Does History Belong to the Victors?
Updated: May 15
"I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up."
Richard III, William Shakespeare.
One of the greatest stage villains of all time is William Shakespeare's Richard III.
Richard III was King of England from 1483 - 1485. The play was the last in a series of historical plays retelling the dynastic conflict between the House of York and the House of Lancaster.
Richard was the son of Richard, Duke of York, and the younger brother of King Edward IV who had seized the throne from the mentally incapacitated Henry VI. The Duke of York traced his family back to a son of Edward III.
Henry VI himself was the son of the popular Henry V of the Battle of Agincourt fame. Henry V's father was Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV who was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III.
In true Game of Thrones fashion, these two rival houses challenged each other for power and the throne. The so-called War of the Roses (named for the fact that the emblem of Lancaster was the red rose and the emblem for York was the white rose) ended at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 when Henry Tudor (Henry VII) defeated and killed Richard III to win the crown of England. Henry's claim was through his mother, Margaret Beaufort. The Beaufort family were also connected to John of Gaunt. Henry married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thereby uniting the two rival houses. The new Tudor emblem became a combination of the red and white roses of Lancaster and York.
Right away, Tudor apologists tried to justify Henry VII's seizure of the throne. Victorious and in control, they began to portray Richard as an illegitimate usurper, and Henry VII had come to restore the English monarchy. Sir Thomas More, during Henry VIII's reign, wrote the History of King Richard III which was published after More's death. More's biography was more literary than historically accurate, and he used Richard as a symbol of tyranny. All this culminated in the greatest political propaganda ever written - Shakespeare's Richard III.
Shakespeare gave us a portrait of a deformed man, with a crooked back, withered arm, and limp. He was also morally deformed, the personification of evil.
(Laurence Olivier's performance of Richard in the 1955 film version of the play is the modern paradigm of Richard III portrayals.)
Of course, Shakespeare worked during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII. It was Shakespeare's version of Richard that persisted in the popular imagination for nearly four centuries.
The greatest accusation levied at Richard III is the disappearance of his nephews, Edward and Richard. The young sons of Edward IV were purportedly locked away in the Tower of London and then subsequently murdered by Richard in order to claim the throne. At least that was the Tudor version of events, but in fact, we really don't know what happened. In 1674, bones were discovered in a box under a staircase in the Tower. It was generally accepted that these were the remains of the princes. They were eventually brought to Westminister Abby. The disappearance of the "Princes in the Tower" has remained one of the most well-known historical mysteries.
In her 1951 novel, Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey's protagonist is a convalescing detective, Alan Grant. A friend brings him some historical documents including a portrait of Richard III. Bored from being bedridden, Grant becomes interested in Richard's story and feels the portrait doesn't match the popular image of a monster. Thinking like a detective, he enlists the help of an American researcher who helps him assemble a case as to Richard's innocence and how the man has been maligned by history.
Historians are much like detectives. They work with the available evidence to piece together how events happened and why. Evidence can be official documents, personal accounts, or artifacts. At different times, this evidence can be re-examined from a different perspective or bias or with a fresh set of eyes. New evidence can be discovered and then it needs to be reconciled with existing evidence. And so with Richard III, there have been those who have tried to sift through the Tudor propaganda and get a more accurate vision of the real Richard. Horace Walpole in 1768 became one of Richard III's earliest and most famous defenders. More recently, in Paul Murray Kendall's biography, Richard the Third, we get a very different picture of the king. Putting aside preconceived notions, Kendall presents a man who was intelligent, motivated by true concern for the people, a loyal and kind brother, and an experienced warrior. Kendall's work has set the standard for Richard III biographies. Since 1924 it has also been the mission of the Richard III Society to present a more nuanced, more balanced picture of the king.
A recent project of the society resulted in locating the bones of Richard III in Leicester, England where he had been rumored to be buried after the Battle of Bosworth Field. DNA analysis yielded that these were indeed the bones of Richard III. The most notable thing about the bones? They showed no signs of any deformities. No withered arm. No crooked back.
The society has also embarked on a research project called the Missing Princes Project. It has been suggested that the bones discovered in the Tower in 1674 be re-examined with DNA testing to help determine if they are truly the missing sons of Edward IV.
In the short run, history might belong to the victors. They might be able to control the narrative. They might have the greatest playwright of all time at their disposal. But eventually, over the course of time, there will be those historians, like a good detective, who will doggedly re-evaluate the evidence and search for new evidence gained from new perspectives and insights. The case of Richard III is a prime example of how historians seek to revisit, revise, and rehabilitate our understanding of the past.
Richard III: William Shakespeare
History of King Richard III: Thomas More
Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III: Horace Walpole
The King's Grave: The Discovery of Richard III's Lost Burial Place: Phillipa Langley and Michael Jones
"Research reveals DNA of the Princes in the Tower": University of Essex
"DNA Confirms: Here Lieth Richard III, Under Yon Parking Lot": National Geographic