Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives, Langley said Richard III was “most certainly” a great king who wanted to “make life fairer and more bearable” for ordinary people.
Speaking to presenter Matthew Parris alongside Richard III biographer Annette Carson, Langley said: “History is written by the winners. When Richard died on the field of Bosworth [in 1485] a new dynasty was born, and that dynasty had to legitimise itself. And by doing that it had to denigrate Richard, in a sense, because it had to show them as being the new choice…
“He’s been trashed I think, definitely, and then Shakespeare of course comes along in the Tudor era, so we have the popular perception of Richard as the archetypal evil villain. [We have] plays based on [the work of] Thomas More [chancellor in the reign of Henry VIII, who in around 1515 wrote The History of Richard III, which established Richard’s reputation as a tyrant], and then many of the subsequent writers and historians believe that Thomas More is a credible source and a credible witness.
“So, it’s an amalgamation of those three very powerful things that really wrote Richard’s story off completely.”
Langley went on to praise Richard as a great king. She said: “Richard only reigned for just over two years. So what I decided to do was to look at our greatest monarchs and what they have achieved – the Elizabeths, the Henry Vs, the Alfred the Greats – but to give them the same comparator as Richard is to give them 777 days. What did they achieve in the same time frame that Richard had?
“What is absolutely staggering is when you do that [you realise] they didn’t achieve half of what this man did.”
Langley explained: “If we look, for example, at the pieces of good governance that [Richard] achieved during his incredibly short reign, they were quite staggering.
“His first act as king was to call his judges to him and to decree that they dispense justice without fear or without favour for all members of society… What you can see from Richard’s laws is that he was very clearly enacting against things like extortion and corruption and bribery, and he wanted to make it a much more fair society. His laws were bold and enlightened, and they were clearly focused on making life fairer and more bearable for the ordinary people.
“To give a sense of how Richard was regarded at the time, there’s a quote from the [contemporary] Bishop of St David’s, Thomas Langton, who wrote in a private letter… ‘He contents the people wherever he goes, for many a poor man hath been relieved and helped by him. I have never liked the condition of any prince as well as his. God hath sent him to us for the wellbeing of us all’.”
Langley also defended Richard against one of the gravest accusations levelled at him – that he murdered his nephews, Edward and Richard, the sons of Edward IV, in the Tower of London, in order to secure his position as king.
Langley acknowledged that the finger of suspicion had pointed at Richard for the past 500 years, “but when you actually look into the evidence that’s there and you actually look into the balance of probabilities – if [the princes] died, who killed them – lawyers, policemen, investigators, psychologists have all looked into this question, and they’ve looked at motive, opportunity and proclivity to kill, and they’ve all come out with exactly the same response: that in their assessment it is very clear that Richard III is not the prime suspect.
“The reason he’s not the prime suspect is that you have to look at who had the most to gain by killing those two boys. Now, for Henry Tudor and his affinity, those two boys had to be dead for him to become king. But for Richard, to enact a murder like that when he was already the anointed king of England… Richard would be putting his crown in jeopardy.”
Langley later said: “There’s this irony that a man who lived and fought for justice most of his life has suffered a particular great injustice – in fact, one of the greatest injustices of history, we could say.
“I think the dig has changed everything… suddenly people know about Richard III and are putting him into context. The public are taking a great interest, and looking into this man for themselves.”
Langley’s defence of Richard was echoed by fellow Great Lives guest Annette Carson, author of Richard III: The Maligned King (The History Press, 2009), who said: “Where Richard III is concerned I summarise it by saying we are dealing with an amalgam of deduction, surmise, conjecture and cynicism viewed through the propaganda of his enemies and topped off with a fantasy figure invented by Shakespeare.”
To listen to the Great Lives episode, click here.
To read more about Richard III – his life, death and excavation – click here.