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The Slandered King

Some facts about history's original "wicked uncle."

by Melissa Snell

He was the youngest son of a Duke and staunchly loyal to his family. He was an able administrator and a general at age eighteen. He was his brother the king's right arm and peacemaker. He succeeded to the throne through lawful means and ruled wisely. His parliament was noted for reforms.

He was plotted against and betrayed, killed in battle, stripped, mutilated, flung over a horse and sent through the battlefield where his troops lay dying. Long after his death he was blamed for the murder of his own nephews, who may have outlived him, and of his brother George, whose execution he protested.

He was Richard III of England, the most slandered king in history.

For centuries his name has stood for murder of the foulest kind. Yet there is no proof whatsoever of his guilt, and, when the rumor and biased testimony of those who benefited from his ruin are stripped away, no motive for murder remains. But how difficult it is to see the truth with any clarity, when for five hundred years nearly every text on the subject was taken from the tainted evidence of Sir Thomas More.

Why tainted? Many consider More the contemporary authority on Richard III -- his biography of Richard has been the basis for dozens of historical texts on the subject. But More was a child (no older than eight) when Richard was killed. His information is of necessity second-hand, and it came from John Morton -- an ambitious clergyman who plotted against Richard III and became Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VII. If you read More's account (and I do suggest you at least peruse it), take note of the terms "weene" "deme" and "thought" and how they are used to qualify unsubstantiated allegations. Also, after you read More, look at your old history books again and see how closely they follow this discredited work.

The truth about Richard's physical deformities (or, more precisely, his lack of them) has become generally-accepted as fact: He had no club foot and no withered arm, although one shoulder may have been slightly higher than the other, possibly from overworking his sword-arm in his youth. But the controversy over his guilt rages to this day. Members of the Richard III Society support his innocence. Two mock trials were held -- the first in October, 1996, the second in June, 1997 -- and were presided over by Chief Justice Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court. These trials, while informative and fascinating, are nonetheless inconclusive. Richard is acquitted not on any evidence of his innocence but on a lack of evidence of his guilt. However, such is the case in any American criminal trial, where the burden of proof so rightly rests with the prosecution.

I would like to offer these facts as evidence for Richard's innocence.

  1. It is clear from contemporary records that both boys were still alive after Richard was crowned. It was the revelation that their parents' marriage was not valid and that the boys were thus illegitimate that changed the course of events and put Richard on the throne. Therefore, he did not kill them to gain the crown.

  2. Nor did he murder to secure the crown; for if he felt that his position was threatened, the rival to kill would have been his nephew by his late brother George, the young earl of Warwick. Young Warwick had a closer claim to the throne than the illegitimate princes. Richard most certainly did not kill Warwick (who was shut up in the tower by Henry VII) but instead formally made him his heir when his own son died.

  3. Richard was a man of reason and family loyalty, and he had no reasonable motive for killing two children who not only posed little political threat but whom he very likely loved as he loved all his family. However, there were others who sought the throne who would not have seen the princes as dear little children but as political obstacles (as was Richard himself). The two most likely suspects -- but by no means the only suspects -- are Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, and Henry Tudor, the victor at the battle of Bosworth, who became King Henry VII.

    1. Henry Stafford raised a rebellion to put Henry Tudor on the throne. He was convicted of treason, and he was executed on November 2, 1483. Were the princes still alive when Buckingham was executed? If not, was it Buckingham who removed these obstacles to Tudor's quest for the throne?

    2. Henry VII had the law that declared the children illegitimate repealed, then married Elizabeth, the now-legitimate eldest sister of the princes, to strengthen his claim to the newly-won throne. However, repealing Titulus Regius made the princes (if they were still alive) legitimate again, as well, and legally next in line to the throne -- before Henry. Throughout his reign, Henry systematically eliminated through imprisonment, confinement to convent or judicial murder every surviving member of the York clan. Was he also responsible for the death of the princes?

Who is the murderer and usurper? To help you decide, I recommend the following (the links take you to mySimon, where you can compare prices across the web):

Richard III
by Paul Murray Kendall
A factual account of Richard's life -- not altogether unbiased, but full of verified facts and reasonable conclusions.

The history of King Richard III
by George Buck
The first revision of Tudor history concerning Richard, published in 1619.

Richard III: England's Black Legend
by Desmond Seward
A vehemently anti-Richard account that nevertheless manages to provide useful facts.

Richard III: A Medieval Kingship
edited by John Gillingham
Seven different views on Richard's life and reign by scholars in the field.

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey
Fictional characters try to solve an ancient mystery and thus examine the facts about Richard in an entertaining and enlightening fashion. This book may also make you think about approaches to history and how to uncover historical truth.

The Tragedy of King Richard III
by William Shakespeare
The bard took many (possibly all) of the rumors of Richard and made him into a fascinating monster. Keep in mind, however, that he was writing during the reign of Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII. Not accurate history, but oh, what a play!

Be sure to check out The On-line Bookshelf at the Richard III Society. Here you will find an extensive listing of on-line texts from various centuries, including contemporary accounts from Edward IV's reign. All in the public domain.

The more I find out about Richard, the greater grows my respect for this extraordinary man. In a time of uncertainty, when ruthlessness was the surest route to power, he put loyalty above everything except his conscience and did what was right for his people. He was repaid with treason (which was the last word he spoke) and with an undeserved reputation that has lasted 500 years.

Yet one item speaks to the truth from those long-gone days. After the battle of Bosworth, when the future was uncertain in the promise of a new regime, the people of York recorded in their public records: "This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of this city." What kind of man inspires such loyalty and causes such sorrow with his passing?

A medieval monarch I can't help but admire.

The Slandered King is copyright © 1997-2003 Melissa Snell. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal or classroom use only, provided that the URL below is included. For reprint permission, please contact Melissa Snell.

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