Richard the III

Published 15 Feb 2017

This paper will address the difference between the true identity of Richard the III, king of England during 1483-85, and the character of Richard the III in William Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. It has been a long held assertion that the real man was not quite as dastardly a person as Shakespeare portrayed him to be. His infamy is not as well addressed as many of England’s more well-known kings, though his demise did bring the Tudor family into rule which is a much documented time of history in English royalty.

Richard was born as the second son so his brother, Edward ascended to the English throne in 1461 and was crowned king as Edward IV. At Edward’s coronation, Richard became the Duke of Gloucester. He was a loyal subject to his brother, gaining the royal court’s favor and the respect of the people with his valiant fighting at several battles and also leading the invasion of Scotland. He served his brother well until Edward IV died in 1483 and his twelve year old son, Edward V, was proclaimed King.

When Richard won guardianship of his royal nephews over the Queen Mother, it was the beginning of his decline in morality. He desired the throne himself and became obsessed with the idea of acquiring it by whatever means it took.

There is not a great deal of recorded history that is favorable to Richard after that point but his rise to power and his short reign are noteworthy on many historical accounts. Richard’s life is embroiled with political unrest, deception and murder. Shakespeare’s writings of him as only set the stage for that belief and it alone has remained more than the truth of a man’s life.

Richard succeeded in acquiring the guardianship of Edward V and his younger brother with the aid of Henry Stafford, second duke of Buckingham, over the family of Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of Edward IV. It was done so efficiently that Richard managed to have Parliament declare his late brother’s children as illegitimate and entrapped both boys in the Tower of London. There the princes met an untimely fate of death. Richard has been accredited with this heinous act but there is no solid proof to support it. Several historical records have indicated other persons to manipulating the death of the boys for advantageous reasons of their own.

As the natural remaining bloodline heir to the throne, Richard claimed the throne in July of 1483. With this occurrence, it became clear to many of the total focal point of Richard’s actions since his brother’s demise. To say that it was well received by the royal court and the people would be an understatement.

Stafford, once a loyal supporter of Richard, led a revolt against the new King and his avocation was for Henry Tudor (a member of the Lancaster family). This event started in October of 1483. This was just part of the infamous rivalry between the Lancaster family and the York family of which Richard was the reigning member. It was called the War of The Roses since the York family had a white rose and the Lancaster family had a red rose as part of the family crests.

Both houses had the sufficient royal bloodlines to take the throne of England and the incensed emotions of the royal court over the deaths of the sons of Edward IV found favor in Henry Tudor. Yet, Richard was not to be so easily disposed of. He was king and also the duke of York and he made quick actions to have the rebellion squashed by the execution of Stafford, duke of Buckingham.

The War of The Roses had a long, interlinked history with the Hundred Years War, a war between England and France dating from 1339 and 1453, which left both England and France in a devastated state. Though the Hundred Year War ended before the crowning of Edward IV, the strife between the Lancaster family (now no longer with benefit of worthy male heirs except through the Tudor branch) and the York family continued causing England to maintain a civil unrest within its own land borders.

Richard III’s father, Richard, Duke of York, had fought against the lack of sufficient armed support for the Hundred Years War by the reigning Lancaster king, Henry VI. His opposition to the fumbling by the Lancaster king gained support and eventually, Henry VI was overthrown and the York family came into power. Richard, the Duke of York, did not live to acquire the throne but his son, Edward IV was crowned king. The York family’s rule was brief with the life of Edward IV ending and his brother, Richard III, only maintaining rule for two years which ended with Richard’s death in the Battle of Bosworth Field where Richard’s armies were defeated by Henry Tudor’s armies and Richard was killed. Henry Tudor claimed the throne and became Henry VII. It ended the War of the Roses.

Richard III, born in 1452, had shown great promise as a leader and organizer at an early age as he was made commissioner of western and southwestern counties which included Cornwall. He was a mere twelve years of age. This had overridden the appointments of the Lancaster family in Wales. He had also been given by the king the county, honor and lordship of Pembroke and Richmond as well just two years previously. The true stinging insult came when the king in 1464 gave Richard the estates of Lord Hungerford, a member of the Lancaster family. It was clearly evident that Richard was much favored by his brother, King Edward IV.

When Edward married into the Woodville family, Richard was torn between the idea of loyalty to his brother or following the interesting course of his tutor, the then Earl of Warwick. He chose to leave his birth home of Middleham Castle, and join his brother’s court where the influence of the Queen and her five brothers was becoming increasingly strong. Richard was still a very young prince and not beset yet by any ideas of changing the flow of life as his brother had it set.

Richard proved his strong loyalty to Edward when he was taken prisoner due to rebellion held against Edward by Warwick and another noble, Clarence began to try and re-instate Henry as the ruling monarch. Warwick’s lure to his young pupil had no effect against the duty-bound Richard felt to Edward IV. He, along with another loyal court member, Hastings, went forward to secure rescue forces to battle the Lancaster armies to secure the release of Edward after his capture at Olney in 1469. They were successful and both brothers returned triumphant once again. The Yorkist influence remained the ruling factor in England.

During Edward’s reign, Richard showed no animosity towards his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville or her family members. He seemed content to be his brother’s right hand and strongest supporter. Though he did show support for the Countess of Warwick, against his brother’s wishes, his allegiance remained for the most part unquestioned. He also pleaded the release of Archbishop George Neville. He later took into his charge the son of an enemy and when he bestowed an annuity upon the earl of Oxford’s wife, a sister of Warwick, he proved his ability of fairness.

