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A Fateful Convergence – two men with complex loyalties who faced the same place of execution

Giaconda's Blog

122 Plaque for Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

I recently visited Salisbury in Wiltshire and stood by the plaque which commemorates the execution on 2nd November 1483 of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham on the site of the Blue Boar Inn. His ghost is said to haunt Debenhams which stands on the ground where he was publicly beheaded for treason against his King on that chilly Sunday so long ago and yet so near to those of us who live some portion of our lives in the C15th. I spent a few moments trying to clear away the traffic furniture and buses and clinically decorated perfume aisles through the plate glass and imagining what it was like to stand in that market square with a sense of dreadful anticipation, waiting to see a peer of the realm be brought out and meet his fate. There are a few medieval buildings around the…

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A Cynic’s Guide to the History Profession

The Social Historian


History is the most deeply dishonourable profession there is, at least outside the Square Mile.

The basic premise is that people die, and then you denounce them. It’s a bit like being a reverse version of Kim Jong-Un, but with worse hair.

For the uninitiated, though, it’s also a minefield of complexity. So here, for your immense benefit, I’ve cast my jaundiced eye over the intellectual world I call home, hoping to help you tell your RHS from your EEBO.

(Note to my employers. This is satire. Many of our History students have obviously had happy experiences of their studies and have since gone on to fulfilling lives as management consultants.

If I’ve been rude about your kind of history and you’re upset about it, get over yourself. If I’ve not, then you’re clearly just not interesting enough. Sorry.)

Historian – professional inspector of finished works, who makes a living…

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Feuding and fighting.

I am currently reading a book about the reconstruction of the Welsh Highland Railway. For those who don’t know, this was a narrow gauge line that lay completely derelict (all track lifted) for more than 70 years. Eventually, after a hideously complex and titanic struggle against the odds, it was rebuilt and you can now ride on it. And a very nice ride it is too, all the way from Caernarfon to Porthmadog.

So what has this to do with Yorkist England? you may reasonably ask. Well, the first few chapters of the book describe the ongoing feud between two factions who wanted to own the railway. They were all railway enthusiasts, naturally, and they all wanted the railway to reopen, but both sides had their own views as to how it could be done. And, boy, did they squabble! Actually squabble doesn’t cover it – it was a long saga of bitterness and outright hatred that still leaves scars to this day. A number of ‘powerful personalities’ were engaged on both sides, and no one was willing to give an inch. Occasionally there was an attempt to bring the two sides together, but the conferences grew as heated as those you might find in a stalemated civil war. There was no loveday here! Only at the very end, when one side had clearly lost through courts and public enquries and ministerial decisions, was a sort of agreement reached.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the matter of Richard III. We are all history enthusiasts, and we all have the same objective – historical truth. The only difficulty is that, unlike the reopening of a railway, ‘historical truth’ is not a tangible end. Certainly not when we have a fair bit of evidence, but virtually nothing in the way of proof. Sadly, the discovery of Richard’s body seems to have acted as a catalyst in terms of deepening the bitterness and intensity of the debate around him.

I am a long standing Ricardian. I make no bones about it. I am biased in Richard’s favour. I wish everyone in the debate would be equally frank, instead of pretending to be independent thinkers, free from bias, and with no particular agenda. If you think Henry VII was in the right, why not just say so?

I am frankly sick of the level of abuse aimed at me, and people like me. For example:

1. That all my ideas on Richard are based on reading novels. This may be true of some Ricardians, but certainly not all. Indeed, I can think of some who very pointedly do not read novels at all. Most of us, believe it or not, read factual history books all the time. Including those with which we disagree, in whole or part. To suggest otherwise is downright insulting. The accusation is particularly annoying because it is clear that many of the anti-Richards are heavily influenced by ‘popular history’ which is almost invariably overly dependent on the fictions of More and Shakespeare. Like fiction, ‘popular history’ is a useful introduction for newcomers, but nothing matches the reading of serious history texts and original sources.

2. The suggestion that the likes of me secretly want to go to bed with Richard. Poor Philippa Langley has had this thrown at her left, right and centre. It is absurd, and one wonders how the anti-Richards would care to be characterised as the Brides (or Grooms) of Henry VII, or perhaps more aptly, of Anthony Woodville? One suspects that all hell would break loose.

3. The intellectual arrogance of people who appear to know what happened in 1483-1485. How, were they there in a previous life? Were they, perhaps, Lady Rivers? They claim to know things that even fringe members of Richard III’s own court would not have known for certain! Most Ricardians, if pushed, will admit the possibility that Richard did away with the boys, or that Edward IV did not marry Eleanor Talbot. The anti-Richard brigade are rarely willing to concede the converse. It is as if they have some secret store of knowledge that contains the absolute historical truth.

