Since the discovery of his remains underneath a Leicester car park in 2012, Richard III has rarely been out of the news. Here, historian John Ashdown-Hill explores six common myths about the last Plantagenet king…
Shakespeare’s famous play, Richard III, summarises Richard’s alleged murder victims in the list of ghosts who prevent his sleep on the last night of his life. These comprise Edward of Westminster (putative son of King Henry VI); Henry VI himself; George, Duke of Clarence; Earl Rivers; Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan; Lord Hastings; the ‘princes in the Tower’; the Duke of Buckingham and Queen Anne Neville.
But Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Buckingham were all executed (a legal process), not murdered: Clarence was executed by Edward IV (probably on the incentive of Elizabeth Woodville). Rivers, Grey and Vaughan were executed by the Earl of Northumberland, and Hastings and Buckingham were executed by Richard III because they had conspired against him. Intriguingly, similar subsequent actions by Henry VII are viewed as a sign of ‘strong kingship’!
There is no evidence that Edward of Westminster, Henry VI, the ‘princes in the Tower’ or Anne Neville were murdered by anyone. Edward of Westminster was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury, and Anne Neville almost certainly died naturally. Also, if Richard III really had been a serious killer in the interests of his own ambitions, why didn’t he kill Lord and Lady Stanley – and John Morton?
Morton had plotted with Lord Hastings in 1483, but while Hastings was executed, Morton was only imprisoned. As for the Stanleys, Lady Stanley was involved in Buckingham’s rebellion. And in June 1485, when the invasion of his stepson, Henry Tudor was imminent, Lord Stanley requested leave to retire from court. His loyalty had always been somewhat doubtful. Nevertheless, Richard III simply granted Stanley’s request – leading ultimately to the king’s own defeat at Bosworth.
Myth 2: Richard was a usurper
The dictionary definition of ‘usurp’ is “to seize and hold (the power and rights of another, for example) by force or without legal authority”. The official website of the British Monarchy states unequivocally (but completely erroneously) that “Richard III usurped the throne from the young Edward V”.
Curiously, the monarchy website does not describe either Henry VII or Edward IV as usurpers, yet both of those kings seized power by force, in battle! On the other hand, Richard III did not seize power. He was offered the crown by the three estates of the realm (the Lords and Commons who had come to London for the opening of a prospective Parliament in 1483) on the basis of evidence presented to them by one of the bishops, to the effect that Edward IV had committed bigamy and that Edward V and his siblings were therefore bastards.
Even if that judgement was incorrect, the fact remains that it was a legal authority that invited a possibly reluctant Richard to assume the role of king. His characterisation as a ‘usurper’ is therefore simply an example of how history is rewritten by the victors (in this case, Henry VII).
Myth 3: Richard aimed to marry his niece
It has frequently been claimed (on the basis of reports of a letter, the original of which does not survive), that in 1485 Richard III planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. There is no doubt that rumours to this effect were current in 1485, and we know for certain that Richard was concerned about them. That is not surprising, since his invitation to mount the throne had been based upon the conclusion that all of Edward IV’s children were bastards.
Obviously no logical monarch would have sought to marry a bastard niece. In fact, very clear evidence survives that proves beyond question that Richard did intend to remarry in 1485. However, his chosen bride was the Portuguese princess Joana. What’s more, his diplomats in Portugal were also seeking to arrange a second marriage there – between Richard’s illegitimate niece, Elizabeth, and a minor member of the Portuguese royal family!
Myth 4: Richard slept at the Boar Inn in Leicester
In August 1485, prior to the battle of Bosworth, Richard III spent one night in Leicester. About a century later, a myth began to emerge that claimed that on this visit he had slept at a Leicester inn that featured the sign of a boar. This story is still very widely believed today.
However, there is no evidence to even show that such an inn existed in 1485. We know that previously Richard had stayed at the castle on his rare visits to Leicester. The earliest written source for the story of the Boar Inn visit is John Speede [English cartographer and historian, d1629].
Curiously, Speede also produced another myth about Richard III – that his body had been dug up at the time of the Dissolution. Many people in Leicester used to believe Speede’s story about the fate of Richard’s body. However, when the BBC commissioned me to research it in 2004, I concluded that it was false, and I was proved right by the finding of the king’s remains on the Greyfriars site in 2012. The story of staying at the Boar Inn is probably also nothing more than a later invention.
Myth 5: Richard rode a white horse at Bosworth
In his famous play about the king, Shakespeare has Richard III order his attendants to ‘Saddle white Surrey [Syrie] for the field tomorrow’. On this basis it is sometimes stated as fact that Richard rode a white horse at his final battle. But prior to Shakespeare, no one had recorded this, although an earlier 16th-century chronicler, Edward Hall, had said that Richard rode a white horse when he entered Leicester a couple of days earlier.
There is no evidence to prove either point. Nor is there any proof that Richard owned a horse called ‘White Syrie’ or ‘White Surrey’. However, we do know that his stables contained grey horses (horses with a coat of white hair).
Myth 6: Richard attended his last mass at Sutton Cheney Church
It was claimed in the 1920s that early on the morning of 22 August 1485, Richard III made his way from his camp to Sutton Cheney Church in order to attend mass there. No earlier source exists for this unlikely tale, which appears to have been invented in order to provide an ecclesiastical focus for modern commemorations of Richard.
A slightly different version of this story was recently circulated to justify the fact that, prior to reburial, the king’s remains will be taken to Sutton Cheney. It was said it is believed King Richard took his final mass at St James’ church on the eve of the battle.
For a priest to celebrate mass in the evening (at a time when he would have been required to fast from the previous midnight, before taking communion) would have been very unusual! Moreover, documentary evidence shows clearly that Richard’s army at Bosworth was accompanied by his own chaplains, who would normally have celebrated mass for the king in his tent.
John Ashdown-Hill is the author of The Mythology of Richard III (Amberley Publishing, April 2015). To find out more, click here. To find out more about the author, visit www.johnashdownhill.com.