Richard III was king of England from 1483 until his death at the battle of Bosworth. He was the final king of the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty. Accused of murdering the princes in the Tower, his reputation was blackened – some say unfairly – by Shakespeare’s depiction of him as the murderous ‘hunchback king’. In 2012 his body was discovered under a Leicester car park; three years later he was reburied in Leicester Cathedral.
When did you first hear about Richard III?
As an actor – although it was only when I played him in a Royal Shakespeare Company production on tour and in London’s West End in the late nineties that I really got to know the full story. I grew up in a Derbyshire mining village and at school we bypassed him for some reason; I get the feeling that there’s almost been an attempt to write him out of history.
What kind of person was he?
Well, following the discovery of his body and the tests carried out to confirm it was Richard III, I think we can say with some certainty that physically he wasn’t much like Shakespeare’s “poisonous bunch-back’d toad”, although he did have scoliosis – curvature of the spine – a common complaint. I’ve always felt that his besmirching by the Bard was Tudor propaganda and an attempt to curry favour with Elizabeth I.
What makes him a hero?
For me it’s because he’s been accused of terrible wrongs – and I hate slanderous lies that live on throughout history. This was a man who died a violent death at the battle of Bosworth. And remember, we’re talking about the legitimate king of England! He was also a talented military leader and, as monarch, he passed some good laws. As for the accusation that he killed the princes in the Tower, I think he was framed.
What was Richard III’s finest hour?
In a strange way, perhaps his reburial at Leicester Cathedral in 2015. The service, at which the bishop of Leicester and the archbishop of Canterbury officiated – and at which Benedict Cumberbatch (a distant relative of the king) and I spoke – was a moving occasion. It helped reignite the debate over whether he was as villainous as Shakespeare alleged. I think the world has realised that his monstrous Richard III is not an accurate reflection – the real Richard was a much more nuanced figure.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. If I was offered the part of Shakespeare’s Richard III again, I couldn’t do it – I just wouldn’t be able to do it with any kind of honesty.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
No, although after a long run playing Richard – a man with curvature of the spine and one leg longer than the other – I was in a terrible state physically. I had a sciatic nerve problem and had to see a physiotherapist. Even now I get the odd stabbing pain.
What do you think he would have made of the fuss surrounding the discovery of his body?
To go to Richard III’s funeral service more than 500 years after his death was the most extraordinary experience. If there is life after death, you do wonder what he must be thinking.
If you could meet Richard III, what would you ask him?
I’d ask: “Did you do it?” Actually, I’ve always been terrified of meeting royalty. Like most working-class people, I feel intimidated in such situations and never quite know what to say.
Robert Lindsay is an award-winning actor. He was talking to York Membery.