Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Richard III

For most people, England's King Richard III is a character in a play that was required reading (or viewing) in  High School. With his recent appearance in the news, suddenly Richard III references are popping out of the woodwork. 

From what I've seen (using an exhaustive search of during-my-morning-coffee on Twitter and Tumblr) most people seem to know three things about him.

1) Shakespeare wrote a play about him.

2) He was a hunchback.

3) He murdered at least one kid, possibly two, and they were either his sons or nephews.

Is it bad that I'm so excited that my list was as high as three things about a man who has been ignored for so long?

Frontispage of the First Quarto Richard The Third

1) Shakespeare wrote a play about him.

This is true, Shakespeare did indeed write a play titled The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. It was a very popular play, and most of the myths that persist about Richard III today were most likely because of this particular play.. 

That's because Shakespeare's Richard III was about as accurate to the life of the real Richard III,  as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer is to the life of the real Abraham Lincoln. 

2) He was a hunchback.

This is probably the most famous picture of Richard III. At the time, it was popular to have portraits done with the subject sitting at an angle, so sometimes one shoulder would look a little higher than the other. A lot of this explains why several people of the era look a little odd in their portraits. 

Richard was an accomplished arms-man, competent with many weapons and fought in heavy armor. A hunchback (especially one as deformed as Shakespeare's play portrays him) could not physically do such things. The famous painting above, when viewed under X-ray show that originally the painting had no hunchback.

For the record, the only record of Richard III having anything physically unusual was a diplomat who wrote that Richard III was "comely enough, though small in stature." [*] Yep, it was the quintessential  "You're shorter than I expected." 

3) He murdered at least one kid, possibly two, and they were either his sons or nephews.

The boys in question were King Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Collectively they're known as "The Princes in the Tower," and they were his nephews. 

Edward V was crowned king of England when he was 12 and reigned for about 2 months, before being removed from the throne because he found to be an illegitimate child of his father (if you want to read the whole of the legal intrigue, you can read about the Titulus Regius here). He was removed from the throne and his uncle Richard became king.

Richard of Shrewsbury, was the younger brother of Edward V. They lived in the Tower of London. This seems to be what trips up most people today. In 1483, the Tower of London wasn't a prison -- it was a palace and considered a royal residence. But Richard III didn't lock them up in there, that's where Edward V had lived even when he was king. He simply continued living there after his uncle ascended as King Richard III.

As for what happened to those two boys, nobody knows. No longer important in political matters, they gradually disappear from the record, and vanish completely late in 1483. It's possible they were alive into early 1484, and simply weren't remarked upon. The problem is, we just don't know.

Rumors of the boys' death didn't start circulate until mid-1484, and those rumors that implicate Richard III are suspiciously advantageous in both detail and their timing in Henry Tudor's (the future-Henry VII) plans to depose Richard III. 

In reality, what most likely happened was that the boys died via the most common reason for death of someone of their age and time period -- illness. Then the upcoming Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII used their deaths as a propaganda tool. 

Richard III was only king for 2 years, but in those two years he was a busy man. Not plotting, scheming, murdering preteens, and the other Shakespearean traits he's been ascribed. Instead his real legacy is legal -- he implemented the system of bail we have in the courts today and  he abolished the tradition of allowing people to buy a position and insisted that government posts be given according to merit alone. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor's forces. 

It's true that they've found skeletons of children in the Tower of London, but there's a problem with labeling them as the bodies of young Edward and Richard. Principally, they've found the bodies of four

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