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Richard III: The Last Dodo Bird?

With news coming out of Leicester Cathedral as to how they plan to observe the re-interment of Richard III in March, 2015, I was reminded yet again of how the public continues to perceive this monarch from the 15th century.

Even well-intentioned and balanced reporting in the media continues to perpetuate a historiography that emphasizes a particular narrative about him. I have taken just two snippets from a review of the Richard III Visitor Centre, reported in the Birmingham Mail on 5 September 2014:

 — “The attraction is housed in the former Alderman Newton’s School, right next door to the spot where the skeleton of the last Plantagenet king was found.”

 — “His reign lasted just 777 days and he is the last monarch to have been killed in battle – an event in nearby Bosworth which signalled the end of the Wars of the Roses as well as the Middle Ages.” (Days Out: Face-to-Face with Richard III, by Graham Young)

The word that popped out to me was “last”, which is used three times. Moreover, my heart sank when I saw, yet again, the old chestnut that his death at Bosworth brought an end to “The Wars of the Roses” and an era called “The Middle Ages”.

 I understand why this narrative sells. It’s sensational. It appeals to an emotional component in how we, as humans, relate to the past. We compartmentalize, we create chapter endings, we see conflict between opposing forces, we see individuals as living within opposing forces, and their deaths as emblems of resolution.

While that may be good storytelling when it comes to fiction, it’s bad history. For instance, Richard III was not the last British monarch to have been killed in battle. James IV of Scotland died in the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The Battle of Bosworth did not end the Wars of the Roses, or secure the throne for Henry “Tudor”, until the Battle of Stoke in 1487. The “Middle Ages” – a term that is hotly disputed in academia – did not suddenly come to an end on 22 August 1485, nor did the Renaissance simultaneously descend to England’s fair isle that day.

Let me also address the subtle connotations when we refer to a monarch as the “last” of his kind. It is not far different from how we see the extinction of species; the last dodo bird was killed because its “kind” were too naïve and unsophisticated to distrust Homo sapiens and fight back, its natural habitat had been destroyed, and it did not have the characteristics to survive the invading species. Beyond the natural world, look at how we view Tsar Nicholas II and Puyi the last Emperor of China — autocrats who failed to hold their thrones before succumbing to a totally new and 20th century system of governance.

For Richard III, the proliferation of “lasts” is quite remarkable. He was the last surviving sibling of his parents, the Duke and Duchess of York. He was the last surviving brother of Edward IV. He was the last Plantagenet king.

But let’s flip it around and see it from another perspective. He was the first to lead the Council of the North – a body that continued to flourish under Henry VII. He was the first to take the coronation oath in English. He was the first to undertake certain reforms in criminal law. He was the first king of England to protect the trade of printing. He was the first to dub a Jewish man a knight. He was the first to establish the College of Arms. Suddenly, Richard III doesn’t look like a dodo bird any longer; he looks like a trailblazer.

 Perhaps it is time for the “language of lasts” to be given its final rites. The narrative given to children in grade school is the real dodo bird, too naïve and unsophisticated to withstand the complexities of historical truth.

 

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29 thoughts on “Richard III: The Last Dodo Bird?

  1. S Duffy on said:

    Now this is bad history.
    Richard III WAS the last English king to be killed in battle. The use of British in relation to this period is anachronistic.

    The preoccupation with personal pronouns is irksome and indicative of someone unfamiliar with the study of history as a discipline.

    Like

  2. T.L Tatchell on said:

    Irritating title

    Like

  3. white lily on said:

    Thank you for your comment, S Duffy. Do you then agree with the article from the Birmingham Mail that Richard III was the “last monarch” to be killed in battle? I think that was what I was responding to, but if you see a difference between England and Scotland, I do not necessarily disagree. Taken literally, it is quite a stretch to see Richard III as the last monarch – any where – to be killed in battle. I assumed the author was referring to monarchs in the British Isles, but of course that is not clarified.

    As for your criticism of the use of personal pronouns, I am not acquainted with the prohibition in history “as a discipline” to use them. I hope you understand that this forum is a place where writers don’t feel compelled to adhere to the rigid formulations of academic history departments. There is surely a need for lay people to discuss history without the need for reference to them. What exactly is the problem you have with their use? How does that diminish the discussion? I would truly like to hear, as you raise an interesting question.

