Thursday, September 13, 2012

My kingdom for a horse! Re-evaluating Richard III

The Princes in the Tower, by Sir John Millais.

With the earthly remains of England’s last Plantagenet king, Richard III, seemingly discovered underneath a parking lot in Leicester and discussions brewing on how or where to reinter them, whether or not to have a state ceremony, we have a good opportunity to re-evaluate the man’s legacy. Today, Richard III, or “Dickon” as some called him, is known for usurping the crown and having his royal nephews imprisoned and murdered in the Tower of London. Richard was then killed on the field of battle at Bosworth, paving the way for his rival, Henry Tudor, to become crowned Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Henry declared Richard to blame for the princes’ murders, and that was the end of the discussion.

The popular imagination on Richard has been informed almost entirely by Shakespeare’s play, which depicts him as a deformed hunchback with an insatiable thirst for acts of depravity. We can forgive the bard for taking artistic license, as being a propaganda minister for the Tudor dynasty was essentially in his job description. What’s more awkward is the fact that Shakespeare’s main source of inspiration was a work by my patron saint, Sir Thomas More, called The History of King Richard III (which you can read here). It was unfinished and never published, but on the surface, is a scathing attack on Richard’s brief reign. The History is definitely a product of the Renaissance: rather than dryly retell facts (or “facts”) as medieval chroniclers were wont to do, More revived a tradition of historiography founded by ancient Greeks and Romans such as Thucydides and Sallust. In this tradition, a Thucydidian historian is not concerned with presenting facts so much as he is with telling a moral story: how a civilization decays, and how to avoid the mistakes of fallen princes. It is as much drama as it is history, and the historian is expected to put full-blown speeches in the characters’ mouths at the appropriate times.

In this, More is a master storyteller, but it leaves the question of whether he intended it to be merely a story or not. For if it were intended to be a true retelling of history, and Richard III was not actually as bad a king as More suggests, then More was a Tudor propagandist of the highest degree, and therefore a liar. Sadly, a lot of “Ricardian” historians have, in fact, taken it upon themselves to absurdly slander the name of More in defense of Richard. But there is a third possibility: that More’s History is a satire. He was, after all, a master of wit, and his most famous book, Utopia, is an excellent example of the genre. This argument is made in chapter 12 of Jeremy Potter’s book, Good King Richard?: More Myth-making. Check it out here. It's definitely worth a read.

Henry VII, a royal jerk.
The points are these: first, that More had no reason to hate Richard. He was only seven years old during the Battle of Bosworth. In fact, Richard was known for his fairness in law even well into the Tudor years, and More, as a lawyer during the time he wrote the History, would no doubt have recognized that. On the contrary, More had a very good reason to despise Henry VII. In 1504, More was elected to Parliament. The same year, he led the opposition to one of King Henry’s bills which called for even more oppressive taxation. The bill didn’t pass, so Henry, in a fit of spite, sent More’s father, Sir John, to the Tower. More bailed his dad out for 100 pounds (which would be more like a hundred grand in today’s terms) and was expelled from Parliament until Henry VII’s death, so More wasn’t going to forget that anytime soon.

At the point where More would have to start writing at length about Henry VII’s deeds, he abandoned the work and left it unpublished. But the acts of tyranny that More placed on Richard III’s shoulders could easily be put on Henry as well. Potter argues that the History, in fact, makes Richard a safe stand-in for Henry. In any case, the whole History is an attack on tyranny itself, regardless of whether it comes from Plantagenet or Tudor hands. The most interesting observation I’ve seen so far about More’s History comes from this essay by Gerard Wegemer. He points out that no person in the city of London is called by More a “subject”. He invariably refers to them as “citizens” or “the people”. He refers to the aldermen of London as the “senate”, states that Parliament’s “authority in England is supreme and absolute”, and stresses how Richard needed to gain the support of the citizens of London because he required their consent to legitimately rule. I couldn’t stress enough how opposed this line of thought is to the entire Tudor line’s record of wholesale oppression and top-down authoritarian decrees. I suspect that when Henry VII’s mad son finally sent More to the chopping block, More was relieved to be free of the Tudor kings’ lunacies once and for all.

