Richard III: A Defence

Most of the historians of the Tudor period, wrote a very biased commentary about the reign of their predecessor, the Duke of Gloucester and last monarch of the House of York, King Richard III. They include Polydore Virgil, author of the Anglica Historia, and Thomas More, who was later canonised, then finally William Shakespeare. Rather than mention that perhaps Henry Tudor and his descendants had usurped the throne, which may have been fatal in those times, it was easier to portray Richard as:

‘The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoil’d your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash
In your embowell’d bosoms – this foul swine. . .
Every man’s conscience is a thousand men
To fight against this guilty homicide’ {Shakespeare 785}

The first historian to give Richard III the revisionist treatment was Horace Walpole {1717-97}, writer and youngest son of Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole (Frye).  In 1768, he commented: ‘Indeed on neither side do there seem to have been any scruples: Yorkists and Lancastrians, Edward and Margaret of Anjou, entered into any engagements, took any oaths, violated them, and indulged their revenge, as often as they were depressed or victorious’ (Walpole 160).  By this century, it was long enough after the facts, to look at them more dispassionately. Since his time many historians, and now bloggers, have taken a different look at the story of Richard III.

Shakespeare’s timeless popularity has meant that his negative views on this controversial monarch have continued to the present day. There is the current Bell Shakespeare production of Richard III, as well as a 1995 movie portrayal starring Sir Ian MacKellen. There is also the Richard III Society, established in 1924, trying to tell their version of the truth. Now online, they are ‘Dedicated to the study of the life and reassessment of Richard III and study of 15th Century life and culture’ (Richard III Society).

The first casualty we will consider is Edward, the Prince of Lancaster. This young man may have reigned as Edward IV himself, making the name confusion which Shakespeare plays on even greater. This possibility first became more remote when his father, Henry VI, had a nervous breakdown after his birth. ‘On 30 December {i.e. 1454} he learnt his fourteen-month-old son’s name for the first time…and expressed himself well pleased’ (Wolffe 273). This was the beginning of the end for Prince Edward’s future.

In Shakespeare’s version, his widow Anne Neville accuses Richard of murdering both her husband and father-in-law, over the dead body of the latter. Therefore, she throws at him:
Vouchsafe, deffus’d infection of a man
For these known evils but to give me leave
By circumstances to curse thy cursed self’ (Shakespeare 748).

Richard at first denies the murder:
‘I did not kill your husband
…Nay, he is dead, and slain by Edward’s hands’ (Shakespeare 748).

Later, after Lady Anne has departed, he confesses:
‘Hath she forgot already that brave prince
Edward, her lord, who I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewkesbury’ (Shakespeare 750).

Yet Tewkesbury was far more than just the scene of the crime. To those not familiar with the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Tewkesbury was fought in 1471, where York’s King Edward IV reclaimed his throne from Lancaster’s Henry VI.  It was one of the most decisive battles in this conflict (Castelow).  Official Yorkist source The Arrivall of Edward IV claims: ‘Edward, called Prince, was taken, fleinge to the towne wards, and slayne in the fielde’ (Bruce).

If Prince Edward merely died on the battlefield, he becomes just one of the tragic legion of young men who have died in their ‘prime of youth’ {Shakespeare 786}, in various wars over time. We will be commemorating some of the fallen again on Anzac Day, in a few weeks from now. For all the young men who died in the Wars of the Roses, we could sing the old hippie song Where Have All the Flowers Gone?  Then we would have to ask whether we will ever learn?  Or in the words of Wilfred Owen, another young soldier who died before his time:
‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity’ (quoted in Roberts).

A more sinister version of Prince Edward’s fate is that after Tewkesbury, where he and his mother Queen Margaret were taken prisoner, he was brought before Edward IV (Walpole 160). The early history Fabyan’s Chronicle then describes how: ‘after the king had questioned with the said Sir Edward, and he had answered him contrary to his pleasure, he then struck him with his gauntlet upon the face; after which stroke, so by him received, he was by the king’s servants incontinently slain’ (quoted in Walpole 161). Later chronicler Edward Hall, often a source to Shakespeare, names those responsible as George Duke of Clarence, Richard Duke of Gloucester, Thomas Marquess Dorset, who was Edward IV’s stepson, and William Lord Hastynges (Walpole 161). The Crowland Chronicle says he was ‘deliberately assassinated by unnamed persons’ (Wolffe 346). ‘The first to mention Richard of Gloucester as taking part in the murder was Vergil, writing in about 1516. It is interesting to note that no one accuses Gloucester only of the murder, he is always associated with Clarence and Hastings and later with Thomas Grey, Marquess Dorset’ (Richard III Society).

