Ambiguous image of Richard III – Tereza Bodnar [Write Up] 100th POST!

Tonight is the second part of Terezas’ write up about Richard III! If you haven’t read the first one, click here!

Also very note worthy is that this is the 100th blog post on this site! Thank you to Tereza and everyone else for sending your stories, write ups, poems, etc to keep this blog going!

I have much more planned in the future for this site!

Whoever holds the king wins the battle

The case of the princes in the Tower is, needless to say, a great mystery for centuries.

There is no evidence that the princes were murdered – they may have died of natural causes, in short, because of unhealthy conditions in the Tower. The only thing we can do is to judge by motives and possibilities. The main suspects are those who had a claim to the throne and could benefit from the death of the princes. Among them, three may be highlighted – Richard III, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and Henry Tudor.

The fact that Edward V was placed in the Tower on 19 May 1483 has nothing particularly shocking in it, as it was traditional for the monarch to spend some time there before the coronation. It was normally designed for 22 June 1483, but still constantly postponed, until finally, Stillinghton news was revealed, and young Edward’s coronation lost its sense.  The date of 19th of May may signify that Richard did not at the time plane to take the throne himself, secretly intending to overthrow his nephew, – at least, at this time the bigamy of Edward IV was not discovered. That Richard, Duke of York, younger brother of Edward, was conducted into Tower on 16 June (after Stillinghton’s revelation and Hastings’s execution) is yet another thing. Richard III didn’t trust himself to chance. Perhaps, he predicted that Elizabeth Woodville would not be simply silent on such a declaration and will try to use her youngest son against his uncle’s claim. He would rather take such a trump away of her hands. However, Elizabeth posed no opposition to disclaim the invalidity of her marriage.

The princes still remained in the Tower when Richard became king, and the people were coming to see them playing on the walls. After summer 1483 they have disappeared from public sight never to be seen again.

After his coronation on 6 July 1483, Richard set off on royal progress throughout the country. Buckingham joined him in August, but almost immediately left again after they had quarreled. As Richard’s trusted counselor, Buckingham may have been involved in his plan to kill the princes – if Richard had any such plan. But Buckingham had also claim to the throne himself – through Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of Edward III.

Why had the friends quarreled? Was it because Buckingham failed to kill princes on Richard’s order and so provoked his anger; or, even to the contrary, Buckingham told the king that the boys were killed without his knowledge? Or maybe Buckingham feared for his own life seeing the princes’ captivity? The answer is obscure, but what we know is that leaving the king on progress, Buckingham rebelled against him.

By October 1483 he joined forces with Henry Tudor. Was it because Buckingham knew precisely that the princes were dead by this time? Elizabeth Woodville also supported the rebellion, then she too believed that they were no more. The Buckingham-Tudor plot eventually failed. Richard had Buckingham executed on 2 November 1483.

As to the princes, Richard kept utmost silence. They were only once again officially declared illegitimate in Titulus Regius in January 1484. No complaint was made on their untimely death (if the death was natural), neither were their bodies shown nor buried. They just disappeared. No one was blamed.

It was, of course, convenient to say nothing, if Richard really ordered their murder, but why should he do it? If the princes were truly illegitimate there was no use in keeping them locked at the Tower, they presented no danger, as they had no claim. In this case, there was no point in murdering them either. If Buckingham did it, it was also double-edged to accuse him – everybody knew that the Duke was Richard’s closest ally and could hardly do anything without his knowledge. To blame him was to turn suspicion ultimately against the king himself.

What is the most interesting is that Elizabeth Woodville who had no reason to spare Richard also didn’t accuse him of the murder of her sons neither in 1483 nor any time later. When Henry VII reigned it was safe for her to say anything against Richard, and still, she kept silence.

As to the involvement of Henry Tudor in the case, it has a strong motive, but a little possibility to be true. His marriage to Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter, was not only the union of two political equals, romanticized reconciliation of two battling houses. It also had strong practical sense: Elizabeth’s claim was stronger than Henry’s; to marry her was a great political benefit and even vital necessity to maintain Henry’s rule. For this she and her brothers must be legitimate – and these brothers dead, too, so that Elizabeth could be their undisputed heiress. The motive is strong. But the princes are known to disappear somewhere between July and August 1483, and then Henry Tudor was far in Brittany and had no access to them.

