Yesterday morning I was glued to my laptop, watching the press conference announcing the results of the research into the skeleton found in a Leicester car park last year. To cut a long story short, they confirmed that yes, the body is that of Richard III, beyond a reasonable doubt. I was immensely moved by the whole proceedings – after all, Richard is the most vilified king in English history, and this discovery goes a long way towards teasing out the truth from the Tudor propaganda.
But what is that truth? Well, for a start, it confirms that although Richard suffered from scoliosis (a twisted spine) which would have likely left him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, he was not a “hunchback”, nor did he have a withered arm. So Shakespeare’s representation of his deformities is a gross exaggeration but not wholly without foundation. The remains and the facial reconstruction based on them even fit the portraits of Richard: a handsome young man with delicate, almost feminine hands despite his reputation as a great fighter. Indeed, far from making him appear the wicked king of legend, most portraits show a care-worn figure, perhaps troubled by chronic pain caused by his scoliosis.
Secondly, the Leicester investigation provides touching insights into the events of his death. The body bears several potentially fatal head-wounds, the most severe of which almost certainly killed him, but there are other, minor wounds that seem most likely to have been inflicted after death. Dagger cuts to the face, and stabs to the back and buttocks (areas that would have been protected by armour during the battle), all echo contemporary accounts which say that his body was stripped and tied across a packhorse for transport to Leicester.
None of this, of course, bears much relation to the real mystery associated with Richard: did he murder his nephews (or at least, cause them to be murdered)? I’m not one of those rabid Ricardians who believes he was practically a saint, viciously slandered by the Tudors – as we now know, there were grains of truth in the unflattering physical description presented by Shakespeare, so why not in his behaviour too?
My personal belief is that Richard fully intended to carry out his role of Lord Protector (as set out in his late brother’s will), but found himself thwarted at every turn by the queen and her ambitious relations. Richard was very popular in the North, his home ground, but he was little known in the South and may have been out of his depth at court. Remind you of a certain fictional character?
Rather than back down and see the Woodvilles rule through a child king, he declared the boys bastards (just as Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones tries to disinherit the Lannisters) and took the throne for himself. It turned out to be a disastrous decision, but at the time he might have felt it was the right thing for England, and the House of York. After all his own son, Edward, was still living at this point and his wife was young enough to bear more children.
So what about the princes in the Tower? To my mind there are two possibilities:
1. Richard realised that the princes would be too tempting a target for rebels, and so they had to die. Medieval kings were ruthless in protecting their interests, and perhaps Richard was no exception. Or maybe the king balked at such an act, just as Queen Elizabeth later hesitated over signing her cousin Mary’s death warrant, and it was one of his courtiers who acted in his name.
2. The princes were killed by a Tudor sympathiser looking to simultaneously blacken Richard’s reputation and clear Henry’s way to the throne. The boys’ deaths certainly made Henry Tudor’s job a lot easier. If they had been alive when he defeated Richard, he would have had to get rid of them himself – not a good start to his reign!
The problem is that both are plausible, so I don’t think we’ll ever know which is the truth. It wasn’t to Richard’s advantage to cover up their deaths so clumsily – if he had access to either the living princes or their bodies, why not put an end to all the speculation? – but then unlike a novel, real life doesn’t always make sense. At least his remains have been rescued from their ignominious fate and will now be buried with honour. Richard III was no better than many medieval kings, but I reckon he was no worse, either.