Rare Richard III play on display in Northampton

A rare early copy of a play about Northamptonshire-born monarch Richard III can be viewed at Northamptonshire County Council’s record office.

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

Customer access supervisor Scott Pettitt 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 all know to be accurate.”

Composed in Latin it was first performed in 1580 at St John’s College, Cambridge. It’s author Thomas Legge was then Master of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge and subsequently vice-chancellor of the University.

Cabinet member for customers and communities councillor Heather Smith said: “There are only 11 known manuscripts copies of the play in the world and ours is one of the earliest version transcribed. Most of the remaining copies are in academic ownership so it is 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 NCC and cared for by the Northamptonshire Record Office.

Dr Wiggins believes that the Northamptonshire example was transcribed at some point 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 of England for two years, from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Northamptonshire County Council’s Record Office preserves and makes accessible over 800 years of the county’s rich archival heritage.

Information about visiting the record office, including opening hours, location and guidelines for accessing records, can be found on the council’s website at NCC