There is also one suspect, whose case adds controversy to this story. Certain knight James Tyrrell was in service of Richard III. Soon after Bosworth Henry VII granted him pardon, but in 1502 Tyrrell was tried and executed. It is believed that he had confessed to having murdered the princes on King Richard’s command. No evidence of his confession remains. But Tyrrell was in fact executed for a different thing – the plot of Yorkist pretender Edmund de la Pole. The fact that Queen Elizabeth of York was present at the Tyrrell’s trial may be proof that his case concerned directly her dead brothers, – but it may as well be not. The case of Edmund de la Pole concerned her Yorkist family connections also. Besides, as queen, she could attend whatever she chose.

So, in the story of the princes, there are no direct proofs to say definitely that someone is guilty, instead, we have a universe of theories and speculations which do not end with those mentioned.

Behind the scenes

Among these dramatic events and intriguing mysteries, we seem to forget that Richard had indeed found time to devote to administration and governance. Though his achievements are now often forgotten, they were appreciated by the contemporaries.

It was originally planned to summon the Parliament of king Richard III in November 1483, but the Buckingham’s rebellion prevented it. The Parliament finally gathered in 1484 and sat from 23 January to 20 February. Being the only Parliament summoned by Richard, it nevertheless introduced many reforms intending to benefit common people, and had subsequently major impact on the English law. The king himself had a lively interest in legislation and took an active part in the parliamentary activities.

During this time 18 ‘private’ statutes and 15 ‘public’ were issued. The first group dealt with the consequences of Buckingham’s rebellion. These statutes regulated the confiscation of lands and property of its most notorious participants. The same group included the Titulus Regius, as well, the document of crucial importance as it finally confirmed Richard’s right to the throne, explained the invalidity of Edward V’s rule and highlighted the problems, which this parliament was called to resolve. Colorful description was dedicated to the many crimes, injustices, and evils committed to the people of the country during the reign of Edward IV. Partly, it was said, they were the result of the ‘wicked’ Woodville marriage. Remarkably, Richard referred to the same description in his opening speech to the Parliament. This may look as sheer hypocrisy, as while Richard was Duke of Gloucester and undoubtingly loyal to his brother, it seems, he either overlooked the said corruption and injustice or didn’t try to remedy them somehow. It may be argued, however, that at that time he had no full authority of the king and no immediate access to the doings in the South. Nevertheless, in 1484 Richard III was well intended to bring the things into order.

And he began with energy. The second group of the statutes is very noteworthy. Firstly, bail was granted for those suspect, so that no one could be arrested and their property confiscated until proven guilty. It laid an early example for the presumption of innocence. Secondly, the judges were charged to be unprejudiced and judge without regard to rank and wealth. Thirdly, Richard III limited the power of the crown to collect the notorious and burdensome benevolences carried in by Edward IV. Richard also took care to so establish the procedure of collecting loans that they should be repaid, which was not the case with the benevolences. The loans collected by Richard shortly before the Bosworth were not repaid because of his death.

Richard also had the laws translated from Latin and French into English and they became for the first time accessible to the wider population. The parliament passed statutes regulating land ownership called to enhance transparency in resolving land disputes, very numerous and complicated at the time. The petition-making process was regulated by the establishment of the Court of Requests.

The statutes passed by Richard’s parliament also aimed to protect native merchants from unfair competition. Among these generally protectionist measures one notable exception was made: no limitations were put on the importation of the goods of book-printing industry.

So, there was a weighty reason for this parliament to be called one of the first enlightened parliament.

King Richard bestowed money and lands on institutions including the Queens’ College, Cambridge; he also supported his own religious foundations at Middleham, as well as St George’s Chapel at Windsor. The plans were set for charity establishment at York Minster. In 1484 College of Heralds, or College of Arms, was founded by his royal charter.

King Richard was likewise distinguished for his military skills and personal courage. Discussing in May 1484 with Silesian knight Niclas von Popplau Hungary attacked by the ottomans, Richard said that any such danger he would be willing to face and will eagerly stand to fight for his kingdom without help of other rulers. Such a challenge soon presented itself at Bosworth. And this challenge was accepted by the king more than willingly – even enemies acknowledged his bravery at the battlefield. 

Richard’s devotion to the city of York was remarkable and reciprocal. His brutal death was sincerely lamented by the citizens, as he had been ‘late mercifully reigning upon’ them.