4. The homophobic abuse aimed at a particular distinguished historian who dares to differ from the ‘party line’.  We Ricardians may have our faults, but I honestly don’t recall any of us stooping to such a low, even though there is at least one very large and prominent target on the ‘other side’.

This is written more in sorrow than in anger. I don’t expect peace to break out any time soon, especially as people on both sides seem to want to confine themselves to echo chambers. I just hope that the general tone of debate takes an upward turn.

Signs of the Times – the Handwriting of Richard III

I have recently reread an interesting book about analysing handwriting and have had fun playing about with my friends’ writing and seeing if their handwriting matches their characters; it mainly does.

So, being interested in Richard III, I thought I would (just for fun) have a go at analysing his writing at different times in his life and see if I could get any insight into the man.

I know there have been others who analysed his writing, one of which I know concluded that he suffered with depression. I have used what I learned in the book (link to follow) but also added some of my own thoughts. There are some aspects which puzzle me and I will leave these open for discussion. First of all, let me make it clear, once again, that this is purely for fun. Also, you will understand that, as mediaeval writing differs quite a bit from modern writing, there are some aspects which might be confused or difficult to interpret because of that. For example, the letters are generally written in a more angular way, in that the rounded letters (a, o, p, d, etc) are squarer. Perhaps this is because of the writing implements used, but interestingly, the more sharp and angular the writing the less soft and more aggressive the character is. Well, we all know what a generally violent and aggressive period of history it was; maybe their writing reflected that.

Looking at Richard’s writing, let us first examine his earliest known signature, written in about 1465, with the motto ‘Tant le Desiree’ in one of his books on chivalry.

Signature of Richard III


We can see the angular ‘o’ I mentioned and the generally angular script, but I think it is quite a flowing hand compared to some others of the times, which suggests to me that Richard was more merciful than the norm. The signature is larger than the rest of the writing (which is about the same size as the motto), showing that Richard was confident in his own identity and importance. Another obvious aspect of this signature is that it is very clear and legible. We all know people who sign their names illegibly, and it was no different then. Just look at this signature:

Warwick sigCan you decipher it? I will tell you whose it is later. But returning to Richard, the legible nature of his signature shows he is not hiding anything! If you disguise your signature you are trying to hide an aspect of yourself. Richard’s is very much ‘What you see is what you get’. See the way he has crossed the ‘ts’ in ‘tant’ from the vertical stem more to the right than the left; as we write from left to right, left corresponds to the past, which suggests that he is forward thinking rather than dwelling on the past, or he might prefer not to think about the past.

Notice that the level of the writing is slightly upward moving (as is the second signature), showing, far from depression, a positive outlook. This can change according to one’s mood. Check you own writing the next time you feel down to see if it is going downhill too.

There is quite large spacing between each word and between the ‘R’ and the ‘Gloucestre’, revealing that Richard needs to be alone at times.

Look at the clear ‘o’s and ‘a’s in his writing – they are the communication letters. They are clear and well-formed, and firmly closed. This means Richard was a good communicator and that he was the kind of person who could keep a confidence.

Now look at the hard, heavy downward stroke of the ‘s’ in Gloucestre; this shows he could have a temper at times.

Looking at the upper zone (where the tall letters and capitals extend above the level of the ‘o’s and ‘a’s), they are generally more than twice the height of the ‘o’s – this shows his intellectual abilities, which must have been considerable.

Now, in the book the author is mainly analysing criminals’ and murderers’ writing and she comments that often their weapon of choice appears in their writing subconsciously. Since we know that they all had weapons and it was very violent in those times, I suppose it’s no surprise to see weapon-shaped letters in Richard’s writing (as in others’ of the times): look at the ‘s’ again, in Gloucestre – does it look like a dagger? But what is that little scribbly thing at the end? A flower? A rose? Considering the nature of the book it appears in, perhaps it’s a lady’s favour on the end of a lance?

There are no lower zone letters present in this snippet (I’m not counting the ‘s’ since it doesn’t go below the line in modern script, nor does it have a ‘tail’, like a ‘g’ or ‘y’), so I am unable to analyse his sexual inclinations at this juncture.

Let us move on to the next sample:

Signatures J Say

Here, we see his signature is more confident and firm, but look at the huge space between the ‘R’ and ‘Gloucestre’! He has a great need for solitude, reinforced by the greater spaces in the bulk of the P.S. than in the main part of the letter (written by a scribe or secretary).

