My name is Richard and I was born in autumn 1452. The season has always suited me. It is a time of melancholy that is brought on when warm days give way to cooler temperatures and a sense of gloom prevails. The change in mood is deceptive as leaves change colour from green to burnished orange, red and gold. But the promise suggested by the rich, warm hues is a false one. Grapes are stripped from the vines and other crops are harvested. Many things end or are suspended. People stockpile food against the onset of cruel winter and bring in their animals.
Eventually the leaves die and fall. The limbs of the trees are left bare and twisted. They look like stark, dark fingers against a paler sky. At night the branches cast sinister shadows that move about restlessly in the wind. Perhaps it is a time of warning to all men. No honest man wants to stay outdoors after nightfall. Persephone has departed for the underworld and will not return for six long months. The earth will mourn until she rises again.
Unlike most of you I feel at home in autumn. For me, it was always a good time of year to plot while my enemies worried about the fires in their halls going out as they dined lavishly, drank far too much and whored away the hours. I certainly did not live as a recluse, but I made sure that my mind was always alert and capable of initiating action. My realm was full of ambitious men and traitors whose only commitment was to Henry Tudor and themselves.
Despite my best efforts to build a better England, my rule lasted just two short years. My crown and my life were taken from me in the summer of 1485 at Bosworth Field; but not without a fight. Not before I scared the wits out of those damned Tudors. I was struck down from behind by a traitor after my horse was killed under me. A dagger was thrust into my neck as I lay defenceless on the ground. The jackals then moved in to slash and stab and chop at my still twitching corpse. Oh, they made sure of it alright. Richard would not rise again. I was the last Plantagenet monarch of England.
After further merriment at the expense of my poor, bloodied remains, I was buried without ceremony in a lonely wood. Not the church of the grey friars at Leicester as has so often been stated. This was harsh treatment even by the standards of those days. My body was not shifted to the church until all of the hullabaloo had died down.
But worse was to come when that base propagandist, Shakespeare, more than 100 years later if you don’t mind, cast me as one of the most despicable villains in history. Why even now, I can hardly bring myself to utter his foul name. Yet I cannot traduce his reputation as he did mine.
Was he really that clever? Yes, he was. Was everything he wrote all his own work? Yes, it was. Don’t believe what the revisionists tell you today. The bastard was intelligent and he had rare gifts as a writer. But the only reputation that counted with him was his own. It was not below his dignity to prostitute his art by dishing up what the Tudors wanted everyone else to believe. I was described as evil, cruel, twisted and a murderer of children; my own little nephews no less.
There was nobody left who could defend me because all who had known me were dead.
The truth is that the poor little beggars died in the safety of their confinement. No hand was raised against them by me or on my behalf. But who is going to believe me now?
As I look upon the world all about me seems sad and unsettled. I revel in it. Negativity nourishes me. If I had a soul it would no doubt be uplifted.
‘That’s enough. Your self-serving guff is making me ill.’
‘Who in God’s name are you and how is it that you can see me to address me? I am but a shade.’
‘You talk of Shakespeare, propaganda and defamation. I am his Richard III and I would take issue with you.’
‘But this is ridiculous; you are a bloody fictional character. A spiteful creation made up by the so-called bard of Avon. You exist only when given life by actors. You are like an apothecary’s potion. You are a mere concoction; a compound of words.’
‘Yes, but I am no less a phantom than you. I am the villain splendid with the hunchback and withered arm. I am ambitious and treacherous and murderous. I kill my rivals old and young. No skullduggery is beneath me. My fame has endured while yours has faded beyond memory.’
‘That may be so, but you are not and never have been the real Richard Plantagenet. You are so biased that you list to one side like a sinking ship. You are the very instrument of slander. The tame playwright of the Tudors gave it to you to say of me that I was rudely stamp’d, deformed and unfinished. That was false and harsh. It is a distortion pure and simple. Also, I am very sure that I never said that I was determined to prove a villain.’
‘Really? How touching. But what about Tyrell and the Princes in the Tower? That was all his own work, I suppose?’
‘My nephews had to be placed in the Tower, for safekeeping. They were young, too young to rule. Besides there were good reasons to suppose them both to be bastards. You may begin to see the position I was in. You may even agree that the Tower of London was the best place for them until I could determine what would serve them better in the longer term. I did what any other medieval ruler would do.’
‘Oh, please! Who do you think could believe such self-serving rubbish?’
‘Why what have we here. A shade and a fictional characterization in argument? Yet you are both so similar in appearance as to be brothers. Almost twins.’
‘I know you.’
‘And so you should, for upon closer examination I recognize you as the product of my own writing.’
