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King Richard III May Not Have Been The Tyrant Shakespeare Made Him Out To Be


And now a little memory jog about that rediscovered king. Here is Laurence Olivier in tights in 1955.

LAURENCE OLIVIER: (as Richard III) Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York, and all the clouds that glowered upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.


If you only know Richard III from Shakespeare's play, you know the 15th century king as a scheming, murderous hunchback. But as Philip Reeves mentioned, among the historians involved in identifying his remains, are people who believe Richard wasn't such a villain. This debate has carried on for centuries in Britain.

John Ashdown-Hill is a historian and member of the Richard III Society. John, welcome to the program.


CORNISH: Now, remind us just how bad a reputation has Richard III of come to have.

ASHDOWN-HILL: He's got a pretty bad reputation. He's seen as a deformed person, dark skinned, dark hair, small - rather like a spider. Being dark and being deformed in the 16th century were thought to be signs of evil, evil character. And he is supposed to have murdered his way to the throne, having spent all his life plotting to make himself king.

CORNISH: And he was only king for two years. But in that time, you mentioned murder. He's accused of murdering his two nephews, in fact.

ASHDOWN-HILL: Yes, he is.

CORNISH: Now, is it all Shakespeare's fault...


CORNISH: ...this reputation?

ASHDOWN-HILL: No. No, I don't think we should blame Shakespeare. Shakespeare was writing his play about 100 years after Richard III died, or more than 100 years. And he was dealing with the material that he had available, which was the propaganda which the Tudor dynasty had been generating about Richard III. It's a sort of political - like a modern political situation, where a leader is overthrown and another leader takes over and writes the history.

And obviously the history they write is not favorable to the person that's been thrown out. And that's what happened to Richard III. And that was the sort of material that Shakespeare was dealing with.

CORNISH: Now, these days, of course, there are louder and louder cheerleaders for the king. And as a member of the Richard III Society, you're certainly one of them. What is the reformed view, your view of Richard III?

ASHDOWN-HILL: I got interested in Richard III because I saw him described as a usurper, somebody who'd taken the throne without any rights to it. And I started investigating that. And I decided that his case for being king was actually quite a good one. And he'd been very open about it. He'd put the case to parliament and presented all the evidence to them. So, I actually wrote my first book around that case.

CORNISH: And he had accused these nephews of the previous leader of being illegitimate children, and therefore not heirs to the throne. Correct?

ASHDOWN-HILL: That's right, yes. Yes. And I think they were illegitimate. I mean, that's not their fault, of course. It's their father's fault. But I think he had committed bigamy. He'd made two secret marriages. He's supposed to have spent a rather lot of his time chasing after women. And he does seem to have got himself into trouble in this way.

CORNISH: Now, I noticed this line in the Encyclopedia Britannica's write-up on Richard III. It says: Nice people did not make good kings. What do you make of that?

ASHDOWN-HILL: I think that's very true. And I think one of the problems is that Richard III has always been presented as an evil character and an evil king. But actually, his successor, Henry VII, was rather a nasty character, but is defined by historians as a good king, a strong king.

Richard III, I think, was too nice for his own good. He left his enemies at liberty when he would have done better to imprison them, or perhaps kill them. And as a result, he ended up underground in a car park.

CORNISH: Historian John Ashdown-Hill, he was an adviser in the search for Richard III's remains. And he is the author of "The Last Days of Richard III." John, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ASHDOWN-HILL: You're welcome.


CORNISH: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.