King Richard III was a man of courage and never a child-killer
It's too late for an apology from Shakespeare, but at least he should be re-interred with full military honours
IT'S THE FACE of a king and a handsome face. But is it, as some historians would have us believe, the face of a stop-at-nothing murderer of defenceless children?
The Princes in the Tower (Edward V and Richard Duke of York) were certainly murdered but not by their uncle King Richard III: a modern jury would dismiss much of the 'evidence' against him before the first tea break.
Most of it comes from two propagandists on the Tudor payroll keen to blacken Richard's name - an Italian cleric and humanist scholar called Polydore Vergil commissioned by Henry VII to write a history of England in 1505 and rewarded with a series of juicy English ecclesiastical offices. He enthusiastically adopted his master's malice towards Richard which went on to enter the DNA of English history and permeated the later popular works that Shakespeare used as sources for his plays. His eccentric belief that Cambridge was founded before Oxford has however sunk without a trace.
The other malign influence was Sir Thomas More – not in reality the saint portrayed in A Man For All Seasons but a Tudor toady and enthusiastic burner of protestant martyrs - until falling out with Henry VIII over his marriage to Anne Boleyn. His History of King Richard III is a masterpiece of character assassination.
The first modern writer to smell a rat was Sir Clements Markham, the polar explorer and patron of Captain Scott, who wrote a sympathetic biography of Richard. The golden age detective novelist Josephine Tey read it and after seeing the portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery she found it hard to believe that a man with such a sweet face could be a child-killer.
In her 1951 book The Daughter of Time she gets her fictional detective, Inspector Alan Grant, to investigate the mystery. In his police procedural way, Grant concludes that there was no evidence at all that the princes were missing from the tower during Richard's short reign. Indeed, he had no reason to do them in since their illegitimacy was widely suspected and had been agreed by parliament. Their father, Edward IV, had an eye for the ladies and was probably already married when he married the boys' mother, Elizabeth Woodville. Woodville remained on the closest terms with Richard during his short reign.
Henry VII in stark contrast had a very dodgy claim to the throne that relied on illegitimate descent from John of Gaunt. The Princes in the Tower represented a real threat. Inspector Grant concludes it was Henry who got them out of the way.
The death of the young princes was certainly a tragedy. One can only imagine how grim their lives became after the declaration of their illegitimacy and imprisonment – their vulnerability and mutual reliance was touchingly portrayed by Millais in a 19th Century portrait. As a young officer doing late night rounds at the Tower of London, the Bloody Tower where the boys were done to death seemed a peculiarly bleak and depressing spot.
In identifying the lost remains of Richard III, scientists at Leicester University have achieved an astonishing piece of detective work through DNA profiling – all the more gratifying for them as the technique was invented at the university in 1984 by the geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys.
Under the terms of the exhumation licence granted by the Ministry of Justice to the university they are responsible for the reburial – in Leicester Cathedral a few hundred yards away. As Richard's body would have received Christian burial by the monks of Greyfriars Church at the time (you can't be buried twice under canon law) his re-interment will be marked by a ceremony of remembrance. The church authorities in Leicester are envisaging something on a major scale as befits a king – there is already a memorial to him in the nave.
Richard III was the last Plantagenet king and the last English king to be killed in battle. Despite Shakespeare's slurs there is little doubt that he was a physically courageous man. The wounds on his skeleton clearly demonstrate that he fought to the bitter end at Bosworth.
He deserves to be commemorated with all the respect we normally give to a dead sovereign – lying in state and full military honours with the coffin carried by the Grenadier Guards as is customary. An anointed king is, after all, an anointed king.
Crispin Black's new thriller, 'The Falklands Intercept', is published by Gibson Square. ·