England’s King Richard III has been in the lineup of historical bad guys for more than 500 years, along with the likes of Nero, Attila the Hun and Charlie Manson.
Shakespeare portrays Richard as a cruel, power-crazed hunchback who, among countless other dark deeds, murdered the innocent little princes in the Tower of London.
Not so, say University City resident Susan Burns and her mother, Rosemarie Belcher, who are making a pilgrimage to the England for Richard III’s official royal reburial on March 26 in Leicester Cathedral.
“Research shows Richard III was nothing like the villain Shakespeare portrayed,” Burns says.
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Burns and Belcher, who lives in east Charlotte, are part of a larger worldwide movement known as Ricardians, who seek to restore Richard’s tarnished reputation after centuries of negative propaganda started by his Tudor usurpers.
Richard was crowned in 1483, and died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, at the hands of forces loyal to his rival Henry Tudor. After the battle, Henry proclaimed himself King Henry VII, the first Tudor king.
Richard’s remains disappeared, though rumors persisted that friars gave him a simple burial in nearby Leicester. A century later, Shakespeare’s play made Richard III synonymous with evil.
The Ricardians, organized in the 1920s, champion a contrarian view. In their alternate reading of history, Richard III was a good and popular monarch slandered by Tudor disinformation.
Historian John Smail, dean of University College and associate provost for undergraduate studies at UNC Charlotte, sees their point. Richard III was, Smail says, “undoubtedly a victim of Tudor propaganda. We don’t realize how much of our understanding of that period is shaped by the fact that the Tudors were Shakespeare’s paymasters.”
In 2009, the Ricardian cause got an unexpected boost when Philippa Langley, a Ricardian from Scotland, made a research trip to Leicester. Langley reported having “the strangest feeling” while standing in a Leicester municipal parking lot.
Based on her intuition, she spearheaded a fundraising effort and enlisted help from University of Leicester archeologists. In 2012, using high-tech equipment, researchers located a skeleton under the blacktop. DNA, radiocarbon dating, and historical evidence have now confirmed that it is, in fact, the battle-battered remains of Richard III.
Keeping with established practice of re-interring historical bones near where they are found, Leicester began to plan for a proper royal burial with honors.
The king’s bones sparked further controversy, however, when citizens of York, among them one of Richard’s distant relatives, demanded that the King be buried there, instead. Leicester won out, so the reburial will take place in Leicester’s historic cathedral, following a week of events and memorials.
Members of the Royal Family will attend the reburial, but it is not going to be a state funeral. This upsets Langley, who feels that Richard III, who was, after all, a king, deserves at least the same honors that former Prime Minister (and commoner) Margaret Thatcher received.
Burns and Belcher, who was born in England, will be taking part in events as American Ricardians. Burns, an accomplished performer on Medieval and Renaissance musical instruments, who was recently named administrative director of the American Recorder Society, an early music group, will perform in a concert on March 24 at Leicester’s Holy Cross Priory, on shawm and recorders.
So where does history come down? Are Burns and her Ricardian friends right that Richard III was really a good bloke? Was Shakespeare wrong, as he was when he dissed Joan of Arc as a witch?
The jury is still out. Ricardians point to new evidence: Richard III apparently died in battle, not running away whining, as Shakespeare has it: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
Richard III was not hunch-backed (though he had scoliosis), and did not have a malformed arm. Careful history shows Richard could not have committed many of the crimes the Tudors attributed to him, although his brother apparently was drowned in a barrel of wine.
The University of Leicester points to achievements during Richard III’s reign, including establishment of the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and reforms to the jury system.
About the little princes, however, no one really knows. The older prince, just 12, was technically England’s legal King, giving Richard a reason to want him out of the way.
This was the time of the War of the Roses, filled with so much violence, betrayal, passion and confusion that it inspired R.R. Martin’s fictional “Game of Thrones.” Horrific behavior was frequently the norm, and King Richard III was, after all, a man of his time.
Nevertheless, Burns remains loyal to her king.
“Richard was England’s last Medieval king,” she concedes, “but he did lots of good things while he was king, in only two years. It is the classic story of ‘history being written by the victors’. Lots of lessons there.”
Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Don? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.