When archaeologists unearthed the battered mortal remains of King Richard III beneath a council car park in Leicester in 2012, they not only made the historical find of the century (so far) but unleashed a veritable frenzy of media attention on a ruler already the most notorious in English history.
A stream of books, articles (both scholarly and popular), documentary films and newspaper opinion pieces poured forth, and Richard’s troubled life and times became front-page news until his bones were once more laid to rest earlier this year.
David Horspool, a qualified medieval historian (he is history editor of the TLS and a contributor to this Spectator space), sensibly waited until the hysteria had abated before contributing this careful analysis of Richard, his reign and his reputation. It was well worth waiting for since, coming from such an impeccably objective source, its conclusions are all the more damning.
Horspool declares at the outset that he is not going to pronounce on the question that everyone wants to know about Richard: was he or was he not responsible for the terminal disappearance of his nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’? But this is clearly a matter of humouring his acknowledged helpers in the Richard III Society, since by the end of his book there can be little doubt that Horspool sides with almost all serious historians who have looked into the matter: Richard was not only a child killer, a tyrant, and a mass murderer of his rivals, but a thoroughly bad king into the bargain.
Horspool says specifically that though there is no smoking gun, there is at least a ‘strong likelihood’ that ‘on seizing power he had caused his two young nephews to be killed’. Moreover, he lost his throne after just two years as
his record of failure cannot be overturned... he was a bad king. His actions led not only to his own destruction, but that of his dynasty. Can there be a blacker mark against a medieval king’s name than that?
Horspool adds elsewhere that Richard is also accused of murdering Henry VI in the Tower; that he openly butchered his brother’s friend William Lord Hastings in the same place; that he publicly branded his own brother Edward IV a bigamist; his mother an adulteress; and the nephew he was about to slaughter ‘Edward Bastard’. Nice guy.
In the brouhaha following his exhumation, it was often said that the find would change the way we viewed Richard. Apart from establishing that the king enjoyed a diet rich in fish in the last years of his life, the most significant finding was to prove Shakespeare and the much derided ‘Tudor propagandists’ right when they said the king suffered a deformed spine, and the Ricardian apologists who had always denied it wrong. The usurper’s spine was very clearly twisted by scoliosis.
Though courteous, Horspool is scornful of the Ricardians, and rightly so. When one comes to think of it, who, beyond sentimentalists, addlepates, eccentrics and fanatics, would form a Richard III Society to defend such an obvious villain? It seems as bizarre as subscribing to an Ian Brady appreciation society or a Peter Sutcliffe fan club.
In keeping with his mission to turn the spotlight away from Richard’s lurid crimes (though he cannot conceal his horror at the king’s cold-blooded butchery of Hastings), most of Horspool’s book deals with the dry minutiae of his rise and reign: feudal loyalties, lawsuits, regional affinities and the like. He is curiously uninterested in the Wars of the Roses themselves, which saw Richard’s family virtually wiped out, and go some way to explain — though not excuse — his psychopathic behaviour. It cannot be said, therefore, that this dense text is an easy read. But for serious students of Richard, precisely because of its excessive fairness to the wretched man, it is a devastating indictment.