Shakespeare is the reason a pile of old bones has been ceremonially laid to rest after 530 years. After all, who but historians would remember a king who reigned for such a short time?
“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” The man who utters this line is one of the most complex and chilling in all Shakespeare’s plays. By means of Shakespeare’s dramatic skill and use of poetic language, his self-proclaimed villainy provokes a mix of admiration and loathing.
Most recent accounts agree that the real man, the king buried in Leicester Cathedral on Thursday 26 March 2015, was completely different. We have to forget the tradition of an evil Richard III – Tudor propaganda at its most incisive – and see that Shakespeare’s themes were ambition, legitimacy, the abuse of power, and the moral consequences of murder. None of these was exclusive to a Plantagenet king.
Richard was born in 1452, the eleventh child of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. He was created Duke of Gloucester at the coronation of his brother, Edward IV. Against the background of the dynastic Wars of the Roses between the rival Plantagenet Houses of York and Lancaster, on the death of Edward IV in 1483, Richard became Lord Protector and began scheming to seize the throne from the young Edward V. The old nobility, fearful and factional, declared the succession of Edward V illegal, suggesting that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous, making his sons illegitimate and ineligible as heirs to the crown. Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of York, were imprisoned in the Tower of London, never to be seen again. Richard of Gloucester was crowned Richard III on 6 July 1483.
Four months into his reign Richard crushed a rebellion led by Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who wished to see the Lancastrian Henry Tudor on the throne. In April 1484, Richard’s only legitimate son died. In March 1485 his queen, Anne Neville, also died and public opinion was scandalized by the rumour that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. Public opinion strengthened in favour of his rival, leading to Henry Tudor’s forces attacking the king’s on 22 August 1485 at the battle of Bosworth Field – where Richard was killed.
Historians have been notably unkind to Richard, supported in the public imagination by the character assassination in Shakespeare’s play. A less biased view suggests that Richard was not such a bad king. His only parliament of 1484 was responsible for introducing a Land Tenure Act, which helped to safeguard property rights, a system of bail to prevent innocent people waiting years for a case to come to court, and overhauling a corrupt jury system.
The Church of England certainly had no qualms about interring the pile of bones discovered under a car park in 2012 in a way that befitted an anointed king – despite the anachronism and possibly mindful of Shakespeare’s words about Richard’s Plantagenet ancestor Richard II:
“Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off an anointed king.”
For Leicester Cathedral an imposing tomb was constructed, featuring a 2.3-tonne block of Swaledale limestone on a black base inscribed with Richard’s name, dates and royal coat of arms. The coffin inside was positioned so that – in one fanciful account – “the battle-scarred skull looks towards the great east window of the church.”
Together with a set of rosary beads and soil collected from Fotheringhay, where Richard was born, Middleham Castle where he lived, and Fenn Lane Farm, the site of the battle where he died, the remains found in the car park were reverently laid in the grave:
“And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”