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.