Still looking for the truth about Richard III: who did kill the princes in the tower?

The coffin of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

The coffin of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

Like many thousands of others I visited Leicester on Monday 23 March 2015 to file past the coffined remains of Richard III before they are reinterred in the Cathedral on Thursday. People waited up to four hours, and many in the queue held white roses, the symbol of the house of York, others wore boar-shaped brooches. We met people from Ludlow, Norfolk, the North East, and South Wales, and although they had followed the excavation, they seemed to be compelled as much by witnessing a unique event as by the honouring of a long-dead monarch. We also visited the Richard III Visitors’ Centre and the Guildhall, all close together. Even after Thursday there will be much to see in the city and at the site of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard died, just a few miles away.

In the exhibition, apart from the fascinating forensic and archaeological investigations relating to the finding of the body, I was particularly interested in the discussion of Richard’s achievements as a king, and the section about Shakespeare’s play. After 500 years in which we have been told Richard was a monster they are understandably keen to emphasise the positive side of his life. Richard brought in laws to protect the rights of his subjects, such as the right for those accused of crimes to be considered for bail instead of being imprisoned until trial. I may have missed it in the crowded exhibition, but I didn’t notice a reference to the other side: Richard ignored the law of the land by summarily executing Lord Hastings, a member of his council, without any form of trial.

In his play Shakespeare makes much of this dramatic event, writing a whole scene (Act 3 Scene 4) around the downfall of Hastings. In the play, Hastings’ reluctance to accept Richard’s coronation is enough for Shakespeare’s Richard to condemn him, but although the scene is in essence correct, the truth was probably more complex. The historical facts seem to confirm Richard as an opportunist, not above acting ruthlessly in the face of a threat, rather than Shakespeare’s plotter.

The statue of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, with white roses

The statue of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, with white roses

In the middle of Henry VI Part 3 Shakespeare gives Richard a wonderful speech about his ambition to be King. Here’s an extract:
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives lie between me and home….
Why I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry “Content!” to that that grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions…
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?

The worst crime of which Richard is accused is the murder of the little princes in the tower, the sons of Edward IV aged 12 and 9. A Channel 4 documentary Richard III: The Princes in the Tower was screened on Saturday evening.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard is of course guilty. “Shall I be plain?” he says: “I wish the bastards dead”. The documentary considered other possibilities, but it’s a pity it was, as this review put it, “all spectacle and no substance”.

Richard III: the Princes in the Tower

Richard III: the Princes in the Tower

Specialists and academics gave their opinions, but there was no discussion, no comment on what anyone else said, held together by some unconvincing dramatized sequences. The programme did at least clarify the sequence of events, and noted that Shakespeare was only repeating the contemporary view of events promoted by, among others, Thomas More. The conclusion of most of those who were consulted was that Richard probably had been responsible for the murder, possibly persuaded by Buckingham.

With breathtaking political naivety one of the speakers suggested Richard had no motive for the murder, since once the princes had been proclaimed illegitimate and Richard was crowned, he had no need to fear them. He should read Richard II, where the king considers the fragility of anyone’s hold on the crown:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d.

In another investigation, The Daily Mirror asked a retired Scotland Yard detective, Peter Kirkham, to review the evidence. Although he doesn’t go into all the alternatives, he concludes: “As a professional investigator, my favoured hypothesis is that the princes were murdered on the orders of Richard III. He was the only individual with the clear motive and the opportunity.”

Antony Sher as Richard III, RSC 1984

Antony Sher as Richard III, RSC 1984

One of the results of the reconsideration of Richard’s character could be a reluctance to perform Shakespeare’s play. On Monday, actor Antony Sher, who played a full-blooded Richard in 1984, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. He insisted we must never stop doing it. Richard is “a fantastic, powerful, charismatic figure” in one of Shakespeare’s great plays. “It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s dangerous”. And although we “must not come to Shakespeare’s play expecting a history lesson” it’s a politically important play because it is a “study in tyranny”. He also performed part of the famous opening speech in the play. It’s right at the end of the broadcast, 2 hrs 55 minutes in.

We’ll probably never know the truth about the disappearance of the princes in the tower, or exactly what sort of a man Richard III really was. But Shakespeare’s play has helped to ensure that, 500 years on, we’re still talking about him.

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7 Responses to Still looking for the truth about Richard III: who did kill the princes in the tower?

  1. Jonathan Evans says:

    Be wary of making any assumptions about what happened to Hastings and the Princes. We simply don’t have the evidence. For instance, it’s overstating things to say categorically that Hastings was executed without any form of trial. What we know is that there was some form of disturbance at the Council meeting, which followed on from an earlier attempt at a coup. Richard, as Protector, embodied the King and any plot against him was treason. According to the legal standards of the time, the Council members present could have heard the case. Furthermore, if Hastings had been caught in the act of committing treason, Richard as Constable had the right to administer summary justice. This isn’t to say that I believe in one scenario over another. Hastings may have been entirely innocent, or he may have been set up. But, without concrete information, we have to admit to a range of possibilities and then look at likelihood. On the one hand, you have the demands of realpolitique; on the other, even if you view Richard as guilty on all counts, you puzzle at how someone could act so strikingly out of character for a period of about three months before reverting back.

