Printer Friendly

Finding King Richard III.

RICHARD III, as history with austere truthfulness records, died at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. The victor, the Earl of Richmond became Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty through which the whole subsequent history unfolded. His first act was to state in proclamation that Richard's body was taken to Leicester, 'and there was laid openly, that every man might see and look upon him'. The body was displayed naked above the waist, with a black cloth covering the lower half. This lasted for three days; evidently the authorities wanted to make it plain that the 'tyrant' was indeed dead. A contemporary report said that he was buried in a Franciscan Friary known as Greyfriars, but this building was levelled in the dissolution of the monasteries. Its whereabouts, and Richard's body, were lost to public knowledge.

Until August this year. A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester dug what was believed to be the site of the Franciscan Friary, now a municipal carpark. There they found fragments of windows and tiles that proved the site beyond doubt, and more: a skeleton was found that belonged, they believed, to Richard. The clues included an arrow lodged in the back, a cleaved-in skull, and evidence of spinal abnormalities. These clues establish a high level of probability that those bones were indeed Richard's. Confirmation through DNA would lead to Richard's re-interment in Leicester Abbey. A Canadian is believed to be descended from Richard's family, and surely his brother Edward IV, who famously put it about ('Th'unsatiate greediness of his desire/And his enforcement of the city wives') must have other identifiable descendants. And there the issue will rest, as to Richard's bones. But not the Ricardian controversy, which will continue to the end of time.

The Tudor myth came into existence following the victory of Henry VII. Richard III was a tyrant, whose death in battle cleared the way for the Tudor dynasty and benign rule up to the present and beyond. In what did his tyranny consist? Above all, in the death of the two young sons of Edward W, whom their uncle Richard, as Lord Protector, committed to the Tower of London. They were never seen again, and it was widely assumed that they were done to death in the Tower. Richard made himself King, until popular unrest led to the uprising that defeated and killed him at Bosworth Field. The Tudor myth, enshrined in the prose of Sir Thomas More, became the mainstream version of history that still holds sway. Churchill, for example (A History of the English-Speaking Peoples) holds stoutly to it. He points out that the English people turned against Richard two years before the Tudors gained power, and formed their own convictions in the face of the official story of Richard's virtuous and legitimate reign.
  Indeed, no fact stands forth more unchallengeable than
  that the overwhelming majority of the nation was convinced
  that Richard had used his power as Protector to usurp the
  crown and that the princes had disappeared in the Tower.
  It will take many ingenious books to raise this issue
  to the dignity of a historical controversy (1.384).

Nevertheless, these 'ingenious books have persisted to the present day.

They began with Horace Walpole's Historic Doubts on Richard III (1768), the founding text of the Richard III Society. Walpole reads well even today. His 'Historic Doubts' are the work of a serious historian, much more than the talented dilettante he is often taken to be. He went back to the original sources and subjected them to a sceptical and understanding scrutiny. History is made by people, not movements, and the people who subscribed to the Tudor myth had good reason for doing so. Cardinal Morton, for example, one of the prime players in Richard's reign, died in 1500 when Sir Thomas More was just 22 and not at that time interested in history. More was for a time in the Cardinal's household, and must then have acquired from him his knowledge of Richard's crimes. But Morton, who had been placed under Buckingham's guard and often discussed Richard with him, had his own version of history to put across. Men who survived across the reigns in that era had to be nimble and adroit in their self-positioning. Morton is a foremost instance of the forensic approach to history: one can see Walpole putting out a Channel Four documentary on 'Reputations'.

Of Richard's crimes, the one that reverberates down history is the death of the two Princes in the Tower. There is no proof that they were murdered--natural causes is a possible verdict--but the skeletons of two young lads were found buried under a mass of rubble in the reign of Charles II. They were examined by the royal surgeon, and antiquaries reported the bones to be the remains of Edward V and the Duke of York. They were reburied in Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster with a Latin inscription laying all blame on their uncle, 'the usurper of the realm'.

Walpole however lodges an interesting doubt; the Coronation roll for Richard III survives, with details of the garb prepared for Edward V. So it was intended that he should be publicly present at the coronation of his uncle. That plan must have been changed, and no doubt for good reasons.

