Richard III: Shakespearean Villain or Failed King?

Well known are the stereotypes of Richard III that have stemmed from Shakespeare:

“I am determined to prove a villain, And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe”

“Back-bunched toad”, “rudely stamp’d”, “deformed, unfinish’d”

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

According to our most famous Tudor propagandist, Richard III is little more than a ruthless Machiavellian villain, deformed in body and in spirit.

But was Shakespeare excessive in his painterly depiction who merely failed in securing his crown?

Recently it has come to light that Shakespeare was not completely incorrect in his portrayal. Three years ago when Richard III was uncovered from the carpark in central Leicester it appeared that he did indeed have some form of spinal deformity. Although measuring at average height for a medieval man, at 5 foot 7 inches, he was made several inches shorter than this by a curved spine, what is now known as scoliosis. However, the extent to which this would have impacted on his life is debatable.

Richard III's spine

Richard III’s spine

Researchers at the University of Leicester have pointed out that although Richard’s torso would have been short relative to the length of his arms and legs, and his right shoulder a little higher than his left, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the “visual impact” of his condition. Also, there are numerous historical accounts that state Richard as great warrior – this would have been impossible if he was truly impinged by his spine. Shakespeare therefore appears to have used some artistic license in statements.

Using rather different sources to that used by the Tudor bard, Alfred Owen Legge paints an extremely different picture of the unpopular king, Richard III. Examining even the most infamous details of Richard’s life, like that of the Princes in the Tower, Legge continues to view him as a failed king rather than a villain. Using contemporary sources Legge finds that Richard may have even been a popular king during his time, one private letter states:

“He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given him which he hath refused. On my truth, I never liked the conditions of any prince so well as his. God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.”

When compared to his brother Edward IV, Richard III may even appear to be a moral leader:

“Edward IV, in his mad sensuality, had violated public decorum; Richard was punctilious in his regard for morality and the observances of religion. Edward had been affable in order to win popularity, Richard was so from the depths of his nature. Edward had amused some, whilst he scandalised others by a boisterous and undignified hilarity. The grave, sad face of Richard seemed more in harmony with the distracted state of the country and the responsibilities of royalty.”

A memorial to Richard III in Leicester

A memorial to Richard III in Leicester

I would not go so far as Legge as to describe Richard III as a moral leader, he was ruthless, cruel and at points treacherous, but this does not mean to say that he was any more villainous than Henry V or Edward I – he was merely a medieval king ruling with his hand on his sword. If the fate of the battle had been different 530 years ago and William Stanley had not supported Henry VII then our opinions of this unpopular king would be very different.

The Unpopular King by Alfred Owen Legge

The Unpopular King by Alfred Owen Legge

If you would like to read more from Alfred Owen Legge’s classic revisionist account click here for your 99p copy.

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