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Richard III: not as nasty as you thought?

Should the last king killed in battle be given a Catholic burial in Westminster?

By on Friday, 31 August 2012

Notebook, August 31, 2012

A car park in Leicester may be home to the last king of England to die in battle: Richard III. Last weekend archaeologists from the University of Leicester brought in heavy diggers to the city’s Greyfriars car park, which historians believe to be the site of the old Franciscan friary where the last Plantagenet was buried.

It’s an exciting time for fans of Richard III, of whom there are many, this king having societies all over the English-speaking world dedicated to softening his image. This is a little strange, considering that Gloucester was a usurper and probably had his young nephews, Edward V and his brother Richard, murdered in the Tower.

The Richard III Society originally began as an informal group of amateur historians in the 1920s. But the Ricardian movement only took off after Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film amid a general culture of historical revisionism and scepticism. Since then has there have been favourable historical novels, the latest by bestselling author Philippa Gregory, a television “trial” in which he was found not guilty and even the original Blackadder, in which Richard is a kindly uncle and Henry Tudor a scheming liar.

Best of all for Ricardians, there came proof in 1973 that a “hunchback” had been drawn on to the famous painting in the National Portrait Gallery, no doubt part of the Tudor black propaganda. Certainly no contemporary account ever mentions any deformity, at a time when a disability would be the central feature of someone’s public persona. And while two young skeletons found in the Tower in the 17th century were shown to be too young to be Henry Tudor’s doing, science has yet to prove they were the princes.

What is certainly the case is that people at the time believed Richard to be the culprit, and he was unable to disprove them by producing the boys. And yet this horrific crime seems out of character for a king who was devout and viewed as a wise and considerate lawmaker.

If Richard is rescued from a car park (a fate that has also befallen John Knox), the only questions are where he should be re-buried – would it be Westminster Abbey, where the majority of late medieval kings rest? – and whether this pious man would have a Catholic ceremony.


Even if Richard were responsible for the princes’ deaths he would be nothing like as big a villain as his great-nephew Henry VIII, who destroyed Greyfriars Abbey in Leicester in the worst episode of cultural vandalism in English history. Among the many jewels ruined was Battle Abbey, built by William the Conqueror during one of his brief spasms of guilt over the deaths of 7,000 men here in 1066.

My wife and I visited the Abbey last weekend, where I made my three-year-old daughter take part in a re-enactment for children (it will give her something to put in the misery memoirs). This was yards from the traditional spot where King Harold became the second to last English monarch to die in battle, although the last remains of this tragic figure also remain a mystery. The most likely candidate remains Holy Trinity in Bosham, Sussex, although a request 10 years ago to have the remains exhumed and tested was rejected by the Diocese of Chichester.


The English squirearchy remain the politest people on earth. Having enjoyed the hospitality of a friend’s parents we were suitably well-trained to write a thank-you note, only to receive one in return thanking us for our thank-you note. Should we respond, or will this never end?

  • Hamish Redux

    I enjoyed “The Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey, a detective novel based on the story of Richard III, although not competent to go into all the details she gives, which seem to prove Richard’s innocence. As a Yorkshire resident I am inclined to go with the general pro-Richard line.

    The book’s title comes from “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority” by Francis Bacon.

  • Jtarpley

    Perhaps now we can find him a horse…..

  • Alexjpscott

    Someone should tell this author that the people of the time DID NOT believe Richard killed the Princes, only ones 20 odd years later when Morton and Virgil started spreading the gossip to clear Henry Tudor’s name because he probably DID do it.

    There is no contempory evidence that the Princes “vanished” whilst in the care of Richard, quite the opposite.  It is more than likely that Henry had them removed like he did all the remaining Plantagenates…

  • Samkelly72

    I definitely think Richard III was an innocent man, why would he murder the children of the brother he admired and adored.   He hated London and all the paraphenalia there, so why would he want to usurp the throne.   He took the throne because he was told by Bishop Stillington that he had himself had married his brother Edward IV (then Earl of March) to a Lady Eleanor Butler a few years before marrying Elizabeth Woodville (when he was King) hence making any children born to them illegitimate.    Whether this was true or not we will never know, but Richard being a devout man believed the Bishop.   It could of been anyone who killed the princes, if they were killed at all, maybe the Duke of Buckingham who turned against Richard, Sir James Tyrell or his henchman Miles Forest and John Dighton, or even Henry VII’s mother, who I think hid behind a mask of devoutism, and was a scheming ambitious woman and her husband Lord Stanley, who betrayed Richard on the battlefield.   All of these people had a reason to kill the princes.  But we will never know until remains of them are found or if the ones that have been found are DNA tested.    

    Richard’s image was definitely tarnished by the Tudors to make him look bad and them to look heroes, by getting rid of the evil, hunchback, murderous usurper and rescuing England from tyranny!!     Of course the rumours were fuelled by the fanatic Sir Thomas More when he wrote his book years after the event and was only a small child when Richard died.

