In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Tower of London provides the spine-chilling backdrop for Richard’s most notorious crimes – the murders of his cousin Henry VI, his brother George Duke of Clarence, and his young nephews the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
He’s often presented as a psychopath with a particular penchant for bumping off family members. But how much of this is true? Was he really any worse than any other king?
Since the incredible discovery of Richard’s body in Leicester, people have re-assessed Richard’s reputation, separating what is actually true from what is simply Tudor mud-slinging at the king they killed in battle.
The most striking thing about the skeleton is quite how painfully curved his spine really was. Many thought ‘hunch-backed’ Richard was just hate propaganda at a time when a crooked body was a sure sign of an equally twisted mind.
Richard III reburial: 11 kings and queens who died a grizzly death
In terms of Richard’s alleged killing spree at the Tower, it is vitally important to separate history, myth and mystery. This can be surprisingly difficult and contentious!
Starting with alleged victim no. 1, Henry VI, the myth is that Richard stabbed him while he was praying.
There is a 1920s plaque at the Tower marking the ‘traditional’ spot this is supposed to have taken place – though a particularly arch letter grudgingly granting planning permission comments ‘those who wish to be deceived will be’.
Historically, we know Henry VI definitely died while he was a prisoner at the Tower and it is likely he was held in the royal apartments, but there is no record of Richard being on site, clutching a bloody dagger or not.
At the time, Henry’s supporters say he was murdered. His captors say he died of ‘melancholy’. This may not be quite as daft as it sounds – he had a history of severe depression and his son and heir had just been killed in battle. Henry’s true cause of death remains a mystery.
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As for Richard’s brother Clarence, this is presented as a particularly bizarre murder by drowning in a barrel of malmsey (sweet wine).
In fact, Clarence was indeed put to death at the Tower but only after being tried and found guilty of treason – although this was very much a show trial. What is truly odd is that within months of his death there are reports that he was executed by being drowned in a barrel – not at all a standard method of judicial death.
The ‘Princes in the Tower’ remain the ultimate mystery. That they were brought to the Tower in the first place is not particularly suspicious – it was the starting point for the coronation procession.
However, over the spring of 1483, the coronation planned for his nephew (Edward V) morphed into a coronation for Richard himself.
What happened to the princes and whether it was Richard or his Tudor successors (who eliminated other claimants to the throne) that made sure they would never be seen again is unknown.
What is clear is that in this real-life game of thrones, contenders really did win or die.
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