To Prove a Villian: The Real Richard III

Exhibition at the Royal National Theatre, London
March 27-April 27, 1991

Home     |    Introduction     |    Participants    |     Contents

"These supposed crimes" (I.2)

Four major accusations (the murders of Edward of Lancaster, Henry VI, Clarence and Queen Anne) discussed and illustrated. Text by John Saunders.

Links in the text below will open in a new browser window; close the window to return to this page.

THE MURDER OF EDWARD OF LANCASTER

The Myth

'...'twas I that stabb'd young Edward...' (Richard III Act I Scene 2)

The earliest 'crime' that can be attributed to Richard III is the murder of Edward, the last Lancastrian Prince of Wales, on the field of Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471.

The first direct reference to Richard's involvement came with Polydore Vergil, who wrote in his Anglica Historia that Edward was 'crewelly murderyd' by Clarence, Hastings and Gloucester.

It is in the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed that Richard of Gloucester is cited as the principal culprit who strikes the first blow against Edward. First published in 1577, it soon became a standard history of England. Shakespeare probably made extensive use of Holinshed as source material for his plays. He developed the crime for dramatic purposes into one of the series of pre-meditated murders that paved the Shakespearean Richard's way to the throne.

Contemporary Evidence

All contemporary sources are unanimous in making no reference to Richard as the murderer of Edward of Lancaster. The Arrivall of Edward IV, the official Yorkist account of the events of 1470/71, stated that '...Edward, called Prince, was taken, fleinge to the town wards, and slayne in the fielde.' Warkworth's Chronicle, more Lancastrian in sympathy, slightly elaborates 'And there was slayed in the fielde Prynce Edward, which cryde for socure to his brother-in-law the Duke of Clarence.'

Modern View

Professor Charles Ross wrote that 'No shred of blame can fall on Richard...' and few serious historians today would speculate that Richard was responsible for this murder.

Panel: These Supposed Crimes

Illustration: Murder of Edward of Lancaster,' J. E. Doyle; Plaque marking burial place, Tewkesbury Abbey.

 

THE MURDER OF HENRY VI

The Myth

'...for I did kill King Henry...' (Richard III Act I Scene 2)

Henry VI died in the Tower of London probably on May 21st, 1471, the day that Edward IV returned in triumph to his capital after his victory at the battle of Tewkesbury. Polydore Vergil wrote that 'Henry the sixt... was put to death in the tour of London. The contynuall report is, that Richard Duke of Gloucester killyd him with a sword... but who so ever were the killer of that holy man...' Not yet a firm conviction of Richard. Thomas More wrote that Richard '...slew with his own hands King Henry the Sixth, being prisoner in the Tower, as men constantly say.'

It was Shakespeare who threw away any doubts about Richard's involvement. For the litany of crimes to be complete Shakespeare's Richard had to have sole responsibility for Henry's murder, a task that he performs with apparent zeal.

Contemporary Evidence

The Arrivall of Edward IV stated that Henry died of 'pure displeasure and melancholy.' It may well be that Henry did suffer a fatal stroke or fit after learning of the death of his only son and the eclipse of his cause at Tewkesbury. However it is probably too much of a coincidence that his death should have taken place so soon after Edward IV returned to London. Warkworth's Chronicle stated that Henry 'was put to dethe...beynge thenne at the Toure the Duke of Gloucester...and many other.'

The fact that Richard is said to have been in the Tower is not as sinister as it may appear. Whilst it is likely that Henry VI was put to death, the responsibility would lie with Edward IV, who would have viewed the murder as a political necessity. Only another monarch would order a regicide. As Constable it would have been Richard's responsibility to deliver the official warrant to the Tower, which was a centre of government and a royal residence. Richard's attendance does not therefore imply complicity with the murder.

Modern View

It is now accepted that if Henry VI was murdered in the Tower he died on the orders of Edward IV. Charles Ross wrote that the accusation that Richard was personally responsible for the murders of Edward of Lancaster and Henry VI was 'quite unrelated to the mundane facts of historical evidence.'

Illustrations: Shakespeare's Richard kills Henry VI, engraving by Byam Shaw; Plaque in Wakefield Tower of London.

 

THE MURDER OF GEORGE DUKE OF CLARENCE

The Myth

'...Clarence hath not another day to live...' (Richard III Act I Scene 2)

That Richard, Duke of Gloucester, drowned his brother George in a butt of malmsey wine is one of the most popular myths in English history. Thomas More first hints that Richard might have been involved with Clarence's death: 'Some wise men also ween that his drift covertly conveyed, lacked not in helping forth his brother of Clarence to his death.' Whilst More did at least concede that this was only a rumour, the seed was sown and soon incorporated into the growing legend of Richard III, culminating in Shakespeare's Richard and the butt of malmsey in the Tower.