His high intellect is still apparent, shown by the long ‘l’ in Gloucestre and the high part of the ‘u’s. Here we can see his lower zone (lower parts of ‘g’ and ‘y’) and it balances out the higher zone well, showing he had a keen interest and capacity for sex. As he was about 16 or 17 when this was written (1469), it is hardly surprising!

His communication letters are again well-formed and clear and his signature legible. His signature is about the same size as the rest of the letter, showing he was no arrogant or considered himself superior to the recipient.

Look at the ‘p’ in ‘pray’; can you see the down stroke which extends above the rounded part of it? This is called a ‘pugilistic p’ and indicates an argumentative nature. We know he argued eloquently against his brother George over his marriage to Anne and the Neville estates, so this is probably correct.

See the letter ‘I’ – this is important as ‘I’ represents your own identity and can reflect your relationships with your parents. The upper part of the ‘I’ represents the mother relationship and the lower the father link. As you can see, Richard’s upper part of the ‘I’ is large and curved, showing he had a normal and positive relationship with his mother, but the lower part is minimal and dwindling off, which indicates a distant or unknown father – we know Richard’s father was killed when he was eight, so he wouldn’t have had a deep relationship with him.

Next sample:

Richard sig 1471-75This occurred in 1471-75. By this time, Richard had fought in two battles and been wounded himself. He had considerable success in this and this must have increased his confidence, – see how large his signature is now?

Also, note the large ‘X’ over the letter ‘G’ in Gloucester? There are also other, less distinct ‘x’s in the ‘R’ and the ‘st’ combination. ‘X’s in the signature indicate a preoccupation with death. After his experiences in the bloody battles and subsequent executions of Barnet and Tewkesbury, is it any wonder death would be an ever-present thought and fear? You will find ‘x’s in many mediaeval signatures, which should surprise no-one, as death was always just around the corner then, and not such a taboo subject as it is now.

Additionally, you can see his ‘R’ and ‘Gloucestre’ are closer together than before and his letters are leaning a little more to the right. This indicates that he was happier in company with others now – perhaps because of the camaraderie of the soldier?

The ‘o’s are still clear, his communication skills undiminished and direct. However, the signature as a whole is a bit more indistinct and, though not illegible, it is more difficult to decipher. Is he learning how to keep back certain parts of his persona? Finally, look again at the initial ‘R’; does it remind you of an axe? A battleaxe? An executioner’s axe? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about that!

Next, from 1478:

Richard sig 1478This is essentially very similar to the previous one, but note the broken line in the top of the ‘G’? I think he was suffering from a headache when he wrote this.

Next, from ‘that time’ in 1483, this was the signature which was one of three with Edward V and the Duke of Buckingham:

Richad III sig

This signature is notably more legible than the previous few and includes his first name. Also apparent is his motto, Loyaulte Me Lie, which we all know. This shows he was sincere and open – we are back to ‘what you see is what you get’.

His communication letters are still clear; his signature is not much larger than the motto, showing his lack of any great ambition.

Note the bracket/squiggle connecting the motto and the name, reinforcing the link and underlying the fact that this motto is sincerely held by Richard. Plus there are no ‘x’s or ‘axes’.

However, look at the ‘m’ in ‘me’ and the ‘h’ in ‘Richard’ – see the extra strokes on the left side of them? They are resentment strokes.   Did he resent that he wasn’t king? Or having to babysit the new king? The end of his normal life in Yorkshire? The interference of the Woodvilles? I suggest the latter.

The next samples are from when he was king. Here is the first which is from his letter to the Archbishop asking for the seal so he can put down Buckingham’s rebellion. He wrote the postscript himself having found out about Buckingham’s betrayal and is the one where he calls him ‘the most untrue creature living’.

letter re BuckinghamThe first things to notice are the large numbers of heavy, downward strokes which indicate his anger – he was furious! I don’t know if the ink blots were his too, but if they were that serves to reinforce the violent emotions coursing through him. There are also pugilistic ‘p’s and resentment marks galore too (look for extra strokes at the beginnings of letters that shouldn’t have them – ‘m’s, ‘h’s, ‘y’s, ‘n’s).

I think he was writing quickly and urgently, which has made the writing much less legible than normal for him.

His usual script shows great self-control and I think he ‘lost it’ here.

Next, from1484 – A Venetian document:

Richard III sigSee how large and showy it is – it is for public consumption and he wants to be perceived as powerful and strong.

The ‘axe’ is back! He is not to be trifled with.

The communication letters remain clearly defined and his intelligence is again emphasised. The upright nature of it shows he is again in control of himself.


Letter to Cecily See the difference here; the signature is much smaller and less angular and the letters are of more consistent size. This is a private letter he wrote to his mother Cecily.

I believe he loved his mother, indicated by the rounded, flowing writing.

