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KINGS OF ENGLAND CAN BE DIVIDED into three types: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That, you can take it from us, is a reliable fact. But which is which is another matter.

Take all the kings of England called Richard: there’s Good King Richard I – Richard the Lionheart, the idealistic crusader and champion of England – or was he? Bad King Richard II – the vain, megalomaniac tyrant – or has his name been traduced by those who wished him ill? And Ugly King Richard III – the deformed monster of Shakespeare’s imagination – or is he nothing more than that: the product of our greatest playwright’s imagination?

History consists of the tales we like to tell each other about our predecessors. And every generation constructs its stories to suit its own outlook and agenda. In such shifting ground we can take nothing for granted. Even facts that seem to be set in stone – such as the roll-call of the kings of England or the ‘fact’ that the last invasion of England was in 1066 – are by no means as certain as we like to pretend.


Take the kings nobody mentions; you might not have heard much about Osric and Eanfrith. In AD 633 they ruled two kingdoms that became Northumbria before they were killed by King Caedwalla of North Wales.

The only reason we know anything at all about these two kings is that Bede, writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation a hundred years later, mentions that no king-list records them:

To this day, that year is looked upon as unhappy, and hateful to all good men . . . Hence it has been agreed by all who have written about the reigns of the kings, to abolish the memory of those perfidious monarchs, and to assign that year to the reign of the following king, Oswald, a man beloved by God.

The same fate seems to have overtaken King Louis the First (and Last).


Louis invaded England in 1216 with a fleet almost as large as the Conqueror’s, and a considerably larger army. He landed unopposed and was hailed as king when he reached London. On 2 June the new ruler, heir to the crown of France, was welcomed by a magnificent Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral.*1 He received the homage of the citizens of London, of most of the barons and of the King of Scotland,*2 and began the conquest of the rest of the country as well as the government of the part which was under his control.

Louis ruled much of England with his own chancellor (the brother of the archbishop of Canterbury), and elevated at least one man to the nobility, creating Gilbert de Gant (or Gaunt) Earl of Lincoln. He was recognized as king by the barons and by the citizens of London, the Welsh nobles and the Scottish king. The fact that he doesn’t feature in the official king-lists raises some difficult questions about what exactly is meant by the expression ‘King of England’.

Louis had come to England because the barons had invited him to take the crown. King John had a long-standing feud with the Church over the appointment of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, which had led to him being excommunicated and an interdict – a ban on church services – being placed on the whole kingdom. In 1213 Pope Innocent III authorized Philip II of France to invade England and deprive John of his kingdom. John had not been next in line to the throne after Richard’s death: he had been crowned by the previous archbishop on the grounds that he was chosen by the nation, a choice confirmed by public acclamation.

Philip of France summoned a council and they all decided that his son Louis should lead the invasion and take over the English throne. Louis was married to John’s niece, which gave him some kind of claim.

The invasion did not take place for another three years, by which time John had first agreed to, and then reneged on, the Magna Carta, and the English barons and the archbishop had called on Louis to get on with it. John had taken the precaution of handing his kingdom over to the pope, which meant that his excommunication and the interdict were lifted and it was the barons and bishops who found themselves excommunicated for attacking the pope’s kingdom of England. They were not hugely bothered; so far as they were concerned, John had lost his right to the throne by surrendering the country to another ruler.

Louis and his army landed in England, on the Isle of Thanet, on 21 May 1216. He claimed the throne through his wife and by the choice of the barons.

This is how Louis the First and Last came to be acclaimed as King of England. It is true that no bishop crowned him, and that meant he was in an unusual position, but he was certainly ruling as king. John’s attempt to win his country back involved wide-ranging war. In October he set off northwards from Lynn in Norfolk and lost all his baggage, including the Crown jewels, when his entourage took a short cut across the river Well and just as the tide came in. No-one would ever see it again. John was devastated and went to the Cistercian abbey of Swineshead in Lincolnshire to be consoled. The original austerity of the Cistercians had obviously already evaporated; John surfeited himself with peaches and a kind of new beer, caught dysentery and died.