Can a case of sorts be sketched out for Richard? I think it may. Walpole makes the crucial defence that Richard's crimes 'were more the crimes of the age than of the man'. The England of the era was extravagantly bloody. At the Battle of Towton (1461), described by Shakespeare in Henry VI Part Three, no prisoners of any rank were taken. The slaughter was great and the defeated Lancastrians were all put to death, even the noblest. A mass grave was uncovered a few years ago in Tadcaster, from which it was clear that the dead had been killed as prisoners. That was the Lancastrian Schlacht ohne Morgen. Can one wonder if Richard judged the civil wars to be the worst conceivable affliction upon the nation, and that anything was permissible that prevented a challenge to the Yorkist succession? And challenge would surely have been forthcoming, given the ambition of Edward IV's widow to keep possession of the young King Edward V, and govern in his name. Protector and King could not co-exist.

We are left with the portrait of Richard in the National Portrait Gallery, the face of a sensitive, intelligent man, not at all the demon-figure of popular history. But Richard as captured by the theatre, and the stage, above all Olivier's film, is the story that holds the imagination. Richard III is the only one of Shakespeare's histories that escapes from English history. Henry VIII can only be of his time--Holbein has the costume design concession--and Henry V leads up to Agincourt. But every country has tyrants. There is actually a filmed record of Saddam Hussain dismissing from a council meeting a member who had dared to challenge his rule; the man was immediately executed off-stage, like Hastings. Of Hastings's early-morning call on his doomsday, Jan Kott, of the Polish Resistance, asked: 'Who has not been awakened in this way at 4 a.m., at least once in his life?' Shakespeare's play becomes an analysis of the coup d'etat, a study in dramatized political science.

The first move in a leadership contest is to appoint a campaign manager. The Duke of Buckingham is more than a close ally, he is Richard's chief agent in his campaign to be King. The middle section of Richard III is given over to the Richard-Buckingham axis, and its brilliant manipulation of the media.

The immediate problem is the sudden execution of Lord Hastings, which has to be explained to the public. It is tackled at both ends of the social spectrum. A Scrivener (professional scribe) explains to the audience his most recent labours. It took him eleven hours to draw up the charges, during five of which Hastings was free and uncharged. This prudent preparation ensures that the public will have a PRAVDA-like official version to read outside St Paul's Cathedral. (Richard, by the way, swears by St Paul.)

Then comes the upper end of the spectrum, symbolized by the Lord Mayor of London who with his aldermen are the captains of business whom Richard has to seduce. So Richard and Buckingham put on a first-class show for the Lord Mayor. He arrives at the Tower of London to find a scene of apparent panic, and the great nobles in armour. There is a Security Alert! A Plot to murder Richard and Buckingham! Hastings was the ringleader! Fortunately the Plot was discovered in time, by the ever-vigilant security forces, and the villain put to death!

The last part of this version is unquestionable, for a henchman, Lovell, enters with Hastings' head. This impresses the Lord Mayor. It would me. So when Richard tells him of Hastings's plot, the Lord Mayor murmurs thoughtfully 'Had he done so?' and Richard's indignant reply clinches the matter:
  What? Think you we are Turks or infidels?
  Or that we would, against the form of law,
  Proceed thus rashly to the villain's death
  But that the extreme peril of the case,
  The peace of England, and our persons' safety
  Enforced us to this execution?

It still works, this one. It did with the abashed Lord Mayor, who quailed at being thought a defender of terrorists, British-born at that. One unarmed businessman is confronting two great nobles, armed, and at the head of State. Come, now. What would you do?

You would, I think, do as the Lord Mayor does: Now fair befall you! He deserved his death.' A moment later Buckingham imparts a useful spin:
  I never looked for better at his hands
  After he once fell in with Mistress Shore.

You know, of course, of Hastings's lewd conduct with the notorious Shore woman? What could be expected from a man leading such a debauched life? If the tabloid Press had existed in the Middle Ages, Buckingham would have flooded it with scabrous details of Hastings's athletic sexual life.

