Born this month, in October of 1452, Richard III has one of history's worst reputations, thanks mostly to William Shakespeare. "The Bard" – who turns out to be one hell of a spin doctor – wrote in part to please a Tudor court. The Tudors came to power by overthrowing Richard, and their historians blackened his reputation for the centuries.
In Shakespeare's History Plays, Richard III is a brilliant villain, a role actors still strive to play – his line "A Horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" for example, is immortal. But historians have learned that Shakespeare's character bears little resemblance to the actual man, the final Plantagenet king who lost on the battlefield to Henry Tudor, founder of the Tudor line.
They found the bones of Richard underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England a few years ago, reigniting interest in this much-maligned king. Curiously enough, his reputation is still actively debated over 500 years later. British historians especially still wage the Wars of the Roses, including taking sides on Richard and his reign.
Game of Thrones began airing on HBO around the same time Richard's bones were found, adapting George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. In several interviews, Martin cited the Wars of the Roses as a source of inspiration for the fictional series. The end of Richard III's reign marked the end of those conflicts, by some historians' reckoning. Martin's mentions gave his fans and modern readers more reason to look into the era, a fascinating period of civil war in England.
Richard Plantagenet – Richard III – was the fourth son of Richard, Duke of York. Duke Richard had better hereditary claim to the throne than King Henry VI who ruled England in the mid 1400's. The Duke was actually put in charge of the kingdom when King Henry went "mad" – became catatonic, incapacitated, it was said, by mental illness, after he lost most of England's territories in France.
Duke Richard didn't have support enough to claim the crown for himself, however – it was still a sacred thing to be king. But he did eventually negotiate to be named heir to Henry, with his son Edward named heir in turn after him.
Henry eventually regained enough of his wits to be considered fit to rule. His queen, Margaret of Anjou, actually took power, and had the Duke and his people run out of the government and, beyond that attempted to have them branded traitors. The Duke rebelled, and powerful families took sides behind Richard, Duke of York and King Henry of Lancaster.
Duke Richard was killed in the civil wars that followed, which later became known as the Wars of the Roses. His eighteen year old son Edward rose up as leader of the "Yorkists" and eventually overthrew Henry VI and the "Lancastrians" to become King Edward IV.
About halfway through Edward's twenty-two year reign, the Lancastrians returned from exile, allying themselves with disaffected members of Edward's government. They surprised and ran Edward out of the country to put a confused Henry VI back on the throne. This is when the future Richard III first appeared prominently on the scene as brother to the king, Duke of Gloucester, a young, loyal and trusted man at the side of older sibling Edward in his exile.
Others were not so loyal. The surviving brother in between them, George, Duke of Clarence, was on the side that drove Edward out of the country! When George discovered the Lancastrians wouldn't be putting him on the throne, he patched things up with Edward, but was later executed for treason, for a whole new set of subterfuge.
Richard was the opposite, a loyal general to Edward in battle and later his surrogate, ruling in the northern marches of the kingdom. There are many contemporary reports of Richard's wise governance in the north during this period – the records of the city of York speak very well of him, for example.
However, when Edward died suddenly in 1483, Something Happened. Under odd circumstances, Edward's two sons disappeared into the Tower of London. Their uncle Richard, who was to have been their Protector, was instead crowned King Richard III, usurping the throne of his nephew Edward V, never crowned.
The contemporary records which remain of Richard's reign are few, but it does appear he tried to rule wisely and well. But as he only had a couple of years and was overthrown by the originator of a new dynasty, poor Richard's posthumous reputation didn't stand a chance. Indeed, many slanderous Tudor "histories" had already been written about Richard – including one by Thomas More – before Shakespeare did the hatchet job that would echo throughout all time.
The argument rages on. Historians do take sides. Some believe Richard was innocent of crimes. Some think him a man of his times, guilty or not; others still follow the Shakespearian/Tudor version. There is no consensus as to the "real" character of Richard III.
Yet labeling him "evil", "flawed", or "wrong" argues he should have, could have, acted differently. What if he just did what he had to do to save himself? What if he did what he thought was best for the kingdom? The debate continues – and not just in history books.