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  4. S Duffy on said:

    Having only seen the quotation from the Birmingham Mail, it is difficult to comment on the entire article in question. However, it would be safe to infer that it was written in an English context, as it refers to the Wars of the Roses.

    It is bad practise to use personal pronouns in any essay, A Levels teach students this. It is particularly frowned upon in universities.

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  5. red squirrel on said:

    It’s a shame no one took it upon themselves at the time to chide Richard III on the use of a personal pronoun in his motto. Now, what’s the Norman French for “loyalty binds… one?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • white lily on said:

      Oh dear, I guess I would get a failing grade in A Levels. Sorry. But actually my purpose was not to get any recognition on that level. I hope you can open up your mind, S Duffy, and see that history is such a broader perspective that what is “taught” in class. It’s like music. You don’t need a music degree to play good music. Also, being an English major myself, I’ve learned to absorb what I needed to from teachers, and then get really creative with my ideas. They no longer dictate to me – nor should they to YOU – as to what is proper.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve always felt blogs have evolved out of the construction of editorials. The “editorial voice” is intentionally personal.
    And though no battles of the WOTR may have taken place in Scotland, they weren’t all fought in England, either… Any guesses?

    Liked by 1 person

    • white lily on said:

      Red Squirrel, please enlighten us!! France? Ireland?

      Like

    • white lily on said:

      Yes, red squirrel, you are absolutely correct. The “Wars of the Roses” (a term coined by Sir Walter Scott) were also fought in France (Calais) and Ireland (Piltown). And, of course, you have all those border wars in the Scottish marches (Hexham, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh) – and Scotland was certainly involved in the WOTR to some extent, as it was a refuge for Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, and provided troops to the belligerants. So the term WOTR covers a greater geographical sphere than just England.

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  7. white lily on said:

    Again, putting aside the fact that A Level teachers criticize students for writing in the first person, we need to drill down beneath these rigid formulations. I tend to think that such teachers are espousing a “neutral voice” in order to fulfill a desire to be “objective”. If you honestly read history, you will understand that even third person pronouns are a convenient excuse – and a cover – for putting forth purely subjective views on a subject. You can use “I” or “we” or “that”, but the bottom line is that the author is coming at the subject from a purely personal viewpoint. Professors from Cambridge and Oxford do not hold the keys to objectivity.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. white lily on said:

    And S Duffy, putting aside what your teachers told you, what exactly is the problem *you* have with this piece. I am too old, and cynical to worry about teachers. Please do share with me what you find offensive in this essay, aside from the formulation of it. Do you have a problem with seeing Richard III as a trailblazer? Do you have a problem with seeing the end of the “Middle Age” to coincide with 22 August 1485?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Richard’s sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, was the last surviving child of Richard and Cecily.

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    • white lily on said:

      Good point, Laura. I should have clarified that. Thanks for bringing that up. I can only imagine how she felt….

      Like

  10. Joely on said:

    I always feel if someone takes the time to write a good piece such as the one written here, then be constructive in your comments. No need to belittle someone, and if you think you can do a better job, then we’ll wait patiently for your article. I have seen her work not only here and elsewhere, and love her style. She thinks inside, outside and on the side of the box.

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  11. Jasmine on said:

    I didn’t think Richard was the first to found the College of Arms – he was the first to give them an official home, but the College existed before his reign.

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    • white lily on said:

      Hi Jasmine. FYI, the official website of the College of Arms credits Richard III with its founding on March 2, 1484. Here’s the link: http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk/about-us/history

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      • Jasmine on said:

        Yes, I see. Thank you. Heralds had existed for a long time before Richard’s time and the article seems to suggest that Royal Heralds were acting as a corporation with a common seal from around 1420. Richard gave them a charter which recognised their existing practices and also the official home.

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  12. sighthound6 on said:

    It is also bad practice to use ‘practise’ (verb) as a noun. If we are being picky today.

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  13. mairemartello on said:

    This is a blog. Blogsters use first personal pronouns as a rule not an exception.

