England's Most Hated King (and how Britain's dark history inspired Game Of Thrones)
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
My knowledge of history is shamefully poor. Aside from periods of fascination with various shocking (and relatively modern) disasters like World War II and Chernobyl, I have never delved very deeply into the events that have shaped our world, my gaze tending to be directed either towards our robot-and-AI-dominated future, or into the dark crevices of present-day crime and horror.
Meanwhile, my lovely and long-suffering girlfriend, who is Canadian, can name every British monarch in chronological order, and is constantly telling me that I should make an effort to understand my country’s dark past. So, during our recent weekend trip to York, after I insisted on taking a ghost bus tour (yes, that’s a deliberate pun…) led by a bloke called Earl E. Grave (who was brilliant by the way), she decided it was time to force some education into my ears and eyeballs.
And I’m really glad she did, because the story of Richard III has everything: battles, betrayal, insanity, conspiracy, and a Machiavellian monarch whose thirst for power was so great that he stooped to the depths of infanticide to eradicate his rivals.
… Or did he? In the excellent Richard III Experience on the York city walls, I learned the story of a man who travelled down from the north, where he was beloved by his people after years of servitude, to assume a position of power in the capital, where he unearthed an alarming truth about the legitimacy of the young heir to the throne; thus he found the future of a kingdom thrust onto his shoulders, and the knives of a hundred scheming courtiers pointed at his back.
Starting to sound like Ned Stark in season one of Game of Thrones? The parallels will continue...
But before I do, a clarification: my intention here is to provide a summarised account of Richard III’s ascension to the throne, his betrayal, death and subsequent vilification, because it is a really, really cool story – and because the way the man’s legacy has been trashed seems to me to be a pretty grievous tragedy. But I am not an expert on these events, nor a skilled historian, so if you are intrigued by this grisly tale, I urge you to seek out further literature, or perhaps start by visiting the museum for yourself – the walk around York’s city walls is an awesome day out!
Okay, where to begin?? The War Of The Roses had rumbled for decades, a civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster (think Stark and Lannister) that has finally ended with the defeat of ‘mad’ king Henry VI, whose disastrous reign saw the kingdom divided and weakened (sound familiar?) Henry's defeat also represented the demise (for now) of the House of Lancaster, their throne usurped by Edward IV of York, who incidentally was England’s tallest ever king at six foot four (I’m imagining The Mountain as I write).
Edward had a long stint on the throne and managed to stabilise the nation, but then died suddenly of natural causes in 1483, leaving behind two sons, one of whom was therefore the heir to the throne (Edward V, because British monarchs have never been imaginative about naming their kids, was technically the king for about two months, although he was never crowned… more on that shortly!)
Because of the boy’s tender years, perhaps stirring the lingering memory of the disastrous reign of Henry VI (who had first assumed the throne before he was one year old, and whose life had been plagued by mental health issues), the sensible decision was made to appoint a Lord Protector to run the show until he came of age – and this is where we meet Richard for the first time.
Shakespeare portrayed Edward’s brother as a hunchbacked, devious cripple with a withered arm and a blackened soul; it should be pointed out that, aside from the scoliosis from which he did indeed suffer (a common condition causing curvature of the spine that also afflicts Usain Bolt, among others), there is no evidence for any of this. Records of the time suggest that his ten-year rule of the infamously-troubled north of England had been well regarded by the people, and punctuated with successful military campaigns against the Scots (Richard was a skilled warrior and personally led his troops on the battlefield). And so it was reluctantly that the city of York released its warden to travel south for the good of the nation.
This is where it all went horribly wrong.
First, it was revealed that before his death, Edward IV confessed to his courtiers that prior to marrying Elizabeth Woodville, he had already contracted to marry another woman. This was a big deal at the time, rendering Edward’s offspring illegitimate (Joffrey's smug grin is haunting me as I type this sentence) and opening the floodgates for a slew of ‘rightful’ heirs to stake their claim for the throne, including several from the defeated Lancastrian line. This included Henry Tudor, living in France at the time, whose mother was a distant descendant of Edward III and therefore gave him a shot… but more on him later.
