Live event catch up: Richard III: Benevolent King or Murderous Tyrant?

Mark Cardwell reports on the Leicester Exchanges live debate, which took place at the University of Leicester on 6 June.

The lively debate on whether Richard III was a benevolent king or murderous tyrant was chaired by Richard Taylor, Deputy Registrar at the University of Leicester. He was joined on the panel by Dr Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, Paul Lay, the editor of History Today and Dr Mary Ann Lund, from the School of English at the University of Leicester.

The execution of the princes in the tower is the central issue behind Richard III’s lasting reputation as a tyrant, a leading historian and journalist argued at a heated Leicester Exchanges debate.

Paul Lay, editor of History Today magazine, told a divided panel and audience that Richard’s apparent decision to kill his nephews Edward V and Richard Duke of York would have been as shocking to the medieval public as it would be today. “The issue of the princes in the tower is absolutely fundamental,” he said at the University of Leicester’s public debate Was Richard III a benevolent king or a murderous tyrant?. “There was an absolute taboo on killing children.

“When we look at Henry VII – and there was also a plot against him – he does not kill children. Medieval people were every bit as committed to their children as we are to ours. The loss of them was just as profound.”

The mystery surrounding the prince’s fate was a central issue for both panel and audience – as well as for many of the Twitter and social media users engaging with the debate online.

Phil Stone, Chairman, Richard III Society

Phil Stone, Chairman, Richard III Society

Dr Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, disputed the notion that Richard had in fact killed the princes. He argued that there was no solid evidence to prove Richard was responsible – or even that the boys were placed in the tower. “Obviously, I don’t believe Richard III was responsible for the deaths of the princes,” he said. “There are a range of possibilities of what could have happened to them. It is possible they were shipped out of the country or they were moved up north. “I just don’t feel Richard – with his loyalty to his brother Edward – would have willingly connived in his sons’ deaths.”

Both historians agreed we would never know for sure whether Richard III was responsible for the deaths of the princes – though Paul Lay said there is strong evidence pointing to Richard’s culpability. “Foreign accounts are one of the best ways one can look at regimes in order to see how outsiders look at the regime – and actually, the idea of Richard as a child killer is there in correspondence with foreign visitors and observers from the time,” Paul Lay explained.

Taking a middle ground, Dr Mary Ann Lund, a Lecturer in the University’s School of English said it was hard to say whether or not Richard was a tyrant. Dr Lund explained that it was in the Tudors’ interest to blacken the name of their predecessor – although the reasons for this changed from Henry VII to the time of Elizabeth I. “The idea that the Tudors are one homogenous body is a dangerous thing to think,” she explained, arguing that the blackening of Richard’s name happened in several different stages.

She said Polydore Vergil and Thomas More introduced negative depictions of Richard in order to legitimise Henry VII’s claim to the throne. “In the 16th century, you have the idea of ‘Richard the usurper’ thrown into books. Later on, he became ‘Richard Crookback’, and becomes part of tyrant literature.

“In the 1580s, there starts to be the question of what is going to happen once the Tudors run out. Elizabeth I reigns for a long time and  isn’t producing any heirs. People are beginning to ask ‘are we going to go to war’?

“Shakespeare’s play dramatises that concept – and shows the dangers of putting a tyrant on the throne. He becomes more of an archetype.”

Paul Lay believed it was thanks to Shakespeare’s play that Richard III has captured people’s interest in the centuries since. Without the play, he argued, Richard’s disastrous two years on the throne would have remained fairly insignificant in the history of the English monarchy. “Looking back on Richard, we can see he is a king who fails in every fundamental task demanded of a medieval king. He fails to establish his dynasty, he fails in battle and is killed in battle.

Paul Lay, Editor, History Today

Paul Lay, Editor, History Today

“Richard is not a successful king. He is not one who’s legacy the Tudors are going to fear. We remember him because of one man – William Shakespeare. That is the reason we are here tonight.”

An audience member asked the panellists how history might have been different had Richard won the Battle of Bosworth – provoking some thoughtful answers from the panellists. According to Paul Lay, Richard’s poor lack of control over the political class meant that his days would have been numbered even if he had succeeded at Bosworth. “I am not convinced that even if Richard had won he would have been able to maintain his position as King for much longer,” he explained.

“The reason he loses his place in the first place is because much of the political power goes against him. People like the Earl of Northumberland and William Stanley were not willing to stand behind him.”

For Paul, another major factor working against Richard was his lack of support in the South – where he was disliked and seen as a “northerner”.

“You can’t help thinking that ultimately they would have turned on him,” Paul added. “He is really the only northerner who has ever held power in England as a king.”

Looking further ahead to the events of the 16th century, the panel agreed that the events of the English Reformation would have happened differently had Henry VIII not ascended to the throne. “We would not have had the reformation until later,” said Dr Stone. “We could still be a catholic country if Bosworth has not taken place.”

Dr Mary Ann Lund said: “I think the reformation would still have happened –but it would have been much more violent. We would have seen events like the massacre of St Bartholomew in Paris.”

Phil Stone, Richard Taylor and Paul Lay

(L-R) Phil Stone, Richard Taylor and Paul Lay

The panel also debated the question of whether Richard III’s reputation has been rehabilitated in recent years.

“I think there has been a certain degree of revisionism,” said Dr Phil Stone. “The discovery is not going to make any difference to what people think of Richard and his reputation – but I am hoping that it is going to make people read, think, study and open their eyes and minds to what is going on. “Hopefully people will realise that perhaps some of their prejudices are misinformed.”

Paul Lay agreed that the discovery of the skeleton was a momentous boost for interest in history. “The discovery of Richard III’s body was the best thing that has happened to medieval history in a very long time,” he said. “It has also shown that the Ricardians are not exactly the fanatical organisation they are presented as. The real value of it all is that we see history as an argument.

“I am excited that more people are interested in medieval history. History isn’t there to be handed down on tablets by academics.”

Dr Stone denied that Richard was a tyrant – and insisted that the King was committed to the common people. He suggested Richard’s translation of the law from Latin into French into English and the introduction of legal aid proves this. “Richard had laws published in English so that people would understand them,” Dr Stone argued. “Once he was King, he did not observe the dictum that ‘might is right’. He fought for the common people.”

Paul Lay was less sympathetic in his estimation of Richard’s legacy. “Was he a tyrant? Yes I think he was,” Paul said. “I can date the day he became a tyrant, and that was Friday the 13th of June in 1483 when he killed Lord Hastings, a chief ally. From then on, he was in a spiral of tyranny.”

Dr Mary Ann Lund, University of Leicester

Dr Mary Ann Lund, University of Leicester

Dr Mary Ann Lund said Shakespeare’s play has had the strongest influence on how Richard has been perceived. “In Shakespeare’s play, Richard says ‘I am determined to prove a villain’. He is saying ‘I am predetermined ‘ and ‘I am ordained’ to be a villain. He becomes a villain in the hands of playwrights. I think that is why he is still so compelling.”

The event – which follows the University’s discovery of the remains of Richard III – attracted an audience of more than 200, who put questions to the panel of experts.

More than 150 Twitter users interacted with the debate online using the hashtag #lexr3. Historian and broadcaster Matthew Ward, who runs History Needs You and makes regular appearances in Horrible Histories, relayed questions from Twitter users to the panel.


An audio recording of the full debate will be available shortly.

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