Today, we observe the 529th anniversary of King Richard III’s death on Redemore Plain. It is a sad day, full of grief for those of us who believe that he was a good and just King, a man of multiple dimensions, a loving husband, a tender father, a dutiful son and brother, and a man of civic and spiritual virtue.
We mourn the loss of a human life, as all life is sacred, but also the loss of a particularly noble and heroic life cut down in its prime at age 32 during a savage and brutal battle.
I can’t help but think that when Richard acceded to the Throne of England in 1483, just over two years prior to his death, he might have found the words of Petrarch, in his Epistolae metricae, to be particularly relevant:
“Living, I despise what melancholy fate
has brought us wretches in these evil years.
Long before my birth time smiled and may again,
for once there was, and yet will be, more joyful days.
But in this middle age time’s dregs
sweep around us, and we beneath a heavy
load of vice. Genius, virtue, glory now
have gone, leaving chance and sloth to rule.
Shameful vision this! We must awake or die!”
The summons to “awake” or to be born anew is something that I believe Richard might have held as a lodestar for his service as a son of York, Duke of Gloucester, and later King of England. For this reason, I see Richard as exemplifying all the aspects of a “Renaissance man” – for the word renaissance means “rebirth”. And, coincidentally, Richard was born in the same year as Leonardo de Vinci, 1452.
Therefore, rather than contemplating the tragedy of his untimely and bitter death, I choose to speak of his Renaissance qualities. It is especially poignant now, because his Earthly remains have been recovered from a very humble grave and there is a rebirth of interest in this figure from distant history. We have a choice. We can focus on the horrors of his last minutes of life, the brutal humiliations suffered by his corpse, and the lowliness of his grave. Or we can focus on his joyful days, his love of justice and virtue, his appreciation for books and music, his love of family and friends, and his enduring love of God. It was a life that did not indulge simply in the flattery of rich and powerful men, but sought to be the Ideal Prince. A Renaissance Prince.
One of the great art works of the Renaissance was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the years 1338-1339 in the Italian Republic of Siena. The colorful frescoes are painted in the Gothic style and they are located in the great Council Room in the Town Hall. There are six different scenes, and they are called Allegory of Good Government, Allegory of Bad Government, Effects of Bad Government in the City, Effects of Good Government in the City and Effects of Good Government in the Country. It was certainly an attempt by an early Italian Renaissance painter to give a pictorial representation of what were considered virtues and vices in the early Renaissance.
Like the Wars of the Roses in England in the 15th century, the 14th century was a turbulent time for politics in the Italian city-states. There were constant violent party struggles; governments were overthrown, and governments were reinstated. Common people suffered, but carried on. The frescoes painted by Lorenzetti promoted the morality of government and provided a constant reminder for the council to remain just leaders by showing them a comprehensive cause-and-effect situation of corrupt, tyrannical governing in comparison to that of virtuous governing.
I will only speak about one of those panels: The Allegory of Good Government. It depicts civic officers and magistrates, who are all bound by the scales of Justice. Above them, are floating bodiless ghosts of the virtues. Wisdom sits above the head of the Commune of Siena. He sits upon a throne and holds an orb and scepter, symbolizing temporal power. That character is guided by Faith, Hope and Charity. He confers with the proper Virtues necessary for a proper and just ruler. The virtues of Good Government are represented by six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice.
The text within the lower border of the image reads: “This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls [of citizens], and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good [ben commune] their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows – useful, necessary, and pleasurable.”
Let’s talk about Richard and the virtue of Peace. He took the Crown by a mechanism that did not require the blood of England’s common people to be smeared on a battlefield. He used the bloodless instrument of Parliament to justify his cause and his right to the throne. The Commons petitioned him to be king, and, rather than face a bitter familial and internecine tug-of-war over the governing of a boy-king, he made the courageous step of surrendering his comfortable life as Great Lord of the North, to become King. No battle had been waged by him for his own Crown. All he did was defend it.
Fortitude. This virtue is particularly apt for Richard. As a young child of 7, he suffered an exile to a foreign country, in a land which spoke a foreign tongue to his ear and exercised unfamiliar customs to him. Then, as a teenager, he was again exiled to a foreign place, where he was compelled to be his older brother’s advocate, where he undertook to seek funds for his brother’s invasion of England, where he prostrated himself before burghers in order to outfit a small invading fleet. He suffered horrific storms on the Seas, but did not surrender to their violence. He led his brother’s armies, leading the vanguard, at two heroic battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury. He was only 19 years old, and although he was wounded at Barnet, he proceeded to great accomplishment at Tewkesbury.