  • Parasum

    When the crimes of Henry VIII are rehearsed, don’t forget those of his father. As for William the Bastard, England was ruined by his – Papally-blessed – invasion.  Maybe the schism of 1534 was *karma* for it. England did not need those Norman barbarians – it had a high culture already, thanks to the efforts of kings like Alfred the Great. He built up English culture – Henry VIII did a lot to to destroy it. 

    As for “cultural vandalism”: one of the neglected aspects of the Spoliation of the Monasteries was the destruction of endless cartloads of books for being “Papist”. The damage done to learning was inestimable, and lasting. The education of the poor and the care of the destitute was very severely affected – there were no more monasteries to take care of these things; and to bring an end to the great increase in beggary Henry VIII, angel of compassion as he was, made begging unlawful. As for the plundered wealth, he gave a lot of that to his *nouveaux riches* courtiers, so that they could build great houses for themselves with the wealth that had been given to religious houses for the comfort of the poor and needy. To call all this an orgy of selfishness, plunder, violence, violation of the oath he took at his coronation AKA perjury, lust, hypocrisy, slander, godlessness & cruelty, is simply to call things by their right names. The Reformers were very unsympathetic to begging – they carried further tendencies already present before the Reformation. Henry VIII and his circle were thieves – St. Basil & St. John Chrysostom would not have been able to find words harsh enough for them. Henry VIII must be in the running for Worst of English Kings. He didn’t even have the virtue of using well and wisely the money his father had extorted from the nobility. He ought to be disinterred and buried in lime like a murderer; if ever Richard III’s remains are found, they should be buried with honour according to Catholic rites.

    A lot of damage was done by others at various times – Henry VIII was not the first or the last to vandalise religious houses in England.

  • Alexjpscott

     The rumours were started by John Morton and further fuekked by Polydore Virgil, Henry VII tame historian, who incidently had a reputation for taking documents form libraries and not returning them. Could these documents have been the ones that painted Richard in a good light I wonder? Very probably. The sparse information we have on Richard states him as being good, just and honest. Just the 3 virtues you expect in a child murderer…

  • Charles Martel

    Even if Richard III gets a Catholic ceremony, it will be Archbishop Nichols wearing a dishcloth, accompanied by the Archlayman of Canterbury, the Grand Mufti of Leicester and Uncle Tom Cobley and all who will ‘celebrate the life of Richard III’. It won’t be anything remotely like what Richard wold have recognised as a Requiem Mass.

  • SouthCoast

    I was going to mention Tey, so I will merely second your opinion.

  • Bwv232

    Richard was catholic , no doubt about that , so the state burial ceremony must be held at the Westminster Catholic Cathedral in Victoria!!!

  • Guest

    Should be buried according to something as close as possible to the Rite he knew, in Latin.

  • Stanley

    “Fans of King Richard III” — yes like the mournful lady from the King Richard III Society whom we saw overcome with emotion during the excavations — which have still not been published in form which would permit academic peer-appraisal. They broke the concrete, they found the skeleton of an injured man of the right date. They cried ‘Eureka’. But until there has been proper academic scrutiny of the work, its findings can only be provisional
    As for whether Richard was a good man or a bad one, History is a rigorous form of scholarship; archaeology even closer to science. His many murders and his coup, worthy of Communist tyrant in a third world country, are on the record. His record as King is too short to form much judgment on — except that under his rule, support for the Yorkists seems to have dwindled rapidly. Contemporaries did not conceal his positive characteristics. They mentioned his courage in battle, for example. So why should we disbelieve the rest of the story?  Even Cardinal Bourchier, a staunch Yorkist under earlier monarchs, appears to have turned against him. You simply do not find professional historians with a good command of the period and the sources giving in to the sentimental ‘Ricardian’ myth, a suburban cult belief comparable to the ‘Oxfordians’ and ‘Baconians’ who think that anyone but William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. And in Richard’s case, there is plenty of evidence around.

  • Thomas Bourchier

     “…an innocent man, why would he murder the children of the brother he admired and adored.”

    The evidence suggests a greedy and ruthless power-grabber who killed everyone who stood between him and power.

    I guess the daft debate on Richard III is yet another sign of the steep intellectual and educational decline of the British.

  • Thomas Bourchier

    Which is obviously why the Princes’ mother, Queen Elizabeth, the very epitome of Yorkism, offered a marriage alliance between her daughter, to the mother of Henry Tudor, the exiled Earl of Richmond and Lancastrian standard bearer, about a year after the accession of Richard III.  She obviously thought her sons were both dead.

    “The rumours were started by John Morton and further fuekked by Polydore Virgil…” A pretty silly conjecture.”

    Why not give your evidently limited grasp of English history a respray by watching a few of Dr. David Starkey’s tv programmes—which are pretty authoritative.