Richard III, Historical Views of

   RICHARD III is the most controversial ruler in English history. In the five centuries since his death, he has been condemned as a tyrant and murderer and praised as a good and strong king. Few of the many studies of Richard that have appeared since 1485 take a moderate position on his character and actions. For more than a century after the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD, the last king of the house of PLANTAGENET was vilified by historians and chroniclers writing under the rule of HENRY VII and his descendants. In the 1590s, this vilification was given its most memorable form by William Shakespeare, whose play RICHARD III turned the king into one of the great villains of English literature. However, after the end of the house of TUDOR in 1603, a series of increasingly vigorous defenses of Richard were published, and in the twentieth century, growing numbers of defenders and detractors presented their views of Richard in a variety of print and nonprint formats.
   The only strictly contemporary account of Richard is Dominic Mancini’s USURPATION OF RICHARD III, a critical description of the USURPATION OF 1483 written before the end of that year by an Italian visitor to England. A near-contemporary account of Richard’s entire reign is the so-called second continuation of the CROYLAND CHRONICLE, which was probably completed in 1486. Although generally hostile to Richard, whom he viewed as a deceitful tyrant, the anonymous chronicler was particularly outraged by Richard’s intrusion of northern men into the administration of southern counties (see Richard III, Northern Affinity of). The raw material for the classic Shakespearean portrait of a physically deformed king who murdered his way to the throne was developed in the sixteenth century by a series of writers and chroniclers. Although neither 230 RICHARD III, HISTORICAL VIEWS OF Henry VII nor Henry VIII formally encouraged the writing of anti-Richard PROPAGANDA, both fostered the view that the accession of the house of Tudor rescued England from the disorder of the WARS OF THE ROSES and the tyranny of Richard III. Accepting this official view of the recent past, and drawing upon the memories of old opponents of Richard at the Tudor COURT, writers like Polydore Vergil in his ANGLICA HISTORIA and Sir Thomas More in his HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III proclaimed Richard’s ambition and ruthlessness, described his physical deformities, and listed his many victims. The antiquary John ROUS, writing in the 1490s, contributed some of the coarser elements of the portrait, claiming that Richard was two years in his mother’s womb and emerged at birth with teeth and shoulderlength hair. In his UNION OF THE TWO NOBLE AND ILLUSTRIOUS FAMILIES OF LANCASTER AND YORK, the chronicler Edward Hall based his depiction of Richard on Vergil and More, but he so blackened their portrayals as to create a king who foreshadowed Shakespeare’s evil monster.
   When the later Tudor chroniclers Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed incorporated Hall’s Richard into their works, they transmitted the accounts of Vergil and More to Shakespeare, who used their chronicles as sources for his enormously influential play, Richard III (see Shakespeare and the Wars of the Roses).However, even in the Elizabethan period, historians like William Camden and John Stow quietly suggested that Richard’s role in the deaths of EDWARDV and Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, was uncertain. The first full-scale defense of Richard was written in 1619 by Sir George Buck, Master of Revels to James I. In his History of King Richard the Third, Buck praised the king for his courage and justice, declared all charges against him to be unproven, and condemned the Tudor historical tradition for maligning an innocent man. Although the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw other writers take up Richard’s cause, the Tudor/Shakespearean image of the king continued to dominate. In 1768, however, Horace Walpole published his Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III, in which he convincingly exposed many of the weaknesses and inconsistencies of the traditional depiction, argued that many of Richard’s supposed crimes were contrary to his own best interests, and attempted (rather less convincingly) to shift blame to Henry VII. The nineteenth century witnessed romantic portrayals of Richard, such as Caroline Halsted’s Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England, which absolves the king of virtually all crimes and borders on hagiography, and the scholarship of prominent Victorian historians such as John Richard Green, William Stubbs, and James Gairdner, who largely accepted the Tudor portrait. In the twentieth century, the debate assumed a variety of new forms. In the 1920s (Britain) and 1930s (United States), the forerunners of the Richard III Society, organizations dedicated to researching and reassessing Richard’s role in English history, were organized. In 1984, London Weekend Television staged a mock trial in which a jury found Richard not guilty of murdering his nephews. Since the 1960s, many fictional works sympathetic to Richard, such as Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour (1982), have been published. On the other side, historian A. L. Rowse in his Bosworth Field (1966) compared Richard to Adolf Hitler, while Desmond Seward in his Richard III: England’s Black Legend (1984) proclaimed the Tudor view of the villainous king to be entirely credible. Although many of the more spectacular elements of the Tudor tradition have been largely refuted, and the proRichard position has won much popular sympathy, many historians still find Richard responsible for the deaths of the PRINCES IN THETOWER.
   Further Reading: Buck, Sir George, The History of King Richard III, edited by A.N. Kincaid (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1982); Dockray,Keith, Richard III: A Source Book (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1997); Gairdner, James, History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898); Green, J. R., A Short History of the English People (London, 1874); Halsted, Caroline A., Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England, 2 vols. (London, 1844; reprinted Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1977); Ross, Charles, Richard III (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981);Rowse,A. L., Bosworth Field: From Medieval to Tudor England (Garden City,NY: Doubleday, 1966); Seward, Desmond, Richard III: England’s Black Legend (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984); Stubbs,William, The Constitutional History of England, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1878);Walpole, Horace, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III, edited by P.W. Hammond (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1987); see also the Richard III Society Web site at for excerpts of many of the publications mentioned in this entry.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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