While reading up on Richard III I came across a theory that explains Richard’s sudden change in personality and ruthlessness. I had initially thought the theory far-fetched – if not down-right ludicrous – but recent revelations in the media, regarding Richard’s appearance, and the likelihood that the brothers looked more alike than previously thought, gave me cause to reconsider.
It is well known how difficult it was to identify people in the Fifteenth Century – even relatives. Every now and then someone would come out of the woodwork, claiming to be Prince What’s-his-name or King So-and-So. Without photographs as reference you could never be certain who was who. Murdered kings could allegedly survive long past their death dates and you could never be sure that missing Princes were actually dead.
This theory relies on the problems of misidentification and the age-old tradition of covering up one’s mistakes. Who wouldn’t cover up their mistakes if the consequence of someone finding out meant you ended up dead?
In 1478 Edward IV ordered the execution of his brother George, Duke of Clarence. On the evening of the planned execution Edward’s other brother, the loyal and faithful Richard, Duke of Gloucester, visited his condemned sibling in his cell. Just as Richard was saying ‘goodbye’ to George, the executioner came for his victim.
The executioner was very eager to get the job done – I looked into this executioner and it appears that this was his first execution and he was very excited. He had only been in the job for days – arriving from the wilds of Norfolk in search of his fortune. He was eager to prove himself and none of the regular executioners were volunteering to despatch the king’s brother – or maybe they ‘volunteered’ the new guy as a way of him proving himself. Either way, our executioner wasn’t exactly up to speed on who was who in the court of Edward IV and a case of mistaken identity is totally understandable.
He saw the two brothers embracing; one looking miserable, scared and like he was about to die while the other seemed to be trying to keep his brother’s spirits up. The executioner grabbed the miserable-looking one, dragged him away and threw him in the nearest barrel of wine.
On dragging the unfortunate Duke out of the barrel, a passing guard pointed out the executioner’s error – he’d killed the wrong brother. It seems the executioner and guard then ran back to Clarence’s cell to discover George sat on his bed, waiting. George wasted no time in pointing out to the two unfortunates that the King would be most distressed to discover they had killed his favourite brother instead of the treasonous one. It seems that Clarence came up with a plan.
He agreed not to expose the mistake and take the role of his accidentally-dead brother. He knew that if he headed up to Yorkshire for a few years, and stayed away from court (pretending to be vexed at his brother’s execution), then by the time he next came to court, people would barely recognise him. He wasn’t worried about Richard’s wife – he knew that as she was so meek, mild-mannered and dutiful, she would agree to do whatever she was told. As a result, Clarence left the Tower a free man, but now as Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
He stayed out of trouble for a few years and ran the North efficiently; however his true, dastardly-devious colours resurfaced in 1483, when Edward IV died and George just couldn’t resist the chance to claim the throne. He made straight for London, joined up with Edward V on the way, arrested the first Woodvilles he met and imprisoned the young King in the Tower – killing him and his brother a few months later. And whilst it is hard to believe that Richard would execute a man without trial – Hastings – it is not so unbelievable for George.
And this is how Richard of Gloucester is accused of crimes that only his brother, Clarence, would have dreamed up.
About the author: Jeff R Sun is a dedicated Ricardian, whose life-long aim has been to write the wrongs done to Richard III and to rehabilitate the great king’s reputation.
Sources: A. Weir, The Princes in the Tower; T. Deary, Measly Middle Ages, J. Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses; Wikipedia; A.J. Pollard, The Worlds of Richard III; A. Weir, Lancaster & York; D. Baldwin, Edward V.