Reading Richard III

4 February 2013

The confirmation that bones found beneath a Leicester car park are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of Richard III has launched a deluge of familiar puns. ‘A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!’ say numerous wags on Twitter.

I wonder if Richard III would be remembered so widely today were it not for Shakespeare. The character of the play, who speaks some of the most famous lines in English, is descended from the portrait drawn by Sir Thomas More in an uncompleted history written at various points throughout the 1510s.

Many historians argue that More wrote the book to please the Tudors. This is, it is said, why he drew on the work of Polydore Vergil, an Italian churchman commissioned by Henry VII in the early 1500s to write a new history of England, which included an account of Richard’s many alleged misdeeds and usurpation providing some much needed ballast for the Tudors’s flimsy claim to the throne.

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Against this interpretation is the relative absence of Henry VII from More’s text. A further layer of complexity is created by the persecution More’s father suffered at the hands of Henry VII.  These facts have led others to assert that More was writing a broad account of tyrannical monarchy rather than a straight history. Fear of tyranny, it is argued, forced More to self-censor and confine his message that evil always meets it just deserts to the past.

Another school of thought says that More was experimenting with form by writing a dramatic, literary account inspired by the techniques of the Classics. Those techniques were in the process of being rediscovered and revived by the learned pan-European elites among whom More moved. The work, it is suggested, was meant for these private audiences; but it should be noted that these elites were often part of the power networks that dominated politics and public life at the time (as More himself did, first as a lawyer and then as an administrator), so the line between public and private was blurred.

The late Elizabethan statesman Francis Bacon famously remarked that ‘truth is the daughter of time not of authority.’ The Richard III of More and Shakespeare has become the basis for the standard view. There is, obviously, another side to the story, or at least another shade. The historical case is put best, ironically, in a novel: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. This is a detective novel in which the detective asks who had the most to gain from associating Richard III with the murder of the princes in the tower? The answer is, at least according to those whom Tey read (although Alison Weir is among a group of popular and academic historians who contest some of Tey’s sources and arguments), Henry VII and his successors.

The confirmation of the discovery may reinvigorate Tey’s revision, or it may produce a new interpretation of a king whose reign seems to have been more substantial than the mere 26 months it spanned. Some recent books on this period and its questions include A Short History of the Wars of the Roses by Professor David Grummitt and Chris Skidmore’s Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors.

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  • The_greyhound

    This article perpetuates the strange idea that the Tudors had something to gain from blackening the memory of Richard III. They didn’t. Richard left no party, and no legitimate descendants : he simply ceased to matter on 22nd August 1485. He had already alienated most Yorkists, who either actively or tacitly supported Henry Tudor. The perverse consequence of Richard III’s murder spree, as well as his bizarre libels on his mother and brother, was to leave Henry VII with a largely clear slate. The view of Richard III current in the sixteenth century was on whole factually accurate, and if Shakespeare rotated his spinal defect by 90 degrees, that’s hardly proof of propagandist intent.

    Richard III (“nasty, brutish and short”) was simply the last ephemeral monarch of England’s least distinguished line of kings : utterly overshadowed by their successors, the Tudors, who were the most brilliant..

  • H Smith

    Is it now possible to DNA test the remains of the two boys found under a
    staircase at the Tower of London (believed to be Edward V and Richard
    of York) & compare them to the DNA of Richard III?
    If so, what conclusions could then be drawn, should a DNA link be found?

  • Eddie

    Richard III probably killed Henry VI, and then his own nephews whose skeletons (showing signs of suffocation) were found in The Tower in the early 20th C. What’s to like about him?
    I think some support him because they claim him as a northern English hero – much as others claim the Tudors as Welsh heroes (well their original name was Twdr), and Henry VII and his father Edmund’s homeland was Wales – they even spoke Welsh, as did Elizabeth I.
    The most hilarious thing about all this is how the propaganda of the pro-Richard camp that he wasn’t a hunchback and that that was all Tudor propaganda has been shown to be the worst case of denial in royal history!
    I would advise anyone to watch David Starkey’s ‘Monarchy’ series on this: wonderfully, it was on last night on More4.

  • Vulture

    One had only to watch the documentary on Channel Four last night to realise that the Richard III Society and their acolytes are delusional nutters rather than historians. (Though we should be grateful to them for funding the dig that uncovered Dicky’s body – even though the fact that he DID have a seriously twisted spine undermined one of their treasured myths about the little monster).myths

    No serious historian today seriously supposes that Richard III was NOT responsible for the murder – not only of the two Princes in the Tower – but also of the Prince’s’ Woodville relatives; and of King Henry VI and Lord William Hastings – both also carried out in the Tower – the latter in broad daylight in front of Richard’s terrified councillors.

    There may be some excuse for Richard’s conduct in that his father, two of his brothers and his childhood guardian Warwick the Kingmaker all died violently during the fratricidal strife known as the Wars of the Roses – ( Mr Kelsey-Fry QC would doubtless make much of his dysfunctional background in his plea of mitigation) – but there is plenty of pre-Tudor evidence that even hardened contemporaries were shocked by Richard’s crimes. If Richard is Not Guilty then so is Chris Huhne.

    That is why he was abandoned even by his henchman Buckingham. That is why he was betrayed at Boswell by those who preferred even a Welsh chancer like Henry Tudor to this crooked, black-hearted psychopathic tyrant.

    The Leicester bones prove that Shakespeare and the other ‘Tudor propagandists had it right about the hunchback. I think they had it right about the rest of Richard too,.

    • Eddie

      Delusional nutters – yep, seconded, especially that weepy woman who seemed to think she was psychic! The look on her face when the ‘bone woman’ explained that the skeleton’s spines WAS severely deformed was priceless! She and the other loonies have spent decades claiming it was all Tudor propaganda – whereas in fact, it was fact!

      • mikewaller

        Yet more of the yob tendency! Yes, the lady was very emotionally involved and was discomforted when the physiology did not turn out as she hoped. But why should she be so cruelly mocked? At least she got something done.

  • Walter Ellis

    Bacon’s aphorism, to the effect that truth is what is believed, had somehow passed me by. But I like it. Absurdly, it reminded me of Jim Callaghan’s remark that a lie could be half way round the world before truth got its boots on.

    • Raimo Kangasniemi

      Francis Bacon, the Chris Huhne of his day whose political career ended in similar circumstances. (To be fair towards Huhne, Bacon was pretty deep in corruption compared to Huhne.)

    • Curnonsky

      I believe Mark Twain said it before old Jim.

  • Raimo Kangasniemi

    One argument which can be made against claims that the later portrayal of Richard III was just Tudor propaganda is that there never was any attempt by Yorkist pretenders and relatives living abroad to create and cultivate a cult of a martyred good king around Richard III.

    When his own designated heir and nephew, the earl of Lincoln, made his move to regain the throne for York in 1487, the earl used Lambert Simnel in an effort to use the memory of Edward IV against Henry VII, instead of trying to appear as an avenger of Richard III.

    Richard III’s sister, the dowager duchess of Burgundy, safe on the continent and living a declining but still celebrated centre of artistic patronage, would have ample resources to draw in an effort to shape his brother’s memory after 1485, but no effort was made.

    More examples could be easily given, but the fact is that when a lot of people could have stood up for Richard III after 1485, many out of the reach of Henry VII, none did beyond some recoded laments about his fate by the burghers of York. This, I think, shows that Richard III was viewed at best with indifference by people hostile to the Lancaster and Tudor dynasties.

  • NiceTeaParty

    One hopes that from the bones we will build a new history in our nation’s schools

    A history that starts a little before 1914

    A history that gives our littler people a bigger context for who we are as a nation

    A history that allows us to remind ourselves that we are and should be a nation whose rights did not start with the European Convention of Human Rights but with the blood and bones of our own rulers when they lost the trust and support of the people.

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