He also respected her, because his signature was the same size as the body of the letter – he signs himself ‘your most humble son’ and again links this to his name – he means it – his signature is humble.

And see the ‘I’s again – look how large the loops are coming down from the top (the mother area): they come right down into the father area, perhaps showing that his mother is all he has left – his father is gone and she represents both parents.

The words are now very close together and leaning more to the right – he is close to his mother and shows his feelings more with her.

There are still some resentment marks, but I feel this is a general thing with him now – he had quite a lot to resent by this time.

I don’t see depression even here – the lines of writing are going uphill rather than down. The pressure is even, showing no anger here.

He mentions Collyngbourne, (fifth line up from the bottom, on the left) who was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason – do you see anything like a scaffold in his name?!

Well, that is my interpretation for your entertainment – as you can see I have used my imagination and intuition a lot. Perhaps you can notice some other traits in the various samples – if so, please comment.

Oh and who was the second signature? It was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.

The book I enjoyed reading about analysing handwriting is: Sex Lies and Handwriting

Apologies to the author if I have misinterpreted anything and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

Another view on the pre-contract

Matthew Lewis says:

Note that the first remaining record of the Woodville “ceremony” was in the 1484 Titulus Regius.

Another prominent possible bigamist?

Here we introduce the case of the future President Kennedy:

There are some clear differences. We don’t have full length research by a doctor of history, as we do for Edward IV. American law doesn’t allow for the “per verba de praesenti/ de futura” secret marriage and there would have been official records and witnesses. The 1545-63 Council of Trent also banned the concept of secret marriage throughout the Catholic world, to which the Kennedy family belonged. There are American states in which divorce and annulment are exceptionally easy.

There are similarities as well. Both men were members of very powerful families, with the opportunity to intimidate or persuade inconvenient witnesses, but Kennedy’s father was still alive.

Not Hating Henry

I admit it: when I first fell for Richard III and through him, the House of York and Wars of the Roses history in general, I hated Henry VII. (I also hated his mother Margaret Beaufort, the perfidious Stanleys, the late queen Margaret of Anjou, and anyone else I could blame for bringing harm upon my beloved Yorkists). But blind hate – like blind love – doesn’t help an objective study of history. For some vehement anti-Ricardians, the absolute conviction that Richard III was a nephew-murdering usurper warps their entire view of the man, negating every positive achievement in his life before and during his reign, and denying the possibility that his character might have possessed any likeable or praiseworthy aspects. Similarly, for some vehement pro-Ricardians, Henry VII is akin to the anti-Christ, a snivelling, cowardly pretender for whose sake a good and rightful king was treacherously done to death. Initially, the latter was my view – but the more I’ve studied the period, its personalities and politics, the more sympathy I’ve come to feel for everyone involved in that difficult, dangerous time. So, at the risk of making myself thoroughly unpopular, I’ll tell you why I don’t hate Henry: basically, it wasn’t his fault. Yes, think about it: once upon a time, just like Richard III, Henry was an innocent child caught up in a political situation that was none of his making and beyond his control. By pure accident of birth he was deprived of his inheritance, separated from his mother, and in 1472, (as the last faint spark of the Lancastrian claim to the crown), forced to flee for his life with his uncle Jasper Tudor. En route to seek help from Jasper’s cousin, Louis XI of France, they were blown off course and landed in Brittany, where they were obliged to beg asylum from Duke Francis II. Recognising them as valuable pawns in any future diplomatic games with France and England, the Duke was pleased to grant this – and thus, at the age of fourteen, began Henry’s long term of effective, if luxurious, imprisonment. So as he entered his majority, instead of taking possession of the lordship of Richmond, building his affinity, developing his career, looking for a suitable wife and enjoying all the normal rights and privileges of his rank, this blameless youth was being shunted around the Duke’s chateaux under close guard, like some priceless piece of furniture, to prevent him either being rescued by the French or captured (and probably killed) by Yorkist agents. It’s easy to imagine the sense of burning injustice, festering resentment and outright hatred building up in his heart – he certainly had no reason to love the House of York. But he had every reason to leap at the chance of revenge, and of securing an unexpectedly glorious future, which presented itself in the aftermath of Edward IV’s untimely demise in 1483. I don’t blame him for that, either – and the rest, as they say, is history. I still don’t warm to Henry VII as a character, although I believe that his dislikeable traits including suspicion, domination and avarice are a direct result of the fear, deprivation and insecurity he experienced in his early life. Nor do I particularly rate him as a monarch – his first act, predating his reign to the 21st August 1485 in order to attaint the late king’s supporters, was a nasty trick; his later treatment of the unfortunate Princess Katherine of Aragon was heartless in the extreme; and he did plenty of other stuff in between that I can’t like or approve of. Having said that, he performed remarkably well considering his unpromising start and lack of training for such office, and was a paragon of competence compared to the previous Henry. And while I’d still prefer the result of the Battle of Bosworth to have been reversed, (I think Richard III was a good king and, had he lived, would have made a great one), I’d prefer it even more if that battle had never happened at all: if Edward IV had reconciled with the Tudors, made allies of the Earls of Pembroke and Richmond, and that Henry had subsequently supported Richard’s assumption of the throne – surely their combined abilities would have made them a medieval government dream-team! So while I might not exactly like Henry VII, I can no longer find it in my heart to hate him… because I suspect that if I’d been in his position, I’d have done much the same. And if you’re open to persuasion on the subject, try reading Chris Skidmore’s Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors – it might rouse your sympathy for Henry, as it did mine.