So the question for historians is whether Richard was one of his brother’s men, involved in the murder of Prince Edward? Even if he was involved, he can hardly be the one, as Tudor historians allege, who was solely responsible. Here Walpole questions: ‘How did it import Richard in what manner the young prince was put to death? What interest had Richard to murder an unhappy young prince?’ (Walpole 162-163)  Certainly it was not Richard’s ambition for the crown then, as Edward IV was firmly on the throne after his restoration in 1471, and would live another twelve years.

Therefore, Richard was not guilty the killing of Prince Edward, but as in his initial denial, when he blamed his brother, it was indeed Edward IV who gave the order. It was therefore he who bears responsibility for the young prince’s death. ‘This crime therefore was so unnecessary, and is so far from being established by any authority, that he deserves to be entirely acquitted of it’ (Walpole 163). It was more a case of ‘Edward for Edward pays a dying debt’ (Shakespeare 777).

Henry VI was an unfortunate monarch who may have been known for his religious piety, and calls to canonise him, particularly by Henry Tudor later (Wollfe 4). However his bouts of mental illness, perhaps inherited from his maternal grandfather Charles VI of France, began in 1453 (Wolffe 271).  This, and subsequent breakdowns, would greatly destabilise his kingdom, leading to the Wars of the Roses.

His wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, was not always a ‘foul wrinkled witch’ (Shakespeare 752) nor a ‘hateful wither’d hag’ (Shakespeare 753). She was a young French princess of 15, at the time of her marriage on 22 April 1445 (Wolffe 182). ‘The new queen. . .was soon to be a powerful influence in her new country’ (Wolffe 183).  She was a strong woman; unfortunate to live in a time when this, after her husband was indisposed, was always going to earn her calumny rather than honours. ‘The English always showed a dislike of foreign queens who meddled in politics’ (Wolffe 183).

Richard, Duke of York, and the father to Edward, George and Richard, took over at this time. He then claimed to have a better claim to the throne, as he was descended from an older son of King Edward III, than was the House of Lancaster.

Henry VI would die in 1471, some three months after the death of his son. ‘He was done to death in the Tower a few hours before Edward IV reached London on the vigil of the Ascension, during the night or early morning of 21-22 May’ (Wolffe 347).

Shakespeare accuses Richard of King Henry’s murder; through the mouthpieces of Lady Anne, his embittered widow Margaret, and finally the ghost of Henry himself.
Th’ untimely fall of virtuous Lancaster
Poor key-cold figure of a holy king!
…To hear the lamentations of poor Anne,
Wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughtered son,
Stabb’d by the self-same hand that made these wounds.
Lo, in these windows that let forth thy life
I pour the helpless balm of my poor eyes.
Curs’d be the hand that made these fatal holes!
Cursed by the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence’ (Shakespeare 747).

In one of the last scenes in the play, the ghost of the deceased himself confirms that he was fatally stabbed by Richard:
‘When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes
Think on the Tower and me. Despair and die’ (Shakespeare 786).

Shakespeare also wrote another historical play, Henry VI, which was one of his first, in three parts. This ends in the same way, with the ill-fated eponymous king being stabbed by Gloucester [i.e. Richard], again portrayed as a hideous monster. Before he stabs him, Henry remarks:
‘A persecutor I am sure thou art
If murdering innocents be executing
Why, then thou art an executioner’ (Shakespeare 741)

In his defence: ‘If Richard aspired to the crown, whose whole conduct during Edward’s reign was a scene, as we are told, of plausibility and decorum, would he officiously and unnecessarily have taken on himself the odium of slaying a saint-like monarch, adored by the people? . . .The blind and indiscriminate zeal with which every crime committed in that bloody age was placed to Richard’s account, makes it greatly improbable’ (Walpole 165).

The Yorkist account The Arivall of Edward IV claims: ‘The certaintie of all whiche came to the knowledge of the sayd Henry, late called Kyng, being in the Tower of London; not havynge, afore that, knowledge of the saide matars, he toke it so great dispite, ire, indingnation, that, of pure displeasure, and melencoly, he dyed the xxiij. day of the monithe of May’ (Bruce).  This hardly seems plausible to historians today.