That left Louis the only king in England. He also happened to be the only adult male with any claim to inherit the throne (though only through his marriage). John had left a nine-year-old son – the future Henry III – but no child had ever been allowed to become the ruler of England. This did not worry the papal legate, who invented an entirely new rule of succession. He whistled Henry down to Gloucester, where the few barons who had stuck by John attended a makeshift coronation performed by the bishop of Winchester – the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London had prior engagements. A circlet of gold was hurriedly found and plonked on the boy’s head. God Save the King.

However, as it turned out Louis did not endear himself to the English barons as he evidently preferred to govern with the help of Frenchmen. William Marshal, the doughty hero of tournaments long ago, now aged 75 and titled the Earl of Pembroke, took the job of regent and set about getting rid of Louis – which he evidently did with his customary efficiency. The great battle came at Lincoln on 20 May 1217; Louis lost and his troops began to drift away. A few months later he gave up. In September 1217 a treaty was signed by which he surrendered his castles, released his subjects from their oaths to him and told his allies to lay down their arms. Everyone who had been on Louis’ side swore fealty to Henry III, and Louis went home to succeed to the crown of France, a much more secure job with better prospects – though he died three years after inheriting it.


Eventually, in 1220, Henry was given a proper coronation at Westminster. And, in order to make it possible for the kingdom to carry on functioning, everyone who had sworn fealty to Louis realized that they had not really done so at all. It had never happened. There had never been a King Louis of England.

The history books would say what the new government wanted them to say, justifying rebellion against the tyrant John while glossing over the barons’ brief importation of a French king. They still do. Which means, of course, that history books need to be regarded with a very jaundiced eye. Most of what we now know of King John comes from a handful of accounts of his reign, written by churchmen who were either outraged by his excommunication or living under the post-Louis government;*3 they were enthusiasts for trying to weaken royal power. Later historians simply copied and embellished their manuscripts.


This pattern, of chroniclers under new regimes blackening the memory of the old, created an image of medieval kingship that was to resonate through English history, in which the king was a tyrant whose whimsical and self-serving power needed to be tamed. Bad King John was the first of these tyrant kings, and centuries later this view of royal authority was enshrined by historians in the service of Britain’s constitutional revolution of the seventeenth century and the American War of Independence. This is why the Magna Carta, a document that dealt with the very specific grievances of John’s tenants-in-chief, was mythologized into the foundation stone of English and American government.

Sir Edward Coke, England’s most prominent seventeenth-century lawyer and one of Parliament’s leaders in the run-up to the Civil War, used a reinterpreted Magna Carta as a weapon against Charles I, arguing that even kings must comply with common law. He stated in Parliament that ‘Magna Carta . . . will have no sovereign’. His arguments were later to be used by Thomas Jefferson, in setting out the idea of English liberties.

It was easy for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers, enthusiasts for ‘constitutional monarchy’ or a republic, to mine the old histories and find material that allowed them to depict kings as tyrants. Each time a regime changed it was necessary for the new authorities to show how grateful everyone should be that they had removed the previous incumbent. This involved replacing historical figures with caricatures of wickedness.

Perhaps royal power, and its use or misuse, was more of an issue in England than in other countries because an English king was in a very different position from, for example, a king of France. In France, the monarchy was relatively weak and the great aristocrats ruled their own territories on their own terms. These aristocrats included kings of England, who held land in France not by virtue of their English crown but as dukes of French provinces, such as Normandy and Anjou – which is why the French were constantly fighting the English. Such powerful, independent nobles simply did not exist in England.

There had always been an elective character to European kingship (the idea that the eldest son automatically inherits the crown started in England, as part of the politics surrounding the installation of the young Henry III). Even conquering rulers like Cnut (Canute, the Danish king who ruled England from 1017 to 1035) were elected, in Cnut’s case first by the Danish fleet and eventually by the Anglo-Saxon Witan (great council). This meant that kingship was something given by others and could, at least in theory, be withdrawn.

1066 changed all that. The terms of English kingship were set, inevitably, by William the Conqueror, and it was a new kind of kingship – authority based on might alone. His coronation did not require the approval of his subjects. William achieved what no other European ruler could: the effective conquest of his whole kingdom. What mattered was not the Battle of Hastings but the warfare that followed. He enforced his authority at Exeter, at York, carried out the savage ‘harrying of the North’, ravaged Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire and crushed revolt in the Fens. Having established total mastery, and installed his own men as tenants throughout the country, he carried out a complete survey of the whole package down to the last slave and plough –Domesday Book – and insisted that every tenant, all the way down the feudal chain, swear an oath of personal allegiance to him.

