Richard III: The truth may yet be discovered

A newly found, deformed skeleton may be that of our most maligned monarch. Lisa Hilton asks if it's really him, and did he kill the Princes in the Tower?

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The discovery by archaeologists at the University of Leicester of male bones which may prove to be those of Richard III, the last truly English, and certainly the most contentious of our monarchs, has caused plenty of rattling among other historical skeletons.

If the find proves to be Richard's remains, do they deserve a royal funeral? What do we actually know about Richard "Crookback", whose crimes, according to some chroniclers, included treason, murder and even incest? Moreover, why does the physical condition of the skeleton appear to have so much bearing on a moral assessment of the king's character?

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as he was known for much of his life, was the third son of the Duke of York, who was killed fighting the Lancastrian forces of Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses. York's eldest son, Edward IV, was crowned king in 1461. At his death in 1483, Richard was named Protector in his brother's will, to preside over the minority of the underage Edward V. Edward's Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, but in June that year was persuaded to hand over her younger son to join his brother in the Tower. Six days later, the mayor of London, Dr Ralph Shaa, preached a sermon at St Paul's Cross declaring the marriage between Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV invalid, on the grounds of a pre-contract between the king and another woman, Lady Eleanor Butler (who was conveniently dead). Edward's heirs were thus declared illegitimate and after being proclaimed King at the end of the month, Richard was crowned in early July.

After a two-year reign, during which his only heir, Edward of Middleham, died, the beleaguered king met the Tudor pretender, the future Henry VII, in battle at Bosworth Field. Henry's own royal blood was on the meagre side, but he had augmented his claim by promising to marry Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's bastardised daughter, the true Plantagenet heiress. Richard died "fighting manfully in the press of his enemies", Henry married Elizabeth, and the Tudor age began.

So was Richard a murderous usurper, or a ruthless master of realpolitik who recognised that, after 30 years of civil war, the nation could not once again be left to the factional politics which inevitably surrounded an underage king? The focus of this question has centred on the fate of the princes in the tower. Quite simply, no one actually knows what happened to Edward V and his brother. They were spotted in the precincts of the Tower as late as September 1483, but after that they vanished. Their deaths were reported as fact as far away as Poland, yet there is no definitive evidence that the boys were murdered. At best, a conspiracy of silence surrounds their disappearance, in that those who claimed to know relied on hearsay, and those in a position to know kept silent.

Certainly, numerous contemporary sources claim Richard had the boys killed, but curiously, in the Act of Attainder passed against Richard by Henry VII's first parliament, no political capital was made out of the theory. Henry's subsequent attempt to pin the killing on James Tyrell, who had already been executed, was merely an attempt to discourage future pretenders to the throne – even his official historian, Polydore Vergil, didn't believe it.

Two skeletons found by workmen in 1674 might provide a clue to the mystery. They were exhumed and examined by anatomists in 1933 and claimed to be those of one boy aged 12 or 13 and another aged between nine and 11. Edward was 12 and his brother Richard 10 when they disappeared. However, the techniques available in the 1930s prevented even the sex of the remains being proved, and the date and circumstances of their deaths will remain uncertain until the casket in which they were interred in 1678 is permitted to be reopened and the bones re-examined. That said, there can have been no one who would benefit more by the princes' deaths than Richard. It thus seems reasonable to assume, given the lack of any other proof, that he had them killed, though how and when remains unknown.

The charge of incest against Richard is less well known, but even more intriguing. Technically, his marriage to his first wife, Anne Neville, was incestuous, as they were related within the degrees prohibited by canon law, and no papal dispensation was sought, a grave matter in a much more pious age. It was also rumoured that after the death of his son, when it became apparent that Anne could have no more children, that Richard had her poisoned in order to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. Not only could Elizabeth provide him with children, but such a marriage would have scotched Henry VII's flimsy claim. Extraordinarily, Elizabeth herself was not averse to the idea of marrying the man who had declared her a bastard, killed several of her relations and, possibly, murdered her brothers. Tudor propaganda has bequeathed a memory of Elizabeth as a dutiful consort to Henry, but it is possible that she considered marriage to a non-royal upstart anathema. A copy of a letter in the archives of the Earls of Arundel, written by Elizabeth, declares that King Richard is her "only joy and maker in this world" and that she was "his, in heart and thoughts, in body and in all". Contemporaries were so scandalised by rumours that the two were lovers that Richard was forced to make a public declaration that he had no intention of marrying his niece, but evidence that he thought of seeking a papal dispensation to do so leaves that claim in considerable doubt.

Perhaps the most speculation, however, has focused on Richard's alleged physical malformation. Shakespeare's Richard III, a naked exercise in Tudor spin, has him describe "the envious mountain on my back/Where sits deformity to mock my body"; but again, no one knows what Richard looked like. A 17th-century copy of an original painting does show that the king's shoulders were uneven, and historians have suggested that he may have suffered from various conditions including curvature of the spine and Erb's palsy, which can cause deformation in the shoulder and arm. However, none of Richard's contemporaries, even his enemies, claimed he was deformed in his lifetime. All the hypotheses surrounding his ailment are based on descriptions in Shakespeare and Thomas More's Tudor Apology in The History of King Richard III. But a man who was physically handicapped could not have ridden, handled weapons, or made himself notable in three major battles, as Richard did. Two chroniclers who saw him, the writer of the Croyland Chronicle and the German knight Niclas von Popplau, mention only that he was taller than average, slim and unusually pale. It is possible that the Leicester researchers, who are basing their speculation on the fact that the skeleton they have discovered appears to be affected by scoliosis, in which a person's spine is curved from side to side, have begun their analysis on a false premise. It seems curious too, that the medieval idea of correlating physical deformity with moral wickedness should still appear to be so powerful. Whether or not Richard was deformed can have no real bearing on assessments of his reign.

So what ought that assessment to be? Since 1924, the Richard III Society has sought to promote a more balanced view of Richard's achievements. Arguably, he saved England from further civil war, inaugurated a more egalitarian legal system and attempted to drag the realm into the modern age. Whatever the results of the DNA tests to be performed on the king's blood descendants, historians can only hope that in the future his legacy will be based on fact, rather than Shakespearean legend.

Lisa Hilton has lectured to the London and Home Counties Branch of the Richard III Society. Her historical novel, Wolves in Winter, is out in November

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