Richard III has been damned as a monster and acclaimed a hero, decried as a murderous tyrant and feted as a perfect knight. But while the king’s critics and advocates have crossed swords repeatedly down the centuries, there is one aspect of his life that they have tended to agree upon: that he was in total command of his own fate.


Shakespeare put the case most eloquently in a dazzling soliloquy in Henry VI Part Three. It was so memorable that Laurence Olivier took it out of that play and put it in his film version of Richard III. Richard confides his audacious scheme to the audience: “To account this world but hell, Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head, Be round impaled with a glorious crown.”

Yes, various inconvenient claimants including his own brother Edward IV and his nephews, among them the future Edward V, stand in Richard’s way, but he boasts all the skills required to trick and force his path to his prize: “I can add colours to the chameleon, Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, And set the murderous Machiavel to school. Can I do this, and cannot get a crown? Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.”

Richard’s supporters reject the monstrous schemer revealed in these words. For them, Richard had no long-held designs on the crown, and when he acted in 1483, it was for honourable reasons. He had discovered that his nephews were illegitimate and the safety of the kingdom depended on his taking charge. Again, it was Richard directing events.

There is another way of looking at Richard III, one that applies not just to the tumultuous weeks of his rise to the throne, but to much of his life. It is to see what a crucial part luck – good and bad – played in his life. Only by some very long odds did the Richard who so fascinates so many today come to occupy the place he did. That story begins not in 1483, but in 1452, the year that Richard was born…


A family in the firing line

With his father’s enemies closing in, Richard was lucky to make it to adolescence

Richard was not, contrary to what Shakespeare has him tell us, “sent before my time, Into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” The evidence of his skeleton is that the scoliosis from which he suffered, which twisted his spine, did not affect him until later in his childhood.

More like this

But even as the child of one of the richest men in England, the Duke of York, Richard’s chances of survival were not great. It was not just that many medieval children did not live to adulthood, a fate that had befallen five of his siblings already. It was that the Duke of York’s political involvement, leading up to what we know as the Wars of the Roses, put his entire family at risk. That included Richard, who in 1459, shortly after his seventh birthday, only narrowly escaped a marauding Lancastrian army at Ludlow, after his father and elder brothers had taken flight.

After that terrifying experience, Richard was sent to live with his aunt, who was married to a prominent Lancastrian supporter. It was not a pleasant stay, but Richard could already count himself lucky to have come through the first clashes of a civil war, long before he could have any influence on its outcome.


The fugitives fight back

Edward IV’s brilliance on the battlefield catapulted Richard from refugee to royal prince

Just over a year after Richard’s first brush with death at Ludlow, tragedy struck the heart of his family. A surprise attack in the middle of winter outside the family castle near Wakefield in Yorkshire resulted in the deaths of his father and an elder brother, Edmund, Earl of Rutland. Richard was lucky to be back in London with his mother, Cecily. But with a Lancastrian army approaching, Cecily decided to spirit her children out of the country. They were bundled on to a ship, which sailed for the lands of Burgundy.

Again, Richard had avoided death. Rutland had apparently been killed in cold blood, and since his father’s family had begun to lay claim to the throne, all its male members might well expect a similar fate.

What Richard couldn’t have expected at this low ebb in the Yorks’ fortunes is that Richard’s eldest brother, Edward, would achieve a victory over the Lancastrians at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 that saw him acclaimed as Edward IV. This was followed by an even more decisive triumph, at the battle of Towton. Richard was able to return not as an enemy of the crown with a bleak future, but as a royal prince, soon elevated to the title of Duke of Gloucester.


Clarence exits stage left

Oldest brother eliminated middle brother, moving youngest brother one step nearer to the throne

Richard served his apprenticeship as a knight and noble with his brother Edward’s greatest ally, the Earl of Warwick, remembered as ‘the Kingmaker’. Learning the skills of warfare and the practice of chivalry, Richard could begin to have his own influence on his life, but he was still at the mercy of events. When Warwick and his brother fell out in 1469, and Edward IV was chased from his kingdom, Richard went with him, to Burgundian Flanders.

The odds were very much against the exiled king reclaiming the throne from the reinstalled Lancastrian monarch Henry VI. Success partly depended on Richard’s turncoat brother George, Duke of Clarence – who had supported the ejection of Edward – changing sides again. He did, and Edward (accompanied by Richard) made a successful return.

Richard showed no royal ambitions, but even if he had, his reinstalled older brother Clarence blocked his route to the throne. Shakespeare shows Richard scheming to remove Clarence, but there is no real evidence that he did. In fact, it was Richard’s good fortune that Clarence aggravated his brother the king so much that Edward had him executed for treason. Even if Richard had no thoughts yet of the crown, he benefited from Clarence’s fall, assuming many of his estates.


A king falls; an uncle rises

Richard pulled off an astonishing smash and grab raid on the crown

Productions of Shakespeare’s Richard III usually show Edward IV as an old and ailing man, inspiring Richard to declare: “He cannot live.” But when Edward died in 1483, he was only 41, and was preparing a great military expedition – hardly the actions of a failing constitution.