No king could more completely own his kingdom than William owned England. And it was his to give to whichever son he fancied. That, of course, became the problem as soon as he died. William Rufus, to whom he bequeathed the country, was soon killed as the result of an ‘accident’ that put his younger brother Henry on the throne.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. John of Worcester’s chronicle, written in about 1140, soon after Henry I’s death, describes the king having nightmares about complaining peasants and violent barons. It was, in fact, all falling apart. And then it did.

Henry approached his deathbed with no living legitimate son (he did not regard any of his 25 or so illegitimate children as king material). He willed the kingdom to his daughter Matilda, and forced his barons to swear allegiance to her, but once he was dead his nephew Stephen claimed the crown and England was plunged into anarchic civil war. It was a time when, as one chronicler described it, ‘Christ and his angels slept’.

The war ended when both sides agreed that Stephen should rule but Matilda’s son should inherit the throne. That son, Henry II, then had the job of trying to stick the broken crockery together again. English kingship demanded total authority, which meant Henry had to re-create a distance between his power and that of the great lords. Since the Conqueror option (military crushing of enemies and handing out of spoils) was no longer open, he had to carry the country with him. The only way out of the nightmares of Henry I was to encourage people to believe they approved of what he was doing. Above all, this meant creating a sense that he was acting with lawful authority. Every landholding man held court in his own estates – Henry, lord of all England, was also the judge of the whole land, and his home was the royal court.

This was his trump card, and he used it effectively. He established courts in various parts of the country and was the first king to grant magistrates the power to judge civil matters in the name of the crown. This is when the first written legal textbook was produced, the basis of English common law. Henry also introduced trial by jury, making the population participate in his own legal authority.

He extended this legal authority into the lands of his magnates and over the Church – a challenge that the Church was determined to resist and which led to Henry’s terrible conflict with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. He used the authority of the law to demolish castles that had been built without royal permission during the civil war. And, as he preferred to hire troops rather than rely on the ‘loyalty’ of barons, he substituted a tax – scutage – for the nobles’ obligations of military service. To make this work, he established effective record-keeping.

Kingship was now not quite so personal. Henry had created a legal and administrative structure that was probably more effective than armed force in holding his kingdom together. It was, in many ways, a return to the kind of rule that had existed before the Conquest: rule by consent of the people, within a framework of recognized traditional law. (Actually it was rule by consent of the free people. Villeins were not part of this deal; being unfree, they had very limited legal rights, just as in Anglo-Saxon times the slaves did not have rights or power.)

But although this was notionally kingship under law, there was no institutional check on royal power. Henry was simply a consummate politician, dealing with the art of the possible. The crown was still his personal property, and he was free to choose which of his heirs should succeed him. His eldest surviving son, Richard, was not his first choice.

Which brings us to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.


Richard was born in Oxford but he was essentially French, brought up in Aquitaine at the court of his mother, Eleanor. Henry gave Aquitaine to him, but intended to make his younger brother, John, King of England. This may have been because of Richard’s quite appalling reputation in Aquitaine, where he committed rapes and murders. That was how they justified a major uprising against his rule: ‘He seized and raped the wives, daughters and relatives of free men, and when the violence of his lust had been quenched, handed them to his soldiers to use.’*4

However, Richard wasn’t going to let John have England and, with the help of Philip II of France, he defeated his father in 1189. Henry, a broken man, died shortly afterwards and Richard took possession of the English crown.

It is not really clear why he bothered. He arrived for his coronation with the idea of picking up as much money as he could to finance a crusade, but unable to speak any English. The leaders of London’s Jews came to his court bearing valuable gifts, but as Jews were not allowed there they were beaten up and there were general anti-Jewish riots. Richard, profoundly disturbed at the idiocy of attacking the people who could give him what he needed, left the country soon afterwards and was not seen again in England for years. He detested the place and declared he would sell it off to anyone who was prepared to buy it.

The passion to wage war in the Holy Land was sweeping Europe like a virus. Men who resisted joining up were humiliated and given gifts of wool as if they were women. Priests stirred up anti-Muslim hysteria. A persuasive visual aid was a picture of a mounted Saracen knight trampling on the Messiah’s tomb in Jerusalem while his horse urinated on it.