Just as his son’s death, it seems that the orders for Henry’s murder came from his rival king, Edward VI. ‘The first to name Gloucester as the murderer is probably the Frenchman Philippe de Commines writing about 1490 and the first English writer John Rous in his Historia de Regibus Anglie, written about the same time’ (Richard III Society). Henry’s biographer mentions when his remains were exhumed in 1910, expert opinion ‘confirmed the almost unanimous views of the contemporary chroniclers: the hair matted with blood on the skull showed that he had indeed died a violent death. That deed could only have been done on the orders of Edward IV himself’ (Wolffe 347).

The identity of the actual murderer, who carried out Edward’s orders, will never truly be known.

The brother of Edward IV and Richard, George Plantagenet was perhaps the most treacherous of the family, well described as ‘false, fleeting, perjured Clarence’ (Shakespeare 755).  He would die in the Tower of London in 1478, his is the next death we shall look at.

Shakespeare mentions Richard’s complicity in his brother’s murder, in his own words:
‘Go tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return
Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven’ (Shakespeare 747).
He then details his motivation for this fratricide, which is that he will then be closer to the throne:
‘Clarence still breathes; Edward still lives and reigns;
When they are gone, then must I count my gains’ (Shakespeare 747).

Richard is then accused by the hitmen whom he has hired:
Zounds, he dies! I had forgot the reward.
Where’s thy conscience now?
O, in the duke of Gloucester’s purse (Shakespeare 756).

This was not the way that the real George died at all. He had always been treacherous, playing both sides in the Wars of the Roses, for his own benefit. George was married to Isabel Neville, Anne’s older sister, both daughters of the Earl of Warwick known as the “Kingmaker”. He would side with his father-in-law, when Warwick rebelled against Edward IV, restoring Henry VI briefly to the throne. Then George changed sides again, going back to the Yorkists, before they were victorious at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. It seems that Edward forgave his brother, at this stage.

In 1477, the king finally moved against his brother. Why he should do so, at this date, is something for historians to question? There was George’s alcoholism (Gregory), and his deteriorating mental state (Shipley).  Finally, there was his outrageous behaviour after Isabel’s death, probably in childbirth. This led to the execution of Ankarette Twynyho, Isabel’s lady-in-waiting, whom George accused of his wife’s murder (Gregory), then ‘the jurors for fear gave the verdict contrary to their conscience, in proof whereof divers of them came to the said Ankarette in remorse and asked her forgiveness, in consideration of the imaginations of the said duke and his great might (Jackson).  After being “tried” at his castle in Warwick the almost certainly innocent woman was hanged (Ashworth).

Perhaps the main reason for their falling out ‘was that when George asked to marry Mary, the daughter of the late Duke of Burgundy, Edward refused. Perhaps he feared that such an alliance would give George too much power’ (Ashworth).  This led to tensions between the brothers, and perhaps to Edward this was the final straw.

Another question is the influence of Elizabeth, Edward’s queen, on his decision, whom Clarence had accused of being a witch (Gregory). George ‘kept no terms with the queen and her relations’ (Walpole 166). This is certainly hinted at in the play with Gloucester’s comment ‘Our brother is imprison’d by your means’ (Shakespeare 751).  Queen Elizabeth defends herself with:
‘I never did incense his Majesty
Against the Duke of Clarence, but have been
An earnest advocate to plead for him.
My lord, you do me shameful injury’ (Shakespeare 751).

Edward would pass a Bill of Attainder through Parliament against Clarence, ensuring that he would be executed (Walpole 167).  George found himself in court accused over the Twynho affair, of ‘railing against the king and of claiming to be the Lancastrian heir‘ (Ashworth).  He was convicted of “unnatural, loathly treasons” (Shipley).

‘Whether Clarence was guilty we cannot easily tell; for in those times neither the public nor the prisoner were often favoured with knowing the evidence on which sentence was passed. Nor was much information of that sort given to or asked by parliament itself, previous to bills of attainder’ (Walpole 166).

George would be executed privately on 18 February 1478 (Gregory), which was most unusual in the 15th Century; most cases of treason were made an example of through public beheading.  Perhaps he did lose his head, the usual punishment for noblemen. However, the story would persist that Clarence was drowned in a butt of malmsey, ie a barrel of this type of sweet wine.  It originated in Greece in ancient times, at a place called Malvasia, another name the wine is known by (Wine-Searcher). This story has been denounced by some historians as ‘perfectly ridiculous’ (Walpole 166), but others claim the myth was true, and he died ‘allegedly by drowning in a barrel of malmsey wine’ (Gregory).

