Even 600 years after his death, controversy continues to surround Richard III. The discovery of his long-lost remains beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 seemed to provide resolution and closure, but instead the discovery raised many more questions than it answered. Variously portrayed as a pious and devoted ruler and a power-hungry schemer willing to murder his nephews to hold the throne, Richard III remains a mystery. For hundreds of years these kinds of contradictions have left historians scratching their heads and wondering about the King’s real character and why these descriptions are so confused.
In her book Richard III: The Road to Leicester, author Amy Licence sorts through the rumors and legends to give the reader a sense of who the real Richard III might have been. With a background in Medieval and Tudor studies, Licence transports the reader into another era, bringing to life the people and places surrounding King Richard III. What results is a thoughtful and nuanced examination of Richard’s character and why he became such a reviled figure in the centuries after his death. Finally, Licence brings the reader full circle, recounting the discovery of Richard’s remains in 2012 and the current debate surrounding his internment.
Below author Amy Licence discusses her book Richard III: The Road to Leicester and shares her thoughts on the creation and evolution of this gripping book.
What made you want to write a book about Richard III? What drew you to his story?
There’s just something about Richard! I suppose it is the level of controversy that is still generated by the unsolved mysteries of his reign, but also the nature of his motivation and personality. With so little surviving material about contemporary events and no personal record of his feelings, there are a range of possible interpretations which will probably never be satisfyingly resolved. I was also drawn in by his artistic and literary “after-life”, and the impact he has made on popular culture.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
My research was a mixture of primary sources and the traditional biographical interpretations for his life story, but as this book deals with the events of his burial and popular portrayals of him, I used a wider range of sources. Those included my own notes from the University of Leicester’s press releases, archaeological papers, museums, galleries, film archives and literary sources, to establish exactly what did happen to him after death, what the archaeologists found and how he has been represented since.
There are many different portrayals of Richard III in history: some show him as a deformed, power-hungry schemer willing to do whatever it took to remain in power, while others showed him as a model of devoted governance and personal piety. What do you think Richard III was like?
Just like us, Richard was a real person, often acting for the best, sometimes unsure and sometimes inconsistent. We shouldn’t expect to see a unified Richard but, rather, someone who developed and changed, so the “real” Richard is hard to capture. He does seem to have been a typical Medieval aristocrat in some ways; loyal, ambitious, hard-working and pious, but he did find himself in an extraordinary situation in 1483. Events like that can lead people to act out of character. It really boils down to the question of his motivation and how we interpret his actions in becoming King, either as reactionary or some pre-planned scheme. I can’t pretend to know what Richard was like but from my research, I think he acted in accordance with the situation he found himself in but his character is elusive, in that it is masked by dramatic events.
What are your feelings on what may have happened to Richard’s nephews (the Princes in the Tower)? Do you think he had his nephews killed to further his own political ambitions? Do you think they might have escaped?
I’m often asked this one and I can only offer my opinion based on what is known about the summer of 1483. I do this with the awareness that we probably only have the tip of the iceberg here and with an open mind to whatever new information may emerge in the future. The Princes were in Richard’s care; he lodged Edward in the Tower awaiting his coronation and took the younger boy, Richard, out of sanctuary to be with his brother. After June 1483, the Princes weren’t seen again. Their doctor records that Edward was in fear of his life. By the autumn, rebels acting against Richard were no longer citing Edward as their figurehead but had transferred allegiance to Henry Tudor, suggesting it was a commonly held belief that the boys were dead. It would be lovely to believe they had escaped and lived happy lives elsewhere but I feel that the most obvious answer here is the simplest one. My personal opinion is that Richard knew the Princes would always be the focus for uprisings against his reign, or the claim of his son, so he had them removed. That seems the most likely scenario to me, although until the urn in Westminster Abbey is opened and the bones in there subject to DNA testing, this question cannot begin to be resolved.
Why do you think Richard was so determined to marry Elizabeth of York? Were his motivations purely political?