Coming to Know Richard III: The Fictional Character vs. The Actual Man


“Life is like a prism. What you see depends on how you turn the glass.”
~Jonathan Kellerman

In the late 80s, I made the acquaintance of a classically trained British actor. Born in Guernsey, he served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and was imprisoned in a German prisoner-of-war camp for three years, from 1942 to 1945. Until I learned that he and his fellow prisoners were forced to perform Shakespeare before the guards, and that the guards had demanded he take the female roles, I did not understand his groundedness, his wicked sense of humor, his unspoken but clear compassion for a friend who had been abused in certain ways during her youth, and his unfailing attitude of, “I’ve seen bad, and this isn’t it.”

Until we know someone’s past, we can’t understand him. We also can’t know what he cares about or what motivates him.

While developing Richard as a character for multiple novels, and wanting to make him different in each novel, I realized that both historians and writers of fiction already see him and his motivations as if through a glass prism or a spectroscope. Some might argue that Shakespeare is to blame for the archetypal Machiavellian villain many think of when they think of Richard, but the human need to shoebox and categorize things and people, and the majority’s willingness to accept a traditional category without personally researching its historical validity likely have more to do with what the average person thinks about Richard…if the average person ever thinks about Richard.

Will the Real Richard III Please Step Forward?

In Richard’s case, we know some events of his life, but we do not know which events were meaningful enough to him to have helped shape who he was.

The major historical events are known and can be traced. Only occasionally can Richard’s reactions be traced, and we are entirely ignorant as to his motivations even when we think we know his motivations. But a plethora of writers – both of history and of fiction – have looked at the events Richard lived through or participated in, and they’ve gone on to decide what was important to him, and why. And so it is that most who have bothered to write about Richard have assigned subjective motivations to him.

It’s doubtful this will ever change because the temptation is too strong in most people for them to resist overlaying their personal feelings and reactions in response to the historical events that affected Richard or his contemporaries. A problem occurs when one writer accuses another writer’s reasoning as “wrong” when there can be no proven “right” answers to the mysteries in Richard’s life. Some people seem to forget the mysteries are many. Things like “What happened to the princes in the Tower?” and, “Did Edward IV marry Lady Eleanor Talbot before he married Elizabeth Woodville?” and, “What did Anne Neville die of? What did Edward of Middleham die of?” will always remain mysteries. Some people seem to forget that, too.

It can be fun to debate the points and possibilities, but many of us don’t know how to have fun debating. Many of us don’t even know how to debate. As the old Goon Show line goes, “I’m not saying she’s insane, but she leaves her premises immediately.”[i]

YOUR Richard is Too Hot, Cold, Romantic, Incestuous, Weak, Murderous, Tender, Loving, Psychotic, Paternal, Devoted, Comical, Tedious, Arrogant, Sneaky, and I Love/Hate Him, So Nyah!

When a writer of fiction uses Richard as a character, the writer makes certain subjective decisions about the character which are dictated by the story the writer wishes to tell. The Richard a writer creates is his or her own interpretation of the man, and the events and people in the real Richard’s life influence that interpretation as the story demands. A romantic novel featuring Anne Neville and Richard would focus on different events and character actions and reactions than an historical novel featuring Richard training as a squire to become a knight under the Earl of Warwick’s men.

No fictional Richard-construction is “better” or “worse” than any other. As Oscar Wilde said, “Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” If you don’t like a particular flavor of tea, you can be nice and leave the pot for others to enjoy. You might even wander off to create your own flavor of Richard-tea. In any case, your flavor of Richard-tea is over there safely shelved on your bookshelf or still in your head. No one has messed with him, and you’re free to drink him up as you like.

MY Historical Rendition of Richard is The Definitive Version, Full Stop, Forevah! I’ll Snarl at Anyone Who Says Otherwise, So Nyah!

