard could assume the role of Protector. The fact that he received no official word informing him of his brother’s death and his legal right to be Protector, must have raised some suspicion in Richard’s mind about the Queen’s motives.

However, Richard’s behaviour once he had secured the person of Edward V and had arrived in London was exemplary. A date was set for the coronation of Edward V and writs and warrants were issued in the king’s name. Summonses were sent for a parliament to meet after the coronation. Richard had the support of the council and there is no reason to suspect at this stage that anything other than the coronation and reign of Edward V would take place.

The situation changed dramatically around June 11th, when Richard sent to the City of York for soldiers to assist him against “the Queen’s blood adherents and affinities”. His suspicions of a plot against him resulted in the arrest and execution of Lord Hastings on June 13th.

It is believed that, at this time, the pre-contract came to be a major factor in the course of events. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Stillington, revealed that he had witnessed the betrothal of Edward IV to Lady Eleanor Butler in 1462. In Church law, this arrangement was as binding as a marriage – and this immediately invalidated the later 1464 marriage between Edward and Elizabeth Woodville. Although Lady Eleanor had died in 1468, Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage was never ratified. Consequently, all the children of that marriage were illegitimate and ineligible to inherit the throne.

Richard was petitioned by the Lords and Commons to accept the throne, and the parliament of January 1484 followed up by passing an act of settlement called Titulus Regius:

“…we consider that (in) the reign of King Edward IV, late deceased, after the ungracious pretended marriage…made between King Edward and Elizabeth, sometime wife to Sir John Grey, late naming herself Queen of England, the order of all politic rule was perverted…(Also) we consider that (this) pretended marriage (was) made of great presumption, without the knowledge or assent of the lords of this land…(The) pretended marriage was made privately and secretly, without the issuing of banns, in a private chamber, a profane place…(At) the time of contract of the same pretended marriage, and before and long time after, King Edward was and stood married and troth-pledged to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom King Edward has made a precontract of marriage, a long time before he made the pretended marriage…(It) appears and follows evidently that King Edward (and) Elizabeth lived together sinfully and damnably in adultery (and) that all the issue and children of King Edward are bastards unable to inherit or claim anything by inheritance… Moreover … George Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward (was) convicted and attainted of high treason, by reason whereof all (his) issue…was and is disabled and debarred of all right and claim…they might have…to the crown and royal dignity of this realm…Beyond this, we consider that you are the undoubted son and heir of Richard late Duke of York, truly inheritor to the crown and dignity royal…”

Rolls of Parliament: Act settling the crown on Richard III and his descendants 1484

Richard’s coronation on July 6th 1483 was very well attended. This fact alone might lead us to conjecture that Richard had considerable support amongst the nobility and City of London.

His motives will always be a matter of controversy and debate, failing the discovery of further contemporary evidence. Most modern historians however, agree that after years of civil war over the throne of England, the nobility and commons were more disposed to accept a strong, experienced and proven adult leader than to fight for a minority kingship under the control of the Woodville party.

Myth – Richard was a cruel tyrant

“…I am determined to prove a villain”

(Act I, scene i, l.30)

“The most mighty Prince Richard … all avarice set aside ruled his subjects in his realm full commendably, punishing offenders of his laws, specially extortioners and oppressors of his commons, and cherishing those that were virtuous, by the which discreet guiding he got great thanks of God and love of all his subjects, rich and poor, and great praise of the people of all other lands about him”.

John Rous (1411 – 1491), The Rous Roll

Richard’s many endowments indicated he was a man of Renaissance tastes; a patron of literature, music, architecture and education. He financed the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge University, and secured licenses to found many more collegiate churches. He is also responsible for the founding of the College of Arms, which, for the first time, recorded and issued the heraldic coat of arms and family antecedents of all the nobility in the kingdom – a medieval Office of Vital Statistics.

He was a keen student of law, and insisted on equality before the law and justice without delay. He formally created the institution of the Court of Request, whose duty it was to hear the “bills, requests and supplications of poor persons.” He extended the rule of bail for prisoners awaiting trial, while prohibiting the seizure of their property before they had been judged by due process of law. He outlawed benevolences (the practice of extorting money by the king from his nobles), and successfully reorganized the system of governmental finance.

He even broke with tradition and recited his coronation vows in English instead of Latin, so his loyalty and duty to the country could be understood by all.

Richard was also considered very pious–almost Puritanical–as evident by his distaste for the licentiousness of his brother Edward and his adherents, and his insistence that Edward’s mistress, Jane Shore, do public penance for harlotry.

“He contents the people wherever he goes better than ever did any prince; for many a poor man that has suffered wrong many days has been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given to him which he has refused. On my faith I never liked the qualities of any princes as well as his; God has sent him to us for the welfare of us all”.

Thomas Langton, Bishop of St. David’s (August 1483)