Hero or villain? Historians debate the legacy of King Richard III

His reputation is surrounded by apparent myths and half-truths

A Machiavellian villain, King Richard III has been immortalised by Shakespeare as the hunchback King who murdered his way to the throne.

But for centuries historians have struggled to put forward a different version of history.

Should he be remembered as a visionary reformer and brilliant administrator, or as an ambitious usurper and ruthless murderer?

The monarch is famous today for his death at the Battle of Bosworth, which effectively ended the Wars of the Roses.

The legend of the 'Princes in the Tower' - the disappearance of his young nephews and rivals to his throne - stains his character.

The bones of the children have been laid to rest in Westminster Abbey and currently bear the inscription: “These brothers being confined in the Tower of London, and there stifled with pillows, were privately and meanly buried, by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.”


His villainous character was cemented by William Shakespeare's play 'The Tragedy of King Richard the Third'.

But his reputation is surrounded by apparent myths and half-truths.

Described as "deformed" and "unfinish'd", jealous, and ambitious hunchback in Shakespeare's play, which was first performed in the 1590s, it is difficult to know if the man the playwright said battled on foot and cried out "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!", is a true reflection of the king, or merely a creation of imagination.

According to scientists at the University of Leicester, there is evidence of curvature of the spine - suggesting the unattractive quality had not been a slander by those who opposed Richard.

These days loyal Ricardians battle to repair Richard's reputation but the traditional view is that Richard, while not as evil as Tudor historians said, was probably responsible for removing his nephews from the royal line.


The skeleton was found in a car park in Leicester (University of Leicester)

Under a page headed "Loyal to the truth" on The Richard III Foundation's website is an extract that reads: "King Richard III is one of England's most controversial historical figures often associated with his quest to seize the throne of England.

"The prime sources of defamation of Richard are superstitious fiction, although this was not understood by some for centuries.

"The vilification may be absurd, such as two years in the womb, magically withered arms, and the murder of innocent babies, but it is repeated ad nauseum.

"It may take the form of ghosts passionately listing the wrongs of an evil king, regardless of their own dwelling in hell.


"Or it can take on a more sinister nature, such as what happened to Edward V, a query that moderns cannot positively answer.

"By blaming Richard for everything, (Henry) Tudor escaped blame for anything for two hundred years, until people were at last free to pose questions.

"Although it is obvious that Tudor had overwhelming motivation to spread malicious gossip and to smear a dead man, some cannot let go of even the most outrageous slurs."


The skeleton had a curved spine and 'battle trauma' similar that which Richard II suffered when he died (University …

The view from the Tudor side, differs somewhat.

Historian Suzannah Lipscomb wrote in a BBC online article: "It is not surprising that for centuries Richard III has been synonymous with evil tyranny and physical deformity.

"To argue otherwise has been to take on three of history's greats - Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, all of whom argued that Richard had been a man with a crooked back and a crooked life."

His burial was not fitting of a hero nor respected King. Said to have been stripped naked on the battlefield and dragged off on the back of a horse, his remains have been unceremoniously found in a car park some 500 years later.

But his body was discovered under the choir floor of the abbey church of Greyfriars monastery which has since been demolished. Only people of high-status would have been buried under a choir floor.