Sunday, 24 March 2013

Alison Weir on the Real Richard III

It was another packed room last Thursday at our local library in South London when historian Alison Weir gave another of her fascinating lectures. This time, her goal was to debunk all the sentimentality that has accompanied the discovery of Richard III’s bones (I was guilty of that as the next man) and present instead a picture of the real Richard and his deeds, based on the historical sources. It was a subject Alison knew well: in 1992 she wrote a bestselling book on the fate of Richard’s most famous victims, The Princes in the Tower  which she revealed is going to be republished soon with added information.


Alison used Shakespeare’s Richard III as the running thread of her lecture, using especially slides from the 1955 Laurence Olivier film version which she said was her favorite (it is the only major film production staged in contemporary dress). This was surprising at first for a history talk but it made perfect sense because, as Alison explained, drama is a powerful medium, far more entertaining than history, and often more responsible for shaping historical reputations than actual facts. Shakespeare’s Richard III in particular has contributed more than anything else to the image of Richard III in the public mind (and also knee-jerk reactions to it).

Alison called it a ‘masterful study in villainy’ showing a Richard with no conscience, ruthless; self-absorbed in ambition, hate and self-loathing; and the quintessential Tudor propaganda tool against the usurper king (incidentally, Alison said that Richard’s deformity and ambition also referred obliquely to Sir Robert Cecil, the much resented, hunchbacked state secretary of Elizabeth I at the time the play was written.) After cautioning on the effects of drama however, Alison reminded us that Shakespeare did use contemporary historical sources to script his plays, like Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, and that his Richard—though blown large for the stage—did have some grains of truth to it…

Laurence Olivier’s Richard III: everyone’s favorite villain.


The discovery of Richard’s grave seems to have sparked his rehabilitation and turned us all into Ricardians. This has happened partly because the Richard III Society was the main driving force behind the historical dig, and also because the media colluded with the Society to turn everyone sentimental towards the last medieval king. But Alison warned against making historical judgments based on emotional responses and mass feelings. We shouldn’t assess Richard’s historical role based on the assumption that ‘he probably was a nice guy’, she said, or on the fact that his face ‘did not look like the face of a tyrant’ (this seemed a veiled barb to Philippa Langley’s words on seeing Richard’s reconstructed face in the now famous documentary). History should be built using historical evidence and credible inference, Alison told us. You cannot start with a theory of your own and build on that. You must instead confront the sources first and see where they lead you.

Alison said she knew wither she spoke of, for there was a time when she herself was a proto-Ricardian, back in the 1970s when she fell for Paul Murray Kendall’s revisionist biography of Richard III, published in 1954. It wasn’t until she researched the subject herself that she came to different conclusions about the historical Richard, which were and remain different from Kendall’s. In fact, Alison said that, based on all the sources and evidence available, she found the present trend towards rehabilitating Richard a little mystifying, especially among the Richard III Society. She opined that their support for the Boar King might have more to do with the quintessentially English tendency to root for the underdog than anything else.


During her talk Alison retraced Richard’s life via Shakespeare’s play, and she started by pointing out that Richard’s black reputation was not completely a Tudor invention: it actually had its origin in his own life. Richard grew up in ‘a shifting world’ surrounded by tragedy and evildoings. His father and brother were killed in battle when he was 8, he suffered exile at a young age, and he witnessed firsthand the vicious struggles among factions during the Wars of the Roses—he was already identified in his time with a ruthless family circle.

His contemporary reputation was also influenced by his deformed features. It has now been proved that his scoliosis would have given him an abnormal, hunched appearance, and in medieval times outward deformity was considered a reflection of inner evil. His severe scoliosis would also have affected his personality. Alison reminded us that people with serious scoliosis often suffer from constant muscle pain all over their bodies and they often develop psychological and emotional problems because of it. The fact that Richard managed to overcome these handicaps to become his brother’s right hand man and to lead men into battle says a lot about his strong character and his drive to succeed…either for good or bad.

King Henry VI and William, Lord Hastings, were some
of the first people who suffered at Richard’s hands.

Alison then reminded us that Richard’s black reputation had a basis in the dark deeds he was involved before becoming king. For example, although the Shakespearean image of Richard as the actual murderer of Henry VI might be a step too far, several historical accounts do say that Richard was one of the men present at the Tower when the Lancastrian king was killed on the orders of Edward IV. Most sources claim Richard was implicated in the foul deed one way or another, and Alison’s view is that as Edward IV’s reliable brother Richard’s task was to make sure his orders were carried out in full.

His involvement in the affair would also have taught him that deposed kings cannot be left alive to become a focus for rebellion but must instead be eliminated for one’s safety. (Alison however said that, differently from Shakespeare’s play, Richard probably had nothing to do with Edward IV’s elimination of his brother the Duke of Clarence.) His quick seizing of the throne after Edward V’s accession, including the swift and shocking execution of William, Lord Hastings, further convinced people in Richard’s own lifetime that here was a man with ice in his heart who was to be feared.


