The Black Adder: Truth Vs Fiction

The first series of the great historical sitcom takes us back to the Wars of the Roses – but just how does the world of Prince Edmund stack up against reality?

The Black Adder


IN THE SHOW: Far from being the devilish, power-mad despot of legend, Richard III is presented as a jovial monarch and family man who dotes on his nephews.

IN REALITY: Some historians claim Richard's reputation was deliberately twisted and tarnished by pro-Tudor propaganda. Exhibit A being Shakespeare's play Richard III, which cemented the popular image of Richard as a cackling, deformed beast of a man who slaughtered his way to supremacy. Shakespeare wrote the play during the reign of Elizabeth I, whose grandfather Henry VII had defeated Richard III on the battlefield, so it's little wonder the Bard painted such a bleak portrait of the man.

That said, Richard III was heavily implicated in the deaths of the "Princes in the Tower" - his two young nephews who were locked away in the Tower of London and never seen again. According to the most commonly accepted version of events, Richard had the boys murdered to consolidate his own position as undisputed monarch. If true, it was a heinous crime even by the standards of that murky era.


IN THE SHOW: Played by a bellowing Brian Blessed, Richard IV is the grown-up nephew of Richard III, who becomes king after his uncle's unfortunate passing, and whose son happens to be Prince Edmund himself.

IN REALITY: This one's easy: there was no Richard IV. The entire character is a cheeky fabrication. While Richard III did indeed have a nephew called Richard, the poor lad was one of the fabled Princes of the Tower and never made it to adulthood, having presumably been killed under the orders of his uncle.

But what if we accept The Black Adder's version of Richard III as a sweet old uncle more fond of play fighting than evil skulduggery? Well, there's another problem. Even if young nephew Richard hadn't been killed in the Tower, he would only have been 12 years old during the timeline of the show, rather than a grizzled warrior with two grown-up sons of his own.


IN THE SHOW: Richard III easily wins the Battle of Bosworth Field, only to have his head lopped off by a blundering Prince Edmund.

IN REALITY: Not only did Richard III most certainly NOT win the Battle of Bosworth Field, but he died in the midst of the carnage, becoming the last British monarch to be killed in battle. Bosworth Field was a titanic confrontation between Richard III and his nemesis Henry Tudor, with many thousands of soldiers plunging into vicious fighting.

It's said that Richard himself fought with real bravery, with one contemporary writer saying that Richard "bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath". It's said that the man who dealt the death blow to Richard was a Welsh soldier named Rhys ap Thomas. If so, he is the man who helped usher in the Tudor dynasty, changing the course of British history.


IN THE SHOW: Quoting a former monarch, Richard IV yells "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest!", sending some knights on an errand to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury (who happens to be Prince Edmund).

IN REALITY: Well, seeing as there was no Richard IV, this is another merry moment of make-believe from the writers of the show. Of course, the phrase "who will rid me of this turbulent priest" does stem from a real-life incident. As Richard IV himself points out, he is echoing the cry of Henry II, whose fateful words led to the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The backstory to that incident is grandly tragic. Henry and Thomas had been the best of friends, and the king had deliberately installed Thomas as Archbishop to bolster his own influence on the church. Much to Henry's surprise, Thomas Becket took to his position with religious zeal, defying the pressure of the king, and the former friends became bitter rivals. But did Henry REALLY utter the words "who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" We'll never know for sure, and at least one account tells us that Henry actually said "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?" Powerful, if not quite as catchy...