Richard and the court had to act fast, so they shoved Edward V and his brother in the Tower of London (this was long before it developed its grim reputation, and simply meant they were living in luxury in a posh apartment under their uncle's care) while they figured things out. This is why they became known as ‘the Princes in the Tower’ – stick a pin in that, because it will become a verybig point of controversy shortly.
In the end, England's rulers decided to effectively ‘annul’ Edward’s premiership, and used an act of parliament to stick the crown on Richard, making him Richard III. He probably seemed like a safe pair of hands, and immediately departed on a round-the-country tour to shore up his relationships with key cities and noble folk. Apparently his coronation and feast were one of the grandest ever held; in a very progressive move, his wife was crowned alongside him, and this forward-looking approach began to be mirrored in some of Richard’s policies and decisions, which often favoured the common man above the aristocracy. Everything looked rosy, and not in a ‘war of the’ kind of way.
Then the Princes in the Tower disappeared.
Did Richard have them slaughtered to cement his position on the throne? Did he transport them overseas to a place of safety from which they chose never to emerge after their uncle was deposed? Did Henry Tudor and his supporters somehow manage to murder them in a bid to discredit Richard? The biggest problem facing historians in trying to unravel this mystery is that the records of the time are (a) rubbish, and (b) mainly written by the Tudors. Suffice to say that the apparent death of the Princes was a notch against Richard in the eyes of the public, and ammunition for those plotting against him.
And believe me, they were plotting.
Before long, Henry Tudor had emerged as a major menace to the king, an initial invasion attempt thwarted only by the weather. When he finally landed in Wales in 1485, two years after Richard assumed the throne, he was able to rouse enough men en route to London to pose a credible threat to the monarch’s army, although he remained outnumbered when their forces clashed in the now-infamous Battle of Bosworth Field.
At this point, the story takes a turn that couldn’t sound more like a Game Of Thrones series finale if it tried. The big budget battle scene featured three armies: Richard’s, Henry’s, and the troops belonging to Lord Thomas Stanley, who had sent a force in support of the king, but decided to hang back to make sure he was backing the winning side. When Henry’s men, commanded by the experienced Earl of Oxford, made a breakthrough, Richard gambled on a direct assault on Henry himself, charging across the battlefield in an attempt to personally decapitate his rival and end his bid for the throne in the most decisive way possible.
At this point, Stanley intervened, dispatching his troops in support of Henry. The Tudors won the battle, Stanley was in his new king’s good books, and Richard was slain, becoming the last British monarch to die on the battlefield. His skeleton showed eleven separate serious wounds, nine of them to his skull - the specifics of his grisly fate can be found here.
Henry VII went on to enjoy a long reign before his death in 1509, at which point he was succeeded by his son, also called Henry… who you might just have heard of. But Henry VIII's bride-beheading antics are a story for another blog post...
Meanwhile, the extent to which the newly-crowned Tudors managed to besmirch Richard’s memory is almost impressive. By the time Elizabeth I was on the throne, Richard had been immortalised as Shakespeare’s infanticidal monster, and Henry’s victory over him presented as a triumph of good over evil.
Richard’s corpse disappeared for centuries, until he was finally dug up in a car park in Leicester in 2012; the story of that discovery is a remarkable one in its own right, a group of archaeologists following a ‘tip off’ to the site of a potential burial and stumbling across the bones of the missing monarch in the very first trench they dug!
I hope my account has whetted your appetite to further probe the blood-drenched archives of British history. Although my article has been very pro-Richard, there is a huge ongoing debate about the true facts here, with opinion divided on whether he really did commit the dastardly deeds of which his successors accused him. The truth is something we’ll never know, but at the very least the discovery of his skeleton dispels the Shakespearean myth of his alleged deformities.
Either way, I’d urge you to explore the story for yourself, and also to pay a visit to the maligned monarch's adopted city of York – if only to tell Earl E. Grave that I said hi.
Until next time...