Born on 2 October, 1452, Richard III was King of England from 1483 until his death on 22 August, 1485 at the age of 32. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at Bosworth Field, where he was killed by a blow to the head, was the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, and marked the end of the Middle Ages in England.
To be to the point, I believe he has been given a bum rap in history, incited largely by Shakespeare's portrayal in his play, Richard III, written over a hundred years after the fact. I'm not blaming the Immortal Bard, however. How else could he paint this king, this "son of York"? I don't imagine that as a Tudor, Elizabeth I would have been too keen on him being championed. Besides, Shakespeare wrote a theater piece, and theater pieces are very good at either vilifying or glorifying people who can't speak up for themselves to set the record straight. It is not my intent to do likewise. I didn't know the man, nor did I live under his reign. Did he covet the Crown? Of course he did. Did he do whatever he needed to do to get it? Perhaps. Did he fight to keep it? Of course. But all of this could also be said about virtually every other human being born only one or two degrees from a throne. History is written by the winners. Some people are remembered as heroes and some as antiheroes, it all depends on who holds the pen and who's deciding the spin.
"There is no clear evidence that Richard was guilty or innocent of his so-called 'crimes', but historians, whether detractors or sympathisers, must work with the information derived from the sources and endeavour to present a balanced view of this controversial figure." - Wendy E.A. Moorhen (Richard III Society)
Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon, a contemporary, wrote of Richard that he was, "A good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people." He enacted anti-corruption and trade protection laws that benefited the common populace, and we all know how well that goes over with the upper 1%. There is nothing new under the sun, and politics never change. They never have. Whatever, I'm not going to debate (either pro or con) all that Richard III has been accused of. People far more educated on his life have already done that. I will go into his appearance, though.
Niclas von Popplau, a knight who met Richard in 1484, wrote in his travel diary: "King Richard is… a high-born prince, three fingers taller than I, but a bit slimmer and not as thickset as I am, and much more lightly built; he has quite slender arms and thighs, and also a great heart."
William Shakespeare, in his play, Richard III, in 1592: "...A poisonous hunch-backed toad."
But, as I say, can we take words from a theater piece as scripture? Even Shakespeare's? What is clear is that the descriptions of Richard grow more and more unfavorable as the years pass. The Countess of Desmond, who danced with the prince, wrote, "He was the handsomest man in the room except his brother Edward, and was very well made," while Polyfor Vergil, an Italian cleric commissioned by Henry VII wrote in 1534, "He was lyttle of stature, deformyd of body, thone showlder being higher than thother, a short and sowre cowntenance, which semyd to savor of mischief and utter evydently craft and deceyt."
When you're commissioned by a living king to write about a dead, enemy king, and you wish to escape the Tower, you tend to give him what he wants to read.
The latest findings, gathered from three years of DNA testing, reveal that Richard had blue eyes and blond hair, nothing like the dark-haired, steely dark-eyed man portrayed in posthumous portraits. He was not a "hunchback," but he did have idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis, which probably did not show from beneath his clothing. Yes, his remains show a severely curved spine, but remember that it is photographed on a flat surface and we do not have the benefit of seeing it as it appeared in a normal upright position, supported by what would be strongly developed back muscles. I know something about this particular kind of scoliosis because my eldest son has it, and it is not physically evident to those who are not aware of it. If Richard had been as severely handicapped as has been portrayed, I believe he could not have been the formidable opponent he was on the battlefield, wielding a heavy sword, or supporting armor on his body.
Putting all of this aside, it excites me that Richard III came back to us during my lifetime, that his history has mingled with ours, and that we are the generation who will perhaps give him his final peace at last.
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
- William Shakespeare, Richard III