Was King Richard III a hero or villain?

File photo dated 05/02/13 of a model of the face of King Richard III, as Hollywood actor Benedict Cu

A model of the face of King Richard III - Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The discovery of the remains of King Richard III underneath a Leicester car park in 2012 has been described as the archaeological find of the century. The exact whereabouts of the last medieval king had been uncertain since not long after his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. He was reburied at Leicester Cathedral in 2015. But the ongoing controversy over the reputation of the 15th century monarch has never been so easy to put to rest.

Richard III remains one of the most controversial figures in British history. William Shakespeare’s play about him portrays him as a malevolent, “poisonous hunchbacked toad” who shamelessly killed his own brother, his nephews and another King, Henry VI as part of his ongoing campaign to secure the throne for himself. Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard as a man who openly admits he is "determined to prove a villain, And hate the idle pleasures of these days,” has had a big impact on Richard’s reputation. But the play was written well over a century after the King’s death. Shakespeare was strongly influenced by an earlier biography of Richard by one of Henry VIII’s key allies, Sir Thomas More, which attacks Richard III in dramatic terms. “He was malicious, wrathful, envious, and from before his birth, ever perverse… He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly friendly where he inwardly hated, not omitting to kiss whom he thought to kill; pitiless and cruel.” But even More had only been a young child when Richard was king. Supporters of Richard III argue that he was a decent and fair King unfairly demonised by later writers who had a vested interest in propping up the Tudor dynasty which replaced him by blackening the name of the man who had ruled England immediately before.

What do we know of Richard for certain? We know he was born in Fotheringhay Castle in 1452. Richard was only a child when his older brother became King Edward IV in 1461, but as he grew older and became Duke of Gloucester he served his brother loyally in the north. While another brother, the Duke of Clarence was executed for treason in 1478 (according to legend, he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine), Richard continued to remain loyal to his brother, the King.

In 1483, Edward IV died and the most controversial aspect of Richard’s career began. The King’s sudden death left the throne to his 12 year old son, Edward V, but it was a particularly bad time to have a child King with the Crown under constant threat from rival groups of nobles as the Wars of the Roses entered their final stages. Richard of Gloucester placed the boy King and his younger brother under ‘protection’ in the Tower of London. After some time, they disappeared and rumours began to spread that they had been murdered. Two skeletons discovered in the Tower during excavation work in the late 17th century are widely believed to have been those of the two murdered royals. As it was, Richard III ruled as King himself until he was overthrown and killed by Henry Tudor in 1485.

Ultimately, much of Richard’s reputation hinges on the fates of the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’. While it was fairly common for 15th century Kings to be overthrown and murdered, as indeed happened to Richard himself, the killing of two young boys, one of whom was undeniably the rightful King, represents something of a new low even by the standards of the time. And, unfortunately while it is true that Richard’s name was unfairly blackened by future historians, and although we will never know for sure, Richard III seems more likely to be the one responsible for those two deaths than anyone else.