King Richard III of England is remembered as one of history’s most villainous royals: a cruel, calculating hunchback who did whatever it took to secure power for himself. But there’s a lot more to Richard than what the detractors want you to believe. So, who was the real Richard III?
Born in 1452, Richard was never meant to be king. He was the 12th child of the Duke of York, a man who sought to overthrow the King of England by leading the War of the Roses. Richard’s older brother, Edward, finished what their father had started and became king in 1461. Richard had been a dedicated supporter of his older brother in life, but after Edward died in 1483, Richard took power for himself, rather than let his young nephew inherit the throne. Two years later, Henry Tudor, another claimant to the throne, returned from exile and defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Eager to legitimize the new king and the Tudor dynasty, propagandists had a field day denouncing Richard as a devilish usurper. Perhaps no treatment was more powerful and damning than that of William Shakespeare, whose play Richard III continues to shape how the fallen king is remembered. Shakespeare’s Richard III, however, is not the historical Richard III, and so to get a handle on facts about his life, it’s necessary to peel back layers of myth and legend.
Richard III is typically remembered as a man with a withered arm whose inner crookedness was plainly marked by his deformed, hunched back. But we simply don't have the historical evidence to support that claim. In fact, the evidence suggests that he had no significant physical deformities to speak of. His bones, which were discovered in 2012, reveal that he may have suffered from scoliosis, with a mild bend of the spine. This would have simply made Richard short with uneven shoulders, not the monstrous hunchbacked bogeyman of popular history.
After he was hacked apart at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Richard III's body disappeared. But then, in February 2013, archaeologists from the University of Leicester announced they had found Richard's remains – buried beneath a parking lot for the Leicester City Council, of all places. The parking lot had been the site of the Greyfriars Church at the time of Richard's death, so it made sense that his body would have been secretly buried there right after the battle, but it seems an incongruous place for a king's body to wind up, beloved or not.
Historians continue to debate one of the great mysteries of the 15th century: did Richard III murder his nephews? While Richard himself probably didn't stab the boys in their sleep, he may very well have had a hand in their deaths.
After seizing the throne from his 12-year-old nephew, Richard had a new problem: what to do with Edward and his nine-year-old brother, Richard, Duke of York? In 1483, Richard had the boys locked away in the Tower of London, ostensibly for their own protection. The two boys slowly disappeared from the record. Though no one knows for certain what happened to the "two princes in the Tower," many historians believe Richard got rid of them to secure power for himself.
After his remains were discovered under a parking lot in late 2012, researchers went to work to scientifically learn more about Richard III. One test revealed that he was literally crawling with worms. After taking soil samples from the region near his abdomen, researchers determined that the illustrious king of England had been afflicted with roundworms. His case of parasites was not abnormal – hygiene in the late middle ages was poor for commoners and royals alike.