Many years ago, when I was still in primary school, I remember being taught – as if it were a fact – that King Richard III was an evil man who had his nephews smothered to death so that he could steal the crown. For a long time I believed it, until I did my own research. Then I realised that what I had been taught was not necessarily true.
What many people believe they know about Richard III is informed by the play that William Shakespeare wrote about him. They forget that Shakespeare was primarily a story-teller and they think that the portrayal of Richard as an evil hunchback king with a withered arm is an accurate one.
Today, the University of Leicester has confirmed that the remains exhumed from beneath a council car park in Leicester are those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England. The skeleton reveals many things but maybe two of the most interesting are: the king was not a hunchback (although he did suffer from severe scoliosis) and he did not have a withered arm.
So, why did Shakespeare write the play he did? Well, first of all you have to admit that it’s a good story – and as I said Shakespeare was a story-teller. But there may be another reason.
William Shakespeare was reliant on patronage. He needed an income. It is fairly certain that one of his early patrons was Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. In fact Lord Strange’s Men are linked to the first performance of Richard III and it is probable that Shakespeare wrote the play for them.
If you know anything about the battle of Bosworth, you will know that the main reason Richard died is because he was not supported by the Stanley family. Thomas Stanley, who was the father-in-law of Henry Tudor, seems to have watched from the sidelines until he was sure who would win. His brother, William Stanley, led the attack on Richard and it was he who seized the crown and put it on Henry Tudor’s head, although in Shakespeare’s play it is Thomas Stanley who is credited with the act. It is also recorded that Henry Tudor’s standard bearer at Bosworth was a man named William Brandon. Richard killed him in his attempt to reach Tudor and engage him in a hand to hand combat.
Ferdinando Stanley, Shakespeare’s patron, was the direct descendant of Thomas Stanley. On his mother’s side he was also descended from William Brandon. According to the will of Henry VIII he was, after his mother, Margaret Clifford, the heir to the English throne if Elizabeth I died childless. I don’t think he would have been impressed if his playwright had written a play that eulogised Richard III. In fact, Shakespeare’s patron may have demanded a play that reminded Queen Elizabeth of the crucial role the Stanleys had played in putting the Tudors on the throne – a play that would reinforce his own claim to be her legitimate heir.
It could be that William Shakespeare did not have an entirely free hand in his writing. He was probably forced, at that early stage in his career, to please his patron by producing work that pleased him. So, maybe he should not take all the blame for blackening Richard’s reputation. Instead, the fault should lie with those who have relied on fictional rather than factual sources to inform history. If today’s announcement changes anything, I hope it will be that more focus is put on the facts surrounding the reign and death of Richard III and that there will be an analysis of what was written about Richard before and after his death at Bosworth. For example the medieval historian John Rous praised Richard as a ‘good lord’ before Bosworth and it was not until the reign of Henry Tudor that he wrote about him being ‘born with teeth and shoulder-length hair after having been in his mother’s womb for two years’ – a comment he must have known at the time was ridiculous. But maybe he too was constrained by what he was being pressured to record.
Maybe the blame does not lie with Shakespeare, or John Rous, or even Thomas More. Perhaps the blame lies with those who they were forced to please. The men who held power. The victors. The Tudors.