‘Evil’ king laid to rest 530 years after death

Naked villainy: Mark Rylance in Shakespeare’s Richard III, which shaped the king’s reputation.

Thousands gathered to watch King Richard III’s reburial ceremony, but his reputation as a tyrant lives on through centuries-old propaganda. Can we ever really know historical figures?

King Richard III was carried away on horseback after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. ‘The head and armes hangyng on the one side of the horse and the legs on the other side’, said a witness. That was the last time anyone saw him for over 500 years. His body mysteriously disappeared and the controversial king never received the grand funeral usually owed to a monarch — until now.

In 2012 archaeologists were amazed to discover Richard III’s remains, buried under a car park in Leicester. Yesterday, after two years of wrangling over where he should be buried, Richard was finally given a burial fit for a king. His coffin was transported by cortege after emerging from the University of Leicester. It moved on to Fenn Lane Farm, believed to be the closest spot to where he was killed, before finishing at Leicester Cathedral.

Richard III had one of the shortest reigns in British history. But his two-year rule witnessed the passage of some significant legal reforms. He introduced the bail system and an early form of legal aid for those unable to afford lawyers.

Yet despite these positive reforms and the pomp of his belated funeral, Richard has one of the worst reputations of any British king. Many accuse him of murdering his two young nephews to gain the throne. The case of the ‘princes in the tower’ has become one of history’s greatest mysteries and stains Richard’s name to this day.

Whether or not he is guilty, the king is certainly a victim of propaganda. Richard was toppled by the Tudors, and 16th century writers turned him into a caricature of a villainous king. By far the most famous characterisation is by William Shakespeare, who portrayed him as a wicked hunchback who murdered his way to the crown.

Many modern historians are a little more sympathetic. ‘He was a man of his age’, says the news presenter Jon Snow. ‘He may have polished off the princes and executed some of his enemies, but so did every king in the Dark Ages’ says one historian.

Crowned upon

The popular view of history is littered with larger-than-life characters: ‘Bad King John’, ‘noble Richard the Lionheart’, ‘roguish Henry VIII’, ‘virtuous Elizabeth I’. But none of this has even the flimsiest basis in reality, some historians say: it is gossip and propaganda. We can never know the true personalities of historical figures and it’s useless to try. Better to stick to the facts.

Nonsense, respond less wary writers: history is about people and stories, not just a litany of dry facts. Stripping away the characters will only suck the humanity out of the subject. There’s nothing wrong with trying to empathise with the people who shaped our world: it’s one of the best ways to understand the past.

You Decide

  1. Can we make character judgements of historical figures?
  2. Will today’s leaders be presented fairly and accurately in the future?

Activities

  1. Research another king or queen in British history. List three ways in which they left a mark on Britain as we know it today.
  2. Shakespeare used physical features to help paint Richard III as evil, with his hunchback which people associated the devil. Take a historical figure and draw them twice. Once as evil, and once as a kind character. Think of the physical features you could draw on to help.

Some People Say...

“In history there is no right and wrong — only winners and losers.”

Variously attributed

What do you think?

Q & A

Apart from passing a few laws, Richard III doesn’t sound like he was that great a King.
Perhaps. But he was also a man of learning who was devoted to promoting culture. Manuscripts written by Richard have been found since his death, including a guide on how to be a good king, a prayer book and literary texts in three languages.
Is there any proof Shakespeare exaggerated anything about King Richard III?
Propaganda, including Shakespeare, painted him as hunchbacked, but archaeological evidence shows he only had curvature of the spine that would have given him uneven shoulders. Supporters say this provides proof of how defects in his image — and possibly character — were exaggerated at the time Shakespeare wrote his Richard III play.

Word Watch

Car park in Leicester
The site Richard III was found under is now a car park, but at the time the King died it was a church, where he was buried without ceremony.
Wrangling
Richard III had historical associations with both York and Leicester. Rival groups from the two cities went to court to determine where his body should rest.
Cortege
This is a formal, solemn and ceremonial funeral procession involving a slow-moving line of funeral cars.
‘princes in the tower’
When King Edward IV died in 1483, his brother Richard became Lord Protector to his 12-year-old son and successor, who was soon joined by his brother, Richard Duke of York, in the Tower of London. Before the future king could be crowned, his father’s marriage was declared invalid. The young princes were never seen in public again.
Hunchback
Analysis of Richard’s skeleton proved that Richard III was indeed slightly hunchbacked. But Shakespeare exaggerated the deformity to make the king seem more monstrous: in those days, people with physical disabilities were treated with suspicion. This was of course nothing but prejudice.

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