As for Richard’s guilt in his brother’s death; ‘Hall, Holinshed and Stowe say not a word of Richard being the one who put the sentence in execution; but, on the contrary, they all say he openly resisted the murder of Clarence’ (Walpole 166).  Edward seems to have regretted George’s execution:
‘Have I a tongue to doom my brother’s death,
And shall that tongue give pardon to a slave?
My brother kill’d no man – his fault was thought
And yet his punishment was bitter death’ {Shakespeare 759}.

Richard certainly benefited, because after this nobody stood between him and the throne, except for Edward’s children. ‘Richard probably had no thought of ever becoming king at this point in time and other sources claim that he pleaded for his brother’s life’ (Ashworth).  Yet he seems to be guiltless of either murder, or influencing the king to execute Clarence. ‘If Richard had been instigator or executioner, it is not likely that the king would have assumed the whole merciless criminality to himself, without bestowing a due share on his brother Gloucester’ (Walpole 167).

In conclusion, we can believe what Shakespeare wrote about Richard III was the gospel truth, or consider the inaccuracies.  Of his version: ‘This indeed is the authority which I do not pretend to combat.  Shakespeare’s immortal scenes will exist, when such poor arguments as mine are forgotten.  Richard at least will be tried and executed on the stage, when his defense remains on some obscure shelf of a library’ (Walpole 227).  He is still somewhat right there, today, but Walpole could not imagine the abundance of data available to us now in the Information Age.

Of all the people in the Opera House audience for Richard III, screaming for the villain’s blood, most of them had access to a smartphone or tablet, and therefore could look up the alternative story that he was not quite so evil.  With the truth, versus alternative facts and downright Tudor propaganda, in this case, there may be plenty of information available out there.  However, in the end, what you believe is entirely up to you.



Kendall, Paul Ed.  Richard III: The Great Debate. This compilation consists of: More, Thomas (c1513) History of King Richard III; & Walpole, Horace (1768) Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III. The Folio Society, 1965.

Shakespeare, William.  The Complete Works. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

Wolffe, Bertram.  HENRY VI.  Eyre Methuen, 1981.


“George, Duke of Clarence”.  Shakespeare & History.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Malvasia”.  Wine-Searcher.  2015. Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Richard III”.  Shakespeare & History.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

“Robert Fabyan”.  ITA. 2011. Accessed 1 April 2017.

“The murders of Edward of Lancaster and Henry VI”.  Richard III Society.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Ashworth, Elizabeth.  George, Duke of Clarence.  Elizabeth Ashworth’s Blog.  18 February 2013.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Bruce, John Ed.  The Arrivall of Edward IV: Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV, in England and the Finall Recouerye of His Kingdomes from Henry VI.  The Camden Society. 1471.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Castelow, Ellen.  The Battle of Tewkesbury.  Historic UK.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Crowther, David.  Polydore Vergil and Historia Anglia.  The History of England.  2017. Accessed 1 April 2017.

De Lisle, Leanda.  The Wars of the Roses must not be rebranded as the Cousins’ War. Catholic Herald. 15 October 2013.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Frye, Carrie.  The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole.  Longreads.  2014.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Gregory, Philippa.  George Duke of Clarence {1449-1478}.  Philippa Gregory website.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Gregory, Philippa.  Henry VI {1421-1471}.  Philippa Gregory website.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Gregory, Philippa.  Richard III {1452-1485}.  Philippa Gregory website.  2017.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Harding, Alan.  HALL, Edward (1496/97-1547), of Gray’s Inn, London.  Institute of Historical Research.  1982.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Jackson, J.E.  The Execution of Ankarette Twynyho. Library of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society’s Museum.  1890.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Merriman, C.D.  Horace Walpole.  The Literature Network.  2006.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Roberts, David.  WILFRED OWEN : Greatest of the war poets who have written in the English language.  Saxon Books.  1999.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Shipley, Jonathan.  1478: The Duke of Clarence, in a butt of malmsey.  Executed Today. 18 February 2014.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Warkworth, John.  A chronicle of the first thirteen years of the reign of King Edward the Fourth.  University of Cambridge, Petershouse Library.  1839.  Accessed 1 April 2017.



One thought on “Richard III: A Defence

  1. Is it just me or are many others lazy as far as research into history is concerned? Until researching further, I had taken Mr Shakespeare as truth when he depicted historical figures. He has since fallen from the pedestal that I had built for him, and come crashing back to Earth with an inglorious thud. Many would do well to read historic summaries that you, fair maiden, do write.
    The world joins with me in thanking and applauding thee for presenting history so objectively.

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