When a professional or amateur historian writes about history, he or she usually takes a position regarding their subject, and they back up their stance by interpreting historical events. (When you find an historian who’s neutral, send them roses, thank them profusely, and buy everything they’ve written. New. Yes, from that expensive university or independent press.) In the case of someone like Winston Churchill, there’s a plethora of contemporary source material, and the subject’s reactions and motivations are on record, so the historian has only to extrapolate Churchill’s reactions and motivations. But then, Churchill knew he was making history. Richard III didn’t. He was likely only trying to survive and take care of what mattered to him…like thousands of other people, noble and commoner, around him. (See what I did there? Create motivations for R3’s actions and other people’s actions, too? See how easy it is?)

In the case of Richard III, contemporary source material is so sparse, it’s not possible for anyone to reliably extrapolate Richard’s reactions and motivations, so contradictory interpretations are inevitable and multiple from the 15th century long into the future.

Every historian writing about Richard forms and expresses his or her opinions and theories without being able to provide definitive proofs to convince their audience because definitive proofs do not exist in Richard’s case.There is evidence. There is probability. Good writers weigh both, but ultimately nothing but conjecture is possible where his reactions and motivations are concerned because the king’s skeleton was not found clutching a thick tome in its bony fingers that contained its owner’s private thoughts in neat middle English, and no archive has yet yielded same.

So whenever a professional or amateur analyst of Richard III, his life and his times, expounds on Richard’s personal motivations and goes on to offer definitive answers to any of the myriad mysteries regarding him, they’re actually expounding on what their own imagination has come up with. So unless an historical writer or blogger confines themselves to the known facts and doesn’t venture into the realm of, “Richard did X because he felt Y,” it’s all conjecture…unless someone has a direct line to the Unseen Realm and to Richard, or to the elusive Akashic Records. And if they do, I wish they’d bottle and sell it so the rest of us can play, too.

All we can do as The Audience is apply or not apply critical thinking to what we read and hear regarding Richard. If all we do is absorb the opinions and theories of others, then we have no studied, deliberate theories or opinions of our own. And that’s sad, and perhaps lazy of us. But then I wonder…how many of us have been taught critical-thinking skills?

Shakespeare Knew How to Have Fun with His Duke of Gloucester

Like it or not, Richard III as a character in fiction is forever fair game. He’s also a wonderful character to play with. You can let your imagination run riot to create a romance, a comedy, or a tragedy with him, and no one can tell you that you’re wrong to do so. (Actually, they will tell you, but you’re free to pity the Mrs. Grundys of the world for missing out on all the fun while you go back to playing with him and irritating them.)

In Richard’s real life, events continued shaping who he was throughout his life. It’s the same with us as well, but in fiction a writer will assign a character only one (1) meaningful life event. That one event helps the reader to understand the character, know what he cares about, and know what motivates him. The meaningful event is also the foundation for:

  1.  What the character wants
  2.  What choices the character makes when he’s stressed
  3.  The story’s theme

When the writer chooses the meaningful event carefully and uses it to their best advantage, they’re able to manipulate their audience’s emotions and reactions. This is great fun, hopefully for the audience as much as for the writer — if the writer does it right.

Shakespeare’s audience couldn’t claim they weren’t warned as to his Richard’s Meaningful Event, since the Bard has the Duke of Gloucester lay it all out in the soliloquy opening “Richard III.” What’s amazing is that this particular Meaningful Event was created full-cloth in Tudor times, by Tudor writers, and traditional historians have taken it as religious historical dogma ever since. It took Philippa Langley, John Ashdown-Hill, a whole lot of money from a whole lot of international Richard supporters, and Richard’s voice speaking from beyond the grave through his bones to offer the definitive proof that hey, he wasn’t at all as the Tudor writers (*cough* Thomas More, the Croyland Chronicle, etc. etc. etc.) and Old Willie presented him. And if the Tudors and Willie were wrong about Richard’s physical attributes, the next question to ask is: What else did they get wrong about him?

Lie to Me Once, Shame on You. Lie to Me Twice, and I’ll Never Believe Another Thing You Tell Me

When a witness on the stand in a court trial lies about one thing, their entire testimony is thrown out. They also instantly become a defendant, and they can be put on trial for perjury. So it is with Tudor propaganda. Once you catch a Tudor chronicler in one lie, their entire chronicle – down to the smallest detail – is suspect.

But hey, back to Shakespeare and the fun he had creating his Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

What Meaningful Event Does Shakespeare Assign His Version of Richard?

Shakespeare’s character is physically deformed and unfinished, lame and unfashionable. Even the dogs bark at him when he stops near them. (Or, as Gollum more succinctly put it in the screenplay of The Two Towers, to himself about himself, “You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes you.”)

