John Rous (d. 1492), was a historian and chantry priest of Guy’s Cliffe in Warwickshire. In around 1480, he began work on Historia regum Angliae (History of the Kings of England), a general history of England intended to give Edward IV information about kings and high ranking clergy who might be commemorated with statues in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Rous didn’t finish the work until 1486 and so its composition stretched over the turbulent period of Edward IV’s death in 1483, the brief minority rule of Edward V, and the reign and bloody deposition of Richard III (d. 1485). The finished work was dedicated to Henry VII.Digitised here is an extract from an English manuscript (in Latin) of Rous’s Historia from the last quarter of the 15th century. The extract covers the period of Richard III’s protectorship and reign and is an about face from Rous’s complimentary writings on him that were composed while he was still King (see the Rous Roll).
The portrayal of Richard III
Richard III’s Tudor successors from Henry VII on had a vested interest in portraying him as a bad king to increase their own legitimacy as the line who deposed him. Although there is some balance to the Historia, with Rous praising Richard’s building works, founding of chantries and financial generosity with his people, Rous’s account is primarily anti-Ricardian propaganda looking to win favour with the current monarch, Henry VII. The stance may also have been influenced by the belief that Richard murdered his wife, Anne, as Rous was a strong admirer and supporter of the Neville family. Rous details a long list of murders and other injustices that Richard was accused of and compares Richard to the Antichrist. He is the first historian to focus attention onto Richard’s small size and his physical impairment (implicitly capitalising on medieval ideas that such things were a judgement from God and sign of evil). Rous also invents a legend of unnatural and monstrous birth. He writes:
Richard was born at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, retained within his mother’s womb for two years and emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders. … At his nativity Scorpio was in the ascendant, which is the sign of the house of Mars. And like a scorpion he combined a smooth front with a stinging tail. He received his lord King Edward V blandly, with embraces and kisses, and within about three months or a little more he killed him together with his brother. (f. 134v)
He was small of stature, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower. (f. 135r)
This King Richard, who was excessively cruel in his days, reigned for three years [sic] and a little more, in the way that Antichrist is to reign. And like the Antichrist to come, he was confounded at his moment of greatest pride. … For all that, let me say the truth to his credit: that he bore himself like a noble soldier and despite his little body and feeble strength, honourably defended himself to his last breath, shouting again and again that he was betrayed, and crying ‘Treason! Treason! Treason! (f. 137r)
Quoted from Alison Hanham, Richard III and his Early Historians, 1483–1535 (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1975), which contains a useful full-length translation of this extract from Cotton MS Vespasian A XII on Richard III’s reign.
- Full title:
- John Rous, Historia regum Anglie
- c. 1480–1500
- John Rous
- Usage terms:
The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.
- Held by:
- British Library
- Cotton MS Vespasian A XII
- Article by:
- Malcolm Hebron
- Language, word play and text, Power, politics and religion, Histories
Malcolm Hebron explains how Shakespeare drew on earlier depictions of Richard III and other ruthless rulers in order to create his own power-hungry king, and how Richard III has influenced later depictions of megalomania.
- Article by:
- Katherine Schaap Williams
- Histories, Power, politics and religion
In the Elizabethan period, disability was often viewed as a sign of moral impairment. Katherine Schaap Williams considers how Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III relates to both modern and medieval ideas of disability, as well as how the play's performance history complicates our understanding of Richard's body. She thereby reveals a richer and more complex reading of Richard as more than just a monstrous or moral example.