TO BELIEVE – OR NOT TO BELIEVE – THAT IS THE QUESTION
Most Ricardians have spent many years honing their beliefs and building up a knowledgeable sympathy and regard for the character and actions of Richard III during his lamentably shot life-time.
But even passionate supporters often disagree. Endless arguments (usually amicable I’m pleased to add) continue between supporters. Whether Richard had a wild romantic love affair with his wife Anne Neville, or just a friendly political arrangement, is a major disagreement. Some accept that Richard probably did design and order the murder of Edward IV’s two sons. Others strongly object to such an idea and have a certain amount of logic to back up their theories. But they are all theories, one way or the other. The death of Hastings is a point that arouses considerable emotion. Did Richard suffer a temper tantrum and send Hastings off to the block with little reason (and suffer for it in the end as he would have benefited from Hasting’s backing during Bosworth) – or was Hastings caught in major treasonous behaviour, and Richard simply reacted as he had to in order to keep the peace as was his duty as Protector and Defender of the Realm and High Constable of the Realm. Another argument which often surprises me, concerns the last cavalry charge at Bosworth – was this a well orchestrated and pre-planned manoeuvre, or was it a tempestuous and emotional last-minute decision on seeing that the battle was turning against him? I have even heard some people believing that it was a suicidal action, since he was distraught after losing his wife and child.
So if we Ricardians can’t agree, then why should it surprise us that others strongly believe Richard was some kind of manipulative monster? Well, for a start – it isn’t logical and doesn’t fit with contemporary pre-Tudor sources. But who cares about logic these days?
A statement by the avid anti-Ricardian Desmond Seward recently amused me. He said, without apparent shame, that it was much more fun to believe in the monster. What an amazing character, he crowed, this creature of utter evil – and what darkly delicious deeds which we can write about. How much more interesting, he insisted, to think of the villain than some boring paragon of virtue. He more or less admitted that his chosen attitude was inspired simply by a juvenile desire for a good adventurous romp.
Shakespeare has certainly influenced many. That charismatic villain is truly irresistible. Lovers of drama just don’t care whether it is fiction or fact. It’s simply a wonderful story. On the other hand, an acceptance of Thomas More’s odd scraps of ‘history’, is less a matter of belief than of pure ignorance, since no one who has genuinely studied those pages could actually take them as serious documentation. But the wicked scheming murderer who duped the whole of England until the shining Tudor heroes came along to save the world, honestly does make an appealing story. As long as you remember it is utter fiction. But that’s the crux of it. Who cares about truth these days?
I doubt many ardent anti-Richardians have ever actually studied the subject at all. They have picked up snippets and read the gossip – just as they do with the daily newspapers and T.V., preferring the scandal rather than the boring old political debates. It’s all to do with what celebrities wore yesterday – who is cheating on who – who is about to get a divorce – and so on. The more negative, the better! Most of them probably know it’s all rubbish – but that’s what they want to read and it’s what they want to devour. It makes their own boring lives seem a little less grindingly slow.
Those who have studied and still get it all wrong (Hicks and Weir) seem to feel a genuine antipathy which is harder to understand. For them, hating Richard almost becomes a passion. I find that sad. I would sooner be an ardent lover than an ardent hater. Hating someone who died over 500 years ago seems a rather unpleasant indication of anyone’s character.
But I also find many anti-Ricardians are actually inspired by a ‘holier-than-thou’ irritation with the Ricardians themselves. These set out to prove us idiots, simply because they can’t stand all our conviction and devotion. I know some authors who claim a considerable interest in Richard III, but who write frequent articles complaining voraciously and exclusively about the antics of Ricardians – yet hardly ever even bother writing about Richard himself. There’s something about determined and emotional support that makes others want to show a determined anti-support. To oppose, purely for the sport of opposition, appears to attract some people. Think of those who get drunk and immediately start a fight. If I get drunk (well, when I was young it happened sometimes) I wanted cuddles, smiles and sleep. Others want to punch you in the face. Anti-Ricardians don’t need to get drunk. They just have that sort of personality with a perverse desire to prove the opposite (even when they can’t prove anything at all.)
Maybe that’s just humanity. Sad, but true. Personally I find such a host of evidence supporting Richard’s compassion, loyalty and righteous behaviour, that I cannot imagine anyone with a serious and intelligent interest not eventually coming out strongly on Richard’s side. I came to my own conclusions based on lengthy study and deliberation – not on a whim of perversity.
But we are also hampered by a lack of contemporary documentation. And thanks to the Tudor victory there are far more later chronicles condemning Richard than supporting him. If only there was a more even playing field then perhaps there would be more understanding. Yet – surprisingly – the one very genuine and strongly worded document we do have from the period – Titulus Regius – is frequently discounted and disbelieved. Sometimes you just can’t win.