Shakespeare uses Richard’s physical deformity as the foundation for:

WHAT Richard WANTS: To be a subtle, false, and treacherous villain because he can’t be a lover.

WHAT CHOICES HE MAKES WHEN HE’S STRESSED: When play opens, Richard has already laid plots to make his brothers hate each other. The play goes on to reveal his other, rather nasty choices. Was he under stress before the play began, or after? You can argue either way.

THE PLAY’S THEME: Various themes apply, so take your pick as they relate to Richard’s meaningful event. (There are other possible themes beyond these.)

  • Mortal Justice vs. Divine Justice
  • Free Will vs. Fate – “Divine Providence” to Renaissance audiences
  • Time – Richard seems to have the ability to speed up time. This is seen to work for him, but in the end it works against him.
  • Manipulation – He manipulates the audience as well as the other characters.
  • Power – Getting it. Holding onto it. Shakespeare’s Richard is portrayed, not as the medieval warlord he was, but as a Renaissance “Machievel” – someone who will do anything to get in power and stay in power.
  • Physical Deformity Reflects Moral Deformity — doesn’t much apply today, but aligns with the 16th-century belief system

You Too Can Have Fun with Richard

Wanna start creating your own Richard? It’s not hard, so why not have a go? If you don’t want to create your own, you could pull out your favorite novel that features him and see what the writer used to underlay Richard’s story goal, the choices he made during stressful times, and the story’s theme.

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to select a meaningful event from Richard’s real life. The event should have happened before your story begins. It should also create ongoing suspense within your reader. You want them to ask and keep asking, “What’s Richard going to do next, and why?”

Story suspense depends on conflict and suffering, so the event you select must be traumatic – a betrayal, an insult, a loss, an injury, something that deeply wounded Richard. There are so many possibilities to choose from in his life, I’m not going to list examples. Part of the fun is making a list of possibilities for yourself and deciding which one to use.

The outcome of the event that wounded Richard should have created two or three specific things within him. Here are the three specific outcomes you’re looking for, compliments of Elizabeth Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Fiction.

  1. The wound should leave the character with a need so intense, he or she will be driven to fulfill it. These needs are universal, such as belonging, love, family, self-worth, or faith.
  2. The wound should leave the character with a weakness, a character flaw that seems out of the control or beyond the full awareness of the character.
  3. The wound may also gift the character with a heroic strength that increases his determination to fill the need and reach the plot goal.[ii]

If what you’ve chosen doesn’t create at least two things from this list, select another traumatic, meaningful event from Richard’s life.

The next time you run into the historical Richard or a fictional version (or both wrapped into one work), see if you can identify the meaningful event the writer is using to drive their version of the man. If you can’t identify their premise…I’m not saying they’re insane. Only that their work may be badly written.


[i] Premise, also premiss. Logic. A proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion. If you’d like to search “The Goon Show” radio scripts for the line, some are here: … Good luck with that if you’re not a fan of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, et. al. and their brand of humor. And if your first response was, “What’s a goon show?”, fuggedaboudit.

[ii] Lyon, Elizabeth. A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, Perigree, New York, 2004, p. 87.


Richard III to be honoured in France

Unexpected news has reached us from Saumur in the Loire valley. The local wine growers have decided to commission a top artist to honour Richard with a “reclining statue” (possibly an effigy) in nearby Fontevraud Abbey. The Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud is the burial place of some of Richard’s most famous ancestors: Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son Richard I, “the Lionheart”.

A crowdfunding campaign for the statue, offering the chance to obtain bottles of a future Cuvée Richard III de Fontevraud wine and holiday stays at a four star hotel in the abbey complex, will be launched at the Grandes-Tablées de Saumur-Champigny open air festival. As a spokesman for the Grandes Tablées explained: “Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart did a lot for wine in Anjou [the old province centred on the modern department of Maine-et-Loire] and Bordeaux, so the wine growers had the idea of paying their respects to the family by offering a statue to Richard III in a few years’ time.”

The festival, which is going into its 15th year, takes place on 5 and 6 August and this year has a suitably British theme. British food made from local produce will be served, accompanied by local wine from 20 tasting points, and five bands will play British pop hits. Tickets, which include an engraved wine tasting glass, are available from the local tourist office. For full details see here.

The effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey


It appears that the traditional assumptions surrounding the execution of William, Lord Hastings in June of 1483, generally incline towards the idea that the Lord Protector, Richard Duke of Gloucester, simply lost his temper and so, without lawful trial or consultation, ordered the immediate beheading of his previous friend, virtually on the spur of the moment.

