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Chris Skidmore: Discovery of Richard III will re-open an important debate

Tory MP and historian Chris Skidmore writes for PoliticsHome saying the discovery of Richard III's remains underneath a car park in Leicester gives us an opportunity to re-open the debate about one of our most well-known kings.

Today archaeologists are expected to announce the DNA test results of bones discovered under a Leicester car park- suspected to be those of one of English history’s most controversial monarchs, Richard III.

Despite ruling for only twenty six months, Richard, immortalised by Shakespeare as a hunch-backed murderer, has captivated generations, with debates still swirling over his true nature. The re-discovery of his body provides the opportunity to re-assess his life and reign.

Over the past century, historians have attempted to peel away the familiar image of Richard III as a bloodthirsty crook-backed tyrant, handed down to us by William Shakespeare in his history play Richard III. The playwright, however, was no historian. Basing his research on the Tudor chronicles available to him, Shakespeare essentially bought into the Tudor version of events, first set down by Henry VII’s official historian, the Italian Polydore Vergil. It was Vergil who, despite not arriving in England until 1502, spoke with members of Henry’s court to write his one-sided history, helping to spin a political narrative, blackening Richard’s name as a sinner. Around the same time, Thomas More wrote his own History of Richard III, a polemical tale of how evil will always have its comeuppance. For More, Richard becomes evil personified, a tyrant king and monster. It was More who also presented the image of Richard still very much with us today, describing the king as being ‘little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right’.

Unlike Shakespeare, if we wish to present the facts rather than fiction and understand who the real Richard really was, we need to get back to the original contemporary sources. Richard was very much a man of his time, before he became king, one of the most important noblemen of his day. Unlike his brother George, Duke of Clarence, who was later executed by being drowned in a butt of wine for his treachery, Richard remained steadfastly loyal to his brother Edward IV, whom he had helped place on the throne, defeating the Lancastrian king Henry VI. During the civil wars, now commonly known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the fifteenth century was a brutal age in which men lived constantly in the shadow of death. Richard learnt this at an early age when, aged eight, his father Richard Duke of York and his brother Edmund Duke of Rutland had been killed at the battle of Wakefield and their heads were placed on spikes adorning the entrance gates at York.

Richard understood that in politics, above all else, it was loyalty to one’s side that mattered. His motto was ‘loyalty binds me’: he remembered men who had fought and died by his side at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in the 1470s, and surrounded himself with a loyal group of men from his inherited homeland in North Yorkshire. Such devotion earned him a strong following in the north, dedicated to their ‘good lord’. When news of Richard’s death reached York, for instance, the city elders recorded how their king ‘late mercifully reigning upon us ... was piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of the city’.

In contrast to his brother Edward, who spent his final days in debauchery, Richard seems to have developed a moral streak that weighed heavily upon him. ‘Our principal intent and fervent desire’ Richard informed his bishops, ‘us to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced, increased and multiplied and vices and all other things repugnant to virtue, provoking the high indignation and fearful displeasure of God, to be repressed and annulled’, while an Italian visitor to England described how ‘the good reputation of his private life and public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers’.

None of these character traits can excuse Richard’s treatment of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, and his usurpation of the thrown, overthrowing the young Edward V. An Italian visitor to England, Dominic Mancini, who left a detailed eye-witness report of the events of 1483 before he departed in July, wrote how after Richard had managed to seize power, Edward V and his brother ‘were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower’ and ‘day by day began to be seen more and more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether’. Another Chronicle described how ‘the children were seen shooting and playing in the garden of the Tower’ before they disappeared. Rumours of their death began to circulate, while Mancini wrote how he had seen men burst into tears at the mention of the young king’s name since ‘already there was a suspicion that he had been done away with’. By September 1483, it was clear to everyone, the contemporary Crowland Chronicler wrote, that ‘the princes, by some unknown manner of destruction, had met their fate’.

If Richard was guilty of killing the Princes, then we are faced with the enigma of why he acted so ruthlessly and suddenly, turning against his brother’s children, especially after years of loyal service to his brother and the Yorkist dynasty? Without condoning infanticide, it is worth considering the dilemma that Richard faced. Edward V was just twelve years old. He barely knew his uncle, having been brought up surrounded by his mother’s family, the Woodvilles, whose hostility to Richard was an open secret. Believing that his own position was possibly about to be fatally undermined, Richard took the only option available to him to protect the Yorkist dynasty. For the Yorkists, who had overthrown Henry VI and the Lancastrian dynasty in 1461, only to lose the throne in 1470 and forced to win it back again, the accession of a child ruler was potentially destabilising and disastrous.

In the end, Richard’s treatment of the Princes proved only disastrous for his own reputation. As one chronicler wrote, ‘had he suffered the children to have prospered he would have been lauded over all; whereas now his fame is darked and dishonoured as far as he is known’. A rebellion led by his leading magnate the duke of Buckingham proved just the beginning of a downward spiral as Richard struggled to enforce his authority. To replace those who had fled abroad to join Henry Tudor in France, Richard granted lands and offices to his closest supporters. ‘With large gifts he got him unsteadfast friendship’ Thomas More wrote, for which Richard only obtained ‘steadfast hatred’. The policy turned out to be a disaster, stoking resentment amongst his southern subjects that his northern followers.

When Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven in August 1485, Richard at first celebrated, hoping that it would prove the chance to defeat a man he considered his ‘rebel’. But at the battle of Bosworth, the opposite proved the case: after a reckless charge, Richard was killed, his helmet beaten into his skull as Welsh halberds rained down on his body.

Buried in a pauper’s grave at Greyfriars Church, we now may have the opportunity to come face to face with Richard III once more. Already there have been debates about where the body should be buried, what funeral ceremony should take place, and even if there should be some kind of state funeral. But most importantly, the discovery gives us an opportunity to re-open the debate about one of our most well-known kings.

Chris Skidmore MP is author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) published in May 2013.