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Archive for the month “Jan, 2015”

We Need Neither The Bard Nor The Prince

prince2White Lily’s “Richard III: The Murderous Machiavel?” post, here in Murray & Blue on 31 January 2015, is beautifully presented and argued, with the subject deserving extensive research and multiple books on its own. But I think we’re playing into anti-Ricardian hands if we set Richard III beside Machiavelli’s The Prince. There is another way.

What White Lily presented opens a topic for discussion that deserves to be broken wide open. Shakespeare had his fictional Richard III take Machiavelli to heart and ruthlessly apply some of The Prince’s lessons. But it’s important to remember that while Shakespeare read Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince and made the treatise central to his fictional Richard III, the real Richard never read The Prince. The treatise was not published until 1532, so it’s both illogical and unreasonable for anyone to argue that Machiavelli influenced the real Richard in any way.

We need to set aside Shakespeare’s 16th-century fictional play, its 16th-century Machiavellian source, and its fictional Richard III. If we want to know how the real Richard viewed warfare and governance, first as Duke of Gloucester and then as King of England, we need to put him back into his own life and times and consult the 15th-century English “mirror for princes” manuscripts Richard actually had access to.

We might begin with two books we know Richard owned: De regimine principum and Vegetius’ De re military. The latter included Secrets of Philosophers by Lydgate & Burke, which was so important to the warriors/governors of the age that it was inserted into five warfare manuscripts between 1450-1474. We may assume that Richard’s contemporaries were taught the same principles and behaviors as presented in these particular “mirrors for princes.” (We may also assume that Machiavelli had access to Italian translations of various titles in the “mirrors for princes” genre. A book contrasting the morals and principles of behavior presented in those Italian translations, versus what Machiavelli presented in The Prince would also be interesting, but, once again, it would not apply to the real Richard III.)

The medieval mind interconnected success in warfare and success in governance, but what exactly were the moral and chivalric boundaries of the 15th-century prince? Since chivalry was dying by the time Richard was born, was a knight or prince of Richard’s time expected to abide by the chivalric code developed in the 12th century? Or was the code by then so degraded, it was only a quaint notion applicable only in silly romances read by medieval ladies to pass the time while embroidering?

Other questions we might ask as we study these manuscripts are:

  1. Can we trace how Richard, as duke and as king, applied the principles and behaviors recommended in these texts?
  2. Can we trace how Edward IV applied the principles and behaviors recommended in these texts, and contrast it with Richard’s application?
  3. Can we trace how the nobles of the day applied the principles and behaviors recommended in these texts and contrast it with Richard’s application?
  4. Can we trace how any of these men violated the principles and behaviors recommended in these texts?

By way of further research, we can consult Reading and War in Fifteenth-Century England, by Catherine Nall. She begins her discussion with De re military, and goes on to discuss how such works – and contemporary fiction as well – influenced the nobility and rulers of the 15th century.

Nall also discusses a verse version of De re militari that was written anonymously during the Wars of the Roses, and which has basically been ignored, called “Knyghthode and Bataile”.

We have no need to look to Shakespeare or to Machiavelli as legitimate sources of the principles Richard was taught, or those he lived by.

What we have is the opportunity to dive some of the original 15th-century manuscripts that Richard himself read and applied, and discern how they affected his life and his behavior.

Richard III: The Murderous Machiavel?

In various discussions, on- and off-line, a Ricardian often times finds herself confronted with a particular type of debate about Richard III. Sometimes it is phrased in the context of the “brutality of the times” or the “scheming nature of a royal court” or the “rough and aggressive nature of lords and nobles in the waning days of late feudalism”. The last concept is particularly poignant, as it is presented as a zero-sum game where lords aspire and machinate to gain land, strip widows of their inheritance, and accumulate wealth for themselves. If they didn’t take such an aggressive approach, the thinking goes, then they’d lose power, influence, and possibly even their lives and/or their offspring’s legacy.