It was Richard’s role as a crusading Christian warrior that made him a hero during his reign and a legend for centuries afterwards.

The Great Warrior, however, failed to recapture Jerusalem from the ‘infidel’ Saladin. Travelling back from his crusade through Germany (alone and in disguise), Richard was captured and spent two years in prison. Having the IQ of a Good King, he was apparently unable to figure out why this was happening:

No one will tell me the cause of my sorrow

Why they have made me a prisoner here.

Wherefore with dolour I now make my moan;

Friends had I many but help have I none.

Shameful it is that they leave me to ransom,

To languish here two winters long.

His mother eventually managed to prise the money for his ransom out of the loyal English, whose country was impoverished for years as a result, and in 1194 Richard returned to England to try another coronation – he left again straight afterwards, never to return. He spent even more of his overtaxed country’s revenue on building a state-of-the-art castle north of Paris: Chateau Gaillard. It cost £12,000, more than any other defensive building for centuries. It was undermined and captured by Philip II of France six years after being completed.

By that time Richard was dead. He was killed in 1199 while attacking a small fortified building in Chalus, which was defended by a few men who had no hope of holding out. Richard, having forgotten to put his armour on, rode up to its wall and was promptly shot with a crossbow. During his ten-year reign he had spent a grand total of six months in England.

Now how does a man like that end up being a Good King, except through the power of propaganda?


We can clearly see the way chroniclers adjusted their view of the past in the manuscript of Ralph of Coggeshall’s chronicle, which was written during the reigns of Richard and his successor, John. The first section dates from around 1195, when Richard was alive, and praises him with enthusiasm. The man is the ‘unique mirror of all the kings of the Norman race’. The next section was written in a different ink after John had come to the throne. Now Richard has become a quite different kind of king – grasping (Coggeshall says no previous king had imposed such heavy financial demands on his kingdom), menacing, threatening his own petitioners, ferocious towards everyone.

No age can remember, no history can record any preceding king, even those who reigned for a long time, who exacted and received so much money from his kingdom as that king exacted and amassed in the five years after he returned from captivity.

John, the new king, was a very different figure, a king whose ‘heart was full of the spirit of counsel and piety’. During Richard’s lifetime, Coggeshall had been writing very critically about John, but those criticisms are not to be found in the manuscript of his chronicle now. We only know that he wrote them because another chronicler, Roger of Wendover, copied them out before Ralph had a chance to cover his tracks. Once John was on the throne, Ralph carefully erased his criticisms of the new king and filled in the blank space with new historical details – the sacking of a chancellor, the consecration of a bishop.*5

Of course, once John was out of the way he became a Bad King and, by contrast, Richard was restored as a Good King.


The Magna Carta, which dominated the later years of John’s reign, did not and could not create any new institutional check on royal power. It was essentially a supplement to the coronation oath, stating the king’s intention to uphold good laws, and spelt out what some of those good laws were.

The issue that stirred the barons to demand this document was the sheer cost of maintaining the royal machine, especially the royal machine at war. John and Richard had both tried to meet this by massive increases in feudal dues and legal charges, and most of the Magna Carta is an effort to reverse these. When the rebellious barons complained of John’s ‘tyranny’ – in other words, that he was ruling without paying attention to the law – they were not necessarily referring to law as we understand it. They held privileges, literally ‘private laws’, that were granted by the king, and the royal administration had vastly increased the cost of these. The price of relief from an obligation to the crown had risen from £100 to £6666.

But other clauses – such as, ‘In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it’ and ‘We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well’ – show that the barons firmly held the view that the kingdom operated under laws that bound the king himself as well as everyone else.

There was, in short, a notion of proper kingship, and the Magna Carta tried to spell out what this meant.

The core problem of kingship was to establish the mechanism by which good rule could be enforced. To some extent, this was supposedly the role of the Church. Certainly, from the eleventh to the thirteenth century it could occasionally bring a monarch to his knees, and lower. Henry II had to prostrate himself at the altar in Canterbury cathedral and accept flogging as penance for the killing of Archbishop Becket. There was also the danger of unleashing rebellion, and ultimately of being deposed and killed. But in the end all this came down to a mechanism of popular (or at least baronial) consent.


