Stephen Frees film release The lost king focuses once again on one of the most controversial figures in English history: King Richard III. The film is a compelling account of the struggle of a woman named Philip Langley to find the tomb of a 15th century king, which is eventually found under a car park in Leicester.

Why does a king who died more than half a millennium ago continue to arouse such interest? And why does this story about an (un)ordinary woman who seeks to recover his remains – overcoming massive battalions of academic orthodoxy on her way – cause us such admiration? To understand, we need to know something of late medieval history and more about modern Britain.

Richard III was on the throne for only two years, but it was a controversial reign that cemented itself in the public consciousness for one main reason: he usurped the crown from his infant nephew, Edward V. Condemned as illegitimate shortly after ascending the throne in 1483, Edward and his brother Richard – “the princes in the tower” – soon disappeared.

The guilt or innocence of Richard in the fate of the princes is especially important here – perhaps the biggest case of missing persons in the history of Britain. This is my last area research considers.

The first to admit concrete responsibility for the disappearance – and death – of the two princes was an outstanding jurist, philosopher, politician and Roman Catholic saint. Sir Thomas More. More’s account, written some 30 years after Richard’s death, has been treated with varying degrees of skepticism over the past 150 years.

Richard’s defenders denounced it as “Tudor propaganda” concocted years after the event to smear the king’s reputation. Others have focused on the political philosophy in More’s work as a metaphorical warning about tyranny and its dangers.

On the one hand, Freers’ film is about a passion for the past and a defense of those who have brutally maligned the official historical record – a role that Richard plays well. There are those who believe that the king who died fighting bravely for his cause against Henry Tudor during War of the Roses, was falsely accused of murdering the young princes. There is something peculiarly and poignantly British about this preoccupation with the outsider in history.

Looking at the evidence

My research reinforces the importance of More’s ‘orthodox’ explanation of Richard’s guilt, which was subsequently widely circulated William Shakespeare a century after the king’s death.

By focusing on the connections and continuities between More’s world and the England of 1483 he writes about, my research demonstrates that he was not only writing great literature and political philosophy, but also about real people.

More’s story provides accurate, circumstantial details of the pivotal moment of the succession crisis in 1483. It is striking in that it centered on several individuals who were still alive at the time of writing – the survivors and their next of kin. So history deserves to be taken more seriously as history rather than propaganda, imagination or theory.

Freez’s film captures an important contemporary tension between amateurs and enthusiasts on the one hand, and professional expertise on the other. The film makes a compelling message that ordinary members of the public can confound academic experts and overturn orthodoxy.

Richard is an unusual king. He may be accused of murder and tyranny, but he is also one of the few monarchs who has a society dedicated to enhancing his reputation. The Society of Richard III has over 3,200 members and 30 groups in the UK, with branches in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the USA.

Richard III and Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Classic Image / Alamy

Challenges of history

But what is the appeal and why such a determination to acquit him of the alleged wrongdoing? Some explanations lie in the fact that the death of Richard in the battle of Bosworth in 1485 effectively marked the end of the Wars of the Roses – when power changed hands – and is often used to mark a key transition between the Middle Ages and the modern period.

Richard thus represents the last flourishing of the Middle Ages, which from the late 18th century onwards became increasingly mythologised and admired, whether in novels Sir Walter Scottart and craft of William Morrisarchitecture c August Pugin or music Ralph Vaughan Williams.

His time in the north of England, before he came to the throne, and his ostentatious celebrating these connections once he became king would also for some make him the defender of the north against the south – an increasingly important topic in modern debates in the 20th century and today.

It is not surprising that so many contributions to the study of Richard’s life and reign have occurred in dialogue between people within and outside the conventional boundaries of medieval history.

A key example is Elizabeth Mackintosh’s enduringly popular 1951 novel. Daughter of time (written as Josephine Tay), in which a police inspector works through a sequence of historical “clues” to exonerate Richard as the prime suspect in the princes’ disappearance. The writer also enjoyed great success with her play “Richard Bardosky” in 1932.

Richard III's tomb in Leicester Cathedral.
Richard’s remains were finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.
Ian Dagnall / Alamy

In the 1950s, Laurence Olivier the still famous film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III did his best in the prologue to identify his story as legend, strongly implying that the play’s condemnation of Richard should not be taken as a true picture of the real king. Like McIntosh/Tay, the film’s authors do not come from the traditional historical establishment.

The Lost King marks another example of this creative dialogue. As always, Richard’s appeal is heightened by his involvement in the central mystery of his reign and the fate of the princes in the Tower. The perception of this mystery carries a strong allure of hidden knowledge and access to long-hidden truths. This attraction was very clearly seen in the popularity of Dan Brown Da Vinci Code.

A significant feature of this phenomenon is that the “truth” is more likely to be accessed through research that operates outside traditional orthodoxy and perhaps by the common man or commoner, as seen in The Lost King. And so, even as archival research, archeology and forensics open up more possibilities for our understanding of Richard and his times, he will remain the most controversial monarch in our history.