Edward’s demise, in which even Richard’s greatest enemies have never suggested he had a part, was Richard’s biggest stroke of luck. His second was that Edward’s eldest son, who became Edward V on his father’s death, was only 12 years old.

Richard was lucky, too, in his elder brother’s unconventional marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which had been made in private, if not in secret, and had come as a great surprise to his courtiers. Whether or not you believe the revelation by a bishop that Edward V and his brother were illegitimate, clearing the way for Richard’s claim, Edward IV’s conduct had made such a charge sustainable.

Richard’s decision to seize the throne – and allegedly dispatch Edward V and his brother, the ‘princes in the Tower’ – was a masterfully ruthless display that astonished much of Europe. But Richard took advantage of his good luck; he did not make it.


Henry Tudor slips through Richard’s fingers

The king’s last serious rival eluded capture in the nick of time

With his coronation in July 1483, Richard III appeared to be at last in total command of his own fate. In seeing off a rebellion by a former supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, later that year, the new king only reinforced the fact that he would be a difficult incumbent to dislodge.

Richard knew that perhaps his last real rival was an obscure Welsh exile, who had spent much of his life in Brittany, Henry Tudor. After Henry’s unsuccessful attempt to synchronise an invasion with Buckingham’s uprising, Richard dispatched trusted servants to bring Henry back from Brittany. But Henry was tipped off. He took flight with a tiny party of followers, put on a disguise, and got over the border into France “scarcely an hour” ahead of his pursuers.

At the point at which Richard had taken every sensible precaution to remove even as apparently negligible a threat as this distant Welsh cousin, his luck had turned. With the agreement of the Bretons, Henry’s fate should have been sealed. Instead, he remained at large, and found himself able to draw not on Breton support, but on the far more impressive resources of France.


The reign turns ugly

Bad luck hounded the king as his Welsh nemesis marshalled his forces

Henry Tudor’s triumph at the battle of Bosworth was the result of a combination of good planning and good luck. For Richard, it was the culmination of an unprecedented series of blows, many of which were beyond the king’s control.

Richard’s reign had already taken a turn for the worse with the loss of his only legitimate son, Edward, in 1484, followed by that of his wife, Anne, a year later. If the king was cast down by these misfortunes, he responded energetically, gathering an army and waiting patiently for Henry’s return.

One piece of bad luck that he failed to neutralise was that Henry’s step-father, Lord Stanley, was one of Richard’s most powerful nobles. But even without Stanley’s support, if Richard had been a little luckier when the two armies met at Bosworth in August 1485, he could well have prevailed.

Archaeologists who have analysed the battlefield have argued that one of Richard’s most powerful supporters, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, may not have deserted Richard, but had simply been unable to intervene – as he’d got cut off when manoeuvring behind marshy ground.

Even Richard’s last-ditch attempt to get to Henry himself, and win the battle by killing his opponent, came within a few yards of success. Richard seems to have accepted his fate – it is unlikely he died looking for a horse to escape the battlefield.


A Tudor hatchet job

Richard’s reputation took a mauling at the hands of Shakespeare

The story of Richard’s luck does not end with his death. In the centuries that followed, his reputation had the misfortune to coincide with the rise of a new generation of historians who allied narrative skill and evocative style with understandable support for their royal masters, the Tudor dynasty.

Henry VII and the Tudors’ consolidation of power meant, too, that there was no rise of a rival dynasty that might wish to recast the reputation of the ‘usurper’ the Tudors had replaced. And Richard’s story didn’t just inspire writers like Polydore Vergil and Thomas More – both of whom were moved to recast it as a morality tale – it also attracted the eye of one William Shakespeare.

It was not inevitable that Shakespeare should make Richard his most unforgettable historical creation – compare the negligible impact that the playwright’s portrayal of another ‘bad king’, John, has made. Although Richard can be said to have been lucky in garnering the posthumous support of such a committed group as the Richard III Society, the very existence of that body is predicated on the fact that Shakespeare’s unhistorical but mesmeric version was – and remains – so dominant.


A 1,000–1 long shot comes in

A king couldn’t be buried beneath a car park, could he…?

No account of Richard’s fortunes can be complete without its final, almost inconceivable chapter: the rediscovery of his bones. When the lead archaeologist from the University of Leicester, Richard Buckley, announced the find in 2013 as “truly astonishing”, he did not exaggerate. It was the fifth of five stated objectives of the dig in the car park, and “was not seriously considered possible” – whatever the hopes of the Ricardians, led by Philippa Langley, who commissioned the project. Yet it happened on day one of the excavation, close to a parking bay marked with the letter ‘R’ (part of the words ‘Age Concern’).

Buckley had put the odds of discovering Richard’s remains at 1,000–1 in an email to the geneticist Turi King, but this longest of long shots came in. Naturally, the skill and patience of the archaeologists, historians and geneticists who discovered Richard’s bones – and were able to prove they were his – made the find possible. Added to that was the energy of Langley and the Ricardians who proposed the project and raised much of the funds. But it was still extremely unlikely. Then again, the whole of Richard’s life, from his survival into adulthood, his rise to the top and dramatic fall, was one lived against the odds.

David Horspool is the history editor of The Times Literary Supplement and the author of Richard III: A Ruler and His Reputation, published recently by Bloomsbury


This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine