Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Princes in the Tower


Actor Kenneth Branagh as Richard III
Actor Kenneth Branagh as
Richard III

Richard of Gloucester was considerably different from his older brother.  What he actually looked like is in dispute.  He was described as almost as handsome as the charismatic Edward, but smaller and slighter.  Others, including Thomas More, describe him as deformed, with a withered arm and a hunched back.  (Almost every actor who has portrayed Richard plays him as deformed.  The most recent production of note, starring Kenneth Branagh as Richard, begins the play with Richard delivering his famous opening soliloquy on a rack, dressed only in underpants, undergoing a physical torture evidently intended to straighten his deformed body.  A famous production starring Antony Sher presents Richard as a malevolent spider, skittering across the stage on insect-leg-like crutches.)  Portraits picture him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, but without any other noticeable deformity.  Even the portraits are in dispute, since two of the three principal ones have been retouched to either accentuate the raised shoulder, or to paint it out.  It is important to note that two contemporary reporters of the reign of Richard III do not mention any physical deformity, and both observers certainly saw him at one time or another.  The several reports of Richards prowess in battle deny the assertion that Richard was physically deformed.

Portrait of Richard III
Portrait of Richard III

One consistent feature is his serious, almost melancholy expression.  This mesmerizing face is the key element that prompts novelist Josephine Teys character, a bored, bedridden, detective, to become interested in the case of Richard III and the two princes.

Other contrasts with his brother were made by various authors.  Richard was more puritanical than his sybaritic brother, and, at least with respect to Edward IVs later years, a benign and efficient ruler.  These admirable traits --- courage, benevolence, administrative and legislative wisdom --- are in contrast to the historical characterization of Richard III as a remorseless villain.  Still, like most of the rulers of medieval Europe, there is no question that he was ruthless.  Whether he murdered his nephews or not, he certainly executed a number of political opponents during his brief reign.  Some of these were dispatched because of actual rebellion, but others were killed because they simply posed a threat to his throne.

Likeness of Anne Neville
Likeness of Anne Neville

It is not surprising that the Tudor appraisal of Richard included charges of more subtle murders.  One particular rumor was that Richard poisoned his wife Anne, who died in 1484.  His motive was, supposedly, two-fold:  First, Richard and Annes son had died, and Richard had no direct heir.  Another marriage might have provided him with a male heir.  Second, a solution to this was for Richard to marry his niece, Elizabeth York in order to strengthen his hold on the throne and thwart the plans of Henry Tudor.  (This eldest daughter of Edward IV was a pawn in the power struggle between Richard and Henry.  She had been promised to Henry Tudor by her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and she eventually married him.) 

Revisionists point out that, to all appearances, Richard and Anne were happily married --- she accompanied him on his many trips to the North --- and that both grieved the loss of their son.  They further argue that Richard would have to rescind the judgment of illegitimacy on Edward IVs children in order to profit from marrying Elizabeth York, a complicating factor if the princes were still alive.  The traditionalists logically point out that rescinding the illegitimacy would no longer pose a threat to Richards right to the throne if the princes were already dead.

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