Anyone who watched last night’s Channel 4 Documentary Richard III: The King Under the Car Park will need no reminding that members of the Richard III Society tend to be delusional fantasists rather than serious historians. Although we should doubtless be grateful to the Society for funding the dig that discovered the monarch’s bones, that very fact tends to slant the coverage of Richard’s resurrection.
There has been much talk about ‘re-writing history’ and countering ‘Tudor propaganda’; but the inconvenient truth (for Ricardians) is that the late king’s spine was indeed twisted by scoliosis and one of his shoulders was noticeably higher than the other. Those particular pieces of Tudor and Shakespearian “spin” were no more than the plain truth. So it is with the rest of Richard’s ‘black legend’. As far as serious historians are concerned, the case against Richard has long been closed. Or, to put it in topical terms, if Richard is innocent of the charges against him, then so is Chris Huhne.
Rising in the dock of History to hear the accusations against him, Richard III would be on his feet for a very long time. The murder of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower of London, would, of course, head the charge sheet. But what about the even more brutal killing – committed in the same grim fortress twelve years before, and carried out by Richard’s own hands – the murder of the saintly and mentally fragile Henry VI, England’s rightful anointed king?
Or the elimination earlier in 1483 of William, Lord Hastings, the very man who had helped to engineer the coup which brought Richard to the throne? Hastings, accused of treason at a meeting of Richard’s new council, was dragged kicking and screaming his innocence to be decapitated on a rough wooden builder’s block after the psychopathic king had sworn to have his victim’s head off before he had eaten his lunch. Or the cold-blooded execution in Salisbury market place of his own chief henchman and former partner in crime, Henry Stafford, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who, perceiving Richard’s truly evil nature when it was too late, had finally turned to rebel against him? Or Richard’s seizure of Lord Rivers and Sir Richard Grey (respectively uncle and half-brother of the little princes), arrested in their beds after being entertained to dinner at Richard’s table and lulled into drunken sleep at the Rose and Crown Inn in Stony Stratford, before being sent north to Richard’s Yorkshire heartland to be quietly murdered.
Richard III had a long list of crimes to answer for before his own subjects, appalled by his tyranny, rebelled after just two years of his rule and welcomed the unknown Welshman Henry Tudor in his place. They helped Henry to defeat Richard’s army at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, killed the king before he could flee, and dragged his torn and battered body to the nearby town of Leicester.
Why, since the discovery of what has now been positively identified as Richard’s skeleton in the ruins of the Franciscan Abbey of Greyfriars under a Leicester council car park, has there been such an avalanche of praise heaped on this awful little man? The lauding of wicked Richard has come not only from the usual suspects in his starry-eyed fan club, but from serious historians who really should know better. Chris Skidmore, a Tory MP and Tudor historian who has written a new book about Bosworth, even tabled a Commons Motion calling on the government to ‘arrange a full state funeral for the long dead monarch, and for his remains to be interred appropriately’.
The Richard III Society may huff and puff, but almost all serious modern historians – including Richard’s most recent biographers Professor Michael Hicks and Desmond Seward, and the respected historian Alison Weir – have come to the same conclusion: contemporary evidence rather than “Tudor propaganda” leaves little room for doubt that he is guilty of the crimes for which posterity (and Shakespeare) have traditionally condemned him. To pretend otherwise, as so many Ricardians do, is sentimental fantasy.
For the murder of Henry VI, stabbed and/or bludgeoned as he knelt in prayer in his cell in the Tower’s Wakefield tower, contemporary chronicler John Warkworth is specific: King Henry, he says was ‘put to death between eleven and twelve o clock… by the Duke of Gloucester (Richard’s title before he usurped the throne).’ The Burgundian diplomat Philppe de Commines, unlike Warkworth a sympathiser with Richard’s Yorkist house, agreed. Richard, he says, ‘killed poor King Henry with his own hand, or else caused him to be killed in his presence’. John Morton, bishop of Ely, wrote that Richard ‘slew King Henry with his own hand as men constantly say.’ Richard’s crime was widely known and his name reviled in his lifetime, long before any Tudor propagandists got spinning.
The arrest and killing of Richard’s other prominent victims – Hastings, Buckingham, Rivers and Grey – were carried out brazenly as open acts of terror to scare his subjects into submission in the aftermath of the coup that brought him the throne in Spring 1483. But Richard was canny enough to know that the rubbing out of the two little Princes, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, the frail final obstacles that stood in the way of his grasping total power, would be a murder too far even in an age inured to the terrible bloodletting of the Wars of the Roses. He ensured, therefore, that the smothering of the two boys in their Tower bedsheets was carried out in secret by his own Keeper of Horse, Sir James Tyrell, and two hired thugs, Miles Forest and John Dighton.
Although the fullest details of the double murder do indeed come from a Tudor writer – Sir Thomas More, Richard’s earliest biographer, who got his information from those who were at the Tower at the time – the literally killer fact ignored by the Richardian revisionists, is that More’s description of where the boys’ bodies were buried – under a heap of stones beneath the White Tower – exactly fits the actual discovery of their skeletons in the reign of Charles II. Charles certainly believed that the skeletons were those of his ancestors, and he gave them a fitting regal burial in Westminster Abbey. The skeletons were exhumed and examined in the 1930s after a Ricardian campaign and were found – surprise, surprise – to be those of two boys of the same ages as the Princes when they disappeared in September 1483.
A modern lawyer, addressing the Court of History in Richard’s defence, would make modish excuses for his client’s behaviour. For Richard suffered a dysfunctional childhood and youth. His father, two of his brothers and his guardian, Warwick the Kingmaker, all died violently in the Wars of the Roses. No wonder Richard’s characteristic tic – seen at his own coronation – was playing with his dagger, drawing it in and out of its sheath, while casting suspicious glances all around him. No wonder, too, that his many enemies spread absurd stories that he had been born with teeth and hair down to his shoulders, or that he had only to breathe on a flower for its petals to wither. The crooked product of twisted times, Richard would never be “normal”.
The Leicester bones have finally been identified, so where should Richard’s mortal remains be reburied? Leicester looks likely to claim the king for its own cathedral. Westminster Abbey, resting place of the princes, has also been suggested. Surely it would be sacrilege to bury this killer in any Holy place. Even stowing him in the Yorkist heartland, in York Minster or the castles of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton, would be showing him too much respect. Like his fellow tyrant Adolf Hitler, whose bunker, by strange coincidence, now lies under a Berlin car park, the best resting place for Richard would surely be a dishonoured tomb underneath the very same car park where he has lain these past five centuries. He deserves no better.
Nigel Jones’s Tower: an epic history of the Tower of London is published by Hutchinson/Windmill. He will lead ‘Winter of Discontent’ a tour of Ricardian sites in Yorkshire, the Midlands and London between August 20-23 2013. www.historicaltrips.com