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Does the reputation of Richard III deserve rehabilitation?

The Catholic culture of the time may have persuaded Richard that the Princes in the Tower needed to ‘disappear’

By on Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Kevin Spacey playing Richard III (PA)

Kevin Spacey playing Richard III (PA)

It is remarkable how Richard III has become a celebrity half a millennium after he was killed at Bosworth. Plans for his new tomb at Leicester Cathedral have been unveiled with as much reverence as if he had died in 1985, rather than 1485. This has less to do with the power of history, however, than the power of fiction.

In Shakespeare’s Richard III we have a biblical Herod, killer of his young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, his hunchback an outward sign of a disfigured soul. Shakespeare was building on a tradition that already existed. But after the Tudor period this black portrait of Richard provoked a reaction.

Perhaps the most influential modern work in Richard’s rehabilitation is Josephine Tey’s detective story, Daughter of Time. Written not long after Stalin’s show trials, which strongly influenced Tey’s viewpoint, the novel ‘proves’ that Richard, who was in many respects an excellent king, was in fact innocent of the deaths of the princes.

Readers were outraged that the last crowned Plantagenet had been condemned for a crime he had not committed. It is to Tey’s novel that we owe much of the passion of the Richard III Society and those who paid for the dig that raised Richard out from under a Leicester car park. It also provides literary origins of the doe-eyed hero we saw in the BBC drama, The White Queen.

The Richard III character in The White Queen acknowledges that he had a clear motive for murdering his nephews. After he had overthrown the twelve-year old Edward V and imprisoned him with the little Richard Duke of York, claiming they were illegitimate, the boy had remained a focus of opposition. But while previous usurpers had always claimed their captive predecessors had died of natural causes, lain out the bodies to prove they were dead, and so encouraged former enemies to unite around their rule, the princes simply vanished.

The disappearance of Edward V and his brother from the Tower than summer of 1483 is key to claims that Richard never killed them, and lies at the heart of all the conspiracy theories about what did happen to them. Some argue that Richard III spirited them to a safe place, others claim that someone close to Henry Tudor had them murdered, and the bodies hidden to cast the blame of Richard. But Richard also had a motive for ‘disappearing’ them and it is, perhaps my Catholic upbringing that helped me see his actions in the context of the Catholic culture of his times.

As Richard III well knew, his brother Edward IV had ordered the death of his Lancastrian predecessor, Henry VI, only to see the dead king’s tomb become the focus of a hugely popular religious cult. People saw Henry VI, who had been mentally ill, as an ‘innocent’. Although he had died in middle age they painted portraits of him in their churches as a beardless boy, and prayed to him as a royal ‘saint’ whose suffering in life would give him some insight in their suffering now he was dead. In the princes the religious qualities associated with royalty were combined with the purity of childhood, and Richard had good reason to fear they would become popular saints. But without a tomb there would be no focus of a cult and without bodies or items belonging to the princes on display there would be no relics either. Vanishing the princes was very convenient for Richard.

I fear the likely truth is that just as the body in the car park proved Richard III really did have a twisted spine, so the tradition that he murdered his nephews is also based on fact. When they do bury Richard he should certainly have a requiem Mass and many, many prayers said for his soul.