A word for the Tudors

There were always enough volunteers to try and overthrow any present authority in the medieval country, especially when extended royal connections and numerous pretenders were concerned. While not yet the king, pretender seems much more acceptable than the present ruler – Henry Tudor was just the person for the task, whatever flimsy was his claim to the throne. But Henry himself faced the same problem when he became the king. The weakness of his right that was carefully overlooked in 1483-5 now was posed plainly against him. There were several pretenders, supported by the important figures at home and abroad, exactly because of their alleged connection with the Yorks.  With controversial and uneasy Richard in the grave it was easier to uphold the Yorkist cause; with ‘murderous tyrant’ Richard dead Henry eventually found himself a target of rebellions against usurpation. Here comes one important conclusion: even if one was convenient and supported as an heir or pretender, there is no guarantee that he would have the same backing when the crown is finally acquired.

It was essential for the Tudors then to make people believe that the new dynasty was not only rightful (by Henry VII’s ancestry and marriage to the Yorkist heiress) but also a justifying one. Depiction of Richard’s reign as disastrous tyranny confirmed the Tudor rule as a natural and just replacement for the previous corrupt regime. And so it was essential to make it seem so. On the first head, Henry VII ordered to exterminate all copies of the Titulus Regius – a legal affirmation of the previous king’s right.

The principal widely known works on Richard III’s reign were written after his death at Bosworth Field. They were not contemporary, but the fact that because of this they may lack accuracy is not the only problem with them. The greater problem is that in this particular case report which is not contemporary means it is influenced by official policy and needs of those in power. Therefore they should better be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Croyland Chronicle in the part concerning times of Richard was written in 1486 when Henry had already become the king (however, even this chronicle does not accuse Richard of proclaiming his brother bastard).

Dominic Mancini, the only contemporary witness of the events among them, left England somewhere in July 1483. In his work, nevertheless, he relies on second-hand evidence and rumors, for it is not certain that he was fluent in English enough.

Polydore Vergil came to England in 1502 and on Henry VII’s request had written his Anglica Historia. He was critical on Henry VII too, but to Richard III he willingly attributed all kinds of crimes – based on gossip. Hearsay may be reliable or not, but what Vergil actually does is assumption to know exactly what was going on in Richard’s mind, which actions he intended to do and at what time these intentions were formed. In fact, the writer never even seen him. And to rely undoubtingly on gossip, when Vergil confidentially says that Richard ‘thought of nothing but tyranny and cruelty’ is, I think, to overrate the witness.

Thomas More wrote ‘The History of Richard III’ in 1515, it remained unfinished and was not published until 1557. He is said to have communicated with the witnesses of the events to write his work, but what also should be considered is that More in his youth was for some time under the strong influence of John Morton, who could have affected More’s view of Richard’s reign and surrounding events a great deal. It was the very same John Morton whom Richard arrested along with Hastings and others on memorable 13 June 1483, the same one who participated in the Buckingham’s rebellion. Had he much reason to be at least neutral? And under such encouraging circumstances too?

Shakespeare chiefly took after Thomas More’s version of Richard’s history. The Shakespearian character of Richard III whose physical weakness and deformity are fully compensated by his almost boundless cynicism, ambition, and cruelty, seem an apogee of the popular mythological image, sprat over throughout five Tudor reigns. They knew (and accepted) no other Richard, and unconditional adoption of this mythology often prevents us from taking more unbiased view of the story.

More argued that the princes were murdered on Richard’s orders. In Shakespearian version, Richard does not feel himself fully a king while young Edward V lives. For this no other reason is offered than his own greedy character.

I think, the play of William Shakespeare should be taken as exactly what it is – a literary masterpiece, where dramatic exaggerations are acceptable as they make the characters charismatic, the plot intriguing and story in the whole bright for remembrance. But we shouldn’t fully trust it as an accurate record of history, only because it is the most popular.


The reign of Richard III is, perhaps, the richest one of unresolved mysteries and overlooked facts. As long as they remain unresolved, there is a boundless field for interpretation, and it is rather a general tendency to take the darkest view against Richard. His relations with the nobility were controversial and dismal. His ascendance to the throne was out-of-order. He got rid of the innocent children (read: murdered them). He had an inner (mostly cruel) motive for each action. This is how the story is generally told, and it is pitifully unjust in its oversimplification. And Richard’s loyal service to his brother, his personal courage and skills, his achievements and reforms are properly forgotten.

