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The Case Against Richard III


Richard had a motive, that being that the Princes were rivals to his throne. The only way to effectively prevent, once and for all, the rebellions that had sprung up to restore Edward to the throne was to kill the Princes; once they were known to be dead, no one in their right mind could possibly try to put them on the throne. This sort of situation had risen before, not too far in the past, with the deposed kings Richard II and Edward II. In both cases the deposed was almost certainly murdered by the deposer. "Why...should it be supposed that Richard, as king, would depart from this established pattern of raison d’etat, especially given that his position was more insecure than that of his predecessors, and the legality of his claims seems to have been generally disbelieved?" (Ross, 99). Richard also, as king, obviously had means and opportunity; "[t]here can seldom have been a crime which so few people were a position to commit. Indeed, it is arguable that the suspects can be narrowed down to one" (St. Aubyn, 180).

Those who defend Richard have sometimes cited the behavior of the Princes’ mother, Elizabeth, in leaving sanctuary and letting her daughters stay at Richard’s court as proof that Richard was innocent. The traditionalists pounce on this objection. It would not necessarily have guaranteed safety to remain in sanctuary; although theoretically it was inviolable, in practice it was not. "If sanctuary was unsafe, was there any greater certainty that Richard would respect his promise not to harm her daughters?" (Cheetham, 150). The answer is yes; an oath taken i n front of witnesses would do the trick, given "how sensitive he [Richard] was to public opinion" (Cheetham, 151). The fact that Elizabeth demanded this oath shows that she did not trust Richard an inch; "[h]er submission was a piece of pragmatism" (Pollard, 133). Then again Richard’s behavior is that of a guilty man; he "planned to found a chantry at York served by no less than 100 priests who would offer masses for the salvation of his soul; enlisting the prayers of so many priests, unprecedented in England, is a strong indication that Richard felt he had some serious sins to expiate" (Weir, 166). It is not, however, an indication that these "serious sins" are the murders of the Princes in the Tower. Richard’s conscience may have simply been very sensitive; also he had a fondness for pomp and elaborate ceremony, as evidenced by each of his coronations. The murder of his nephews is not the only crime that Richard is accused of; if he was actually guilty of any of the numerous other crimes of which he is accused, he may have been trying to expiate one of them. Or he may possibly have felt guilty over his two illegitimate children. In any case, the chantry is hardly evidence that Richard had his two nephews murdered. Looming above all these indications, however, and throwing them into shadow, is "the plain and massive fact that the Princes disappeared from view after he [Richard] assumed the throne and were never again reported to have been seen alive" (Kendall, 486).

This last point, invariably mentioned as a clincher, is the weakest of all. The fact that the Princes were murdered during Richard’s reign does not necessarily mean that Richard murdered them, especially given the fact that the most plausible candidate besides Richard—the Duke of Buckingham—was executed during Richard’s reign; for Buckingham to be responsible for the deaths of the Princes, they would have had to have been murdered during Richard’s reign.

The argument that Richard had no reason to depart from precedent does not hold water either. Richard was not bound to repeat the past, and he might conceivably have had some qualms about murdering his two young nephews. But let's assume that Richard has every reason to follow precedent in these matters. If so, then why not follow it all the way? The whole point of killing the Princes, as with killing Richard II and Edward II, was to let the fact be known that they were no longer alive; the murders were simply means to that end. The deaths of Richard II and Edward II were made known in various ways: by announcement in Parliament; by public exposure of the body; by grand funerals. It would be a simple matter for Richard to arrange "a murder which would look like natural death—not a difficult task in those days of epidemics and little medical knowledge—followed by an exposure of the bodies at St Paul’s and a funeral befitting their father’s sons" (Lamb, 86). There was no funeral for the Princes; no exposure of the bodies; no announcements of their deaths. The whole purpose of the murders is defeated if the deaths are not made known; "obviously a secret murder would defeat its own ends" (Lamb, 86).

Traditionalists reply to this argument by pointing out that, according to Polydore Vergil, "King Richard ‘kept the slaughter not long secret’, permitting ‘the rumor of their death to go abroad, to the intent (as we may well believe) that after the people understood no issue male of King Edward to be now left alive, they might with better mind and good will bear and sustain his government’" (St. Aubyn, 180). Polydore Vergil was the official historian to Henry VII, and as such is oft touted as a most reliable and knowledgeable source, for as official historian he would of course have access to all royal records. The suggestion that Vergil’s statements about Richard might be compromised by the fact that Vergil was in the pay of Richard’s enemy and supplanter is answered thus:

[Vergil] was certainly not an obsequious echo of his master’s voice. On the contrary, he repeatedly showed his independence in thought, word and deed. His scant respect for the legends of King Arthur, after whom Henry named his first born son, and from whom he claimed descent, hardly suggest a sycophant at work. (St. Aubyn, 69)

Vergil’s possible motives are not the only thing that calls his trustworthiness into question, however. Vergil’s intellectual independence from his master and his privileged position do not seem to have done him much good. He gives the wrong date for events on more than one occasion—most spectacularly with Buckingham’s rebellion, which he misdates by a whole year. When recounting the clash between Richard and Lord Rivers at Stony Stratford, Vergil calls Richard’s 600 men many, and Lord Rivers’s 2000 a few. Besides all this, Vergil

seems to have a remarkably intimate knowledge of Richard’s most secret intentions and motives. Thus he asserts that on receiving the news of his brother’s death the Duke of Gloucester [Richard] ‘began to be kindled with an ardent desire of sovereignty’. Vergil does not tell us how he gained this insight into the thoughts of a man dead many years earlier—thoughts he would have been unlikely to confide to his most trusted friends at the time. On the contrary, he speaks of Richard’s deep dissimulation and of his efforts to hide his intentions. (Lamb, 54-55)

One wonders, also, why Vergil is the only source to mention this rumor spreading. Perhaps because of his access to royal records? Vergil doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to them. Then, too, this rumor spreading is not mentioned by Bernard Andre, Vergil’s predecessor as official historian to the king, although he too had access to the royal records. And would there be records of anything so tenuous as rumor spreading? The only other mention of rumor spreading (from a generally reliable and accurate source, the Croyland Chronicle) implicates Richard’s enemies, not Richard. Revisionists point out that any rumors Richard might spread would be redundant; there would be no reason for people to believe his rumors any more than the other rumors floating about. The fact that the Princes were never given a public funeral contributed greatly to people’s suspicions that there was something fishy about the Princes’ disappearance. If Richard was guilty, any rumor spreading would have been additional to a funeral; it could never function as a substitute. Even if Richard was innocent, though, why didn’t he give his nephews a public funeral? It would have been only their due, and might have served to allay suspicion somewhat. Could it be that Richard was ignorant of the fate of his nephews?

There is really no evidence to justify proclaiming Richard the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, but as there is not really any evidence to justify proclaiming him undoubtedly innocent, many authors consider him guilty anyway: "Richard stands convicted not so much by the evidence against him as the lack of evidence against anybody else" (Cheetham, 151).

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