Richard III: evil or good

In a previous post, “Richard III: lost and found” (115journals.com), I described the recent discovery of the bones RIchard III who was killed by Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry then became Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch in England, followed in turn, by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The question I promised to address at the end of my previous post was whether Richard deserved the reputation that has come down to us, citing Shakespeare’s play, on the one hand, and Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, on the other.

Shakespeare’s play Richard III was probably produced in 1594, during Elizabeth’s reign, over 100 years after Richard’s death. The playwright drew on Holinshed’s history which in its turn drew on Thomas More’s account of events. More was solidly in the Tudor camp, having served both Henry VII and Henry VIII. In any case, according to Tey’s research, More did not actually write the history of Richard that is attributed to him, but rather re-copied in his own hand an account actually written by one John Morton, a participant in events. This re-copied account was found in More’s papers after his execution and published as his own work. The Tudors -namely Henry VIII- repaid More’s service by beheading him.

Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, was published in 1951 and is not the first debunking of the evil Richard legend, which held that he was a usurper of the throne, guilty of fratricide and regicide, and a man without honour who proposed to marry his own niece. Other writers – Buck in the 17th century, Walpole in the 18th and Markham in the 19th – also contradicted that legend. Indeed there is something called the Rickardian Society devoted to that same task since 1924.

I came to love Shakespeare’s play when I saw Alec Guiness play the lead at Stratford, Ontario as a teenager. It was a brilliant portrayal of a villain who rejoiced in his villainy. Like all school children I had learned that Richard was the boogeyman who had killed the poor little princes (Edward V and his younger brother) in the Tower of London and it didn’t occur to me that might not be true.

I’m not sure when I first read The Daughter of Time, but it would have been probably 15 years or more after it was first published. A few days ago, I loaded it onto my Kindle and read it for the 3rd time. It is just not possible, for me at any rate, to keep its complex ideas in my head. The daughter of time, by the way, is truth.

Shakespeare’s play begins with a long monologue by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was depicted by Guiness as hunchbacked and twisted, drabbly dressed with greasy hair sticking out from under a red cap. He begins by asserting that he was
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up –
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –
And yet, so skilled is he at seduction that by the end of the scene, he has talked Anne Neville into marrying him despite the fact that she began by hating him. She has good reason: Richard has murdered her husband, the Prince Of Wales, and her father-in-law, the deposed king, Henry VI, to secure the throne for his brother. Richard carries on throughout the play murdering his way to the top. He kills his brother, Clarence, who is next in birth-order to Edward IV, and therefore, an obstacle to Richard’s inheriting the throne. He pins the murder on Edward thereby accelerating his illness and when Edward dies, he imprisons his sons in the Tower of London. He kills the nobles who support the child Edward V although he (Richard) has been appointed Regent to rule until Edward is of age. He kills his wife, Anne Neville in a plan to marry his niece, Elizabeth. Then, infamously, he hires James Tyrell to kill the little princes by smothering them. When Richard’s horse is shot out from under him at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry of Richmond finishes him off and becomes Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Shakespeare counted Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s grand daughter as the chief patron of his theatre company, plenty of reason to seize on the dramatic possibilities of Richard’s villainy.

Now, even before we turn to Tey’s refutation of these charges, it is worth noting that Richard’s hired hands are supposed to have dispatched his brother the Duke of Clarence by drowning him in a butt of Malmsey, that is a large barrel of wine. This was actually a Cockney expression indicating that Clarence died of drink, although, in actual fact, he was executed for treason.

Josphine Tey’s novel is constructed like a mystery. The detective, Grant is lying flat in a hospital bed recovering from injuries sustained while he was chasing a suspect. To pass the time, he is trying to solve the riddle of whether Richard deserved the reputation that Shakespeare hung on him. He has the help of a “research worker”, Brent Carradine, who looks things up at the British Museum. Those were the quaint old days when sitting in a library was the only way to do such research. By this time, Grant has figured out that More’s account was highly suspect and not even his own. Curiously, even the historians who castigate Richard, have to admit that he was devoted to Edward IV throughout his life and that he was an admirable administrator, an excellent general, and a brave soldier. Yet they also picture him as suddenly becoming willing to wade through blood to get to the throne, even though he is already safely ensconced there as the Regent. Grant and his researcher decide to focus not on such accounts, but on actual documents from the time – accounts, letters, decrees, court records, legislation.

It quickly becomes clear that  Richard’s rule of 18 months was not only orderly but progressive, the people being granted such things as the right to bail and freedom from intimidation as jurors. Richard dealt with those charged with treason in an even-handed way returning confiscated property, for example, to the family to be administered. In the light of future events, when the Lancasters and their Woodville allies rose against him, he would have been better to be a tyrant. Yet he seems to have been a decent fellow who was popular with the people.

The research In The Daughter of Time turns up information that, just as Richard is planning Edward V’s coronation, one Bishop Stillingham announces that he had presided over a marriage of Edward IV  to   another woman prior his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. As a result, Edward V is deemed illegitimate and the throne passes to Richard.

In the matter of the princes in the Tower, It is true that Richard sent them to live there. It was a royal residence at that time and to live there was not a punishment unless you were in the dungeons. The princes were not. They lived royally as their mother did once she came out of hiding and they were taught by their tutor. Their sisters attended events at Richard’s court and the mother, Elizabeth Woodville, accepted a pension from the man historians say is her sons’ murderer.

After he killed Richard, Henry VII moved to get an act of Attainder, declaring Richard was never entitled to be king, but in the posthumous charges, there is no mention that Richard has murdered his nephews. Indeed there is no mention of them again in any documents until James Tyrell is charged with their murders 20 years later and executed. True they have vanished. The documents that the research worker uncovers indicate that Tyrell is granted a general pardon by Henry in early June 1486 and another one a month later. What has he done during that time that makes the second pardon necessary? Shortly thereafter, Henry makes him Constable of Guisnes and Tyrell goes to live there near Calais. (England still had sovereignty over part of what is now France.)

Why would Henry want the princes dead? He has married their older sister and set about restoring her legitimacy, but if she is legitimate, so are her brothers and they have a much more lawful, hereditary claim to the throne than Henry. The researcher in Tey’s novel finds an abundance of evidence that Henry also eliminated anyone else who stood in Edward IV’s line, including Clarence’s son, whom Richard had made his own heir. Henry VIII carries on executing those who seem to threaten the Tudor claim to the throne.

Shakespeare’s Richard is a brilliant portrayal of an evil person who rejoices in his evil and his final end while tragic, is richly deserved. Tey’s Richard, the more historically accurate one, in my opinion, is an altogether more honourable fellow; moreover, apart from one shoulder being higher than the other, he does not seem to have been disfigured.  I regret that Richard’s reputation has been thus sullied for the past 500 years.

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