The Battle of Bosworth
As for what to do with Richard III’s remains, now that we (probably) have them… some Englishmen are saying he should be given a state burial at Westminster Abbey! Others, such as this blogger, say that as a Yorkist, he should be buried in the north at Leicester Cathedral. Though he was a king, perhaps even a decent one in some ways, I’m not sure he deserves a state funeral. Even if we could prove that Richard didn’t murder the princes in the Tower, they were still his responsibility to protect. Children, especially princes of royal blood, don’t just disappear from the Tower of London. And Richard didn’t do much to deny his involvement in their disappearance, either. 

What he does deserve, more than honors or scorn, is prayer. Richard’s body, after Bosworth, was originally taken in by some Franciscan friars and interred in one of their crypts. A perfect example of Christian mercy for a disgraced man. Here's something that none of the columnists and commenters have pointed out so far: Richard Plantagenet died in the faith of the Roman Church. It would be fitting if, rather than be taken in by Anglicans of any sort, his body were given to the care of some modern Franciscans or other monks and reinterred with a traditional Requiem Mass for the repose of his soul. In fact, I’m going to write to a number of Latin Mass communities in England and see if I can get a petition going.

Illustration of a Requiem Mass by Augustus Pugin.

And just for fun, watch this clip from the 1995 movie adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, set in a 1930's fascist Britain. Watch out for what McKellen's Richard says when his Jeep gets stuck.


  1. 1) The reason Richard didn't deny "the rumors" is because they weren't being publicly noised about until nearly two decades after his death.

    2) There was no reason for Richard to want the lads dead -- they had already been declared illegitimate, via an Act of Parliament called "Titulus Regius". The reason? At the time Edward IV had married (in secret) Elizabeth Wydeville, he was already married (again in secret) to one Eleanor Butler, neé Talbot, daughter of Humphrey Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Upon usurping the throne with the help of the French, Henry "Tudor" destroyed the evidence submitted to Parliament of the first marriage, and ordered Titulus Regius to be repealed unread.

    3) In his justification for usurping the throne, Henry "Tudor" did not mention the alleged murders of the former princes. (You know, the alleged murders that history books tell us were his reason for invading and the reason the public took him joyfully to its collective bosom?)

    In fact, there is evidence for indicating that he didn't believe them to be dead. For one thing, in 1495, when Perkin Warbeck was running around calling himself the younger of the two former princes -- who though they were bastards still had a much better blood claim to the throne than Henry did -- Henry backed away a bit from demonizing Richard. He even took the singular step of spiffing up Richard's resting place at Greyfriars, and even provided an epitaph that acknowledges Richard as a rightful king of England. (The tomb was destroyed along with the rest of Greyfriars a few decades later, during the Dissolution.) Only after 1502, when the last of the serious Yorkist threats to his rule were put down, and Perkin Warbeck long since dead, did Henry start circulating the idea that Richard offed the lads.

    So if Richard didn't kill the lads and in fact had no reason to kill them, what happened to them? Current thought is that he had them spirited away, possibly to Burgundy, where Richard's sister Margaret would have taken care of them.

    Oh, and by the way: Richard wasn't planning to marry his niece. What he was planning to do, after his wife Anne died, was to marry Princess Joanna of Portugal and have his niece Elizabeth marry the person who would become Manuel I of Portugal. This has been known in Portugese circles for hundreds of years, but the English-speaking world didn't catch on until the 1970s, apparently because Henry had ordered destroyed as much as he could get away with of the documentation of Richard's reign (not just Titulus Regius).

  2. There ad plenty of contemporary accounts that the Princes were dead. Some accounts written in Europe. Henry did illude to the blood of infants. If the boys were alive why did not Richard produce them.

    And I am sorry those boys were a threat to him. They were a magnet for any discontent rebel. Richard also killed their half brother and uncle without trial.

    Do you seriously think he would have let them go? And of Burgandy had them all alone she would have produced them way sooner.