‘Richard III: that wicked man who murdered his nephews and stole the crown.’ So I was taught as a child; and now, among the countless column inches and debates engendered by his rediscovery, the same tired old cliches keep arising – that Richard was England’s worst king, an evil, usurping regicide who murdered his way to the throne.
And I’m sick of him being singled out for particular odium when, if you scratch any medieval monarch, you’ll find iniquitous acts. Richard III a usurper? Then he was in good company. Stephen usurped the crown from his cousin Mathilda; John attempted it from his brother, Richard I; Queen Isabella took it from her husband Edward II, to put prematurely on their son’s head; Henry Bolingbroke from Richard II; Edward IV from Henry VI; and Henry Tudor from Richard III – musical chairs with a throne, the crown tossed about like a basketball. Yet none of the others are tagged ‘usurper’ as often as Richard III – if he was a usurper at all. If Edward IV’s children were indeed illegitimate by reason of their father’s pre-contract or clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, then Richard was the rightful heir – a fact his detractors conveniently forget.
Richard III a regicide? Again… usurpers couldn’t afford to leave the dangerous fag-ends of deposed kings lying around. Hence the horrible doing to death of Edward II, Richard II imprisoned and starved to death (unless it was suicide by hunger-strike) in Pontefract Castle, Henry VI knocked on the head by order of Edward IV (a crime typically blamed on the then Duke of Gloucester, though he could hardly have done such a thing off his own bat), and Richard himself killed in battle.
Murderer? Yup – well, it goes with the turf. How much suffering was caused, how much infants’, or innocents’, blood shed by William I as he stamped out Anglo-Saxon civilisation and reduced the populace to feudal slavery? By the slimy and treacherous John, another contender for killing his nephew? By Richard the Lionheart, marauding with his armies through Europe and the Holy Land? (But that was OK, of course – it happened abroad, with full Church approval). By Edward I hammering the Scots, or Henry V’s soldiers in France, or Mary I in her fiery persecutions of Protestant heretics? (She at least gets the title ‘Bloody’, although it could well be applied to others – benignity and pacifism were not highly valued attributes in medieval monarchs).
And what of Richard’s successors, the Tudors? Henry VII at least had the decency (or was it pure cynicism?) to wait until his last, allegedly feeble-minded Yorkist rival had entered adulthood before having him executed. Henry VIII smashed England’s religious houses, throwing countless monks into homeless penury and executing many more for the sake of wedding Anne Boleyn; then when her charms (and ability to produce a son) failed, used trumped-up charges and confessions extracted by torture to murder her and her brother George, her alleged partner in incestuous adultery. Bastardised his own daughters, murdered his best mates when they somehow failed, displeased or challenged his will; fell besotted with a girl young enough to be his daughter, then, when he found out she’d been a good-time gal, lopped off her head too (a fate his last wife, Katherine Parr, only escaped by a whisker).
So whatever Richard III did to safeguard his power base, press his claim to rule and stamp his authority, he, like those who came before and after, was just doing what he felt he had to. The entire early history of our monarchy is unspeakably violent and cruel, the true evil villain throughout being the institution itself: the unholy trinity of absolutism, primogeniture and religious dogma that drove the ruthless crushing of dissent and unorthodoxy, and the relentless pursuit of legitimate sons. Damn one king, damn ’em all – they were a bloody awful lot. Or cut them some slack, look at their acts in the context of their times and situations, and do the same for King Richard.
Yes – I’d like to see a league table of royal blood-shedding, a butcher’s bill for each reign averaged out at deaths per year, before I’m willing to buy Richard III as our ‘worst’ king. Meanwhile, anti-Ricardians, less it with the ‘murderous usurper’ thing, OK? It’s really, really BORING – and he wasn’t the only one, by a long chalk.