The idea that such consent should be formalized democratically was regarded as quite simply wrong. We seem to believe that regularly offering the adult population the chance to elect a political party to govern them is self-evidently the ideal political system. This is a very recent opinion. Even John Stuart Mill, so often taken to be the philosopher of democracy, warned against ‘the tyranny of the majority’. This was a danger that was well understood in the Middle Ages. This is why Dante included democracy as one of the despotic systems from which monarchy protects the people:

It is only when a monarch is reigning that the human race exists for its own sake, and not for the sake of something else. For it is only then that perverted forms of government are made straight, to wit, democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies, which force the human race into slavery (as is obvious to whosoever runs through them all) . . .

The same arguments against ‘democracy’ are echoed in Chaucer:

For the truth of things and the benefit thereof are better found by a few folk who are wise and full of reason, rather than by a great multitude of people in which every man shouts out and prattles on about whatever he wants.

For monarchy to function well it was necessary for the monarch to internalize the law – he had to be as stern a judge of his own acts as he was of the acts of others. This was the difference between a strong, all-powerful monarch and a tyrant. If a king ruled in the interests of his people, he was a rightful ruler. If he ruled in his own interests, however, he was a tyrant. In the fourteenth century Marsilius of Padua, the one-time rector of the University of Paris, wrote:

A kingly monarchy, then is a temperate government wherein the ruler is a single man who rules for the common benefit, and in accordance with the will or consent of the subjects. Tyranny, its opposite, is a diseased government wherein the ruler is a single man who rules for his own private benefit apart from the will of his subjects.

At the heart of government was the duty of obedience to the king. This was seen as the source of all peace, honour and prosperity in the realm, and it was the king’s job to ensure that obedience to him would be rewarded. The primary function of government was to enable people to lead peaceful and secure lives, and a strong central monarchy was understood to be essential to that as individual barons had no commitment to the common good and would plainly, if left alone, tear the country to pieces. The danger to good government came less from a king who was too powerful than from one who was too weak and could not dominate the barons or win their support.

Henry III and his son Edward I managed to rule effectively, but the next inheritor of the throne, Edward II, failed completely. He was deposed finally by the barons, and the kingdom was taken over by his wife and her lover in the name of his son, the 15-year-old Edward III. This was not a rebellion against tyranny; it was against incompetence. Edward II alienated all his potential supporters by his passionate commitment to unpopular favourites and his complete failure as a war leader.

Edward III grew to manhood with a clear understanding of the difficulties faced by an under-age king, and celebrated his emergence as an adult by seizing and then hanging his mother’s lover. But by the time he came to his deathbed his son, the Black Prince, was dead and the succession passed to another child: his ten-year-old grandson Richard.


Historians mostly agree that Richard II was a bad lot. ‘Vain’, ‘megalomaniacal’ ‘narcissistic’, ‘treacherous’, ‘vindictive’, and ‘tyrannical’ are among the most common epithets applied to him. Quite a few historians – for good measure – also mark him down as ‘mad’.

Thus the Oxford History of England describes how his actions after 1397 ‘suggest a sudden loss of control, the onset of a mental malaise. If Richard was sane from 1397 onwards, it was with the sanity of a man who pulls his own house down about his ears.’*6

He must have been vain – after all, wasn’t he the first English monarch to commission a lifelike portrait of himself? And talk about a megalomaniac – why, he made everyone call him ‘Your Majesty’ instead of plain old ‘sire’ and forced people to bow the knee to him.

As for his vengeful streak, historians have only to point out how he suddenly turned on three of the greatest nobles in the land in 1397 – he exiled the Duke of Warwick, executed Richard Earl of Arundel and had Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, murdered.

But it may be that modern historians have been too ready to believe everything bad about Richard – even things that never happened. For example, part of the evidence for Richard’s insanity always used to be an incident in which a friar came before the King and accused John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, of plotting against the King’s life. The friar was so insistent that Richard ordered the Duke to be put to death straight away. But wiser counsels stayed his hand, whereupon Richard threw a tantrum, tossing his cape and shoes out of the window and began to act like a madman.