George R.R. Martin might have taken sides in the debate, possibly arguing through his fiction that Richard III had to play the "Game of Thrones" that he did or die... by creating an Anti-Richard who acts as Richard's detractors say Richard should have acted – the honorable Eddard "Ned" Stark!
There is some supporting evidence. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Martin said, "I... ...at one point thought of writing a Wars of the Roses novel. But the problem with straight historical fiction is you know what's going to happen. If you know anything about the Wars of the Roses, you know that the princes in the tower aren't going to escape." Those "princes in the tower" are Edward's two sons mentioned above, their deaths traditionally blamed on Richard.
There are many "echoes" of the Wars of the Roses in the Game of Thrones books. Martin doesn't copy characters or situations wholly from history. He instead adapts and echoes the past in small parts inside his fantasy world: the Yorks versus Lancasters in the Wars of the Roses find their echoes in the Starks versus Lannisters in Westeros; Hadrian's Wall in northern England becomes writ large in the The Wall of ice that guards the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros; England herself was seven kingdoms in the ninth century, before the coming of William the Conqueror – Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, Sussex and Essex – to point out a few echoes.
There are many clues which tie Ned Stark and Richard III more closely together. Ultimately they're both placed in nearly identical, crucial decision-making situations. The result? Richard becomes king. Ned loses his head. Who acted correctly? Martin seems to be arguing through Ned Stark that Richard did what he needed to do – to save his own neck.
What are the clues that tie Ned to Richard?
For one, they're both "Lord of the North" – both rule the north of the kingdom for their king, and both are commonly referred to as the Lord of the North.
"In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the Word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do Sentence you to die."
The first words spoken by the character of Ned Stark in the books make his position clear.
In his recent biography Richard III, author David Hipshon – attempting to steer a middle course vis a vis Richard's reputation, though he betrays a negative bias as well – concedes a point to an earlier pro-Richard writer when he writes:
"In an indenture... (The Earl of Northumberland) Henry Percy agreed that he would serve Richard as 'his faithful servant' and accept the duke as 'his good and faithful lord'. The indenture stipulated that only the king, the queen, and their heirs, would have precedence over the duke. It was this legal instrument that led Paul Murray Kendall to dub Richard 'lord of the North', and few commentators have disagreed with his assessment."
Paul Murray Kendall, a scholar of the Wars of the Roses and an American, wrote a landmark, somewhat positive biography of Richard III in 1955 – Part Two of Book One "The Duke of Gloucester" is titled "Lord of the North". In it, Kendall wrote, "He obtained in the North the lands and the supreme command... Already Warden of the West Marches toward Scotland, he was given authority over the Earl of Northumberland, Warden of the East and Middle Marches."
The two men share very similar titles.
Another clue Martin may be setting Ned up as an ersatz Richard?
Both men helped a "brother" defeat a "Mad King" to take the throne.
Though Richard was too young to help his older brother Edward IV when Edward first took the throne away from the mad Henry VI, Richard was in the vanguard in battles ten years later when Edward, deposed and exiled, came back to retake the throne and dispose of Henry VI for good.
Ned and King Robert, we're told, grew up like brothers when they were fostered to Jon Arryn at the Eyrie. And Ned was at Robert's side during his rebellion, as they defeated the Mad King Aerys II.
"Robert would never harm me or any of mine. We were closer than brothers. He loves me," Ned tells his wife Catelyn early in A Game of Thrones.
And in both Ned's and Richard's cases, the good looking young king they'd served grew fat.
In Ned's first point-of-view chapter he notes with alarm that Robert, "had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden's fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men... Now... he had a girth to match his height... A beard as coarse and black as iron wire covered his jaw to hide his double chin and the sag of the royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes."
Edward IV was also a strong, young king when he first won the throne. "Unquestionably, he looked every inch a king: the handsome and vigorous nineteen year old hardly needed the trappings of royalty to draw a crowd. Contemporaries were greatly struck by his splendid physique (he was over six foot three inches tall and broad shouldered) and good looks, both attributes inherited from his Plantagenet ancestors," historian Hannes Kleineke wrote in Edward IV. He added, "which were only marred slightly in his later years by an overindulgence in food and drink."