This, I believe, might be a reflection of a rather modern way of thinking about the 15th century, as told by historians, authors, and playwrights throughout the past five centuries. No doubt, it provides a powerful narrative structure in which to present the players from the past: raising the stakes makes a gamble more risky, and large risks are more attention-grabbing and dramatically appealing than the timid wallflower who merely plays it “safe” and dies comfortably (and ignobly, forgotten) in his own bed.

Recently, I completed the on-line course at Oxford University’s continuing education division on the “Wars of the Roses”. The title of the course referred to the reputation of the major players in that war, how individuals were perceived then and now. At one point we were asked to watch a clip from Laurence Olivier’s movie Richard III, which to his credit, is introduced with a running script reminding the audience that what they are about to witness is not historical fact but a fascinating story.

The opening soliloquy is one of the most remarkable portions of the movie, and when I first saw it as a child, it left an indelible mark on my memory. It introduces us to the central character of the play, Richard, who is first seen in an empty throne room, following some ceremony that can be heard off-camera. Dressed in murrey and black, he is clinging to the throne like a man touching a rare and valuable coin that he covets. As the camera remains fixed at some distance, Richard pulls himself away from the throne and approaches the viewer with his memorable soliloquy:

Notably, Olivier’s opening lines deviate from Shakespeare. He does quote the first 23 lines of the Bard’s play, but then veers off and incorporates a passage that is not original to The Tragedy of King Richard III, but is taken from Henry VI, Part 3:

But to command, to check, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whilst I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives stand between me and home:
And I, — like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way and straying from the way;
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out, —
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.
Why, I can smile, and murder whilst I smile,
And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.

When you watch Olivier, the actor, give this speech, he delivers it in a long crescendoing volume, until he is yelling at full throat the phrase “And set the murderous Machiavel to school.” Pretty amazing acting and pacing.

It was clever for Olivier to incorporate these lines into his movie, because it reminds us that Shakespeare had molded his character of Richard based on contemporary perceptions of Niccolò Machiavelli. His most famous work – The Prince – composed in approximately 1513, was a radical and entirely new type of “mirror for princes” that was based on a traditional genre in the Medieval Age. Machiavelli transformed it, and its publication sent shock waves across the Continent and later into England. It was brutally honest, irreverent, anti-chivalric (or at least willing to pull off the outer skin of chivalry), and gave voice to perhaps what had always motivated princes, what had always kept princes in power, and what had kept people serving princes. And, ultimately, it was misinterpreted and currently still is being misinterpreted. (Some say that the phrase “old Nick” was a reference to Machiavelli.)

It cannot be ignored that Elizabethans were fascinated with Machiavelli. According to a Shakespearean website (, there are approximately 400 references to The Prince or to Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature. Considering that we only know a fraction of what must have been published then, one can only speculate that perhaps the underlying concepts proposed by this man were referred to, rebutted, supported or mocked, much more widely than we know today. Shakespeare himself made three references to “Machiavel” in his plays. Two of them come out of the mouth of Richard, duke of Gloucester, in Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 3, as noted above.

Why was this done? Well, one of the reasons has to be that the church authorities in England were not especially fond of Machiavelli’s mirror for princes. It was deemed heretical, and believed to have expressed tacit approval for things like judicial murder, duplicity, and for false piety. Cardinal Reginald Pole declared in 1539 that The Prince was the product of “Satan’s hand”. So when the character Richard states he feels like he is making his way through a “thorny wood”, what he means is that he is seeking a way but also “straying from the way” – meaning that he is straying from church dogma, straying away from accepted ideologies of chivalry, and likely straying away from the path to salvation. In other words, he is becoming amorally individualistic, chaotic, and seeking the ends regardless of the means. He threatens all semblance of order. How could we not be horrified and enthralled by him?

