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.


  1. Thanks for responding to my essay, Merlyn. I agree that you offer a valuable way of discussing Richard III without reference to the Elizabethan distorted concept of Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. Shakespeare played very “fast and loose” with history, and of course it is highly unlikely (even non-sensical) that the real Richard III would have ever mentioned Machiavelli in his life, as “The Prince” was not published until the 16th century. Nonetheless, Machiavelli was a contemporary of Richard III. He was born in 1469, and likely read the same mirrors for princes that were common, for instance De Re Militari (which is addressed only to matters of warfare) and Giles of Rome’s De Regimine principum.

    According to “Richard III’s Books” by Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs (1997), p. 108, Giles of Rome’s mirror for princes holds up an almost impossible standard for princes to meet, although perhaps that was the point. The 12 virtues that a prince must have, according to Giles, are prudence, justice, strength of mind, moderation, love of honor, greatness of soul, liberality, nobility of mind, clemency, truthfulness, courtesy and a pleasant a ready wit. If a prince lacked any one of these virtues, then he was deemed to lack them all. But Giles did identify four of these virtues as being “cardinal”: prudence; justice; strength of mind; and moderation. “Of course no king or prince could live up to such a standard, but at least later medieval princes had to ensure their propaganda conformed to these criteria of perfectionism” (Ibid, p. 111). Sutton and Visser-Fuchs reference a piece by L.K. Born, “The perfect prince: a study in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century ideals”, Speculum, 3 (1928). That may offer a useful perspective on the ideals of princely conduct in the matters of state, etc., and of course you have mentioned others.


    1. The problem, as I see it, is that Machiavelli can’t be considered a contemporary of Richard the man, and “The Prince” cannot be considered a valid reference for a Ricardian scholar to use when they discuss the real Richard.

      Machiavelli was born in May of 1469. Richard was 17 then, and in the fall of that year he took back two Welsh castles for Edward. The next year, Warwick invaded England, and Edward, Richard, et. al. went into exile for a few months. Machiavelli was 16 when Richard died, and “The Prince” was neither circulated or published until decades after 1485.

      While Machiavelli may have read the same treatises of war and governance that Richard did, real-life applications of the medieval “mirrors for princes” genre was pretty much thrown out the window when it came to the competing rulers of the warring Italian city-states of the Renaissance — which is the world Machiavelli knew, how he came to be in exile, and how the “The Prince” came to be written in the first place.

      Machiavelli and the real-life Richard just do not line up with each other. Machiavelli and the Tudors/Shakespeare, however, line up nicely.

      As I pointed out in my article above: “We may…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.”

      Incidentally, the Virtues you discuss above originated in Catholic Church doctrine and were supposed to be part of everyone’s [medieval] life. In addition to the mirrors for princes genre, they were woven into the chivalric treatises of Richard’s time (see Llull and de Charney) and were part of the image of “the perfect knight” whose warrior archetype was St. Michael the Archangel.

      “The Prince” was written smack in the middle of the Reformation, and the medieval application of the Virtues were part of what the Protestant reformers threw out. There’s a societal and religious chasm between the secular and religious world Machiavelli lived in, and the secular and religious world Richard lived in.

      We’re on firm footing only if we return to the medieval mirror of princes genre and throw Machiavelli out completely when it comes to discussing the real Richard. If we get pulled into discussing Richard-as-affected-by-Machiavelli, then we’re crossing into Tudor times, and the Richard III only as presented by Shakespeare, who walks the stage as a fictional character in an entirely different secular and religious world.


      1. Let me be clear. I never suggested that Richard III had read The Prince or even knew about Machiavelli. My essay was to intended to make a full-frontal attack on Shakespeare’s distorted concept of “Machiavellianism” and to ask the modern reader to engage in a new understanding of what was actually written in The Prince. Most people seem to focus on a small fraction of it; for instance, they seem to walk around thinking that Machiavelli wrote one or two things, that “it is better to be feared than to be loved” and/or that “the ends justify the means”. When one actually reads The Prince in its entirety, one will find it gives expression to much that was honored by his Medieval predecessors, and this is not surprising, given the great lengths that Machiavelli goes to in describing well-known examples from the Roman classical era, and other examples from the Medieval age. The upshot of my essay was to acknowledge (1) the Shakepearean myth of Richard III won’t go away no matter how much we wish it to; and (2) that the caricature of Shakespeare’s character is based upon an overly-narrow and distorted reading of Machiavelli. I don’t see why this is dangerous or illicit, unless you subscribe to the ideology of Shakespeare’s time. Personally, I don’t.

        To forbid any analysis of people’s motivations or impulses, or any analysis of the times in which they lived, to say our analysis should be limited by what they had in their libraries, is perhaps the most dangerous proposition there is in historical interpretation. Would you like to be judged solely by what you have in your library? Surely, you would feel the need to correct someone who only views you in such an abstraction, without any consideration of the other influences that you encountered in your life. It presupposes that there is a “bright line” between the Medieval Age and the Renaissance – when no bright lines existed. As though their ears and minds were stoppered by plugs and they didn’t have inquisitive or curious minds. I think that does great discredit to examining the history. It does discredit to Richard, who owned a Wycliffiite New Testament, and it was known (and is actually documented) that he did support to some extent the flowering of Humanism that was happening during his lifetime. Cambridge even wrote a wonderful epigram to Richard III based on his appreciation of Italianate discourse.

        Richard III’s own pastor – John Doggett – had studied in Italy. I could give you a sizeable account of how many in his service travelleved, lived and studied in Padua. It is quite amazing. The ideas coming from Italy definitely had an impact in 15th century England and Roberto Weiss does a thorough job examining them. England was an island, but it wasn’t isolated from the rest of the world. Machiavelli has received a twisted and erroneous gloss on what he was saying, mostly due to the never-ending debates in humanity between what is Ideal and what is Pragmatic. But to forbid, to narrow, to say that people only subscribed to accepted orthodoxy – well, that tends to give credence to the very narrowness of characters on a stage.


  2. Excellent Merlyn. Once more it simply reinforces: a) what evidence do we have that attests to Richard’s character? Records from York show he was absolutely beloved; and b) what evidence do we have of Tudor? Despite his best efforts at propaganda, numerous people of the time comment about his duplicity and capacity for intrigue.

    What is equally astounding is the # of records that simply do not exist anymore from the 1483 – 1485 time period. Many from before and after exist and are available for study by scholars.

    Did Tudor’s men destroy most records from Richard’s period in power – the ones they could get to? Plenty available in York, not much in London.
    We know the city fathers of York kept Tudor’s men at a distance – even killing one of their own accord as he attempted to collect Tudor’s new taxes.

    It’s obvious to me what occurred.

    Whatever Richard read or did not read, it is quite evident he ruled much differently then his successor.

    Liked by 1 person

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