On 22nd August 1485 King Richard III led a thunderous charge of cavalry across the field at the Battle of Bosworth in an attempt to crush Henry Tudor, the invader who laid claim to Richard’s throne. Unlike the presentation given by The White Queen, it was not a dozen men in half their armour with no helmets on scrapping in a snow dusted forest. Upwards of 15,000 men took the field that day and the stench of betrayal was as ripe in the air as the bravery of those who fought loyally for their cause. We know that King Richard’s final charge ultimately failed and led to his death. He is the last King of England to have died on a battlefield and Bosworth was the inglorious culmination of an enviable martial reputation. Yet Shakespeare has handed us a final denigration of King Richard’s character. Calling ‘A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!’, he is portrayed as a coward seeking to flee the battle in fear and panic. Or is he?
Throughout the sources, even Richard’s greatest detractors have never doubted his martial prowess and his courage. Richard’s first taste of battle had been at Barnet in 1471 on the campaign to return his brother Edward to the throne. He then fought at Tewkesbury that year and reportedly acquitted himself well in both battles. Over the next decade and more, he worked for Edward to secure the north, settling the troublesome Scottish border region.
In 1475, King Edward IV led a campaign to France, seeking to press his claim to the French throne and replicate the glory of the mighty Lancastrian King Henry V. Edward’s Burgundian allies failed to materialize and when the French King Louis offered a profitable peace, Edward accepted it. His brother Richard was one of the few to disagree with the king’s decision. Others accepted Louis’s lavish hospitality and generous bribes but Richard refused to be a party to the capitulation. He argued that their force was still strong enough to allow them to defeat the French and then, if Edward still wished to negotiate peace, he could do so from a position of strength, victory and glory. His advice ignored, ‘The Duke of Gloucester, the King of England’s brother, and some other persons of quality, were not present at this interview, as being averse to the treaty; but they recollected themselves afterwards, the Duke of Gloucester waited on the king our master at Amiens.’ Richard did later have a private meeting with Louis when he accepted gifts of plate from the French king, who was no doubt keen to measure the intractable brother of the flexible English king. His martial desire may have directly led to the French offering support to Henry Tudor as a method of preventing Richard from turning his eye to completing what his brother had planned. On the return to England, Richard was heralded as the hero of the empty campaign for his refusal to take the French bribe.
In 1482 Richard led a campaign against Scottish incursions that recaptured Berwick for the last time and marched to Edinburgh without the loss of a single man. He controlled his army so completely that there was no looting or unruly behaviour whilst he occupied Edinburgh before withdrawing to England having achieved his aim. Edward IV wrote to Pope Sixtus IV after this Scottish campaign with gushing praise for his brother; ‘Thank God, the giver of all good gifts, for the support received from our most loving brother, whose success is so proven that he alone would suffice to chastise the whole kingdom of Scotland. This year we appointed our very dear brother Richard Duke of Gloucester to command the same army which we ourselves intended to have led last year, had not adverse turmoil hindered us.’ Of Richard’s control and mercy, Edward wrote; ‘The noble band of victors, however, spared the supplicant and prostrate citizens, the churches, and not only the widows, orphans, and minors, but all persons found there unarmed.’ Perhaps Richard’s witnessing of the chaotic sacking of Ludlow when he was 7 by a victorious Lancastrian army had left a determined mark upon him.
As king, Buckingham’s Rebellion in 1483 saw him move swiftly and decisively to crush revolt, though the storms and floods worked in his favour too. All of these achievements are perhaps made more striking by the slender, gracile nature of the skeleton discovered at Leicester, combined with the pronounced scoliosis that his spine showed. Bosworth was to be his first and only military failure.
After the ground shook under the cavalry charge, Richard was unhorsed and his household knights were slain about him. Sir William Stanley’s force now joined the battle to ensure Tudor’s victory and Richard was surrounded. Vergil, the Tudor state historian, conceded that ‘King Richard alone was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’. Even his greatest detractors could not deny Richard’s courage. So how did this, along with the rest of Richard’s reputation, descend into the murky swamp of Shakespeare’s villain?
Shakespeare’s scene of Richard crying out for a horse may not, in fact, be the vision of terrified cowardice that it has become. It may be, as Vergil was forced to confer upon the king, a mark of his courage that has been misinterpreted. Consider for a moment why Richard is calling for a horse. To flee? He does not say so. Contemporary accounts speak of a squire offering his horse for the king to flee the field, to which Richard replied that he would leave the field undisputed King of England, or not at all. Why would Richard call for a horse? He had lost his own horse, White Surrey, and he was a knight. He would want a horse to continue fighting, to drive back into the press. If we look at the actual speech in context it has a very different meaning from that which has long been accepted;
Richard’s meaning is clear; “I have set my life upon a cast” refers to his risk in charging Henry Tudor’s position. “I will stand the hazard of the die” shows his acceptance of the risk he has taken, whatever the outcome. He does not wish to flee the field; he is seeking a fresh horse to continue fighting, to continue hunting Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Catesby is called “Slave” for suggesting Richard withdraws, something that he clearly has no intention of doing. Richard tells Catesby that he has killed five men so far that he believed to be Tudor and I see him demanding a horse to hunt the sixth.
So it is that even Shakespeare’s besmirching of Richard’s reputation is taken to be worse than it really is. I think that Shakespeare concedes Richard’s bravery to the end, as does every other source. One single line has been taken out of context and, because everything else Shakespeare wants us to see in Richard is evil, has been misinterpreted to presume a cowardly desire to flee. Thus Richard is robbed of that which even his enemies conceded to him.
Coward? I don’t think anyone can accuse King Richard III of being a coward, and I don’t think anyone did.
Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses and the novel of King Richard III’s life Loyalty. Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.