Richard III for Dummies: US Edition


Cover by our imitable Jasrangoon.

Cover by our imitable Jasrangoon.  Art by @Flodwyns on Twitter

I’ve been pondering a topic for Richard III week when it occurred to me that the typical American doesn’t know much about the British monarchy, much less about Richard III. The most we know about him is the smattering in history books where he played the dastardly villain who killed the two young princes, looking like Sir Laurence Olivier with a big nose and a hunchback. Oh yes, he was also king of England some time before men wore long trousers. In other words, Americans don’t know much at all about kings or queens unless they were also famous for shtupping somebody i.e. Henry VIII and his six wives; Elizabeth I and her alleged eternal virginity; Victoria who mothered the entire European royalty; her son Edward VI who cut a wide swath through the British society; Edward VII and Wallis Simpson “the woman I love,” etc. ad nauseum. Let’s not talk about George III, the one against whom we rebelled. That’s not to say that some of these monarchs did not majorly impact history in other ways; it’s that the more salacious points tend to stick in the mind, as it were. Or maybe my mind. Anyway, back to Richard III.

As a Richardian ignoramus, I confess that others have detailed his life much more eloquently and knowledgeably than I ever could. So I’ve decided to submit to you, dear reader, talking points you can use the next time you’re at a party or function and find yourself cornered into a historical chat. These points will help you sound knowledgeable, cultured and current – at least as of this April.

Richard III was the first British monarch whose remains were found in a parking lot. (If you want to sound really cosmopolitan – car park). After he was surrounded and killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, his body underwent a series of indignities (read: stripped and maimed). It finally found a resting place either under or what was later the site of Greyfriar’s Church. Eventually the church disappeared, as religious structures tended to do back in the day, and 400 years later a car park appeared. Inquiring minds spearheaded partly by the Richard III Society (yes, he has an international fan club) and under the aegis of University of Leicester pinpointed his remains and exhumed them with much international ballyhoo. This was an historically significant event. When your audience asks why that was so, tell them this: it was a rare occurrence in which a king’s remains were found, scientifically identified, and used to possibly corroborate, refute or otherwise contribute to known historical accounts of the battle, his life, and the times in which he lived. If you audience clamors for more, impress them with these points:

As stated earlier, history has painted Richard III as a royal bastard – meaning a really nasty piece of work. But, remember that history is written by the victors (his successors the Tudors), and it benefited them to blacken the image of this rightful king, a man they happened to have killed in a rebellion. There is no evidence that Richard was any more evil or benign than any other monarch in those bloody, Machiavellian days. Although the victors attributed to Richard the orders to have the two little princes (his nephews Edward V and Richard, Duke of York) staying in the Tower of London killed; there are no corroborating accounts to substantiate the rumors other than the fact that Richard benefited by being the next in line to the throne. As it was, the Council had invalidated the marriage of Edward’s parents, making him a bastard and ineligible for the throne. Richard, Edward’s uncle and protectorate succeeded him to the crown in 1483. In the interim, the princes disappeared and allegedly were never seen again; their remains have never been found. So, it was easy to finger him as guilty by opportunity and circumstance.

Richard III has also been been painted as a ugly, misshapen git who took his frustrations out on the unsuspecting world. While scientific study of his remains reveal he did have severe scoliosis of the spine, but it did not seem to impede him in battle since eyewitness accounts reported he was an able swordsman.  Nor did he have a withered hand or club foot as rumored.  As for his looks, comparison of portraits of him during his lifetime, and depictions after his death suggest that painters actually attempted to subtly render him uglier to accommodate his newly minted image as the harbinger of evil. Channel 4 broadcast two specials about him including a digital re-creation of his face taken from his actual skull which revealed an average face, not an ugly mask. As for his supposedly ugly exterior reflecting an inner twisted mind, some accounts before his death portrayed him as a good lord with a kind heart for the common man. After his demise, it appears the same eyewitnesses suspiciously switched to the victors’ side. In other words, Richard may have fallen victim to a slur campaign by those who sought to legitimize their claim to the throne, mainly the Tudors who followed him. William Shakespeare later immortalized evil Richard in his play, Richard III, which has endured for centuries.