Predictably, the biggest focus of the talk was on Richard’s darkest deed of all: the murder of the Princes in the Tower, the 13-year old King Edward V and his 10-year-old brother Richard. This has always been cause No. 1 for Richard’s black reputation and Alison declared that when you consider all the available sources, evidence and inferences, it all points out to one thing: Richard did murder them. Interestingly, she told us that when she started working on her Princes in the Tower book she leaned favorably towards Richard’s innocence, but after travelling down many blind alleys she came to the unavoidable conclusion that he was indeed responsible for their deaths.

Alison Weir’s investigation into the Princes’ murder was also a personal journey into Richard’s guilt.

Alison's exposition during the talk used much information given by Thomas More in his History of King Richard III, which is sometimes dismissed by historians for being mere propaganda by a Tudor loyalist. Alison however pointed out that More, a man who lost his head to maintain his religious integrity, is unlikely to have bent easily to Tudor propaganda, and he did have access to several sources who were close to the event. Alison was especially keen on a group of ‘well-placed women’ living at the Minories, a religious foundation close to the Tower, who More most likely visited. This group included Yorkist royal relatives and the daughter of the Constable of the Tower at the time of the Princes’ disappearance, and so they could have been an important (and perhaps indiscreet) source of truth on what happened to the Princes.

In Alison’s view—which accords with the views of many other historians—the Princes were probably murdered on Richard’s orders sometimes in September 1483 while the King was travelling in the north of England, and the man most probably responsible for carrying out the act was the one who Thomas More indicted in his book: James Tyrell. Tyrell was a Yorkist supporter who was later executed by Henry VII in 1501 for taking part in a treasonous plot. More claims that before his beheading in the Tower he confessed that he had been responsible for the Princes’ death along with other men, including a John Dighton—and that they were under direct orders from Richard III. That he spoke the truth just before his death—the most likely time to disclose your sins—is proven by the fact that the spot where he said the Princes were originally buried in the Tower was exactly the spot where in 1674 a chest was found containing the remains of two young boys mixed with scraps of velvet—a material only reserved for royalty and the highest classes. So, in this historical whodunit, in the end it truly is Richard who comes out with blood in his hands.

The Princes await their death in the Tower
in this 1831 painting by Paul Delaroche.

What about the other suspects? Alison quickly dispelled any theories concerning the Duke of Buckingham, which was Paul Murray Kendall’s main suspect in 1954, and then gave interesting facts about Henry VII’s involvement in the whole affair. First of all, on his possible guilt, she stated that there are no contemporary sources implicating Henry in the death of the Princes. In fact, not even Henry’s most mortal enemy, the dyed-in-the-wool Yorkist Margaret of Burgundy, accused him of such deed (and she would have if there had been even a slight hint of it!).

Secondly, regarding the fact that Henry VII never publicly proclaimed Richard’s guilt, Alison said that until the 20th century English law worked on the assumption of ‘no body, no murder’. Henry could not have publicly accused Richard of murder because there was no murdered body to accuse him with (which would explain why the Princes’ bodies were hidden in the first place)--though it is important to note that Henry did accuse Richard of shedding ‘infant blood’. Thirdly, it is possible that Henry did issue a proclamation advertising Tyrell’s confession of the murders in 1501, but that proclamation is now lost. This would not be either unusual or suspicious, Alison said, since several of Henry’s proclamations are lost, including the one of his accession. If such a proclamation was made, it would in fact explain why Richard’s guilt became so fixed in the popular imagination since the beginning.

Henry VII: of course he looks devious, but he was no child murderer.


As always, it was a very interesting and well-researched talk by Alison. Over the last few months I myself have been swept up by the excitement of Richard’s discovery in Leicester, and though I never thought he was innocent of the Princes’ murders I did try to excuse them as the actions of a man acting according to the brutality of his times (see my post here). Alison was very good in reminding us that the murder of the child princes was as shocking then as it is now—‘child murder was a step too far’ even for the Wars of the Roses, she said—and that Richard’s reputation was not a complete fabrication by the Tudors. He certainly was not the ‘alluring monster’ constructed by Shakespeare but his memory is surely grounded in the dark facts of his own life.

We currently live in an age where the media constantly turn heroes into villains and viceversa, just for the sake of grabbing people’s attention, and perhaps people are falling for this trick when it comes to assessing Richard III’s life and reputation. It is up to solid historians like Alison Weir to remind us that correct history is not the result of popular feeling but of facts and common sense. In the words Alison herself, from her own website:

Historians should step back from their subject and be objective; they should infer what they can from the sources. They often disagree, but the important thing is that they remain objective and willing to listen to arguments. What concerns me is the sentimental and subjective tone of much that is being written of Richard III. As a fellow historian said to me, if people must approach this subject emotionally, shouldn't they be focusing on the strong possibility that two children were murdered in terrifying circumstances in the Tower of London?

