Richard III was never meant to be king.
The youngest surviving child of a duke, Richard saw his family’s fortunes shift dramatically during the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars that devastated England in the mid-15th century. In the span of a few years, between 1459 and 1461, he went from being a prominent noble’s son to a traitor in exile to second in line to the throne, now occupied by his older brother Edward IV—all by the age of 8, says Matthew Lewis, author of Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me.
The chaos of Richard’s youth foreshadowed the tumultuous decades that followed, which found him serving as a loyal representative of the king before seizing the crown for himself upon Edward’s death in 1483. Richard’s brief life—he died on the battlefield in 1485 at age 32, losing the throne to Henry VII—has sparked debate ever since, with two competing views emerging in the centuries after his reign.
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One side paints Richard as a power-hungry, Machiavellian usurper who ordered the deaths of his nephews, the so-called Princes in the Tower, to claim the crown. Popularized by Shakespeare’s Richard III, which depicts the soon-to-be king describing himself as “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,” this dark legend took shape during the 16th century and persisted for generations. At the other end of the spectrum, Richard’s ardent admirers argue that he was a model king blameless of any wrongdoing, unfairly vilified by propagandists eager to destroy his reputation.
“He has his supporters, and he also has centuries of detractors,” says Nathen Amin, author of Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders: Simnel, Warbeck and Warwick. “The difficulty, of course, is to try and toe that middle line, to try and find the real Richard.”
The Lost King, a new film dramatizing the search for Richard’s remains (which were famously found beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, in August 2012), offers perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of the monarch to ever grace the silver screen. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, who scripted the 2013 Judi Dench movie Philomena, The Lost King stars Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley, the British writer and television producer who launched the project to uncover Richard’s grave, and Harry Lloyd as the eponymous monarch, who appears to Langley as a narrative device.
Here’s what you need to know about The Lost King—and Richard’s life and legacy—ahead of the film’s release in the United States on March 24.
Is The Lost King based on a true story?
In the works since 2014, The Lost King builds on a 2013 book by Langley and historian Michael Jones, as well as original research conducted by the screenwriters. To briefly summarize the film’s plot, Langley develops an interest in Richard, who she believes has been maligned for too long. After experiencing a moment of intuition, she becomes convinced the king’s bones are buried in a Leicester parking lot and embarks on a quest to uncover his remains. At each step of the way, she faces pushback from the establishment, represented chiefly by male archaeologists and administrators at the University of Leicester, who dismiss her ideas because she’s a woman without any formal archaeological training.
The movie’s depiction of the university proved controversial upon its release in the United Kingdom last fall, prompting the school’s press office to release a lengthy statement. “We worked closely with Philippa Langley throughout the project, and she was not sidelined by the university,” the statement reads. “Indeed, she formed part of the team interview panel for every single press conference connected to the king.” The university added that it had offered to “help … establish the correct factual basis of the project that discovered and identified Richard III” during the film’s production, only to be refused. Langley and her colleagues at the Looking for Richard Project responded with an online FAQ addressing the points raised by the university.
Speaking with Smithsonian magazine, Langley says:
I’m not a professor. I’m not a doctor. And yes, I’m female, and yes, I’m a Ricardian, so I have revisionist views of Richard III. I think if I was doing the dig now, quite a few of the people that I dealt with … would be more aware of how they spoke and what they actually said. Because a lot of the things they said, they probably thought, “I’m being very nice here.” But they were actually being really patronizing and condescending.
Author Mike Pitts arguably puts forth the most balanced, unbiased account of the discovery in his book Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King. He asserts that Langley and the university began the excavation with different goals. While Langley hoped to find the king’s grave, the University of Leicester Archaeological Services was more interested in locating Grey Friars, the Franciscan friary where Richard was reportedly buried. In the field of archaeology, “you don’t set out to go and dig up a named individual,” lead archaeologist Richard Buckley told Pitts. “What we were really interested in was working on sites that tell us about the ordinary population. Or elucidating the plans of buildings.”
Nevertheless, Pitts tells Smithsonian he believes Langley “was the reason the excavation took place. It wouldn’t have occurred to any of the archaeologists to embark on this search in the past.” Once the dig started, however, he thinks Langley’s status as a “non-archaeologist” put her on the outside, looking in on the English king she so admires to this day.
Who was Richard III?