This is powerful stuff. And it is great for structuring a character. But I would propose it is premised upon a basic misconception of Machiavelli and The Prince. And, more importantly, it is based on a false premise of the man who lived and came to rule in England: Richard III. If we could make two recalibrations, it would be to re-adjust our accepted thinking about both The Prince and Richard III.

Some of the most controversial parts of The Prince deal with how princes come to power. One of the criticisms leveled at Richard III is that he made too much of seeking to achieve popular support, in lieu of support from the magnates. Yet, Machiavelli is in support of the way he did so. In Chapter 9 of The Prince, the author makes several astute observations about the necessity of obtaining popular support. This is not a bad concept; it is essentially democratic. (Machiavelli was a republican himself; some historians speculate that The Prince was satirical or an effort to thwart monarchy.) If we look upon what Machiavelli says, it is not a bad commentary on how Richard came to power via Titulus Regius, and what Richard was trying to achieve in his Parliament and the early part of his reign:

“He who obtains sovereignty by the assistance of nobles maintains himself with more difficulty than he who comes to it by the aid of the people, because the former finds himself with many around him who consider themselves his equals, and because of this can neither rule nor manage them to his liking. But he who reaches sovereignty by popular favor finds himself alone, and has none around him or few, who are not prepared to obey him.

“Besides this, one cannot by fair dealing, and without injury to others, satisfy the nobles, but you can satisfy the people, for their object is more righteous than that of the nobles, the latter wishing to oppress, whilst the former only desire not to be oppressed.

“Therefore, I say that the nobles ought to be looked at mainly in two ways: that is to say, they either shape their course in such a way as binds them entirely to your fortune, or they do not. Those who so bind themselves, and are not rapacious, ought to be honored and loved; those who do not bind themselves may be dealt with in two ways…. [Those who lack courage to do so] you ought to make use of them, especially of those who are of good counsel…. But when for their own ambitious ends they shun binding themselves, it is a token that they are giving more thought to themselves than to you, and a prince ought to guard against such, and to fear them as if they were open enemies, because in adversity they always help to ruin him.

“But one who, in opposition to the people, becomes a prince by the favour of the nobles ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself, and this he may easily do if he takes them under his protection. Because men, when they receive good from him of whom they were expecting evil, are bound more closely to their benefactor; thus the people quickly become more devoted to him than if he had been raised to the principality by their favours;… But I repeat, it is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly, otherwise he has no security in adversity.

“But granted a prince who has established himself as above, who can command, and is a man of courage, undismayed in adversity, who does not fail in other qualifications, and who, by his resolution and energy, keeps the whole people encouraged – such a one will never find himself deceived in them, and it will be shown that he had laid his foundations well.”

Carefully examining the above text, one would be at a loss to describe it as “unethical”. Machiavelli is being pragmatic, but he is not advising the prince to murder or run roughshod over anyone who opposes him. Indeed, he says that the prince should employ the “unwilling noble” in his service especially when they provide good counsel, as, for example, if they have experience in matters of state, foreign policy, warfare, trade, or international relations. One might even understand why Richard saw a place for Thomas, Lord Stanley in his service, as to ignore him would have been counter-productive. Stanley held a vast affinity along the northern Welsh marches, a large private army, and he was married to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor – a contender for the throne. As the old political adage goes, it is better to have your enemy inside the tent pissing out, than standing outside and pissing into it. Some Ricardians advocate that Richard wasn’t “brutal enough” and he should have executed Stanley. That, indeed, would have been precisely contrary to the advice of Machiavelli, who in Chapter 17 warns that the prince should not execute enemies without due cause, but only on proper justification and for manifest cause. Precisely what “manifest cause” or justification could Richard III have used to order the execution of Stanley in 1483-84? I find it difficult to find one that does not involve retrospective hindsight bias, but it would be interesting to hear arguments on this point.

