A close encounter with Richard III

By Dr Jane Demmen, Senior Research Associate

Last month project Co-Investigator Andrew Hardie and I presented a paper at the Computational Methods for Literary-Historical Textual Scholarship conference at De Montfort University in Leicester (UK): a great event bringing together scholars from far and wide with interests in digital humanities approaches to literary texts. (The slides from this paper, and others from our project, are available on our website here http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/shakespearelang/outputs/). Leicester is also the resting place of King Richard III: the last English monarch to die in the course of battle and the inspiration for one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and controversial villains…

In Shakespeare’s plays we first meet the character who becomes Richard III in Henry VI parts 2 and 3 (when he is Duke of Gloucester). Part 3 familiarises us with the cruel and merciless tyrant who later will murder any number of individuals standing between him and the English throne (in the play Richard III). Yet Richard’s character evokes a certain admiration, in part for his ruthless cunning but also for his grotesque humour. “See how my sword weeps for the poor king’s death”, he remarks of his bloody weapon, having just fatally stabbed Henry (in Henry VI part 3, 5:6). “Why I can smile, and murder while I smile,” he tells us in his long soliloquy at the end of Henry VI part 3, 3:2. Cleverly, Richard makes these wry observations when he is alone on stage, so we the audience find ourselves drawn into his dastardly ambitions simply through our privileged access to what is going on in his mind.

As in the play, the real king Richard III died leading his troops at the Battle of Bosworth (the last main conflict in the Wars of the Roses, between the noble houses of Lancaster and York), just outside the city of Leicester, in August 1485. He was 32 and had reigned for just two years, having assumed the throne when the young heir apparent, Edward V, was declared illegitimate (based on claims that his father Edward IV had been bigamously married to young Edward’s mother, Queen Elizabeth). The question of whether or not Richard III was subsequently responsible for the murder of young Edward (who with his brother became known as ‘the princes in the tower’), as is portrayed in the play, remains open and a topic of conjecture to this day.

Richard III’s remains were, astonishingly, discovered beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012, after a search instigated by members of the Richard III Society and an archaeological dig led by the University of Leicester (in co-operation with Leicester City Council, owners of the car park). The site of the car park had once been a friary, where Richard’s body was buried after his death and defeat in battle. Following an impassioned debate over where Richard’s remains should hereafter lie, they were finally interred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015 in a coffin made by one of his descendants, whose DNA was used to help confirm the identity of the remains.

On the plinth of Richard’s monument in the cathedral is his coat of arms, his personal emblem (the figure of a boar), and his personal motto Loyaulte me lie (“loyalty binds me”).

Right next to the conference building at DeMontfort University (the green edge of which is just visible in the far right of the photo below) is the Newarke Gate. Richard III’s body would likely have passed through it when it was brought back to the city, draped over a horse, on public display (as proof of Richard’s death, the defeat of the Yorkists, and victory of the Tudor forces).

The analysis of Richard’s remains bore out the fact that he had a curvature of the spine, but not that he was strikingly physically deformed, a popular idea which appears to have been fuelled by literary characterisation of him as twisted in body as well as mind. In Shakespeare’s plays, Queen Elizabeth (widow of Richard’s elder brother, the late king Edward IV) describes him as “that foul bunch-backed Toad” (Richard III, 4:3). Richard himself says, “Then since the Heavens have shaped my Body so, Let Hell make crooked my Mind to answer it” (although only in the audience’s hearing, in Henry VI part 3, 5:6).

Although the real-life Richard’s reign saw bloody conflict, treachery and political intrigue, as one walks around the cathedral and the city of Leicester in the present day noticing artefacts and snippets of information about his life, it’s apparent that he is remembered as a supporter of education and fair laws for ordinary people, and not the villainous tyrant imagined in Shakespeare’s plays.

Education was of course the main reason for my visit to Leicester, and is cornerstone of our project. Learning more about Richard III was an unexpected bonus to attending the conference. There’s more information about visiting the cathedral at http://leicestercathedral.org/learn/richard-iii/ and about the nearby King Richard III Visitors’ Centre at https://kriii.com/.


About Mathew Gillings

PhD Linguistics student at Lancaster University.
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