The infamous King Richard III has a reputation: exiled as a young man, embroiled in the (un)timely disappearance of his young nephews, reigning as King of England, only for his remains to be found in a car park in Leicester. To mark his reburial, historian Steven Brindle retells the king’s tumultuous life, which was for the most part lived out at English Heritage’s Middleham Castle
For Shakespeare, he was one of the great ‘dark legends’ of English history: Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of English literature’s great villains and tragic heroes. The lines, ‘a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’, and the image of the crown rolling under the thorn-bush are stamped into English culture: but this is literature, not history. Look behind Shakespeare’s magnificent verse and the story remains a tragic one, but the truth becomes something much more complex, and ultimately probably unknowable.
Many English monarchs have complex historic reputations, the subject of drastic revision, but none have aroused more passionate feeling than Richard III. In the 20th century, England’s last medieval king inspired a diverse group of people to campaign for the restoration of his reputation, deliberately blackened (as they saw it) by the Tudor propaganda of Thomas More and Shakespeare. The rediscovery of Richard’s remains, on the site of the Greyfriars Church in Leicester where his remains were swiftly and unceremoniously buried after his defeat and death at Bosworth in August 1485, is his supporters’ greatest triumph. And it is, indeed, one of the most extraordinary achievements in the whole story of British archaeology.
The identification of the king’s DNA by tracing a collateral descendant (in Canada) through the female line, the discovery that the fabled ‘hunchback’ was, in fact scoliosis of the spine, the revelation of the king’s terrible, fatal injuries, and the reconstruction from his skull of his face, have made this an archaeological story like no other. A figure from the past has been resurrected: has, in a sense, become real.
The story has raised the controversies of Richard’s life, his short reign, and the tragic fate of his nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the young princes under Richard’s care who mysteriously disappeared before young Edward could be coronated as king.
It also generated a briefly intense and richly enjoyable English controversy as to where the lost and found king should be buried. Westminster Abbey was mooted (which has the most royal burials, but no links with the House of York); Windsor (where Richard’s brother Edward IV is, and where Richard himself buried his supposed victim, Henry VI); while York Minster laid claim to him as England’s most ‘northern’ king. Yet in the end, Leicester’s claim seemed unchallengeable, legally and historically. However, if history had turned out differently, Richard might well have ended up being buried at the place which, of all places, he was most likely to have thought of as home: Middleham in Wensleydale. If his older brother Edward IV had lived out a natural term, instead of dying suddenly at the age of 40, Richard might well have elected to be buried here.
Middleham was the seat of a great lordship. In the mid-15th century it was one of the main residences of the greatest lords of all: the Nevilles. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and Warwick, known as ‘the Kingmaker’, resided here, and in the 1460s he effectively controlled the north of England on behalf of the new Yorkist king Edward IV. It was a commonly accepted practice for aristocratic children to be brought up in a great noble household, to be educated and taught the arts of war, and thus Edward IV entrusted his youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester to Warwick’s care: he lived at Middleham for around three years, from about 1465-8, when he was aged 13 to 16. In 1470-1, history seemed to speed up again: Warwick fell out with Edward, rebelled against him, deposed him and forced Edward and Richard into exile, putting Henry VI back on the throne. Warwick then had to face Edward’s wrath as he returned from exile with an army at his back, and was killed at the battle of Barnet. And so it was that Richard, now 21 years old, inherited Warwick’s place as Lord of Middleham, and as effective ruler of the north of England on behalf of his brother. In 1472, he married Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville, which confirmed Richard’s inheritance of the mantle of the Nevilles in the north.
There were many castles, but Middleham was home. It would have been like a smaller version of Edward IV’s glittering court, a microcosm of late medieval society with its now- vanished outer bailey teeming with horses and armed retainers, the inner bailey lined with apartments filled with servants, and with the members of northern gentry families who made up Richard’s ‘affinity’ and supported him during his bid for the throne and his brief reign. The castle’s great Norman keep remained the focus of this quasi-royal residence, with the kitchens on the ground floor, the Great Hall where the liveried retainers ate and slept on the first floor, the Great Chamber next to it for more private audiences with the Duke. Above this, another storey was added in the 15th century, which would have provided more private chambers with magnificent views out over the valley: this was quite probably added by Richard himself.
Middleham was the scene of happy events, notably the birth of Richard and Anne’s only child, Edward of Middleham, in 1474. It was also the place where Edward, by then Prince of Wales, died in April 1484, an event which drove his parents almost mad with grief. It was the place where in May 1484, as King Richard III, he held court and received an envoy from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Nicholas von Poppelau, entertained him at his table and presented him with a gold chain. In 1478, before he became king, Richard had founded a college of priests in the little town’s parish church to say masses for his soul and his wife and son’s souls: it was a proper foundation with a dean, six chaplains, five clerks and six choristers. Since founding it his brother had died, he had come to the throne, his son had been born and died. His own fate lay ahead, unknowable, though he surely expected to die as king and be buried somewhere royal, somewhere in the south. However, it seems quite likely that, back in 1478, in establishing this foundation, Richard was saying that, at the time, he intended Middleham Castle to be his home in death as in life.
For further information on Middleham Castle, and to plan a visit click here.