So, given Shakespeare’s inaccuracies in Richard the Third, it’s interesting to look at what he used as sources for his version of “history” (more interesting, still, since the full title is The Tragedy of Richard the Third).
According to popular criticism, Shakespeare used Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland throughout his history plays. Holinshed was only one of a three main authors of the work (the other two being William Harrison and Richard Stanyhurst), and their work was first printed in 1577, more than fifteen years before the composition of Richard the Third.
Beyond Holinshed’s history, it appears that Shakespeare might have also used Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York; Hall’s work also appears to be Hollinshed’s main source, as well.
But unlike the other plays in the tetralogy, there seems to be another work at work here as a source: Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard the Thirde, published in 1513. Now, remember More was a personal advisor to Henry VIII, so you’d have to figure that Sir Thomas would not have a flattering portrayal of the king, er, tyrant, his boss Henry’s dad (Richmond) conquered.
In addition, More was all of seven years old when Richard was defeated by Richmond, so the question then becomes “Who was More’s source?” Many scholars believe that the basis for More’s history was one John Morton, in whose home More was a page during his childhood. Morton was an English clergyman and a Lancastrian who became an ambassador to France under Edward IV, and was then promoted by Henry VII to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 (one year after Richard’s defeat) and then to Lord Chancellor in 1487.
Morton was part of the negotiating party that was sent by Edward IV to France to work out a settlement after the abortive 1475 invasion of France. The negotiated Treaty of Picquigny basically purchased English retreat with wine, gold, taking old Queen Margaret off the Yorkists’ hands, and yearly pensions to members of the royal family. Richard was one of the few nobles who protested the treaty.
Sooooo… we have a Lancastrian who had a bone to pick with Richard (because of his stance on the treaty Morton had negotiated), so it’s no wonder that Morton performed the historical hatchet job on Richard (for example, there was absolutely NO contemporary record of Richard being a hunchback with a withered arm until Morton… in fact, the most accepted story of Richard’s “hunchback” is that during military training he so over-trained the right side of his body that the musculature seemed larger than the left side, thus the relatively larger muscle between the shoulder and the neck, and the bigger right arm).
Interesting, too, is that John Morton appears in the play Richard the Third.
John Morton is the Bishop of Ely. According to More’s text, Morton and Stanley were arrested with Hastings, but were later released to house arrest at Buckingham’s castle (in the play, their arrest is not depicted, but they do turn on Richard as part of Margaret’s Curse #9).
Shakespeare makes no reference to Ely the historian. He may not even have been aware of Ely’s connection to the source of his historical distortion. Regardless, the Bishop of Ely would come to haunt Richard’s reputation long after the king’s death. The hunchback who killed the princes in the Tower is what most people know of Richard… even when historically, this has been fairly thoroughly debunked.
Tell a lie long enough, and it becomes the truth.