Prudence. As Duke of Gloucester, Richard built one of the Greatest Affinities ever known in the Middle Ages, through the exercise of prudence and political caution and skill. He was sensitive to the overweening egos of the houses of Stanley and Percy, and often relinquished positions of power to which he had been entitled by grant of his brother King Edward. He chose, instead, to unify deep divisions that had been ongoing in the Neville house, by unifying their two cadet branches of Salisbury and Warwick into his retinue. As King, he was generous with titles and gifts of office to smaller gentry like the Howards, rewarded the old noble houses like Lovel, and allowed someone like William Catesby, a brilliant lawyer, to come into pre-eminence despite his relatively lowly birth.
Magnanimity. Can we not forget how magnanimous Richard was as King to such dubious characters as Lord Stanley or his wife Margaret Beaufort? Stanley and Beaufort, each with their own agendas which conflicted with Richard’s, were permitted to play dominant roles in his coronation. Even though Margaret could have been stripped of her lands, he preserved them by way of her husband, despite the fact that she had been communicating with her scion, Henry Tudor, in France, undoubtedly for reasons that might have appeared to be just, but – as we know ultimately – for reasons of her own ambition to place him on the Throne. Some say magnanimity was Richard’s Achilles heel; I contend it exemplified the virtue of a true Renaissance man who was willing to give people a second chance.
Temperance. When we think of this virtue, our first thought is of someone who does not over-indulge himself with drink, women, or song. And we know that Richard did not maintain any known liaisons with a mistress while married to Anne Neville, that he was a faithful and loyal husband, and that if he did have any affairs of the heart, they were not brazenly flaunted to his court or to his Queen. But there’s also another dimension to temperance and that is “restraint”. I am speaking of a type of restraint we see in the aspect of religious tolerance. Richard owned a New Testament translated into English: this was likely a heretical possession, but reflects his tolerance of an emerging religious movement that would later provoke the most vile and bloody conflicts and the loss of human life. Also, let us reflect on the fact that Richard extended a Knighthood on a Jewish gentleman, the first of his kind in England, Sir Edward Brampton.
Justice. In his one and only Parliament, Richard sought to extend the hand of blind justice and fair administration of laws in the kingdom. Many of his public statutes sought to redress abuses and corruption committed on a daily basis in the courts, in the marketplace and in the dealing of land. They aimed to protect even the humblest commoner, not just the rich and mighty. His statutes were the first to be proclaimed in English, so that all literate people, and those who understood English, could hear them in their own native tongue, regardless of their schooling in Latin or Legal French. For this, his reputation is unsullied and remained an example for generations to come.
Finally, we come to another profound attribute of the Ideal Renaissance Prince, and that is Pleasure. In neo-Platonic ideals, pleasure is central to human life, as it is emblematic of Man who is neither divine nor animal. Pleasure is within his grasp because he can make his own destiny, formulate a science, appreciate knowledge, and savor his God-given senses through art, music and dance. As one scholar has observed:
“Most of what Renaissance humanists borrowed from Socrates, Plato and Cicero was their happy, natural and wholesome enjoyment of human life. In the refined civilization that was the Renaissance, the humanists believed they were the ancients reincarnate. Their ideal was excellence, moral and intellectual excellence. And the ancient Greeks had a word for this quality: arete. The virtue of excellence and the excellence of virtue. Be healthy in mind and in body. Seek virtue. Live the good life. Explore all potentialities. Serve the civitas. This is the Platonic idea of paideia, what we today call culture.” (Professor Steven Kreis, The History Guide, copyright 2006.)
Richard truly exemplified these ideas. He had a diverse library of books and defended the nascent book printing trade against xenophobic protectionist efforts of his day; his band of minstrels and his choirs were renowned in England for their splendid music-making; he made architectural improvements to his castles and manors not just for defensive purposes but for their aspect of pleasing the senses. He hosted terrific and energetic Christmas feasts, some of which offended the haughty prelates of his day. He relished beautiful jewels, lavished his Queen with luxurious gowns, loved the tales of Chivalry, and spent great sums of money to establish centers of learning at York, Middleham, Barnard Castle, Fotheringhay and Queen’s College at Cambridge. He also spent extravagantly on religious chantries, seeking redemption from Purgatory for his beloved family members and his own soul. All these are characteristics of a Prince who is not only spiritually virtuous, but in thrall to all noble and pleasurable creations of Man.
This is the Richard of my memory. And, today, I want to celebrate these memories. I want him to rest in sweet peace and in remembrance for the brief but deep joys he had when walking the Earth. I want to celebrate his virtues, his mercy, and his sense of fair play and plain dealing. And his love for beautiful things.
Rest in peace, Richard, and may the Angels sing you a Glorious Requiem and greet you with open arms at the Gate of Heaven, Noble Prince.