    Similarly, with the Princes, there is a void so absolute that even Henry VII couldn’t find out what happened two years after they were last seen. What hope have we got 500 years later? While Richard certainly had a motive to order their deaths, despite his entitlement to the crown having been confirmed by Parliament, that motive is compromised by the fact that the deaths weren’t announced with some fig-leaf explanation, as had happened with Richard II and Henry VI. To kill them secretly would truly be to have the worst of all worlds, and Henry VII was as plagued by rumours that they were still alive as Richard had been by rumours that they were dead. So what are we left with? Richard may have had them killed, and then suffered a crisis of conscience, causing him to freeze; they may have been killed by a third party, hoping to curry favour with Richard, hoping to discredit him, or simply misinterpreting an order; or they may have been removed from London before vanishing into history, depending upon what credence you give to the claims of Perkin Warbeck or Richard of Eastwell etc.

    This ambiguity, coupled with Richard’s undoubtedly courageous death in battle, is what gives the story such resonance. It’s drama as powerful as Shakespeare’s and capable of as many reinterpretations.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for your comment! The Princes in the Tower programme was quite firm about Richard’s guilt of Hastings’ death. But it seems as you say that there has never been any documentation about the mystery of the princes’ disappearance. I believe though that rumours of their deaths began very quickly and if not true, I wonder why evidence was not supplied?

  2. Lar Bowe says:

    While the discovery of the remains and the re-opening of historic issues are most interesting I can’t help but feel overall we are dealing with “Oh there is a Royal being buried, what an opportunity to throw flowers” type reaction. Respect for his remains and his standing as a Monarch are important but let us not lose perspective. When the story broke that the remains of Richard III may have been found I read everything I could find on the breaking news and then I saw an interview with Philippa Langley and my cynicism barometer rose almost instantly. While I don’t doubt her hard work and enthusiasm especially as a committed amateur (we need enthusiastic amateurs….being one) I found the cringe inducing tearful plea “he was misunderstood “somewhat off-putting. Then she added that it was important to reopen his case “because he is our forgotten king”, which seemed to carry the hint of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. One wag commented “She’s in love with his bones!” Richard being described as “misunderstood” and “forgotten” in the same speech seems somewhat tautologous. While it is early days yet I haven’t read anything new from any one to counter the standard opinions of which the portrayed in “Richard III” by William Shakespeare is as good as any. There appears to be as many theories (the children in tower) as there are supposed “real” authors of the works of William Shakespeare. Ms. Langley has done fine work for which she should be heartily commended but please keep her away from a microphone. Apparently she is currently working on the screenplay for a proposed film on the life of Richard III, she is quoted as saying she hopes Richard will be portrayed by English actor Richard Armitage who “is named after the king”. I guess his mother can’t admit now that he was named after Richard Burbage!

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for your comment and the interesting information about an upcoming screenplay about Richard’s life.

  3. Richard Morris says:

    It has been wonderful to be a part of England’s history along with many thousands of others who travelled to Leicester this week. I was also very impressed with the way Leicester was able to pull it all together. What I find sad is Shakespeare being blamed for turning Richard III into a villain. We forget all to easily that Shakespeare was writing a popular play to fill the Globe with paying customers and probably had no interest in historical accuracy. Greg Doran said quite correctly that without Shakespeare writing such a brilliant play with such an attractive character, Richard III would be just another half forgotten medieval King and there wouldn’t be a Richard III society.
    It seems to be fashionable to rehabilitate historical figures from the over simplistic views of the past. So Thomas Cromwell becomes a benign father figure and Richard III is mis-understood, now I applaud some of this historical revisionism and congratulate Philipa Langley and her colleagues for their tenacity, but like Lar Bowe above, I also feel my cynicism rising whenever I hear her talking about Richard. Medieval Kings stayed in power not by being weak and vacillating.
    New DNA evidence questions the legitimacy of all the Plantagenets, but in reality the only legitimacy a medieval monarch needed was to beat his enemies (what the Chinese famously call “the mandate from heaven”). Richard was particularly good at out manoeuvring his opponents both on and off the battle field.
    Hastings was the ultimate Edward III loyalist and could be expected to tenaciously maintain the right of Edward’s sons to the throne. Not surprisingly it was convenient to find evidence of Edward’s pre contract of marriage and therefore the illegitimacy of his sons. Even before he took the crown Richard was in a position of such power he knew he was “riding the tiger” and his only way off is death, so even if there was a real plot or not it was prudent to take some pre-emptive action. If indeed there was a trial of Hastings there would surely be some evidence of it.
    As to the Princes in the tower, Jonathan Evans is quite right, there is no evidence of Richard’s involvement, but he was certainly the main beneficiary of their disappearance.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for the reply. The story’s going to run and run isn’t it? I do hope it isn’t going to affect the performance of Shakespeare’s play, without which none of this would have happened.

  4. Richard Morris says:

    Having just reread my comment above I spotted an error which should of course read …Hastings was the ultimate Edward IV loyalist.

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