Historian Desmond Seward explains in the introduction of Richard III that there are two views of Richard. He calls them the black legend—the traditional view—and the white legend—the notion that Richard’s reputation was blackened by the Tudors after Bosworth Field. This theory was first put forward by Horace Walpole in the 18th century and is famously supported by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. The Richard III Society has even claimed that Richard was not a hunchback, which claim was proved false by the recent discovery of his bones.
Seward’s view is that of the black legend, that Richard was a ruthless man who committed many dark deeds, including killing the princes in the Tower. Richard III is an interesting biography of Richard, based on what is known of his life. There are few of his own writings to base it on, unfortunately, because Richard was not much of a writer, a situation common to nobility of his time.
Of course, Richard’s entire life was lived during the turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses. England experienced little peace during this period, and what little there was occurred during the reign of Edward IV, Richard’s older brother. This peace was marred mostly by the rapacious behavior of the Woodvilles, Edward’s in-laws, and that of the Duke of Clarence, his erratic brother. However, that peace was destroyed by Edward’s early death, which plunged the country into another succession crisis because the prince was only 12 or 13 years old. The last time a young prince had become king, Henry VI, was disastrous for the country.
My own impression from reading this book is that Seward invariably looks at the darkest interpretation of events. I guess you could call me of the dark gray school. Certainly, the murders of the princes in the Tower was a shocking event, viewed with horror during its time and since, and there seems little doubt that Richard ordered the murders. Still, the situation for Richard was difficult. In doing his duty by his nephew, he faced the prospect of at least six years of an unstable regime with continual battles for power with the Woodvilles. This is not to excuse his actions, but it is possible to view them as an attempt to maintain stability in the realm, and that’s probably how he explained them to himself. Instead, the result was to almost completely exterminate the Plantagenet family.