A royal villain: Richard III

A head and shoulders portrait of Richard III, on a red background with gold embellishment in the upper corners. His face is turned slightly to the right, with a serious expression; at the bottom of the frame, his hands are shown in the middle of removing a ring from his right little finger. The heights of his shoulders are visibly uneven. He wears a black robe, possibly fur-lined, over a gold patterned doublet with a flash of red at the collar. A chain of office hangs across his chest. His black hat bears a gold, ruby, and pearl brooch in the shape of a stylised rose.

Written under the eye of Tudor and Stuart censors, Shakespeare’s history plays helped establish particular historical narratives, depicting certain royals as heroes and others as villains.

Richard III was condemned by the historians Sir Thomas More and Raphael Holinshed, but it was through Shakespeare’s eponymous play, revived and much performed from the eighteenth century onwards, that he became established as the power-hungry murderer who endures in the popular imagination.

Successive generations of royals, too, grew up with the Shakespearean image of Richard III – a narrative that continued to evolve into the Victorian era and beyond.

On 27 January 1838, after seeing Richard III at the theatre, Queen Victoria reported a discussion with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, that blurred together the historical figure and Shakespeare’s character: 'I observed that Richard was a very bad man; Lord Melbourne also thinks he was a horrid man; he believes him to have been deformed (which some people deny).'

The question of Richard’s disability (which, the queen notes, ‘some people deny’) was only settled in 2012, when his skeleton was exhumed in a Leicester car park and found to display curvature of the spine.

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