Richard III fans are the medieval equivalent of 9/11 truthers

Richard III: a monster

Richard III is due to be reburied this month in Leicester Cathedral, two and a half years after the former king’s skeleton was found in a car park nearby. It’s quite a draw for the city, which had to fight off a determined campaign by some people in York for his remains, and it has laid on a whole week’s worth of events.

There was also discontent from some Catholics who wished to have the last Plantagenet buried in a Catholic cathedral, since he died decades before the Reformation and was originally buried in a monastery which later fell victim to Thomas Cromwell’s goons.

But although some people are simply concerned that a member of the Catholic faith should have a Catholic burial, the former monarch also still has a large number of sympathisers, the so-called Ricardians. It’s a strange phenomenon, which really began in the early 20th century with the Fellowship of the White Boar, named after the king’s emblem, and the largest historical society dedicated to one individual.

The movement later received a huge boost with Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time in which a detective manages to prove Richard innocent of the great crime of which he is accused – the murder of his young nephews Edward and Richard, the princes in the tower.

The Ricardian movement is a reaction to the Tudor propaganda machine, and for Catholics in particular Richard’s demonisation by his successors makes the last Plantagenet an attractive figure. Yet awful though the Tudors generally were, the fact remains that Richard almost certainly murdered his nephews.

I was recently reading Dan Jones’s excellent The Hollow Crown, which serves as a sequel to his previous Plantagenets and covers the period from Richard II to Richard III. The Lancaster-York conflict is mostly a good fun read about aristocratic psychopaths chopping each other’s heads off, but the story becomes very, very dark in April 1483 after Edward IV gorges himself to death, and Jones recalls how monstrous Richard was.

Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth Woodville had a large and uppity family who were largely hated, and there was a fear that they would become effective rulers through her son the 12-year-old Edward V. But what happened next was shocking; a few days into the boy king’s reign his uncle Richard of Gloucester, always a loyal lieutenant to Edward IV, persuaded the queen’s brother Earl Rivers to wait for him in the Midlands so that they might go together to London. When they met in Northamptonshire Gloucester entertained Rivers and Richard Grey, Elizabeth Woodville’s son from her first marriage, with a “cheerful and joyous countenance”: the next day they were riding when Gloucester and his ally Stafford drew up and told Rivers and Grey they were under arrest, and took them north. Uncle and nephew were beheaded two month later at Pontefract castle.

While the Queen fled to sanctuary in London with her second son Richard, the king was taken to London by his uncle; soon Richard had the coronation cancelled and, after having the Archbishop of Canterbury persuade Elizabeth to hand over her younger son, had the children declared bastards and put in the Tower.

The boys were last seen in the Tower on September 28, 1483 and by November, Jones says, it was assumed they were dead.

Instead Richard was crowned and at his coronation held a 46-course banquet and had Elizabaeth Shore, the former mistress of his lackey Lord Hastings, clapped in irons for her iniquity. In the words of one contemporary, “he taught others to exercise just and good which he would not do himself”. Indeed Richard is thought to have fathered several illegitimate children, most precious being John of Pontefract, whom he knighted in 1483 and acknowledged as “our dear bastard son” (poor John was likely beheaded in 1499).

Richard III was an extremely intelligent individual who was known for his courage and decisiveness. As a monarch he was progressive; he allowed each Justice of the Peace to grant bail to any felony, he outlawed forces loans and exempted books from import duties, which no doubt helped the following century’s huge increase in publishing (often attributed to Protestantism). He also ruled that every writer, printer and bookbinder could do business inside England “of whatever nation or country he may or shall be”.

But when it comes down to it none of this counts for much in view of the fact that he murdered his nephews.

The odd thing about the Ricardians is how unlikely Richard’s innocence is; in late 1483 everyone thought the princes dead, and it was in the king’s interest to prove otherwise, yet until his death almost two years later he didn’t. The overwhelming likelihood is that Richard had his nephews murdered, and Ricardians are sort of late medieval equivalents of 9/11 truthers.