A house, as the timeworn maxim states, is not always a home. For millennia, ruling families spared no expense on their vast dwellings, but these sovereign clans sought their true refuge in structures of another kind. Scrupulously balanced alliances and meticulously arranged marriages offered princes and their progeny the surest shelter from the political tempests that raged about them. Royal houses divided, after all, do not stand—a fact vividly illustrated by one of history’s most fabled dynasties, the House of Plantagenet, whose 530-year-old fate recently resurfaced in headlines when researchers announced that the mangled skull and bones discovered last August beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, were indeed the long-missing remains of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, who was slain at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
The antecedents of this famous figure came to power through Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, who married Geoffrey Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou. Their descendants unified England’s feudal populace, established English as the official language, and—always avid builders—erected such architectural masterworks as Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey. The family flowered until 1455, when the War of the Roses—a three-decade battle for the crown between the offspring of two of Edward III’s sons: John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and Edmund, the Duke of York—nipped its unity in the bud. Richard III (pictured), a great-grandson of Edmund of York, in attempting to preserve Plantagenet rule under his aegis instead left his house down in royal ruins.
“I am determined to prove a villain,” announces William Shakespeare’s fictional monarch, who, in the opening act of The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, establishes our abiding image of the scheming hunchback driven by untethered ambition to seize the crown of his elder brother Edward IV. During the course of the play, Richard makes good on his promise to be “subtle, false, and treacherous.” He has his brother George, the Duke of Clarence, stabbed and then drowned in a cask of malmsey. He then seduces and marries Anne Neville, whose husband, Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales, he eliminates on the battlefield at Tewkesbury, and whose father-in-law, the Lancastrian king Henry VI, he murders in the Tower of London. Upon the sudden death of Edward IV, Richard has his young nephews, Edward V and Richard of York, declared illegitimate and imprisoned in the Tower, where they too are assassinated. Once crowned, he poisons his wife Anne, intending to marry his niece, Edward IV’s daughter, to strengthen his claim.
This blood-soaked portrait was drawn from contemporary sources, but most modern historians regard the last Plantagenet in a less incarnadine light. Fifteenth-century accounts, after all, were heavily skewed to serve the political interests of Richard’s Tudor successors. The Lancastrian Henry VII—who laid his loose claim to the throne through ties to the wife of Henry V, not to the king himself—encouraged any propaganda that vilified his predecessor, and many of Richard’s high crimes have since been called into question. If his brother George, for example, drowned in a vat of wine, it was not on Richard’s orders but on those of Edward IV, whom the duke had betrayed by briefly siding with the Lancastrians. Although Edward of Westminster certainly died at Tewkesbury, no evidence suggests that Richard was the perpetrator, and in Henry IV, Part 3, even Shakespeare contradicts the version of events given in his earlier play, depicting the young prince’s death at the hands of all three brothers—Edward, George, and Richard. And despite the rumors that her husband poisoned her, Anne Neville most likely succumbed to disease—a position supported by the Croyland Chronicle, which records that physicians in attendance warned the king against contagion.
Whatever his true nature may have been, Richard most certainly pledged himself to the preservation of the House of Plantagenet, whose reign saw the birth of the Magna Carta and, under Richard, the expansion of legal rights for commoners. Yet ironically, even had Richard not been defeated by his Tudor foe, the line likely would have ended. His son with Anne died at the age of 10, and his two known illegitimate children perished in captivity under Henry VII. Indeed, only one dim figure stood standing amid the rubble of Richard’s house: In 1546, an obscure bricklayer also named Richard alleged that, just before the fateful battle, a gentleman brought him to Bosworth, where the soon-to-be-slaughtered king acknowledged him as his child. This last Plantagenet builder lived to the very ripe old age of 81.