This story was solemnly reiterated by historians as proof positive of Richard’s incipient madness – until 1953, when a scholar pointed out that the Victorian editor of the particular chronicle had misplaced the sentence about the cape and shoes, and that it was actually the friar who had pretended to be mad on realizing that his false accusations were about to be exposed. Richard, in fact, listened to his counsel and, according to the chronicle, ‘wisely undertook to act . . . in conformity with their advice’.*7

But the readiness with which this totally nonsensical story about Richard was believed tells us something about the historical attitudes to him.


Warwick, Arundel and Gloucester had been a constant thorn in Richard’s side since he inherited the throne in 1377. In 1387 they openly rebelled against him. They defeated the royal army and set about destroying Richard’s circle of influence. They tortured and executed something like 18 of his closest friends and advisers.

In contrast, when Richard took the reins of power back into his hands in 1389, he didn’t execute anyone. And when he did make his move, eight years later, he kept it to a surgical strike – he took no revenge on their hangers-on. He didn’t torture anyone. He simply removed those three troublemakers who had betrayed him and worked against his interest throughout his reign.

Not exactly a vindictive nature, one would have thought.


It is true that Richard seems to have cultivated the trappings of royal power to a greater degree than his English predecessors. But was it a sign of megalomania?

In fact, in adopting higher terms of address, such as ‘Your Majesty’ and introducing courtesies such as bowing, Richard was doing no more than importing the fashions that had been current in the courts of Europe for most of the century.

In any case, a strong centralized monarchy was seen by the political thinkers of the fourteenth century not as tyranny but as a civilizing influence. The alternative was a continually warring baronage, disrupting the realm.

The idea of absolute power in the hands of the King was, in fact, seen as a protection for liberties, not a threat to them. When Wat Tyler, at the height of the 1381 revolt, proposed that the aristocracy should be done away with and the King should rule his people directly, he was not talking off the top of his head; he was voicing an idea that was current amongst the political thinkers of the day.

One of the few books that we know for certain that Richard owned was one that was presented to him by Philippe de Mézières, the ex-Chancellor of Cyprus. In it Philippe describes the ideal kingdom, and it may come as a shock for the modern reader to discover how monarchy and socialist are combined; with the abolition of private property and the distribution of wealth ‘to each according to his need’.

All fruits were held in common by the inhabitants, to each according to his need, and the words ‘my own’ were never heard . . . All tyranny and harsh rule was banished from the garden, though there was a king, who stood for authority and the common good, and he was so loved and looked up to that he might have been the father of each and all. And no wonder, for he had such concern for the welfare of his subjects, dwellers in the garden, that neither he nor his children owned anything.*8

The Wilton Diptych portrays Richard with hands open ready to receive the flag of England from the hands of the baby Jesus . . . in other words the country is a sacred trust and not a milch cow.

So what happened to Richard’s reputation?


It’s the old story. Henry Bolingbroke was an illegal usurper who treacherously went against all his vows of loyalty as a chivalric knight, stole the throne from his cousin and then had him murdered. The usurper needed to assuage not only his guilty conscience but also the considerable body of contemporary public opinion that regarded him as the traitor that he was.

Despite the assertions of the chroniclers of Henry IV’s reign, it is clear that Bolingbroke’s return to England was not greeted with popular relief or a sense of liberation. He had trouble even finding a safe place to land, ‘taking his ships back and forth along the coastline, approaching different parts of the kingdom in turn’. He finally chose to land as far north as Yorkshire. The mayor and aldermen of London did not desert Richard until he had been taken prisoner, and even then they probably drove a hard bargain. But that is not the way the story gets told. Bolingbroke took good care of that.

As soon as he had seized power he sent letters to all the abbeys and major churches ‘instructing the heads of these religious houses to make available for examination all of their chronicles which touched upon the state and governance of the kingdom of England from the time of William the Conqueror up until the present day . . .’ The erasures and revisions still visible in these manuscripts, the removal of criticisms of Bolingbroke and his father, and the addition of anti-Richard material show that monks understood perfectly well what that meant. The records of the City of London were simply attacked with a knife; two and a half folios covering the period of the usurpation have been cut out.

