Richard III: rewriting the past

The last Plantagenet monarch has been as controversial in death as in life – but are some commonly accepted beliefs about him actually myths? John Ashdown-Hill challenges six of the most contentious claims about the 'king under the car park'...

Portrait of Richard III. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Medieval Kings and Queens’ bookazine and was published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Claim 1) Richard was a murderer

The catalogue of killings attributed to the king is lengthy – but also erroneous

In Shakespeare’s play Richard III, the list of Richard’s alleged murder victims provides an illustrious roll call of ghosts who prevent his sleep on the last night of his life. These comprise Edward of Westminster (son of King Henry VI); Henry VI himself; George, Duke of Clarence; Earl Rivers; Richard Grey; Thomas Vaughan; Lord Hastings; the ‘princes in the Tower’; the Duke of Buckingham; and Richard’s own 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 at the behest of Elizabeth Woodville. Rivers, Grey and Vaughan were executed by the Earl of Northumberland, while Hastings and Buckingham were executed by Richard III because they had conspired against him. Intriguingly, similar subsequent actions by Henry VII are viewed instead as a sign of ‘strong kingship’.

There is no conclusive evidence that Henry VI or the ‘princes in the Tower’ – Edward V and Richard, Duke of York – were murdered by anyone. Edward of Westminster was killed at or after the battle of Tewkesbury, and Anne Neville almost certainly died naturally. In addition, 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, indeed, John Morton?

Morton had plotted with Lord Hastings in 1483 but, whereas 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 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.

Claim 2) Richard was a usurper

Richard took the throne in place of his nephew, Edward V – but the change of power was proposed and approved by others

A dictionary definition of ‘usurp’ is “to seize and hold (the power and rights of another, for example) by force or without legal authority”.

It’s intriguing to note that the official website of the British Monarchy formerly stated (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 two 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.

Claim 3) Richard intended to marry his niece

Despite whispers at the time, the king never planned to wed his predecessor’s daughter

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 sensible 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 after the death of his wife, Anne Neville, in 1485. However, his chosen bride was the Portuguese princess Joanna. What’s more, his diplomats in Portugal were also seeking to arrange a second marriage there – between Richard’s allegedly illegitimate niece, Elizabeth, and a minor member of the Portuguese royal family.

Claim 4) Richard slept at the Boar Inn in Leicester

The inn that reputedly hosted the king may not yet have existed

In August 1485, prior to the battle of Bosworth, Richard III spent one night in Leicester. About a century later, a myth emerged claiming that on his final visit he had slept at a Leicester inn that carried the sign of a boar. This story is still very widely believed today.

However, there is no evidence that such an inn even existed in 1485. We know that on Richard’s rare visits to Leicester before then, he stayed at the castle. The earliest written source for the story of the Boar (or Blue Boar) Inn visit is John Speede, an English cartographer and historian who died in 1629.

Speede also produced another myth about Richard III – that his body had been dug up at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Many 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 when the king’s remains were discovered on the Greyfriars site in 2012.

His reputed stay at the Boar Inn is probably also nothing more than a later invention.

Claim 5) Richard rode a white horse at Bosworth

Shakespeare was the likely origin of the belief that the king bestrode ‘White Surrey’ into battle

In his 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 before Shakespeare wrote his play, no one had recorded this fact, though an earlier 16th-century chronicler, Edward Hall, had said that Richard rode a white horse when he entered Leicester a couple of days before the battle.

There is no evidence to prove either point. Not 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).

Claim 6) Richard attended his last mass at Sutton Cheney church

The king had his own chaplains, so would not have needed to attend mass in a 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 in order to attend mass at the church of St James 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 circulated before the reburial of the king’s remains in 2015, to justify plans to stop at Sutton Cheney en route to final interment in Leicester – that is believed 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.

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John Ashdown-Hill is the author of The Mythology of Richard III (Amberley Publishing, 2015).