History is written by the victors. This axiom has been passed down to students of history in an unbroken chain for years. It’s one of the reasons that primary sources have to be read with an understanding of the time and place. The story of Richard the III is a good example of this.
Richard ruled during a very contentious time in English history. The Wars of the Roses was a 30 year conflict between two rival houses of the British nobility the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Sporadic conflict over the years resulted in a final battle between York and Lancaster at Bosworth Field, the death of York king Richard III, a Lancaster victory, and the eventual rise of the House of Tudor (and the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I).
Most of us know Richard III through the Shakespeare work of the same name. Over time he’s been portrayed as a nasty, cruel, twisted and broken man. Shakespeare wrote this play during the reign of Elizabeth I, who’s family was the victor over Richard III. This line of the House of York had a weak claim to the throne at the time, and several historians have suggested that Richard was vilified in order to strengthen the claim of the House of York. The Tudors painted a bleak picture of Richard, and with time, historians have helped embellish that story. The victors told a very specific story of who and what he was, and they pulled no punches.
With the discovery of the body of Richard III, the debate has resumed between historians. Some argue that he was a product of his time, and that ruthless acts of terror were par for the course in Medieval England. Others will continue to argue that he was a cruel and evil man. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
It’s going to be interesting to watch the story evolve.