Other aspects of The Prince can hardly be faulted on an ethical basis, and many do not seek to justify amorality. Chapter 12 warns against the employment of mercenaries or auxiliary armies as they are “useless” and “dangerous”. Chapter 14 recommends the prince study history, warfare, to go hunting – in sum, not to be idle. Chapter 17 states the prince should keep his hands off an executed man’s property “because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony”. (If only Richard II had taken that advice, perhaps Henry Bolingbroke would have been deprived of his cause celebre.) Chapter 18 encourages the prince to cultivate a reputation for being merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. The prince is recommended to honor property rights and not to violate the women of his realm (Chapter 19). The prince should avoid flatterers, have a tight circle of trusted friends, and not be fickle, frivolous, mean-spirited or irresolute (Chapters 19, 23). He should patronize those with ability and proficiency, reward innovators, keep taxes low, entertain people with spectacles and feasts, and hold trade societies and guilds in esteem (Chapter 21).

One of the more controversial statements in The Prince is found in Chapter 18, where Machiavelli states the prince “should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.” Many say the author is advocating false appearances, or a false piety. Nevertheless, all leaders of men in the 15th century had to make occasional concessions to efficacy, notwithstanding their personal piety or professed Christianity. “Saintly” Henry VI did not have clean hands himself; the possible assassination of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, if indeed it was murder, was likely done with his knowledge and consent. Certainly, the duke’s wife was subjected to public humiliation when she was tried for witchcraft, which effectively resulted in Humphrey’s political assassination. And was it ethical for Henry V to order that no prisoners be given quarter at the battle of Agincourt, that all captured French soldiers were to be put to death, rather than ransomed? It was clearly against all principles of chivalry to make such an order. Perhaps it was a bit – Machiavellian – for Henry V to do so.

I realize that there will many who will bitterly disagree with my analysis. I have received messages from devout Ricardians who say it is dangerous, unwise and mistaken to enter down this path. They fear that any sympathetic reading of Machiavelli, or any comparison of Richard III to The Prince, will give force to the viewpoint that he was a dissembler, had always aspired to take the throne, and was an overly-ambitious man willing to kill to achieve his goal. To that, I would respond that we are forced to contend with the reality of Shakespeare’s imprint on Richard III’s reputation. We cannot simply ignore it or wish it away. One way of correcting Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III is to attack the underlying phenotype. Rarely do people fit into neat boxes, or act in predictable ways. Life is not “black and white” and people do not act consistently. We are always left to sift between shades of grey.

A vist to Canterbury

One of our members visited Canterbury Cathedral and its environs recently. He found statues and tombs to the likes of Henry IV and Edward the Black Prince but he couldn’t find the remains of (Cardinal) John Morton. How ironic that, just as Richard III’s remains have been identified beyond reasonable doubt despite the lurid stories of him no longer being at the Leicester Greyfriars, the treasonous cleric really is lost and the ultimate responsibility accrues to the son of the “Tudor” usurper he supported.

Anyway, here are some photos:H4 Outside Tomb Window Window3 Window5

Richard III’s ‘Broken Sword’ portrait….

Richard Broken Sword big.1 Broken Sword - A

There is one portrait of Richard that is not seen very often, perhaps because it is not straightforward…or well painted. For instance, why the broken sword? As a symbol of his defeat and broken monarchy? It is also rather dark and presumably in need of a good clean, presents him with a malformed left hand, the usual ridiculously unbalanced shoulders, andis  generally unsatisfactory. Especially to a Ricardian! But there is something about it that might well be the real Richard. So, needless to say, I have had to have a go at it.

I have tried my best, but the original paintwork is in terrible condition, making it very difficult for an amateur to rectify the cracks and crazing on his face without making him look as if he’s been Max-Factored. As well as that, I could only find one relatively large file of it on the internet. Almost all copies are smallish and therefore awkward to work with.

But here is what I’ve come up with. The broken sword and angled arm has gone, the slashing of his coat has been twiddled, his deformed hand has been tweaked, and his shoulders aren’t like a roller-coaster. In fact, the only way I was able to see anything clearly was by brightening the portrait to show up any light or dark silhouette. His head was particularly strange, being rather narrow at the top, with the hat accordingly narrow as well.