Lastly, to leave your audience in awe, discuss the anthropological significance of discovering undisturbed bones yielding information on stature, diet, disease, and effects of environment. For example, his diet as a wealthy nobleman would be rich in meats, exotic spices, and confections than a peasant who would not have such access. Yes, British cathedrals contain the remains of other royal figures, but the Church of England is loathe to give permission to exhume and test them. Hence, testing and identifying Richard’s bones accorded the perfect opportunity to corroborate historical accounts. Interesting, eh?

So in a nutshell, you now know a few salient points about Richard III to impress your family and friends, give or take a factoids. If you can’t also remember details that he was 1) born in 1452 and became one of the richest and influential noblemen of his time; 2) remained married to his wife Anne Neville without a breath of sex scandal; 3) ruled from 1483 to 1485; 4) died at the Battle of Bosworth Field and becoming the last king to die in battle on home soil since 1066; 5) and lie buried under the Greyfriar’s Church in Leicester, do remember that he was a 15th century monarch killed in battle, whose remains were discovered under a car park in the ruins of a razed church, and that he will be reburied next year in Leicester Cathedral with the pomp and circumstance befitting a king to the tune of 1 million pounds.

But seriously, if somebody says, “well, that’s all interesting, but why should I care?” remember this: history is not static; it’s alive and ever changing. What we learn today casts a new light on what we think we know about the past. And what we learn from the past impacts what we do in the future. It’s all linked together. Because of that, it’s important to obtain as accurate as an account can be, given the circumstances of the times. After all, historians and anthropologists will be excited about our bones, and lives 500 years from now; we would want them to get it right.



Hold on there!  KRA 2013 Week is still celebrating.  Rush over to the KRA fan initiative website here for more and take part in the yearly quizz.  You can sign the petition here.


14 thoughts on “Richard III for Dummies: US Edition

  1. Right 🙂 Hey, my daughter is ‘history teacher’s favorite pet’ thanks to her mother sudden interest in Richard III 😉

  2. Wonderful synopsis of the life of a king, his impact on history through the ages. I will be using the talking points when invited to the next garden party at Buck House, the cocktail party at Sandringham, and to entertain my fellow guests in Balmoral next week, when we are all tired of shooting up the peasants – um – pheasants. Thanks to Judy and Jas!

    • Which means me wonder: the body was missing for 450 and here come some alleged relatives who couldn’t possibly “know” what his wishes were, willing to fight in the courts over his body. Totally puzzles me. My cynical antennae quivers.

  3. Well, I tend to think that Richard III’s latter day fans have tried very hard to redeem his image, but I’m not convinced he didn’t have the little princes offed. Remember, the act would not have been viewed as much out of the ordinary back in the day. If you wanted to be king, you killed everyone else with a claim to the throne. That’s just the way it was done.

    Richard III was the last monarch of the War of the Roses (York vs. Lancaster), and it was a very bloody time for England. It’s true that the victors get to write the history, but at the same time, just because he lost and was remembered by his enemies, doesn’t mean doesn’t mean they were lying when they said he was a son of a bitch. We’ll probably never know for sure.

    Richard III didn’t even have to directly order it. I’ll point to the sad end of Thomas of Beckett, who was killed by people wanting favor with Henry II, just because of an offhand remark by the king.

    Whatever happened to the boys, their bodies were probably burned or chopped up and scattered to keep them from becoming a rallying point for Richard’s enemies.

    The important thing to remember about Richard III is that by being defeatable, he opened the door for the end of the War of the Roses and set things up for the Tudors, who got things settled down and peaceful for a bit. There were still problems to come, what with Henry VIII’s religious re-alignment and the coming Catholic vs. Protestant back and forth.

    • I agree totally that Richard III could have offed the princes or indirectly caused somebody to do so. This post is more of playing devil’s advocate because it’s just assumed he was as terrible as depicted over the centuries without considering contrary evidence. Also I suspect RA’s desire to play a more complex layered version and being the son of Richardian tends to lean towards a more sympathetic portrayal of him. (KRA week is a fan initiative calling attention to his efforts to bring his project to fruition.)

      Good point about the War of the Roses.

  4. Not that it comes up at cocktail parties all that much in my experience, but this would be a good list, were it to do that.

    I had to laugh — one of the last days I was at home I was reading my mom the local paper and there was even an article about the relatives’ court victory over challenging the Leicester interment in our piddly little paper. Richard III is really news when he appears there. That, or it’s August and there’s just no news. 🙂

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