Richard III, king of England, whose remains have now been discovered, is entitled to a more honourable ceremony – attended by the Queen – than the furtive burial he received after his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He should not be the object of hero-worship. Nor should the melodramatic presentations of him be accepted as fact – the Italian diplomat Polydore Vergil and Thomas More were courtiers of Richard’s enemy and successor, Henry VII, and Shakespeare followed them.
Richard succeeded his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V, who was deposed after a dubious challenge to the validity of the marriage of Edward IV, Richard’s elder brother. The boy and his younger brother were moved into the Tower of London; they were never again seen in public. Richard would have been wiser to remain lord protector (or regent). At the very least, he should have taken every possible measure to assure the children’s safety.
Detective stories often have the premise that the obvious suspect is not the guilty party. In 1951, The Daughter of Time, a detective novel by Josephine Tey, ingeniously applied that logic: The prime suspect, Richard, was innocent, and Henry Tudor had had the young princes killed. Many readers were thrilled by this reasoning.
Richard was quite a good king, but not the paragon that many in the Richard III Society claim him to have been. For example, they say he created pre-trial bail; in fact the one parliament in his reign passed a bill to let justices of the peace grant bail, as well as judges. Nor did he institute the presumption of innocence. On trade, Richard brought in some protectionist import restrictions, though he did exempt printed books. Another bill, to his credit, abolished the practice of “benevolences” – oppressive extra taxes – though a little later Richard exacted forced loans. Afterwards, the avaricious Henry VII revived rapacious tax collection.
On balance, Richard got off to a good start – if only he had not usurped the throne. This loss of legitimacy helped give Henry a pretext to invade from his exile in France. The Richard III Society deserves praise for its tenacity in the search for the new historical evidence, but its eulogies for their hero should be taken with several grains of salt.