If Richard III wasn’t a child-killer, he was just another boring medieval monarch

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I can’t make my mind up whether to be irritated or amused by the devotion shown to King Richard III. His sorry claim to fame is that he usurped the throne, murdered his two young nephews – one of whom, as Edward V, was the rightful king – and was overthrown by his subjects amid widespread relief.

Yet his devotees seem to want the child killer almost canonised. I was mystified by his lavish funeral in Leicester Cathedral after the discovery of his skeleton under a car park, as if he were a national hero. Now comes a theory that he did not kill his nephews after all, but that Edward was sent off to a village in Devon to live out his days in peaceful obscurity as “John Evans”.

History relates that this is not what usually happens to deposed royals: think of Louis XVI or Nicholas II of Russia and their families. Even patently fake pretenders cause serious trouble, let alone the real thing: so they can’t be allowed to live.

My brilliant Cambridge teacher, the late Jonathan Steinberg, used to tell us bumptious undergraduates that our ancestors understood the societies they lived in far better than we ever can.

If Richard’s contemporaries thought he was a murdering usurper, and William Shakespeare agreed, I’m inclined to think that they knew what they were talking about.

But let’s not discourage a piece of quintessential English eccentricity. A society – originally called “The Fellowship of the White Boar” – has been campaigning on Richard’s behalf since the 1920s. Its present patron, rather strangely, is the present Richard, Duke of Gloucester, namesake of “Crookback”.

What stokes their enthusiasm? It’s fun to battle against a long-held consensus. It’s thrilling to think that, like Indiana Jones, you have uncovered secrets hidden for aeons by solving clues that no one else has understood.

And it doesn’t harm your academic career either.

Unfortunately for the Richardists, their opponents have the better story. Shakespeare makes Richard one of history’s most compelling villains, a clever, ice-cold cynic whose physical handicap explains him but which he defiantly conquers.

The revisionist account makes him a boring nonentity: just another medieval king who did nothing in particular and came to a sticky end. His rise and fall become meaningless.

Some have hinted that the latest theory might even cast doubt on the legitimacy of our present monarchy. But unless “John Evans” left heirs, which no one has suggested, the royal succession would be unaffected.

By however roundabout a route, the Queen is directly descended from all those Edwards and Henries. Anyway, today’s monarchy is based on popular consent, put into law as the Act of Settlement (1701). So I don’t think we need worry.

 

Robert Tombs is the author of ‘The English and their History’ and ‘This Sovereign Isle’

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