‘What? Are you Elizabeth Tudor’s slanderer? The man who murdered my good name. You bastard.’
‘Oh, your majesty, I see now who you are. Surely you would not begrudge the greatest playwright of the ages?’
‘I might ask whether you would continue to begrudge me my reputation as a good king who in two short years made peace with the Scots and introduced many good laws.’
‘Come, come your majesty. Who would remember a monarch of scarce two years’ rule if I had not remade you into the type of villain the crowd loves to hate?’
‘Admit it, your portrayal of me as a malevolent, deformed schemer was simply a dramatic plot device to support the villainous role you and your paymasters chose for me.’
‘Artistic licence my lord.’
‘You gave me a hunchback and a treacherous nature.’
‘Mere window-dressing your majesty. The punters loved it.’
‘Conceited as well, eh, bard? You should know that many modern scholars have cited evidence that I was a good king. They see me as an enlightened and forward-looking monarch.’
‘Your majesty you may have done well as a royal administrator but really, I had it on good authority that deceit and treachery were your best qualities.’
‘Yes that’s right. Look what I do to Lady Anne, Clarence, Hastings and the two princes. Blood soaked hands doesn’t begin to describe my nature.’
‘Now stop that. This unscrupulous playwright is just putting words in your mouth.’
‘Really my lord? What if I did pay heed to the political considerations of my day? It in no way detracts from my exploration of the psychology of evil which stands upon its own merits and transcends mere notions of propaganda.’
‘You’ve had centuries to dream up that one.’
‘I only did for you what I did for Hamlet and Macbeth. A state will flourish under a good ruler and suffer under a bad one. You were tailor-made to be a bad one.’
‘I liked it.’
‘Get back in your box. You vile imposter.’
‘This is great, actual conflict between an idea personified and a ghost. A pale reflection of a man who once was a king and a character that never was.’
‘Excuse me sirrah, but aren’t you also a ghost?’
‘Well yes, but I always honoured ghosts in my plays. Their appearances were always significant. Look at Hamlet’s father, Julius Caesar and Banquo. I gave your majesty’s play an entire legion of them.’
‘But that was not me. Was it? It was him.’
‘You are both so much alike. I was just confused for a moment.’
‘You are welcome to your confusion. In light of the scholarship to which I have referred and recent events, I have no doubt that it will not be long before your play and its biased portrayal of myself is seen as just that. A base amusement with a stage villain to frighten children, a pantomime.’
‘What recent events?’
‘Haven’t you heard? In autumn 2012, archeologists discovered my bones beneath a carpark that had been built over the site of the grey friars’ church in Leicester. Now it seems that there are many who wish to see me honoured as a monarch in death as I was not honoured 500 years ago. There is to be a court case. What is left of me physically may be interred in either Leicester Cathedral or in York Minster.’
‘How do they know the bones belong to you?’
‘Modern science, wordsmith. Something called DNA evidence was used to prove that the skeleton they found was once me. It exhibits my scoliosis, the disease I contracted in my teenage years. I had no hunchback. The infernal doctors treated my young body on the rack in a bid to straighten me out. It did not work and I must have bitten through a small forest of wood as I strove to endure the pain. You can also see the abuses meted out to me by my enemies when I fell at Bosworth. I died bravely. I did not die screaming for a horse. How absurd! If that battle were fought today and my condition was aggravated by the ordeal I would more likely die calling for painkillers.’
‘Then your majesty must be happy and content that at last somebody has taken your side. But the text of my play cannot be changed even if I were moved to do so.’
‘What are you worried about? The Tudors are long gone.’
‘That is not completely correct my lord. Most of them still haunt the Tower and Hampton Court. Some of my old friends and acquaintances do the same. I do not wish to be ostracized from that select company.’
‘Select company, that lot? I should take more care in the friends you choose if I were you.’
‘For once I agree with you, but patronage is patronage and one hesitates to bite the hand that feeds him.’
Hmmm. The words happy and content have never come easily to my lips let alone my person. Both may be so quickly snatched away by changed circumstances. If I have learned anything gentle reader it is that you must live in the moment. Draw in as much as you can before it is taken from you. I have waited a long, long time. What will I do now? How shall I feel? Suffice it to say that whatever the court’s decision I will at least be more content in my melancholy. I do not expect to get my reputation back completely. I will likely remain an enigma so long as scholars and Shakespeare’s acolytes argue over myth, legend, rumour, invention and truth. I think in a way that will suit me.
This piece was written before the 2015 court decision that King Richard be re-interred with full honours in Leicester Cathedral. That should please him.