When Richard was born in October 1452, few could have anticipated the level of interest he’d attract. The 11th of 12 children of Richard, Third Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, he was the youngest of six to survive to adulthood. His father was the preeminent member of the House of York, one of two rival branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty (along with the House of Lancaster). The duke was a driving force in the early years of the Wars of the Roses, a period of violent struggle between the Yorkists and Lancastrians.
During Richard’s childhood, his father and other nobles became increasingly disillusioned with the leadership of Henry VI, a Lancastrian whose poor judgment and mental instability resulted in the loss of French lands won by his predecessor and father, Henry V. Tensions between the factions culminated in the outbreak of civil war in May 1455, with York seeking to oust Henry VI and his strong-willed wife, Margaret of Anjou, from power.
The biographer Lewis traces a formative moment for the young Richard to October 1459. At age 7, he watched his father and two eldest brothers prepare for battle, only to flee after realizing they were certain to lose. Richard, his mother and his older brother George were left behind, escaping the incident unscathed but likely traumatized by the pillaging that took place around them.
“How does a 7-year-old boy rationalize the fact that all of the men in his life have just abandoned him to face this army?” Lewis asks. “It must have left a mark on him and made him wonder about how [to] make yourself secure. How do you ensure your security [when] it can be taken away so quickly?”
The next two years saw the House of York’s fortunes rise and fall, reaching a low point with the battlefield deaths of Richard’s father and brother in December 1460 and peaking with his oldest brother Edward’s victory—and subsequent seizure of the throne—at the Battle of Towton in March 1461. Richard, who’d been sent away for his safety following his father’s death, returned from exile in time for Edward’s coronation. Elevated to the title of Duke of Gloucester, Richard was now second in line to the throne, after his brother George.
The beginning of Edward’s reign was relatively peaceful, with the young king, who ascended to the throne at age 18, leaving the business of governance to his mentor and cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. After Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight, in 1464, Warwick lost much of his influence and power, as the queen was eager to use her new position to promote her many relatives.
In the summer of 1469, Warwick staged a rebellion against Edward, launching a new period of unrest. Though Warwick initially hoped to install George on the throne, this plan failed, and he was forced to seek an alliance with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou, and her teenage son, Edward of Westminster.
Warwick and Margaret briefly restored her husband, Henry VI, to the throne, forcing Edward to seek refuge in Burgundy. Seventeen-year-old Richard accompanied the king, making what Lewis views as a “slightly tricky decision” between supporting Warwick and George, the brother he was closest to in age, or Edward, “a father figure who’d provided [him] with all of the security” he’d enjoyed for the past ten years.
On April 14, 1471, the three brothers York (George had returned to the fold after realizing Warwick couldn’t make him king) fought alongside each other for the first time at the Battle of Barnet. Their armies emerged victorious, killing Warwick and leaving Margaret as the sole champion of the Lancastrian cause; the death of Edward of Westminster a few weeks later, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, sealed the Lancastrians’ fate. Upon his return to London, Edward likely ordered the murder of Henry VI (the official explanation was that he died “of melancholy”), eliminating the last major Lancastrian rival for the crown and effectively ending the second phase of the Wars of the Roses.
It was during these battles that Richard developed a reputation for battlefield prowess that would endure until his defeat at Bosworth in 1485. In 1472, he married Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville, and began a distinguished career as a leading member of the nobility, rewarded for his loyalty to Edward with land and power in the north of England. “Richard was everything … a king [would] want in one of his great magnates,” says Henry VII chronicler Amin. “He was loyal, [and] he was dependable.”
In contrast, Amin adds, George, who was executed for treason in 1478, was “pretty much the opposite of Richard. He was untrustworthy. He was ambitious beyond measure.”
During this period, Richard was “clearly viewed as someone who is a good lord [and] military leader … and a competent nobleman able to rule vast swaths of land,” says Lewis.
How did Richard take the throne?
On April 9, 1483, Edward died at age 40. He’d fallen ill unexpectedly but lived long enough to add a provision to his will naming Richard as lord protector, charged with overseeing the government on behalf of the new king, 12-year-old Edward V. Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, strongly objected to Richard’s appointment, preferring her brother Anthony Woodville, Second Earl Rivers, for the role. But the dying king ignored this suggestion, perhaps realizing the Woodvilles’ social-climbing ways had alienated other prominent members of the nobility.
Exactly what happened in the months that followed is subject to much debate, in part because many of the contemporary sources were destroyed; almost all of the information available comes from later accounts. This is when “it all gets kind of murky, and [your view] relies entirely on a subjective assessment of Richard,” says Lewis, a proud supporter of Richard, or Ricardian, who currently serves as chair of the Richard III Society. “[You’re] always going to rely on what you already think of Richard when you try and work out what he’s doing … in 1483.”