Contemporary Evidence

There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Richard was actively involved with the death of Clarence. The Crowland Chronicle stated '...the execution, whatever form it took, was carried out secretly in the Tower of London.' Clarence had been in dispute with Edward IV for some time prior to 1478 over a variety of matters. He had shown an interest in marrying the Burgundian heiress, Mary, following the death of her father Charles the Rash in 1477. Edward thwarted this and relations between the brothers became tense. Once Clarence began to take the king's justice into his own hands he was challenging Edward's authority as King. With the precedent of Clarence's behaviour during 1470/71 Edward had no option but to take action. This was the background to Clarence's execution for treason. It is not possible to say if there is any truth in the story that Clarence had discovered details of the pre-contract, although there is circumstantial evidence that does give rise to such speculation. Whilst it is true that the Woodvilles would not have been too distressed by Clarence's execution the evidence does not suggest that it was they alone who actively brought about his downfall.

Dominic Mancini reported that Richard 'was so overcome with grief for his brother... that he was overheard to say he would one day avenge his brother's death.' However the Woodvilles made few material gains from the death and attainder of Clarence, and there is little evidence to suggest that Richard openly fell out with them. Indeed in some areas of his responsibility Richard must have cooperated with members of the family or their supporters.

Modern View

Few would now doubt that George Duke of Clarence was judicially executed by Edward IV for treason. Jeremy Potter writes 'There is no evidence...to connect Richard with the death of his brother Clarence, who was later executed on King Edward's orders after a public slanging match...'

Illustrations: 17th century portrait, George, Duke of Clarence, Brocket Hall: 'Bones' of George and Isabel, Clarence Vault, Tewkesbury Abbey.

 

ANNE NEVILLE -- MARRIAGE AND POISONING

The Myth

'...I'll have her but I will not keep her long' (Richard III Act I Scene 2)

Shakespeare has Richard wooing the recently widowed Anne Neville over the corpse of her father-in-law, Henry VI, Richard being responsible for both calamities -- Anne's widowhood and Henry's death. Amazingly under such circumstances he wins Anne and marries her. Of course the marriage does not last. Richard tires of Anne and has her poisoned. He then proceeds to bolster his claim to the throne by attempting to marry his niece Elizabeth of York.

John Rous accused Richard of poisoning Anne Neville, and for good measure locking up Anne's mother, the Dowager Countess of Warwick, for the duration of his life.

Polydore Vergil openly suggested that Richard rid himself of Anne. He has Richard causing 'a rumour...to be spread abrode of the quene his wyfes death..' A short while later Anne 'whether she wer dispatchyd with sorrowfulness, or poyson, dyed...'

Contemporary Evidence

Richard would have known Anne Neville from the days during the 1460s when he was under tutelage to her father the Earl of Warwick. It does not follow however that Richard and Anne were 'childhood sweethearts' and married for love. There is no way that we can determine the nature of their personal relationship. In the fifteenth century marriages were first and foremost business arrangements. Richard had much to gain in material terms from marriage to Anne. With her sister Isabel married to George Duke of Clarence, she was co-heiress of one of the country's greatest landowners. When Richard sought to make Anne Neville his wife a bitter row developed between the brothers. The Crowland Chronicle reported that 'so much disputation arose between the brothers and so many keen arguments were put forward on either side with the greatest acuteness in the presence of the king...even those learned in the law marveled at the profusion of the arguments which the princes produced for their own cases.' Whilst the acquisition of land, wealth and power was a factor in Richard's determination to marry Anne, it is reasonable to speculate that their marriage was successful. There is no hint of scandal or mistresses. Richard's acknowledged bastards were both born before his marriage. A brief glimpse of Anne and Richard together is given by the Crowland Chronicler when he reported on the death of Edward of Middleham 'You might have seen the father and mother, after hearing the news...almost out of their minds when faced with the sudden grief.'

Of the accusations that Richard poisoned Anne there is no contemporary evidence. Rumours were certainly spread by Richard's enemies after Anne died, along with the allegation that Richard intended to marry his niece Elizabeth, which Richard publicly denied. There is no reason to suppose that his contemporaries took the accusation of poisoning seriously. It seems most likely that Anne was suffering from some debilitating disease, possibly tuberculosis, as the Crowland Chronicle remarks that doctors advised Richard to avoid Anne's bed.

Modern View

Little credence is now given to the story that Richard poisoned Anne Neville and that the marriage was a wretched one from Anne's point of view. Paul Murray Kendall wrote 'It appears that Richard's marriage was happy, that he gave Anne Neville his heart as well as his name.' The evidence would seem to support this although the danger of over-romanticising the relationship should be avoided.

Illustrations: 'Richard of Gloucester and the Lady Anne,' Edwin Austin Abbey, Yale University Art Gallery; Richard's victims according to Shakespeare, illustration in Smithsonian Magazine March 1982.

 

Related link: The "Back to Basics" study guide section offers further reading on these issues.

<< Back >>    << Next >>

 

Exhibition

© 2003 Richard III Society