But Peter Ackroyd was not so kind in Foundation. Edward IV died suddenly, three weeks before his forty-first birthday. Ackroyd writes, "There is a suggestion of death by poison. In truth the only malady may have been that of self-indulgence; he ate and drank copious amounts; he had grown fat and debauched."
King Robert dies suddenly as well in Game of Thrones and there's certainly the suggestion his overindulgences kill him – perhaps aided by poison.
As their kings die, the parallels between Richard and Ned Stark continue.
Both have to deal with a willful Queen and her powerful family.
As he lay dying, Robert called in Ned and told Ned to write what he told him.
"This is the will and word of Robert of House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and all the rest – put in the damn titles, you know how it goes. I do hereby command Eddard of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King, to serve as Lord Regent and Protector of the realm upon my... ...upon my death... ...to rule in my... in my stead, until my son Joffrey does come of age..."
Kendall paints a similar picture with Edward, with an elaborate scene on his deathbed including calling in his executors to change his will: "Then, aware that his minutes on earth were numbered, he added the all-important codicil to his will; he bequeathed his boy heir and his realm to the protection of his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. After that, the priests came bearing the Eucharist..."
Both kings have a twelve-year old heir. Maybe.
Edward's son and heir – Edward, Prince of Wales – had been "ruling" in Wales with a Council led by the Queen's brother, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and dominated by her relatives. They're in full control of the new Edward V when his father dies; they've been raising him.
Queen Elizabeth and her family the Woodvilles (or Wydevilles) have historically been portrayed as greedy and socially grasping after she married the king, taking full advantage of their family ties. The traditional nobility, led by William, Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, were said to be offended at their behavior. Kendall infers Edward named Richard Lord Protector because he didn't trust either side, Hastings' or the Woodvilles'.
The actions of the Queen and her family at the death of Edward suggest a power grab – as if the Queen expected to rule as Regent, Richard be damned. One brother of hers and her son began looting the treasures accumulated by Edward IV, taking some out to sea! The Queen told her brother Earl Rivers to bring the new king under guard to London to have him quickly crowned King, so there'd be no need of a Protector.
No official word of his Protectorship was sent to Richard, off ruling the North – although Lord Chamberlain Hastings sent a personal messenger of his own: "The King has left all to your protection – goods, heir, realm. Secure the person of our Sovereign Lord Edward the Fifth and get you to London," Kendall quotes Hastings' first message to Richard. Richard wrote to Earl Rivers to see when he'd be setting out from Wales with the new King, expressing his wish to enter London with them.
Hastings feared the worst from the Queen and her family, sending a second message to Richard soon after the first, warning Richard that the Woodvilles had usurped the direction of affairs, and were moving with force to London. Richard wrote to the Queen and Edward IV's council requesting they respect his position as Protector.
According to Kendall, Richard wrote that: "In leaving the kingdom to the protection of his sole surviving brother, King Edward had followed – Richard was reminding the council – a custom approved by over a century of practice. But the wishes of a deceased monarch, Richard knew, had not always prevailed." Italics added for emphasis. This is important knowledge.
Richard started to move south with a small force of his own, soon supplemented by a few hundred men with the Duke of Buckingham, who'd offered to come to his aid.
Richard finally heard from Earl Rivers, setting up a rendezvous with the new King on the road to London. He also heard from Hastings a few more times, panicking: "The Woodvilles had ignored Richard's appointment as Protector. They were moving to crown the king at once in order to keep power in their hands. Richard must secure young Edward at all costs. In his latest communication the usually debonair Lord Chamberlain had written wildly that he stood alone, that his very life was in danger because he espoused the Protector's cause," Kendall writes.
Richard might not have believed Hastings, but then Earl Rivers arrived at their planned meeting with an armed guard but without the new King. Richard and Buckingham had a convivial dinner with him and sent him and his men off to bed at another inn.
Early the next morning, Richard began to act. Earl Rivers was arrested at dawn, his men detained inside their inn. Richard and some of his men then rode hard and surprised his nephew, Edward V, already miles down the road to London, surrounded by the Queen's kin. Richard had more of the Queen's men arrested and took the young Lord Edward under his advice and control.