I don’t think he was determined to marry her at all. There is no evidence that he wanted to marry her; the report made by the Croyland Chronicler of “scandalous” behaviour and the reputed letter Elizabeth wrote to John Howard, can all be interpreted in different ways. The only public statement that Richard made was to deny his intention. It has become a full-blown affair in the minds of novelists, which is entirely their prerogative. If he did harbour any secret desires, he left no record of them. It has often been stated that he would have gained politically by a marriage to Elizabeth, but this would not have strengthened his claim to the throne, it would have been to prevent her marriage to Tudor, and he could have achieved this by marrying her elsewhere. After Anne died, he opened negotiations for Portuguese marriages for them both.
Richard III joined the Battle of Bosworth Field, bravely fighting alongside his fellow nobles and soldiers. At that time, was it common for Kings to join in battles instead of remaining safely in the back (as was the case by the 1600s)? Why would a King put himself at such risk?
Yes, he was following in the tradition of the Plantagenet Kings and had fought alongside his brother Edward to defend the throne. It wasn’t necessarily seen as a risk; as they believed that God was on their side, they engaged in battle with the conviction that they would lead their troops to victory. It was vital to have a King as a focal point to rally the troops. As we see with Henry VI, his absence during battle was a significant factor- when he was actually among his men at Ludford Bridge, it was enough to dispel the Yorkist army. It could win or lose the battle.
It is fascinating that by 1611 it was unknown where Richard III was buried and his bones were lost. How did this happen?
It was mostly due to the Reformation. With the literal destruction of monasteries, churches and the thousands of tombs they contained, a lot of bones were burned or misplaced. Part of the process was an irreverent recycling of church artefacts, such as altars and tomb stones being used as door steps or table tops in domestic settings. Once that generation and their children were lost, the memories started to fade and pass into legend, with all its distortive qualities. Also, it wasn’t particularly politic to recall Richard during the Sixteenth century. By the time people began to be interested in him again, records had been lost and myths replaced facts.
After his death, how was Richard III’s memory distorted (for example in the writings of Vergil, More, Shakespeare, etc.)? Why and how were these portrayals of Richard III flawed?
Every second-hand account of Richard is flawed somehow. Even those people who wrote about him who actually saw him with their own eyes have to be treated with caution, as they are only one person’s interpretation. Factor the new Tudor regime into that and you have a lot of unreliable material. However, we can’t reject it entirely as it is the only material we have and does represent cultural perceptions of Richard at different times. Vergil was employed by Henry VII to write a history of his reign and path to the throne, so there are no surprises that his account will be slanted in favour of the new regime. More was writing within a tradition of didactic literature; the Medieval mind invested firmly in the authority and intervention of God, so that if something went wrong – like a King dying in battle – there had to be a good reason for it. More’s account belongs to this kind of writing, which seeks to explain misfortune or bad events by creating a moral framework around them. His Richard is simply a medieval morality figure, an instrument, rather than the true portrayal of a real man. Shakespeare followed the same tradition, although he presents a far more attractive villain, as was the style at the time, with Iago, Macbeth and Faustus.
There is currently a legal battle underway disputing whether Richard III should be buried in Leicester or York. What are your thoughts on this dispute? Where do you think Richard III should be buried?
I’m not entering into the York-Leicester debate. All I want is a suitable burial, the current situation has dragged on for far too long and needs to be resolved as soon as possible so he can be laid to rest.
Once it is decided where to bury Richard, will you go to the ceremony for his reburial?
I would like to, but it all depends when it takes place. I’m a full-time mum to boys aged 4 and 20 months, so if it fits in with them, I would go.
What would you like the reader to take away from your book on Richard III?
There are two things really that I hope the reader will take away from this book. Firstly, that Richard was a real man and no one source or viewpoint of him is representative. Secondly, I hope people will be interested in Richard’s cultural afterlife, in the way he has been rewritten and repackaged in art, literature, drama, film and popular culture. All these are important representations of Richard’s changing status and reflect just how subtly subjective culture can be. If anything, I hope it will encourage the reader to be a more active interpreter of fiction and non-fiction sources, seeing that both contribute to the cultural construct of Richard III.
You may also enjoy Amy’s latest book, Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings, the first full-length biography of Richard III’s mother, as well as her other books, Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen, Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen, In Bed with the Tudors and Royal Babies: A History 1066-2013. For more information on the Tudor period, please also consult Amy Licence’s personal website.
Amberley Publishing is offering a free copy of Richard III: The Road to Leicester – Please leave a comment to enter the drawing! – Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments, the contest is now closed.