We can also see the signs of pressure being put on other writers to conform to the new political correctness. John Gower, ten years Chaucer’s senior and perhaps already going blind, painfully pulls into line with the current political orthodoxy as many manuscripts as he can of his poem Confessio Amantis. He had originally dedicated the poem to Richard; but in the climate of fear and paranoia that accompanied the usurpation he rededicated it to Henry. John Gower even goes to great lengths to pretend that he made such changes long before the usurpation.

Henry’s heavy hand must have been leaning on the poet’s shoulder as he wrote every word.

Richard II saw the basis of his power not in overwhelming military force or political intrigue, but in the special authority of sovereignty. His court was a fount not of military authority but of magical power, in which the majesty of royal justice was tempered by the mercy of queenly intercession; it was a court of manners and of ceremony.

None of which enriched the barons or increased their influence and power. They needed war. The chronicler of the Vita Ricardi Secundi complained that Richard was ‘timid and unsuccessful in foreign war’. Instead of wars he offered tournaments, accompanied by music, and dancing with the ladies of the court. Walsingham made a hostile assessment of Richard’s courtiers:

These fellows, who are in close association with the King, care nothing for what a knight ought to knowI am speaking not only about the use of arms but also about those matters with which a noble king should be concerned in times of peace, such as hunting and hawking and the likeactivities that serve to enhance the honour of a king.

Historia Anglicana

The fact is that Richard had created a new vision of royalty in England, in which the king was a majestic figure in a court that was as concerned with the arts of peace as those of war. The function of majesty was to create a focus of authority that would be as effective in times of peace as of war. Henry IV and each succeeding sovereign would, in fact, attempt to build on what Richard had done.

The third and final King Richard was no exception to this, but once again the propaganda of his detractors has nobbled him.


Of course we all do know that there was a king called Richard III, but the character we know about is a completely different man from the one that sat on the throne. The real man has disappeared, and in his place we have a cardboard cut-out villain, to be booed and hissed whenever he appeared on stage – this is Shakespeare’s character, the magnificent, deformed monster king, which was directly based on the extremely biased sources available to him. Laurence Olivier’s magnificent screen performance does complete justice to Shakespeare’s creation, a reptilian, insinuating smile on the face of a man who understands his own psychotic character, driven by his hunger for revenge on the world for his hunched and twisted spine.

I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

Since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous

Of course, England never had a king like that and Richard did not even have a hunchback. There is a portrait of him in the Royal Collection, probably dating from the reign of his usurper, which, some experts claim, has ben altered to show him with a hunched back. Whether this claim is justified or not, it is clear that the amount of work that went into creating the story that Richard plotted to seize the throne of England and then ruled as a brutal tyrant is really quite extraordinary.

Medieval kings ruled by consent, no other way was possible. For virtually every king of England, this essentially meant the consent of the nobility of southern and central England, with the earls in the north being steadily marginalized. That had eventually led to civil war, the Wars of the Roses, which had ended with Edward IV defeating the northern nobility.

Edward then gave his brother Richard the job of winning hearts and minds in the north. While the king ruled from London, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was sent to York to be a sort of vice-regent. He arrived in 1476, backed up by 5000 men. But according to the York records, he had not come to impose himself by force: ‘After greetings were exchanged, the duke addressed the civic officials within Bootham Bar, saying that he was sent by the king to support the rule of law and peace.’

In fact, Richard devoted himself to the minutiae of government and justice, and the pleas put to him indicate that he became fully immersed in the life of the region.

Right and mighty prince and our full tender and especial good lord, we your humble servants, havyng a singler confidence in your high and noble lordship afore any other, besecheth your highnesse . . . concerning the reformation of certan fishtraps.

In 1482 the City of York presented him with gifts, ‘for the great labour, good and benevolent lordship that the right, high and might prince have at all tymes done for the well of the city’. Out of the council goody bag came fish – ‘6 pike, 6 tenches, 6 breme, 6 eels and 1 barrel of sturgeon’, a local speciality of spiced bread, and fourteen gallons of wine to wash it all down.

At the dark heart of the legend of evil King Richard lie the bodies of two children, the sons of Edward IV – the princes in the Tower. When Edward approached his death in 1483 he named his 12-year-old son Edward as his successor. Richard was to be lord protector until the boy grew up. But when the king died on 9 April Richard was in the north of England and the prince was in the hands of his mother’s family, the Woodvilles.