As the news of Richard's actions hit London, the Queen's family discovered they had less support than hoped among nobles who might come to their aid. The Queen escaped with her immediate family into sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.
Richard brought the young King to London and was confirmed as Regent and Lord Protector. Plans were made for a June coronation for Edward V. The Queen's co-conspirators already arrested, brother Earl Rivers, son (from her first marriage) Lord Richard Grey and chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan, were sent to cells in separate castles in the north, where Richard could keep them under trusted guard. The Queen's other major co-conspirator, her older son Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, escaped sanctuary and disappeared.
But after a month of his Protectorship, Hastings and the barons turned on Richard and began conspiring with the Queen in sanctuary. Worse, a bishop came forward to Richard with an alarming report – Edward IV and his Queen Elizabeth Woodville had not been legally married. Edward had already been married, in a way. Their children were illegitimate.
After all this, Richard sent letters off to the north asking for men to rally to him in London. He thought he might need their support. Richard then took action. He confronted Hastings in a council meeting, declared Treason and had him taken out and beheaded immediately. He locked up Hastings' co-conspirators, including Thomas Lord Stanley and John Morton, Bishop of Ely.
For the Queen's involvement, he sent word north to have the Earl and Lord Rivers and Sir Vaughan executed. The young King Edward V already lived in the Tower of London. Richard demanded Edward's younger brother from the Queen, and the prince was moved to the Tower as well, ostensibly to keep his brother company. As mentioned earlier, the princes never left the Tower again.
With all the turmoil, the coronation of Edward V was postponed.
Finally, Richard revealed Edward IV's "precontract" – his betrothal to and bedding of another woman before he married his wife the Queen – to his inner circle, and then the Lords. Edward's children were illegitimate. Something had to be done.
Buckingham then started a campaign "asking" Richard to take the crown. He agreed, Parliament accepted, and on Thursday, June 26th 1483 he assumed the throne and was crowned King Richard the III.
That's how Richard Plantagenet handled the situation. How did honor-bound Ned Stark do? In fairness, Martin gave Ned much less time and space to work in than Richard had. But otherwise, the parallels between dilemmas demonstrate Martin argues through his fiction Richard did what he had to do, whereas Ned acted "honorably" – in a way some folks say Richard should have.
Both the heirs to the thrones were similar twelve-year old illegitimate bastards controlled by their mother's families. Ned Stark discovered his King Robert's heir was illegitimate for different reasons, Joffrey being the product of Queen Cersei and Jaime Lannister's incest. But Ned didn't know what to do with that information. He certainly didn't think to use it to his own advantage. In the end, he couldn't even tell Robert the news as he lay dying, not wanting to hurt him further.
Ned was a Good Man who did the Right Thing. In another possible "clue" Martin was playing with Richard III's situation, the character who suggested a somewhat Richard-like path to Ned was the dead King's second younger brother, a man in the same place in his royal family as Richard had been for the last twenty years.
After Ned left Robert, still dying, he ran into Robert's brother Renly.
Renly asked if the letter was what he thought it was, the regency – was Ned named Protector?
"My lord, I have thirty men in my personal guard, and other friends beside, knights and lords. Give me an hour, and I can put a hundred swords in your hands." Renly told Ned.
"And what should I do with a hundred swords, my lord?"
Renly gave Ned valuable advice: "We must get Joffrey away from his mother and take him in hand. Protector or no, the man who holds the king holds the kingdom. We should seize Myrcella and Tommen as well. Once we have her children, Cersei will not dare oppose us. The Council will confirm you as Lord Protector and make Joffrey your ward."
Advice which Ned ignored: "Robert is not dead yet... I will not dishonor his last hours on earth by shedding blood in his halls and dragging frightened children from their beds."
And Renly warned him: "Every moment you delay gives Cersei another moment to prepare..."
Ned declined Renly's help, wondering later if he should have taken it.