These are the facts. On April 29, nearly three weeks after Edward IV’s death, Richard dined with Anthony Woodville, who’d spent the past decade preparing his young nephew Edward for his eventual reign, and the king’s half-brother Richard Grey. The next morning, Richard ordered Anthony’s and Grey’s arrest and imprisonment. He then rode out to meet the adolescent king, whom he escorted into London in early May.
As the dowager queen Elizabeth sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, frightened by news of the arrests, Richard placed Edward in the Tower of London, where English monarchs traditionally stayed before their coronations. He secured the protectorate for himself and delayed Edward’s planned coronation, capping this rapid succession of events with the arrest and execution of Edward IV’s close friend William Hastings on June 13.
It’s possible Richard had by now decided to take the crown for himself as a way of neutralizing the Woodville threat. Indeed, the most commonly cited explanation for Hastings’ beheading is that he became aware of Richard’s planned usurpation, which he disapproved of as a loyal supporter of the king, if not the dowager queen and her family.
A few days after Hastings’ execution, Richard pressured Elizabeth to relinquish her younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury, and allow him to join the king in the Tower. On June 22, the date originally slated for Edward’s coronation, the canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral preached a sermon declaring the king and his siblings illegitimate. He claimed that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth was bigamous, as Edward had already been contracted to another woman at the time of their union. On June 26, an assembly of English lords and commoners petitioned Richard, now considered next in line to the throne, to accept the crown, which he did following a brief, symbolic hesitation.
Lewis notes that the bigamy charge against Edward IV, while widely said to be of dubious veracity, could hold some truth. The king was a notorious womanizer who had married in secret at least once, when he wed the dowager queen in 1464. Even if the precontract story was false, it might have seemed plausible to Richard and others in England.
Richard’s detractors maintain that he had long harbored ambitions of becoming king, plotting to seize the throne from the moment of his brother’s death, if not earlier. Both Lewis and Amin dispute this characterization, arguing that Richard backed himself into a corner while attempting to navigate the uncertainty of 1483. “Richard, for me, almost stumbles onto the throne,” says Amin. “Conspiracies and plots start to erupt and envelop him. It reaches the point where [his] only way out of this position of weakness, essentially, is to make himself king.”
What happened to the Princes in the Tower?
Of the charges leveled against Richard, the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, is the most serious. After the summer of 1483, the princes were never seen in public again, raising fears they’d been killed by an unknown individual.
Amin and Lewis disagree on Richard’s guilt, though both emphasize that historians have no way of definitively determining the princes’ fate. Only one historical account, written by Italian monk Dominic Mancini in 1483, is contemporary; the rest date to the Tudor era, when chroniclers had a vested interest in legitimizing the current regime and defaming the previous king.
Having already declared the princes illegitimate, Richard paved the way for his ascent to the throne as Edward IV’s next legitimate heir. Because the princes were no longer eligible to inherit, they shouldn’t have posed a threat to the king. But as Amin says, “usurpers rarely reign easily. The mere fact that someone has taken the throne … demonstrates that the throne can be taken” again in the future.
Amin believes Richard ordered his nephews’ deaths to ensure the long-term security of his own son, Edward of Middleham. The historian adds, “I always say that for Richard to have been a good father, he had to be quite a ruthless uncle.” Even if the princes weren’t an immediate threat, it was entirely possible they’d revolt against Richard or his son in 20 years, or perhaps serve as rallying points for others acting on their behalf.
Lewis, meanwhile, says, “For me, the mistake is believing it’s a murder case rather than … a missing persons case.” Given Richard’s record of faithful service, Lewis finds it unlikely that his “first response to a crisis was to murder two young children, the sons of the brother” he’d been loyal to for all his life.
Lewis believes Richard separated the princes, sending Edward to the north of England and Richard of Shrewsbury to his aunt Margaret in Burgundy. The young Richard, he suggests, later resurfaced during the reign of Henry VII as Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne who claimed to have escaped the Tower after his brother’s murder.
Ultimately, in the absence of conclusive evidence either way, the fate of the Princes in the Tower remains unknown.
What happened during Richard’s reign?
After Richard took the throne, he and his queen, Anne Neville, embarked on a royal progress around England designed to legitimize their reign. At each stop on this journey, the king sought to increase his popularity by bestowing grants, repaying debts and refusing large monetary gifts. But he was dogged by rumors of the princes’ deaths and disapproval of his usurpation of Edward V’s crown.