They tried to hurry the child to London before Richard knew about the death, and crown him on 4 May – a coup that would have given them control of the king and the country. Richard managed to intercept them and escorted the boy to London, placing him in the royal apartment in the Tower and rescheduling the coronation for 22 June. On the thirteenth, evidence came to light of an extensive plot against Richard, and young Edward’s brother (little Richard) was also installed in the Tower. Edward’s coronation was deferred until November.

On 22 June Dr Edward Shaa, brother of the mayor of London, conveniently declared to the citizens of London that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which had taken place in secret, had been illegal because the king had a precontract of marriage with Lady Eleanor Butler. Richard had been a dutiful and loyal assistant to his brother Edward IV, and had spent most of his life in the north of England. He was popular, widely trusted, knew everyone and was a capable administrator. Now the legitimacy of the succession had been undermined and the country was on the edge of plunging back into the terrible civil wars from which it had so recently emerged. Taking the bull by the horns, Richard announced that if Edward IV’s children were illegitimate, then he himself, brother of the dead king, must be his successor. He was acclaimed king on 26 June and crowned on 6 July. The princes vanished, and the official Tudor view was that Richard had them killed.

When historians debate King Louis the First and Last, they generally observe that he should not be counted as one of the kings of England as he did not have a coronation. However, the child Edward is counted as Edward V, despite the fact that not only was he never crowned, but he never ruled at all. The reason for this is that Henry Tudor, who had no meaningful claim to the throne, seized the crown in 1485 and found it very helpful to have Richard designated as a regicide – so the boy was recognized as a king.

In fact, if anyone had an interest in killing the boys it was Henry Tudor.

The bones of two children are still on show at the Tower, proof of Richard’s wicked deed. They were discovered in the seventeenth century, and examined in 1933, when they were said to be the vital evidence of the crime. But no-one knows when they date from.

All the evidence from Richard’s own lifetime shows that he was not a tyrant. Almost the first thing he did on becoming king was to pay off £200 he owed to York wine merchants. Now there’s a tyrant for you! And then he brought the whole court north to the city, to stage a second coronation – his secretary advised its corporation to put on a heck of a show. It was also a great opportunity to show off Yorkshire wool:

Hang the streets thorough which the king’s grace shall come with clothes of arras, tapestry work and other, for there commen many southern lords and men of worship with them.

The city did put on an incredible spectacle, and many citizens contributed handsomely to it. The mayor and aldermen, all dressed in scarlet, rode with the king and queen through a city made of cloth, stopping for elaborate shows and displays as they went. They turned the place into a woollen Disneyland.

To many southern lords, it looked as though the Wars of the Roses had been referred back to the referee, and the north had won after all, especially when Richard filled his court with friends from the region. They were not at all happy, so they backed Henry Tudor to take over. Richard III became the last king of England to die in battle. But when news of his death at the Battle of Bosworth reached the York council chamber, the councillors did not declare their joy that England had been liberated from a tyrant:

King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was through great treason of the Duke of Northfolk and many othres that turned ayenst him, with many othre lordes and nobles of these north parts, pitiously slain and murdred to the great heavinesse of this city.

That was a very dangerous thing to write in the city records; and it must have been deeply heartfelt. So why have we ended up with a picture of Richard the cruel and twisted tyrant?

I must be married to my brother’s daughter,

Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.

Murder her brothers, and then marry her!

The uncertain way of gain! But I am in

So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:

Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.

Richard III

The answer is the mighty power of Tudor propaganda. Henry VII – Henry Tudor – had seized the crown, and his dynasty rested on that shaky foundation. It was necessary to invent a Richard who had never existed, a bogeyman, to justify the usurpation.

While Richard was still alive, writer John Rous described him as ‘a mighty prince and especial good Lord.’ When the Tudors took power, Rous portrayed him as akin to the Antichrist: ‘Richard spent two whole years in his mother’s womb and came out with a full set of teeth.’ Shakespeare, writing a century later, was himself serving a Tudor monarch. His main sources were Tudor documents written by men in their sovereigns’ service.

Medieval kings were not all striving for tyranny; in many ways, they were less free than their subjects (though, of course, much richer).The Good King/Bad King stories are the propaganda of their successors. And even the question of who was and was not a king of England was decided after the men themselves were dead – by the chroniclers.

Propaganda, thy name is History.

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