Read more that Alison Weir has written on the subject at her website.

Read more at Wikipedia about the Princes in the Tower and about Richard III.

Richard III: perhaps Shakespeare was not so off the mark after all.


  1. Thank you, Alex, for another excellent article centered around an Alison Weir lecture; I envy you in that you live in such close proximity to Ms. Weir that you can attend her lectures!

    Richard III has been a near-constant topic of discussion in grad school, but I have never wavered in my opinion, based on contemporary sources, that Richard III was guilty of the murder of his nephews.

    You did an excellent job restating the evidence at hand;I will be tweeting and posting this article on Facebook and Google+.

    Semper Eadem,

    Ashlie of BeingBess blog

    'BeingBess' is dedicated to celebrating the life of Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603) and the legacy of her reign as Queen of England (1558-1603).

    1. Hi Ashlie,

      Thank you for the kind compliments, and for sharing the link with your followers: I got over 150 visits so far today and can only attribute it to your sharing!!

      Yes, I do feel lucky living close to Alison Weir and so many others historians here in London. Alison in particular is so nice as she always finds the time to speak to our borough's central library despite her very busy travel schedule.

      This last talk from her was a nice corrective on all the Richard III-mania that has gripped England in the last month, especially on the subject of the Princes in the Tower. The sources speak for themselves on what may have truly happened!

      Thanks again,


  2. Excellent article, and for once I agree with Alison Weir. I'm no fan of hers, but her views on Richard pretty much correlate with my own. Richard probably did order the deaths of the Princes. Legitimate or not, they would always be a threat to him (whether inciting rebellion in their name, or actively encouraging it later on in life. No act or parliament would change who their father was). Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi

      Thank you for your compliments. I agree with you (and Alison) that Richard most certainly thought they were a threat. The clincher for me is knowing that Richard had been involved in the murder of Henry VI: he learned from experience that deposed monarchs were always a threat--and how to deal with it.

      Thanks again for reading.


  3. So if he did kill the Princes than why did Elizabeth Woodville entrust her daughter to his care ? .

    Elizabeth the daughter was actually pretty close to him ,would she be this way with the murderer of her brothers ?

    Do not forget the Woodvilles tried to keep Edwards death from Richard ,planned a coup against him ,looted the treasury Than attacked the Tower for all that he only executed Rivers ,Gray and Hastings and spared many others .

    However much the children were a threat to him he was not a stupid man and being a new King would not have resorted to political suicide .However Buckingham would have had much to gain by their deaths .

    Weirs book has also been debunked ,especially using Moore as the book was never finished or published in his lifetime ,not to mention his primary source being Morton Bishop of Ely ardent Lancastrian and one of Henry's major backers .

    It has been noted many times Weir is very pro Tudor /Lancaster her works prove it ,while i agree he probably was no saint she ignores the fact Richard was very popular in the North and Midlands but unpopular in London due to his bias for Northern men in his Government .

    My self i am very middle ground on this issue but sadly Mrs Weir is not .

    1. Well, Michael, this issue was covered in depth in my talk (as were the other issues you raise), but has not been reported here. I am not pro-Tudor or pro-Lancaster, but an objective historian who stands back from sentiment and tries to assess the truth from original sources.

    2. Yes, I was going to reply to this Michael, but Alison beat me to the punch! This was just a brief review of her talk, which lasted for over 50 minutes and was brimming with information. Alison did cover the points you made on Elizabeth Woodwylle and Cardinal Morton, plus much more.

      I just covered the most important points in this post as it is only a general monarchy blog, so 'my bad'. She covers a lot more ground on the issue on a dedicated page on her website which you can access with the link I provide at the end of the post.


      Alex David

  4. Excellent article Alex. Like Ashlie, I envy you being able to hear Alison speak. Alison is on to something here. Need to read her "Princes" book again! Regards, Susan Abernethy

    1. It is an excellent book, Susan!

      Thanks for your comment.

      Alex David

  5. Elizabeth Feola16 May 2013 at 13:32

    This was an amazing article, and you made me feel like I was there, listening to her myself as I wish I had been!
    I watched a program on the Princes on the Smithsonian Channel (here in the US, not sure if you have it in the UK) which was horribly done. It actually said that Henry Tudor made it to London in the Buckingham revolt, got to the Tower, murdered the boys, jumped back on the ship and sailed back to Brittany! How outrageous! If Henry Tudor made it to London and into the Tower, why would he ever leave?! Of course I sent them an email explaining how off this theory was, but never heard back. I guess that's the difference between entertainment and History!
    I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  6. Very interesting article. I have just bought Weir's book about The Wars Of The Roses and look forward to reading it very much, though I might have to pick up her book about the Princes as well now. As others have said I envy you for being able to attend such fascinating lectures right on your doorstep (there's not a lot of interest up here in Lincolnshire), but thanks for taking the time to write it all out for us because they're really great to read.