In October 1483, an uprising supposedly led by Richard’s greatest ally, the Duke of Buckingham, further threatened the stability of his reign. The plot sought to place Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, on the throne, but it failed. The king, who declared Buckingham “the most untrue creature living,” ordered the duke’s execution.
A few months later, the king convened his first and only Parliament. In addition to rewarding the men who had supported him during Buckingham’s rebellion and punishing those who had opposed him, Richard advanced a surprisingly progressive legislative agenda. He reformed the jury and bail systems to discourage bribery and corruption, created an early form of legal aid, and encouraged the courts to presume innocence before guilt.
“Throughout Richard’s time, in the north, we can see an interest in law and the application of justice,” Lewis says. “We see where he takes the side of someone lower down the social ladder against their superiors, which is quite a threatening thing to the status quo. … When Richard becomes king, he takes that attitude to the national stage,” earning the ire of the elite, “who don’t want things to change.”
According to Amin, early “1484 is Richard’s high point.” From April onward, his reign entered a low from which it would never recover. On April 9, Richard’s only child, Edward of Middleham, died suddenly at about age 10, leaving his parents “in a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief,” according to the late 15th-century Croyland Chronicle. With the succession in question, Richard’s position became even more precarious.
His wife died less than a year after their son, probably succumbing to tuberculosis. Even before her death, rumors had circulated that Richard wanted to replace Anne with a younger, more fertile wife who could provide him with a male heir. The king’s detractors suggested he hoped to marry his niece Elizabeth of York, but no evidence of such an arrangement exists. Instead, Richard sought a marriage alliance with Portugal, proposing unions between himself and the princess Joana, and between Elizabeth of York and the future Manuel I.
Neither of these Portuguese marriages came to fruition, as Richard was soon distracted by reports of Henry Tudor’s planned invasion of England. The nephew of deposed Lancastrian king Henry VI, the younger Henry had spent much of his life in exile in Brittany, his tenuous claim to the crown relentlessly pursued by his mother, Margaret Beaufort. In the aftermath of Buckingham’s rebellion, Henry had pledged to marry Elizabeth of York, thereby uniting the warring houses of Lancaster and York, but he was unable to fulfill this promise while his wife-to-be remained at Richard’s court.
Henry’s bid for the crown was “almost like his last throw of the dice,” Amin says. “He has nothing going for him in exile. He has no money, no wife, no family.” If Henry lost to Richard, he’d likely be executed for treason. But in the unlikely event he won, he’d be able to claim the throne against all odds.
Richard’s army met Henry’s band of mercenaries at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. The king had more military experience and the tactical advantage of superior numbers, but the tide of battle shifted after William Stanley, brother of Henry’s stepfather Thomas Stanley, joined the fray on the Lancastrian side. (Though Richard was holding Thomas’ eldest son hostage to ensure his compliance, Thomas and William ultimately decided to break with Richard and throw their lot in with Henry.)
Multiple near-contemporary or 16th-century accounts testify to Richard’s fatal bravery on the battlefield. Polydore Vergil, by no means sympathetic to Richard, for instance, wrote in the early 1500s that the king refused to flee, even as his supporters urged him to. “Richard, who knew that the people were hostile to him, cast aside all hope for the future that would come after this,” Vergil noted, “and is said to have replied that on that day he would make an end either of wars or of his life, such was the great boldness and great force of spirit in him.”
Richard continued “fighting in the thickest press of the enemy” until he was finally cut down, according to Vergil. With his death, the Plantagenet dynasty’s 331 years in power came to an abrupt end, as Henry Tudor, “the unlikeliest king to ever have ruled England,” in Amin’s words, fulfilled his mother’s long-standing ambitions and ascended to the throne.
Historical records indicated the king was buried in Grey Friars after the Battle of Bosworth, but the friary’s exact location—and, by extension, that of Richard’s grave—was lost during the English Reformation in the mid-16th century.
How has Richard’s reputation evolved over the centuries?
One of Henry VII’s first acts as king was the repeal of Titulus Regius, the document that declared Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s children illegitimate. (Henry ordered all copies of Titulus Regius destroyed, but the original version survived and was made public in 1611.) In doing so, Henry cast doubt on Richard’s claim to the throne and strengthened his own hold on power by legitimizing his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth of York. If the Princes in the Tower were dead, as was widely believed at the time, then Elizabeth should have been next in line to the throne. But she was a woman and therefore viewed as unfit to rule in her own right, so her inheritance fell to her husband.