One again, I don’t pretend to have done a professional job, I have just tried to find Richard in there somewhere.

Note: I’m sorry that when my effort is first enlarged, the picture breaks up a little. I don’t know why. But if you enlarge again, it becomes clear again. Well, as clear as I could get it.

Richard III’s portraits reveal his (lack of) deformity….

Richard's Portrait X-ray

Here is an interesting article about the various alterations that have been made to Richard’s portraits. No, not the alterations of which I have been guilty, but the sneakier “Tudor” activities to blacken Richard’s character and appearance. The article is from 2009, with the then knowledge of whether or not Richard was the monster as described by More and Shakespeare, but it is new to me, and, I hope, new to you as well.


Yesterday, Friday 23 January *, is the 531st anniversary of the first sitting of Richard III’s Parliament. It lasted for four weeks and transacted various business, including a codification of the petitition that asked him to become King as “Titulus Regius”. Interestingly, it is only three days from the anniversary of the first (or second) English Parliament, formed by Simon de Montfort,the rebel Earl of Leicester, at Westminster. de Montfort was killed at the battle of Evesham soon afterwards.

* We are fortunate that early 2015 follows early 1484 exactly although the latter was a leap year.

Richard III and the sauce bottle….

Unsmiling Richard III - Antiquaries Portrait Richard, Titles and Rose

Another twiddle of a famous portrait of Richard III, this time the one held by the Society of Antiquaries. I tweaked it before, to give him a little smile rather than the scowl in the original, but now I have gone to work a little more. To me, the original portrait looks as if his right shoulder is that of a bottle of HP sauce, and both shoulders are too narrow. So I have widened them both (the shoulders of his skeleton are not narrow), added to his clothes to compensate for this, and lengthened and changed the angle of his collar. I hope he now looks better….and less like that sauce bottle.

I don’t claim to be a whiz-kid at this sort of thing, so if I’ve now given him some other flaw, I hope you’ll forgive me.

Maybe Thomas & William Stanley, Margaret Beaufort, Bishop Morton, Reginald Bray, John De Vere, Northumberland, and Henry Tydder Were Just Jealous


by Merlyn MacLeod

In the midst of reading an old book from 1965 called The Art of Creative Writing by Lajos Egri, I came across the following. My mind immediately went to the attitudes and actions of certain antagonists in the years, months, and days leading up to the Battle of Bosworth.

“I am speaking of that jealousy which is a deep-rooted affliction; this is the most virulent type and it must be inborn or acquired very early.

“In considering the jealous person in general, we must be aware that he is inferior to those around him. He must realize that his own ability to progress is limited. To admit this limitation is shocking to him and this makes him bitter and jealous. He scrutinizes his adversaries more than an average man would do. He is always alert for the camouflage which hides the phoney. Whether he sees the real thing or not, he is quick to cry, “It is a fake!” He may become a crusader, a human bloodhound against all pretenders, and thus camouflage his own shortcomings.

“Before jealousy there is suspicion; before suspicion, antagonism—the basis for growing hate. No one can be jealous without rancor.

“There are dislikes, such as abhorrence, which are not jealousy. The writer must be aware of the difference between jealousy and other malignant outgrowths of emotion.

“Practically all great men have some kind of physical or mental deficiency that they try to cover up, but when a man throws himself into the maelstrom of human experience and tries to prove with all his might that he is not only as good as his fellow-men but better, his drive is transformed into ambition. While jealousy is really sterile, revolving around its own axis, ambition is a movement arching into the future, eager to build. Even if ambition fails at the end it will be more constructive than the self-destroyer, jealousy.