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  14. As an Oxford college tutor, I never rebuke my students for sensible use of the first person pronoun and quite often use it myself in academic writing on historical subjects. It is foolish to pretend that such writing can be indisputably true in every particular, and fairer to readers to indicate which views are personal. Just as white lily says.

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    • white lily on said:

      Thank you for your comment, barbaracardo. I totally agree with you on the importance of being honest to the reader. My intention in writing this blog entry was not so much to give an academic discourse on history. If that had been my intention, I’d have given lots of references, primary sources, etc. But, actually, my intention was to comment on the way we tell history to each other. This exists on a daily basis, even when you come to think about it, it’s the way humans interact about current events. Newspapers, reports from foreign correspondents, twitter comments, Facebook observations, and even videos that only capture 20% of what happened at the scene of an event. It’s better to be honest about it, rather than trying to pretend we have an all-seeing Eye. We don’t. And that is where humility and history are so intertwined. To be honest, no one knows history. We only grasp at straws and we implant speculations about how X led to Y and then became Z. But that’s where the amazing fascination lies for lots of us who are still in thrall to it.

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  15. Yorkist rose on said:

    I think it’s rather sad that this debate around the correct use of pronouns has taken the focus away from the point that Richard was a farsighted individual who was probably cut down before he could fulfill what promised to be an excellent potential. A true renaissance prince, whenever you want to date it from, and a true trailblazer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • white lily on said:

      Thank you Yorkist rose, I couldn’t agree more, but somehow we got side-tracked into an obscure topic which may interest some people. That is another subject, for another day, but possibly it does lend a view into how all twisted up we get when we discuss history. Personally, in my true personal viewpoint, as someone who has no “dog in the fight” so to speak, what I happen to see about Richard III is someone who (a) was an extremely good younger son (citation to Horrox’s Richard III- a Study in Service); (b) never recoiled from serving his King (contra the Duke of Clarence, and again a reference to the Horrox text); and (c) when he acceded the throne, did not especially take measures to punish in an extreme fashion what he could, and retrospectively should, have done to minimize his future enemies (keeping in mind that so much was in flux at that time, and no one probably knew, or could have known, who they might be). I am in agreement with you, that considering he was able to use his very narrow support as a younger son, that he seemed open-minded enough to own an English New Testament, that his first foray into Parliamentary politics was to give rights to those who had very little economic power to lobby for them, it all adds up that he *is* one of the great trailblazers of English history.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Tiffany on said:

    I find it hard to believe a real Oxford tutor would be wasting time on this blog about a man who was, as much as I like Richard, rather an unimportant king. This person is nothing more than a fictional supporter of the author, trying to justify this poorly structured essay. If I had a PhD in history, I wouldn’t be wasting time on this – I’d be too busy teaching undergraduates how to structure essays properly, and to ordering them to stop using quotation marks for emphasis, when italics could be used.

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    • I have just seen the message left by Tiffany six months ago, and I am amused by her view that I am fictional. Let me assure you, I have been teaching at Oxford University for 29 years, I have no connexion with the author of the original piece, and even Oxford academics occasionally waste time!
      But I entirely agree with others that there is more interesting material in this thread than the stylistic quibbles which prompted this challenge to my existence.

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      • white lily on said:

        Barbara – I apologize for the rudeness of the comment by Tiffany. I didn’t approve it, some how it got on here any way. I viewed that comment as, well, beneath contempt, and not something that lends insight or value, plus it was an attack on another commenter. Don’t know how it slipped through, but please know that I didn’t endorse it in any way. However, cyber-bullies have a way of sneaking past the watchdogs. We here at Murrey & Blue do not tolerate cyberbullying or contemptible behavior like this, but I’m sure that you – an Oxford tutor of 29 years – can handle sophomoric behavior like that demonstrated above. Thanks for reading my essay, and kudos to you for serving the academic community for three decades.

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      • barbarabocardo on said:

        No worries, White Lily. I understand how people can be suspicious of internet identity, and if it was cyberbullying, there’s unfortunately a lot worse around!

        Like

  17. barbarabocardo on said:

    Not on your blog. of course.

    Like

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