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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Who was the "real" Richard III?

Born October 2, 1452 to Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, Richard was the youngest of seven surviving siblings and grew up with his brother George and sister Margaret at Fotheringhay Castle in Northampshire. He resembled his father’s side of the family, and was short, sickly with dark hair, the very opposite of his strong, good-looking brothers. While Richard may have had some sort of slight physical difference in his shoulders, his hunchback appears to have been a literary addition. Richard’s youth was marked by the tumultuous wars between York and Lancaster, and he was exposed to the gruesome horrors of battle surrounding his father’s campaign for power. He spent part of his childhood fleeing his father’s enemies with his mother and siblings, exiled to Burgundy, before witnessing his triumphant brother Edward take the crown. Within a few months, the nine-year-old Richard became Duke of Gloucester.

Richard joined Warwick’s household at age nine where he received his noble education. He was a “[student] of modern developments in warfare” with excellent military training and experience in battle (Hicks 21). As a teenager, he was involved in the various wars between 1469 and 1471, wounded at Barnet and a commander at Tewkesbury, and he was involved in Welsh, Scottish and French military expeditions and conflicts until his ascension to the thrown.

Edward openly favored Richard with responsibilities and honors, including Constable of England for life, and won Richard’s loyalty during Warwick’s endeavors to depose him. This, of course, infuriated Clarence, three years Richard’s elder. Edward and Clarence’s hatred culminated in Clarence’s arrest and charge of treason that earned him the Tower. While it seems that Richard pleaded for Clarence’s life, he remained loyal to Edward and dutifully took on his Scottish and Welsh campaigns.

Richard's signature on a founding document of Middlham College.

Despite his later political scheming, Richard is recorded to have been an attentive, generous ruler who earned the devotion of his citizens, described as a “friend and justicer to the people of Yorkshire” (Kendall 152). When he set out to put down the Scottish border insurrections, egged-on by Louis XI in order to distract England from his own conflict with Burgundy, his northern subjects served him loyally. He is even supposed to have pardoned many of the leaders in Buckingham’s rebellion of their charges of attainder. His power resided primarily in the north, in land that had formerly belonged to Warwick and was secured by Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville in 1471, a controversial match at the time because Clarence also sought the Neville inheritance through his wife, Anne’s sister, Isabel.

His symbol the boar does not have a clear origin, but represents ferocity and bold warrior spirit. Although Richard may have believed that he was the best man fit for the job of king, especially given his loyalty to his brother and mistrust of the Woodvilles and their potential power at court if Edward V ruled, he ultimately undermined his own good intentions by his bloody maneuvers. During his reign, Richard attainted over one hundred people, an unprecedented number for so short a period, "[suggesting] that he was in a state of insecurity bordering on panic" (Gillingham 231).

However, Shakespeare clearly twisted the facts. For example, Anne died of disease, probably tuberculosis, after the death of her son, Edward, and was not murdered (although, rumors were circulating before her death that Richard would marry Elizabeth of York). The evidence surrounding the Princes in the Tower is inconclusive when it comes to pinning the deed on Richard, although most historians agree that he was culpable. And while it may seem as though Richard took advantage of his brother’s weakening position on the throne, both physically and politically, it is necessary to remember that Richard had watched his favorite brother and most important role model deteriorate and allow debauchery and carelessness to take over his court through Hastings and the Woodvilles. Richard was alienated from the world of court by the time be returned from his Scottish campaigns and felt no allegiance to the Queen and her family, even her heirs, upon Edward’s death.

Does this mean that Shakespeare was wrong? Not necessarily. Shakespeare did change the facts about Richard III and the history leading up to his reign, but he did so in order to both satisfy the Tudor Queen and her discontented subjects, who worried about things like civil unrest, foreign military powers, and most importantly, a female ruler without an heir. In order to ask daring but important questions about his own time, Shakespeare had to reinvent his nation's history and in doing so help build the mythical Richard III that we know today.

A statue of Richard III in Castle Gardens, Leicester.


Hallam, Elizabeth. The Wars of the Roses: From Richard II to the Fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field—Seen Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. NY: Weidenfeild and Micholson. 1988.

Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses: 1455-1485. NY: Rutledge Taylor and Francs Group. 2003.

Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1956. Print.

Murph, Roxane. “Richard III: The Making of Legend.” Richard III Society, American Branch. 1977. 10/26/09. <>.

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