“An ambitious man is eager for honor, superiority, power, fame and wealth. Why? To cover up the inferiority which he is ashamed of. Inordinate ambition is the sign of greater than normal insecurity and the realization that the importance of being important is an absolute necessity for establishing his superiority over the common herd.” (Italics: Egri)

Since readers of this blog are likely familiar with the players in the unfolding drama that might be called, “The Life and Times of Richard III,” I am not going to review all of the ways the actions of the Stanleys, Beaufort, Morton, Bray, the Earl of Oxford, Northumberland, and Tydder fit this profile—those actions are so numerous, they would fill a book…or a multitude of blog articles.
I do not mean to infer that the aforementioned players were jealous only of Richard III’s power and position. The foundations for their jealousies and resentments were certainly laid by Edward IV…as other jealousies and resentments were laid by Henry IV and Margaret d’Anjou.


REFERENCE: Egri, Lajos, The Art of Creative Writing, Citadel Press, New York, 1965. Taken from Chapter Five, “The Shaping of a Character,” page 43.

More on “The Accidental Traitor”

EHFA Arthur_Capel,_1st_Baron_Capel_by_Henry_Paert_the_Elder

Last year, we posted an essay about the life and death of Arthur Capell, Baron Hadham. Now, thanks to Anna Belfrage of EHA, we can add two portraits (above); one of Hadham alone, and one with his family.

Codpieces by the expert

(Dr. Lucy Worsley that is):

“… I wrote for a newspaper this week.  Hope you enjoy!

arrmour-codpiece‘There is no hidden codpiece memo.’

So says Colin Callendar, executive producer of the upcoming BBC Two drama series Wolf Hall, denying claims that the size of his stars’ codpieces were reduced beyond the point of historical accuracy to avoid offending or baffling an American audience.

Actor Damian Lewis did indeed describe the black velvet codpiece that came with his costume as Henry VIII as a ‘little dinky one.’  But it was Mark Rylance, playing Thomas Cromwell himself, who provided a possible reason why, claiming that ‘modern audiences, perhaps more in America’ might ‘not know exactly what’s going on down there.’

So what exactly is this controversial garment?  The codpiece is buttoned, or tied with strings, to a man’s breeches.  It takes its name from the word ‘cod’, middle English for both ‘bag’ and ‘scrotum’, and arose because medieval men wore hose – essentially, very long socks – beneath their doublets, and nothing else in the way of underwear.

When the fourteenth-century fashion for very short doublets emerged, the codpiece was invented to cover up the gap at the top of those hose.   If you believe ‘the Parson’ in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, it was a much-needed innovation.  He disliked the short doublets of his day because ‘Alas! Some of them show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia’.

Originally just a triangle of cloth, the codpiece became more substantial and more decorative as time went on, until its decline in the late sixteenth century.

The codpiece, of course, forms part of the picture of Henry VIII that we all carry round in our hands.  In the portraits after Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry’s enormous codpiece emphasizes his virility, and hence his capacity for providing England with heirs to the throne.  It forms the very centerpiece of Holbein’s drawing (‘The Whitehall Cartoon’) that gives us Henry’s definitive image.

None of Henry’s fabric codpieces survive, but the suit of his 1540 armour displayed at the Tower of London also has an enormous codpiece in metal, and its size suggests that Holbein was not exaggerating.  Female visitors to the Tower used to stick pins into its lining in the hope that this would increase their own fertility.

Codpieces also functioned a useful little purse for storing precious items like coins, or jewels, and tradition claims this as the origin of the expression ‘a man’s family jewels.’

They are garments that tend to arouse wonder and disbelief in post-Tudor viewers, so much so that the Museum of London has a whole drawer of codpieces that were catalogued, by a bashful Victorian curator, as ‘shoulder pads’.

But none of them were quite as big as the one worn by Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder, in his first, late-medieval, incarnation.  For his installation as Archbishop of Canterbury, Blackadder decides to wear his best and biggest codpiece.

‘Let’s go for the Black Russian,’ he tells Lord Percy.  ‘It always terrifies the clergy.’ “.

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