Rare manuscript of pre-Shakespearean play about Richard III is owned by Northamptonshire County Council

Richard III
Richard III

A rare early copy of a play about Northamptonshire-born monarch Richard III can be viewed at the county council’s record office at Wootton Hall.

The council owns one of only 11 known manuscript copies of the play, Ricardus Tertius by Thomas Legge, which pre-dates Shakespeare’s representation of Richard III by a decade and is credited with influencing the development of English historical drama

Scott Pettitt, customer access supervisor at the records office, said: “The play recounts the rise and fall of Richard III. It marks a seminal moment in the development of English drama. The work is believed to be the first recorded play to be written in England to use English history as its subject matter.

“Interestingly, Legge’s Richard III is a somewhat different character to Shakespeare’s. Though irredeemably evil, he is a more subtle and complex figure. He also has none of the physical deformities Shakespeare attributes to his Richard which we now know to be accurate.”

In 1900, literary historian George B. Churchill described the play as “turning drama in England in an entirely new direction”.

Composed in Latin, it was first performed in 1580 at St. John’s College, Cambridge where its author, Thomas Legge, was then Master of Gonville and Caius College.

Cabinet member for customers and communities Councillor Heather Smith said: “Most of the remaining copies are in academic ownership so it’s really very exciting that Northamptonshire can lay claim to one in public ownership and any member of the public can see it at our record office.”

Dr Martin Wiggins of Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute has identified the three earliest, and therefore contemporary with Legge’s lifetime, examples of the manuscript as being held at Clare College, Cambridge, the Huntingdon Library, California and that owned by Northamptonshire County Council and cared for by the Northamptonshire Record Office.

Dr Wiggins believes the Northamptonshire example was transcribed between 1579 and 1591 and presented to the courtier and politician Sir Christopher Hatton of Holdenby, Elizabeth I’s Lord Chancellor.

Born in Fotheringhay Castle, Richard III was king from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth. The remains of Richard III, who was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, were finally uncovered last autumn below a car park in Leicester city centre.

He is due to be re-buried in the city later this year.

Information about visiting the record office, including opening hours, location and guidelines for accessing records, can be found on the council’s website at www.northamptonshire.gov.uk/en/councilservices/Community/archives/Pages/Visiting-the-Record-Office.aspx