Richard and Buckingham press the main point: the 'loving haste' of their followers has short-circuited, alas, the due processes of the Law. Sometimes the security people do act precipitately, through an excess of zeal. The Lord Mayor, who has not reached his present position without some sensitivity to social and political pressures, picks up the message:
  But, my good Lord, your Graces' words shall serve
  As well as I had seen, and heard him speak;

The people have to be squared. And Buckingham rejoices:
  Which since you come too late of our intent,
  Yet witness what you hear we did intend.

If a prize for chutzpah were included in the Press awards for that year, Buckingham would walk away with it.

This is a society moving out of barbarism. The forms have to be respected. Richard cannot simply declare himself King and have himself crowned. He needs the appearance of legitimacy that popular assent confers. It is proto-democracy, if you like. The mechanism is a public meeting outside the Guildhall (the seat of local government in London), where the Lord Mayor will explain to the citizens the meaning of current events. This meeting, in essence a convention, is to be addressed by Buckingham.

Richard briefs him with the key arguments. The sexual smear is again to be used, against the late King Edward IV, who undoubtedly did much for the English birth rates. (Some years ago The Times carried a learned correspondence on the question: Are we all descended from Edward IV? Garter King of Arms, or some such heraldic grandee, settled the issue decisively. On the most positive assumptions, he ruled, no more than a quarter of a million of us could claim such descent.)
  Moreover, urge his hateful luxury
  And bestial appetite in change of lust,
  Which stretched unto their servants, daughters, wives

Richard then offers the outrageous suggestion that when his late brother Edward was conceived, his father, the Duke of York, was abroad in France. 'Yet touch this sparingly, as 'twere far off, /Because, my lord, you know my mother lives.' (93-4) A man who can be so mindful of his mother's reputation, while insinuating the bastardy of her eldest son, will go far.

That's the plan, then, a full-blooded anthem to Richard's virtues coupled with poor-mouthing of Edward's private life--and legitimacy. It follows from this charge that Edward's children have no right to the Throne. All this is campaign oratory at its finest, put over by an acknowledged master of the black arts, Buckingham. And how does it go? Badly.

Buckingham reports the fiasco back to Richard. His speech has been received in silence, then repeated unenthusiastically by the Recorder (civil magistrate for the city, keeper of the rolls). He can't make it on a focus group, and without the pro-Richard claque in the audience, all would have been lost. But the resourceful Buckingham plans a theatrical coup that will settle the issue. The Lord Mayor will bring the citizens to Richard's residence, Crosby Hall, and he will appear on the balcony--flanked by two priests!

And this tableau does the trick. Enter Richard aloft, between two Bishops. Buckingham, in the courtyard below, urges Richard to take on the duties of kingship. Richard, all piety and modesty, refuses the burden. Again and again Buckingham and Catesby urge him. Again and again he declines the crown. At last, Buckingham signals that the comedy has gone far enough. 'Come, citizens. Zounds, I'll entreat no more!' (3.7.219) To which Richard, shocked at such profane language [Zounds = God's wounds] responds '0, do not swear, my lord of Buckingham!'

It is all over now. Richard has followed to the letter Buckingham's script. It remains only for Richard to make his acceptance speech, in which he accepts his fate of selfless service to the realm. Piety and ambition join hands. Later English leaders invoked St Francis of Assisi and the spirit of a classless society.

Shakespeare analyses a coup d'etat, in which Richard and Buckingham triumph through a combination of coercion and persuasion. In the entire operation, few have lost their lives; discriminating use of the execution squad has done the trick, allied to the familiar features of media control. The plotters have concentrated on what we would call opinion-formers in the City (the Lord Mayor) and a focus group of the general public (Citizens). Control of the Press (the Scrivener) and public meetings mean that at decisive moments the airwaves are flooded with the Ricardian version of history. In all this the Citizens are passive, watchful, sceptical. They do not vote for Richard but neither do they raise an outcry against him. The three Citizens who discuss current events in 2.3 are a Chorus, the cipher for what history would develop into an electorate. Across the centuries, the England of Richard III comes to us as a proto-democracy, to be governed through exact control of the media. The Tudor myth under Shakespeare has crystallized into history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Berry, Ralph
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2012
Previous Article:Review: the Queen Mother's letters.
Next Article:Reflections of a poll worker in Ohio.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |