EVERY INCH A KING

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 30.07.10
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The Last Days of Richard III By John Ashdown-Hill,
History Press, £17.99

Most historians of late medieval England recognize that William Shakespeare had been very unfair to Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England who ruled from 1483 to 1485. Perhaps because he was eager to please the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Shakespeare in The Tragedy of King Richard III painted him as a ruthless villain and tyrant. He also made Richard into a hunchback for which there is no historical evidence. John Ashdown-Hill’s book is an attempt to describe Richard III as he actually was according to the available historical documentation.

His premise is that the events of Richard’s reign are too often seen through the prism of hindsight. One consequence of this is that everything in his reign is seen as leading up to the battle of Bosworth (August 22, 1485) where he was defeated by Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. Richard’s reign was nothing like that: he planned his reign and saw Henry’s incursion as a minor insurrection over which he would triumph. His death in battle was anything but foretold.

To make his point, Ashdown-Hill concentrates on the last 150 days of Richard’s reign — from March 25, 1485 (the first day of the medieval English New Year) to the day he died on the battlefield in Bosworth. This reveals that over what became his last days, Richard was not winding down and waiting for Henry Tudor. On the contrary, he was busy with the administration of the country and was occupied with events and activities as befit a king. In fact, he was planning for the future little knowing that all these would come to nought.

The background to Richard’s accession to the throne was the Wars of the Roses in which the houses of Lancaster and York fought over the crown of England. Ashdown-Hill argues that Richard was no usurper, he had a very sound claim to the throne in 1483. It is now clear to historians that Edward V was actually a bastard, the product of Edward IV’s clandestine and bigamous marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. In 1483, this illegitimacy had been made public by Bishop Robert Stillington, an expert canon lawyer. This nullified Edward V’s claims to be king, and the only available legitimate heir was Richard III. Despite the controversy over his claims over those of Edward V, Richard’s accession was generally accepted.

As Richard went about the business of governing his realm, it became clear to him that he would have to deal with the invasion of Henry Tudor who was advancing from Wales. The two armies met at Bosworth, the royal army far outnumbering the rebel one. In the melee of the battle, Richard spotted Henry, and either out of bravado or from a sense of noblesse oblige, led a charge against him. He nearly succeeded but his horse was killed and he was cut down.

Ashdown-Hill recounts through some deft research what happened to Richard’s body and where and how he was buried. Through another piece of detective work, he actually tracks down, with the help of DNA samples, Richard’s line down to the 21st century. This use of the DNA sample could open doors to locating descendants of other royal lines considered to be extinct, maybe even the Stuart line.

This book embodies exemplary research and analysis of documents. It presents a complex subject with great lucidity.