A little later, Ned summoned Littlefinger, who advised him to keep the illegitimacy secret and become the regent, take the power given him and become Protector. Littlefinger pointed out he could become a surrogate father to Joffrey, help mold the boy. He cautioned against putting Robert's next oldest brother Stannis on the throne, as he didn't forgive like Robert, and would bring blood and war.
Ned dismissed his advice, too. Told Littlefinger he'd called him in to ask for the help he'd promised Ned's wife. He wanted Littlefinger to get the City Watch to back him up when he faced Cersei.
Littlefinger's response was classic: "You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark. You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move..."
Ned's lack of movement left Joffrey in Cersei and the Lannister's hands. They struck quickly. When Ned handed Cersei Robert's letter, she ripped it up.
'"Those were the king's words," Ser Barristan said, shocked.
"We have a new king now," Cersei Lannister replied.'
As the historian noted earlier, even in reality the wishes of a deceased monarch had not always prevailed. In Martin's fiction, they were ignored, ripped up. Littlefinger sold out Ned. The City Watch was not his. His men were slaughtered, Ned was thrown in a dark cell, and, eventually, beheaded by King Joffrey.
And yet? Ned was "honorable" – but Richard was not, according to some historians' reckoning. Many British historians still trash Richard's reputation. But then there's Kendall, an American historian, who looked at the evidence and came away convinced Richard was a man of his times who did what he needed to do.
Another non-Brit, the popular historian Thomas B. Costain, a Canadian who wrote in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, came away with an even more positive assessment of Richard once he looked at contemporary evidence.
Costain's account of Richard's situations echo Kendall's to some degree, but Costain goes even further to exonerate Richard. He points out there would have been no love in England at the time for the reign of another boy king. Those monarchs who had assumed the throne as children in recent history had been spectacular failures – the most recent example Henry VI. Costain highlights the extensive evidence the Queen and her family were moving to at least sideline if not execute Richard. He argues the "precontract" rendering Edward IV's children illegitimate was taken very seriously, as evidenced by the actions of Parliament in passing the Titulus Regius declaring them so.
Costain finds much to recommend Richard take the throne, ultimately writing: "Richard may well have felt that the unpleasant duty of setting aside the sons of his beloved brother was imposed upon him by patriotic necessity... Definite conclusions are out of the question. But to anyone who has studied the character of Richard Plantagenet, and such facts as there are, without accepting the History blindly, as the Tudor historians and Shakespeare did, the conviction seems reasonable that he was actuated first of all by the dictates of patriotism."
Costain makes much of Bishop Morton's involvement in the early History written of Richard III's reign by Thomas More, as Morton was the primary source – More grew up in Morton's household. More didn't publish the History of King Richard III while alive. It was early work, found in More's writing after he was killed. Costain suggests he may have held off on publishing it, knowing his source, Morton, was one of Richard's arch-enemies.
Richard had Morton arrested at the council where Hastings was removed. The bishop helped engineer two rebellions against Richard and was later a major player in the Tudor court of the king who took Richard's crown, Henry VII. Morton's contributions would not have been laudatory. He was not a reliable source, and the History he helped create launched Richard III's blackened reputation.
Costain points out several inaccuracies easily checked against records and facts, and says it shouldn't be termed a "history" at all: "In fact, it deals almost exclusively with the many charges against Richard and is the only authority for most of them, although in no case does it offer proofs. The History, in fact, reads like a political broadside..." And yet it became the primary source for the reign. More's History is still cited by (mostly British) historians today.
Martin recommended Costain's histories at San Diego Comic-Con this year. A reading of Costain can lead one to surmise Martin is showing agreement with a more positive assessment of Richard III in his fiction, as it certainly seems he made a convincing case for Richard III taking the throne through his beheading of Ned Stark.
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice And Fire, Book One) by George R.R. Martin (Bantam, 1996)
Richard III (Routledge Historical Biographies) by David Hipshon (Routledge, 2010)
Richard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall (W.W. Norton & Company, 1956)
Edward IV (Routledge Historical Biographies) by Hannes Kleineke (Routledge, 2009)
Foundation by Peter Ackroyd (Macmillan, 2011)The Last Plantagenets by Thomas B. Costain (Fawcett, 1962)