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The story of Richard III is a complex one and is often difficult to sort out, especially as he was so misrepresented after his death. At the same time, many of the contemporary records were ordered destroyed by the Tydder and some copies of these were only later found [the evidence is mainly circumstantial regarding records that should survive, but don’t, other than a comment about Polydore Vergil destroying records, made by Londiniensis in 1568 (a pseudonym for John Caius of Cambridge). As quoted by Jeremy Potter in his Good King Richard? - “Polydore Vergil had committed to the flames as many ancient manuscripts as would have filled a wagon, in order that the faults in his history might not be discovered.”]. But the damage to Richard’s reputation had already been done and settled into the minds of the public. Dr AJ Hibbard explores the question of why Richard has been labelled as an unpopular individual.

Last year I was struggling to write an essay addressing the alleged unpopularity of King Richard III. There are plenty of internet statements to that effect, and even a book published in 1885, The Unpopular King: The Life and Times of Richard III. But I just wasn't finding any references remotely close to the time that Richard lived. Popularity just didn't seem to be something that figured in contemporary comments on Richard’s qualities as ruler. This began to make sense once I found the advice written to Edward, Prince of Wales (son of Henry VI) by Lord Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue.

"The office [duty] of a king is to fight the battles of his people and to judge them rightfully, as you may very clearly learn in 1 Kings, chapter viii."

Having found this sort of job description, and supposing it to include an oblique reference to the additional responsibility of a king to be a dutiful son of the church,  it was quite interesting to read what was written about King Richard during his lifetime.

"...trusting with full powers our illustrious brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, in whom not only for his nearness and fidelity of relationship, but for his proved skill in military matters and his other virtues, we name, depute and ordain him our Lieutenant General  in our absence, to fight, overcome and expel the said King of Scotland our chief enemy and his subjects, adherents and allies, however great the fight may be, giving and allowing to our same Bro outher,r Lieutenant, our power and full authority..." - Edward IV., letters patent, 12 Jun [1482], translated from Latin.

"The good reputation of his private life and public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers. Such was his renown in warfare that, whenever a difficult and dangerous policy had to be undertaken, it would be entrusted to his discretion and his generalship." - Dominic Mancini, December 1483.

"his lords and judges in every place sitting, determining the complaints of poor folk with due punishment of offenders against his laws" - John Kendall, the King's secretary writing from Nottingham to the City of York 23 August 1483.

"[King Richard] contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince, for many a poor man hath suffered wrong many days, hath been relieved and helped by him, and his commands on his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given to him, which he hath refused.” - Thomas Langston, Bishop of St. David’s in a private letter to the Prior of Christ Church -  September 1483.

“The most mighty prince Richard… all avarice set aside Ruled his subjects In his Realm full commendably punishing offenders of his laws especially Extortioners and oppressors of his commons and cherishing those that were virtuous by the which discreet guiding he got great thanks of god and love of all his subjects rich and poor and great laud of the people of all other lands about him.” - John Rous, Rous roll (English version, ca 1484) spelling modernized.

"This King Richard was praiseworthy for his building, as at Westminster, Nottingham, Warwick, York, and Middleham, and many other places, which can be viewed. He founded a noble chantry for a hundred priests in the Cathedral of York, and another at Middleham. He founded another in the church of St. Mary of Barking, by the Tower of London, and endowed the Queen's College at Cambridge with 500 marks annual rent. The money which was offered him by the peoples of London, Gloucester, and Worcester he declined with thanks, affirming that he would rather have their love than their treasure". - John Rous, circa 1490

The element of flattery in some of these statements has been used to discount them. However, if read without a prejudiced (prejudged) agenda already formed, the picture that emerges is very different from the one transmitted by Tudor historians. Even John Rous, notorious as the originator of the myth that Richard was in his mother’s womb for 2 years and born with hair & teeth, as late as 1490, felt that he could safely give Richard credit for his work in supporting religious establishments. (I can’t resist editorializing that perhaps even this soon after Bosworth, the new Tudor’s love of treasure was already becoming apparent).

How the ordinary Englishman or woman felt about Richard can only be guessed, I suppose, taking into consideration that most would not have known him personally, and would only have heard about him from the “rumor mill.” On the other hand, there are a few faint echoes across time suggesting that Richard inspired loyalty and even affection, that lasted long after his death.

On 20 August 1485, Robert Morton of Bawtry, a man described as a Yorkshire squire, made his will, in which he stated that he was "going to maintain our most excellent king Richard III against the rebellion raised against him in this land." As Annette Carson observed, Morton did not write his will expecting it to be read by posterity, and he was not trying to make a political point; it was a statement of his opinion of his king that could easily have been omitted.

In the municipal records of the City of York, an entry of 23 August 1483, says "that King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us, ...was piteously slaine and murdered, to the great heaviness of this City;" the councillors called it "a woeful season," a phrase repeated in the letter they sent shortly after to the Earl of Northumberland.

In his "History of King Henry VII," Francis Bacon wrote regarding the rioting in 1489, "For when the commissioners entered into the taxation of the subsidy in Yorkshire, and the bishopric of Duresme; the people upon a sudden grew into great mutiny, and said openly, That they had endured of late years a thousand miseries, and neither could nor would pay the subsidy. This no doubt proceeded not simply of any present necessity, but much by reason of the old humour of those countries, where the memory of King Richard was so strong, that it lay like lees in the bottom of men's hearts; and if the vessel was but stirred it would come up."

Lastly, it has been said, that as late as the 1940's and 50's, there was in use by some in Yorkshire the expression "as welcome as good King Dick."

Finally I’d observe that it was not long after the death of the last Tudor monarch in 1603, that people began to write in defense of King Richard’s reputation. If King Richard had been just a man of his times, no better and no worse than other men in his station in life, no one would have cared enough to push back against what they had been taught about this man. Today, it is long past time for the Tudor myth to be identified as the fairy tale it is and for King Richard’s reputation to be restored to what is was in his own lifetime.

AJ Hibbard MD

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