When the dispute was settled with Clarence over the estates of Warwick, Richard was granted the ownership of Middleham Castle, Sheriff Hutton and all other lands belonging to Warwick. He was now a very wealthy and powerful force with Edward’s court, without even reference to his status as a prince. Richard also maintained strong ties with the City of York while actively participating in many of the city’s affairs which worked to his advantage when he appealed to them for assistance in his needs for defense troops after he had procured his position of Protector of Edward IV’s sons.

Richard, known formally as the duke of Gloucester, was falsely accused by Shakespeare of manipulating the death of Clarence. It was not true according to historical documentation written by Sir Thomas Moore at the time of Richard III. Edward IV absolved Richard of any part of Clarence’s assassination.

It is an acknowledged fact that during his brother’s lifetime and reign, Richard behaved properly and loyally. This loyalty made his acquisition of the custody of his nephews a fairly easy feat because it would be considered that Richard would be more for the benefactor for the princes over the political ambitions of their maternal family links to the Woodvilles.

Richard’s religious linking with Barnard Castle that had direct contact with the York family, beginning with Richard of York, Richard III’s father. This college consisted of one dean, twelve chaplains, ten clerks and six choristers that were assigned to perform services for the good of the king and queen. A smaller scale of this was set up at Middleham Castle to insure that the current York monarchy was beneficial of the religious sector. This was set up while Clarence was still alive and when Richard used the arrangement at Middleham Castle, it was before Clarence did but also in anticipation of his death. The various levels of nobility within a royal court and a country is complex and one nobleman can possess ownership or claim of many vital properties, including the ability to overthrow another lordship without too much obvious conflict. Clarence may have been indisposed by Richard but little proof points to Richard’s participation in Clarence’s demise.

Shakespeare and others as well took a long length of “poetic license” when it comes to the true history of Richard III. While Richard was undoubtedly an ambitious man and after his brother’s death, a man who laid aside morality and family loyalty to achieve his own desires for the throne, no true evidence can be attributed to him as the cause of the death of his nephews or other despicable actions that stated as fact in Shakespeare’s play.

Now, to consider the Richard III of William Shakespeare’s played in the following text of this paper.

William Shakespeare, a renowned playwright of his time and considered perhaps the foremost playwright of all English literature, did as most writers of fiction, somewhat based on fact, will and took generous liberty with the truth about Richard The III, King of England in the fifteenth century.

As Richard III is a drama and written in the sixteenth century for the citizens of England, Shakespeare wrote this play decades after the death of self-imposed king and the knowledge of Richard III was limited to speculation rather than fact. Shakespeare wrote what he felt would appeal to the masses and in truth he did write a world acclaimed classic. More than one famous actor has added to his resume the role of Richard as the immoral and greedy brother to a deceased king who sought the throne of England for himself in lieu of his nephew, Edward V taking his rightful place as the king. To present Richard as this ambitious and unconscionable man, Shakespeare depicted him as he was chosen to be seen by factions within royalty that had no love of the York family and their claim to the throne. Richard was portrayed as a true villain in all aspects which sadly deviated from the actual true history.

In any written work meant for entertainment rather than educational purposes, cause and effect are high assets to the success of that work, whether as book, poetry or play. There was definitely less screening in Shakespeare’s day of what truth was and what fiction was. Critics could be biased but did little to lessen the popularity of such works as Shakespeare’s. The people wanted to entertained, to root for the hero, and to boo the villain, which in this case the characters were based on real people. Also in the sixteenth century, there was little documentation made readily available to such people as William Shakespeare to otherwise discourage such a misstatement of history.

The true knowledge of the murders of Edward V and his brother were never really affirmed, though two hundred years later, the skeletons of two young male children were discovered in the Tower of London and it was decided at the time they were the remains of the two imprisoned princes. In today’s modern technology, DNA could have confirmed the true identities of the bodies but even supposed fact was better than just rumored heresy. Just as it was impossible to totally prove that the boys had been murdered, it was also just as improbable to prove or disprove that Richard III was the one who ordered the execution of his nephews.

Today when any type of writing or photographed material is presented as a true and factual account of a real event or person’s life, there are standards that are necessary to be met to allow that work to be published. It is Mankind’s renaissance from speculation to unbiased truth. Not everything adheres to those standards but it does not allow as much “poetic license” as Shakespeare was able to use to create a stimulating and interesting play about Richard III.

Centuries have gone by since the lifetime of Richard, duke of Gloucester, and later, King Richard III of England and also since the writing and production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III. The play has been classified as among the works of the world’s greatest playwright himself. Not one line has been changed nor one untruth rectified but the play is performed in theatre and movies exactly as it were written. Several books and articles have been written over the years that disclaimed the character of Richard III as actually accurate but it has only mostly enlightened the readers and had no negative effect on the play itself. To most people, Richard’s greed and ambition to be King has obliterated his better character.

Is this a disservice to the memory of Richard III? It really all matters from the personal point of view of the person who reads of the discrepancies in Shakespeare’s play and has reason to educate themselves to the real history of Richard III.

Richard, duke of Gloucester, was a man of his time and his circumstances. No decision or action of anyone is based solely on him alone but has to have considerations of events, people and the position that they find themselves in their lives. Richard was a royal prince who had the misfortune of being born the second son and since his elder brother produced two male heirs, Richard’s chances of ever sitting on the throne were none. His only possibility was to usurp it and being just that ambitious, he did. History has recorded his loyalty to his brother but the assumption that loyalty would pass over to his nephews was wrong. He acquired the throne wrong but how wrong? If viewed as Shakespeare wrote him, then he was villainous through and through but history says different.


1. Richard’s Himself Again: A Stage History of Richard III, Book by Scott Colley: Greenwood Press, 1992

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