The Tudor myth had, therefore, enough of material to be developed upon. Henry VII was apt to transform them into something very alike to accusations. He may be understood, as the survival of his own dynasty was at a stake. What we absolutely shouldn’t do is to view everything in black and white; to demonize anyone or otherwise overly idealize one at the expense of the other.  It would be unfair to diminish Henry VII’s merits and achievements, but is it fair to understate Richard’s?

Richard III’s alleged crimes always appear in a complex – if we do not doubt such or such accusation against him, it is because we believe him generally capable of it, because we are told that he had already done many bad things besides. But if we view each accusation in separation plus consider complicated human and rank relations of the time, as well as requirements of the state, everything turns out not that simple. It is well worth to disengage initially biased dark and repulsive image of this king to see in fact a very different man – less tyrannical and much more gifted than we were prepared to expect.

Naturally, like anyone, Richard had his faults, but, in any case, his achievements deserve a better fate than obscurity. His activities as legislator prove that he believed in rights and better justice, but Richard also knew the importance of taking hard and sometimes unpopular actions to ensure theory into practice. However, one person’s fate depends, of course, not only on his own will, but on many and many other complex circumstances.

It is easy to take Shakespearian Richard’s word for when he plainly confesses that he had murdered almost half of the Plantagenets, but to the historical figure, I think, we can do more justice, or, at least, try not to accuse where guilt is not proven.

Used sources & Further reading

Doing this modest research, I came across many fascinating and worthy articles, and would like to recommend several as particularly interesting:

1484 – Titulus Regius: Fact or fiction?

Dominic Mancini and ‘The usurpation of Richard III’

Even by Tudor and Stuart Standards, Edward IV’s Marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was Invalid

History Of Richard III By Thomas More

Inside the mind of Richard III

Law and Lawyers

Polydore Vergil And Historia Anglia

Richard III: his parliament and government

‘The tenth coin’ Richard III’s Parliament and public statutes

Usurpation, Murder and More

Was Edward IV Illegitimate?: The case for the defence

Was Richard III a good king or a bad king, and what do we mean by that?

I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

2 thoughts on “Ambiguous image of Richard III – Tereza Bodnar [Write Up] 100th POST!

  1. Great article and I enjoyed the read.

    In my opinion, Richard III’s silence on the princes is often misconstrued as an admission of guilt for their murder more often than not. However I have a different view. I think if RIII was a murderous tyrant he would have had no problem in showing the boys dead, children or not. I also don’t really buy the argument that children were sacred to medieval kings and queens, mainly because so many died in sieges, etc. The only reason these two boys might have caused outrage at their murder is because they had status.

    Anyway it was standard practice to show the body once a king was overthrown since Richard II since there should be no question of a pretender emerging if it is clear that the old king is dead. Plus it shows that a tyrant has no fear of the population or the nobles. I.e. E-IV showed H-VI who was about as childlike and feeble as the boys. I believe E-IV was actually a tyrant covered in congeniality and ruling with a smile and parties during his second reign. All the while ordering Richard and others to do his dirtier work, but that is for a post on my own blog at some point.

    It is possible R-III feared reprisal and even guilt for their deaths if they were dead. However if he was actually guilty of so many of the crimes attributed to him (and he could be ruthless as all kings or those charged with the status he was given under E-IV have to be) without conscious why wouldn’t he show them? He was however responsible for their disappearance whether he knew of it or not as he was the King and he had been protector of the realm and the boys. It is my opinion that this is where he might see his guilt.

  2. As with Part 1, this write-up on Richard III and the times he lived in gives much information, balancing one idea with an opposing view which gives the reader the chance to consider both sides. It is unlikely that the full truth about Richard III’s life and actions will ever be known but he has probably be more maligned than he deserved, after all there is good and bad in everyone and certainly Richard’s bravery in his earlier life and his attempt, as king, to bring rights and justice to his subjects have to classed in the “Good” category. The mystery of the Princes fate continues to this day and while it is almost certain that they died in the Tower of London, how and when has never been discovered and with no reliable written evidence, no positive conclusion can be drawn.

    Both parts of this article make very interesting reading and I look forward to more of your historical insights, Tereza,

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