Myths and legends

A combination of Tudor politics and Victorian enthusiasm has ensured that much of what ‘everyone knows’ about Richard III is contentious.

Richard III ‘killed the Princes in the Tower

  • The Princes in the Tower by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878.
    The Princes in the Tower
    The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878.

No-one – absolutely no-one – knows for sure what happened to the Princes in the Tower. In 1483, Edward V and his brother Richard moved into the Tower of London (a royal palace) in preparation for Edward’s coronation. Before that could happen, their parent’s marriage was declared invalid, removing their succession to the throne. Their uncle was proclaimed King by an assembly of Lords and commoners – and the Princes were never seen again.

Rumours that Richard orchestrated their murder were soon circulating, but there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. (Two child skeletons were discovered in the Tower in 1674 and briefly re-examined in 1933 but have not been subjected to modern analysis.) Argument and counter-argument over Richard’s involvement or otherwise in the Princes’ fate continues today. Who do you believe: William Shakespeare or Horrible Histories?

Richard III ‘was a hunchback with a limp and a withered arm

  • Sir Laurence Olivier as Shakespeares Richard III Picture REX FEATURES
    Sir Laurence Olivier as Shakespeare's Richard III Picture REX FEATURES

The popular image of Richard comes to us from Shakespeare, largely via Laurence Olivier. Some Tudor accounts describe him as having his left shoulder higher than his right, some say the other way round, many don’t mention any deformity at all. X-ray analysis of portraits painted after his death show they were altered to match the accepted image of Richard.

In recent years it has been widely accepted that all descriptions and depictions of the King as a ‘crookback’ derived from Tudor propaganda, from an age when physical deformity was thought to reflect a deformed mind and evil intent. Modern depictions of Richard, such as Ian McKellen’s acclaimed portrayal, have dispensed with any physical characteristics - but the curved spine of the remains found at Greyfriars has reopened this debate.

Richard’s bones ‘were thrown into the River Soar’

  • King Richard's Bow Bridge 1791. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections
    King Richard's Bow Bridge 1791. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections

Local legend says that, some 50 years or so after Richard’s death, his bones were disinterred by an angry mob and thrown into the river. But a legend is all this is, with absolutely no evidence or contemporary accounts.

There is a large plaque on Bow Bridge reading ‘Near this spot lie the remains of Richard III the last of the Plantagenets 1485’ but this dates from 1862. It was commissioned by a local businessman who felt that there should be some record of Richard in Leicester but does not reflect anything except an unsubstantiated (and highly unlikely) legend. Some bones were discovered near the bridge in the 1860s, but that was hardly surprising given that the site had once been an Augustinian friary.

An old woman ‘prophesied Richard’s defeat

Another local legend is that, when riding out towards Bosworth across Bow Bridge, Richard struck his spur on the parapet. A local wise woman, on seeing this, predicted that where he now struck his spur, he would soon strike his head. And indeed, two days later Richard’s body was brought back by the same route, slung over a horse, so that his head knocked into the parapet of Bow Bridge.

As might be expected, there is not one scintilla of evidence for this story. However, one thing in its favour is that it does not reflect on Richard’s character or popularity so that both pro- and anti-Ricardians are happy to mention it.

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