Henry spent the first 14 years of his reign consolidating power. He’d learned from the mistakes made by his predecessors, chief among them allowing the nobility to gain unchecked power, and he sought to stem the elite’s influence by “outlawing private armies and taking their money,” says Amin. “Henry Tudor becomes too rich, too powerful to be kicked off his throne.”
Another way in which Henry VII and his Tudor successors legitimized their nascent dynasty was propaganda, whether in the form of art, literature or commissioned chronicles. It was under the Tudors that Richard’s dark reputation took shape, with writers from Shakespeare to Vergil to Raphael Holinshed blackening his name and suggesting he had a hunched back at a time when “physical disabilities were often equated with corruption of the soul,” says Lewis.
These sources held sway for centuries, even as individuals like George Buck in 1619, Horace Walpole in 1768 and Clements Markham in 1906 published dissenting views. In the past century or so, the Richard III Society, founded in 1924 to promote reassessments of the king’s life, and Josephine Tey’s 1951 mystery novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a retired detective embarks on a quest to exonerate Richard of his nephews’ murders, have fostered a more sympathetic view.
“That tension and that juxtaposition, that swinging back and forth of [Richard’s] reputation, has gone on for 400 years now,” says Lewis. “Sometimes it seems to be recovering, and then it gets knocked down again.”
How were Richard’s remains uncovered?
The 21st-century resurgence of interest in Richard owes much to the discovery of his remains in 2012. Langley, who was the driving force behind the search, traces her interest in the project to 2004, when she “had this intuitive experience by the letter ‘R’ [in a parking lot], where I felt I was standing on Richard’s grave.” A screenwriter from Edinburgh, she’d been researching the king since 1998, when she read a sympathetic biography of him. Up to that point, she’d been focused on Richard’s life, but after the moment in the parking lot, she shifted gears to his death and burial.
Langley wasn’t the first to identify the parking lot as the likely location of Grey Friars. Building on the work of previous scholars, she teamed up with historian John Ashdown-Hill, who’d found a direct descendant of Richard’s sister Anne, meaning any bones unearthed during a dig could be positively identified through DNA analysis. Langley approached the University of Leicester in 2011, and excavations began on August 25, 2012, after several exploratory assessments and fundraising campaigns.
“It’s almost impossible to list the number of coincidences and chances that came together to produce the result that was achieved,” says Pitts, author of Digging for Richard III. “On the day of the setting out of the trench, Matthew [Morris] looked across the carpark and [saw] a big white line down the middle. He used that to align his trench, [so] if that line had been a meter to one side, they would’ve missed the grave, and we would be none the wiser.”
Within a few hours of starting the dig, archaeologists uncovered human remains. Initially, osteologist Jo Appleby told Langley the bones probably belonged to a young man, perhaps “a well-nourished friar.” She started thinking differently, however, after realizing the skeleton had a curved spine—a condition that seemingly supported Shakespeare’s physical description of Richard. (Later tests indicated the king had scoliosis, which would have made his right shoulder rest slightly higher than his left but wouldn’t have reduced his lung capacity or made him walk with an overt limp.)
Finding the bones was just one step in the broader project of uncovering and identifying Richard’s remains. The Lost King skips over the second half of this process, jumping from the dig to a press conference announcing the discovery. “Between those two things was a massive amount of scientific study and debate and discussion among the team,” says Pitts. Contrary to the film’s depiction of events, much of this analysis was spearheaded by women, including Appleby, geneticist Turi King and archaeologist Lin Foxhall.
“The work doesn’t stop once the excavation is done,” King says. “The remains then [needed] to be identified, and this took months and months of work. Indeed, [the bones’] reinterment as Richard III”—which took place at Leicester Cathedral in March 2015, after a lengthy debate over where to rebury the king—“rested on the results of that analysis.”
According to Pitts, “It’s extraordinarily rare for archaeologists to excavate known individuals,” especially from the medieval era. Because Richard’s life is so well documented, the university team was able to compare insights garnered from his remains with the historical record.
In many cases, the findings lined up: For instance, the king’s bones showed evidence of 11 injuries sustained around the time of death, at least three of which would have been fatal. The sheer intensity of the assault supports accounts of Richard’s valiant final stand at the Battle of Bosworth. John Rous of Warwick, writing in the late 15th century, deemed the king the Antichrist, but even he admitted that Richard, “though small in body and feeble of limb, … bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath.”