This assumption is derived from depictions in Tudor literature claiming that the Duke of Gloucester was infuriated by Hastings’ rigid support of the uncrowned Edward V, contrary to the wishes of the wicked duke who was eager to usurp the throne in the prince’s stead. This account of these events was written down after many preceding decades of indoctrination, when the Tudor-era orthodoxy of the usurping, murdering king had become imprinted on popular consciousness.

The writer who invested the confrontation with its best-known dramatic scenario, later adopted by Shakespeare, was Sir Thomas More, whose various attempts at a ‘history of Richard III’ are loathed by some, beloved of many, and seriously analysed by all too few. Since there exists no official contemporary documentation of exactly what happened, More’s chatty details attract those searching for explanations. It is often further assumed that, although More’s various elaborate accounts concern a time when he was a child and certainly not present, on the occasion of Hastings’ death, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, was certainly present and must therefore have witnessed exactly what happened. More, it is said, would thus have been told the truth by Morton some years afterwards when the young Thomas later lived as a page in Morton’s household.

However, regardless of assumptions, Thomas More himself reveals no source of information for his dramatic construction concerning the Duke of Gloucester’s peremptory execution of Hastings pursuant to a hissy fit. It is unsupported by any contemporary source, although the execution itself was condemned by some contemporary chroniclers. Sadly, very few later commentators appear to have bothered to take into account the bias of those contemporary accounts, or the probable circumstances (leaving dramatics aside) that actually led to Hastings making an attempt on Gloucester’s life.

Let us take one point at a time:

1) The incident occurred in the context of two events which are generally agreed to have preceded it, i.e. the disclosure that there was an impediment to Edward IV’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville which rendered their offspring potentially illegitimate, and the discovery by Gloucester of threats to his life which prompted him to call for protection in the shape of forces from the North, combining in an atmosphere of heightened tension and insecurity.

2) Contemporary accounts report that Hastings was officially accused of treason. The simultaneous arrests of several others support the existence of a treasonous conspiracy. Any assumption that this accusation of treason was untrue is unsupported by any existing evidence. The crime of treason at that time was the most serious in the land, and could not be slung at just anyone, in particular someone as powerful as Lord Hastings, without any substantiation. In days leading up to the arrest and execution, Hastings is reported to have been seen visiting the houses of Morton and others who were caught up in the arrests. Morton and Hastings were most unlikely companions and this report – if true – raises considerable suspicion.

3) Some people mistakenly suppose that the crime of treason related only and exclusively to violent actions against the ruling monarch’s person. This is untrue and there are many sources which indicate that treason took many and varied forms. The further assumption that Hastings was simply attempting to support the true king (the young uncrowned Edward V) against the actions of the Protector, and therefore his attack on the Protector was not treason but loyalty to the crown, is an even further exaggerated train of suppositions without support, evidence, or even logic.

4) Others accused of having been involved in the same treason were arrested at the same time:- three present in the council chamber, and several others across London – their arrests carefully timed to coincide. This points to the uncovering of a treasonous conspiracy and the planning of a lawful reaction which would stop that treason before it became any more dangerous.

5) There is an account of a public proclamation made immediately after the execution, regarding the treason and the culprits’ arrest. There was neither secrecy nor lack of explanation given to the public concerning the situation. The accusation of treason and its consequences remained undisputed by any legal challenge or recorded public outcry at the time.

6) More’s account, written so many years later, denies the legality of the Protector’s actions. But More had no possible way of knowing the details he recounted. The mighty and extremely busy John Morton (by then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor) chatting at length with his insignificant page and telling him stories of what happened many years previously, is not only highly unlikely but somewhat ingenuous. Indeed, Morton would rarely even have been at home let alone conducting cosy discussions with one of his pages. However, if such an improbable little scene did take place, the fact that Morton himself was one of those arrested and accused of treason, would certainly place a huge doubt on the veracity of any tale he told.

7) Richard of Gloucester’s proven record of rationality, of intelligent administration and commitment to the rule of law, would make this supposed hissy fit exceedingly out of character.

8) The arrests and following events took place in a council meeting at the Tower, in front of members of the Royal Council – the most powerful and influential lords of the land, together with their attendant officers. It is both naive and absurd to suppose that Richard could behave in some highly improper and illegal manner in such company without consequences to himself including a virtual battle in the council chamber.

9) Kindly old Hastings, simply standing loyally by the rights of his old friend’s son, is a total illusion. Hastings was a massively ambitious man. His many years of fighting bitterly against Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, the queen’s elder son and Lord Rivers, her brother, (largely regarding disputed land borders) show him to have been ruthless and capable of cruelty. He had recently quarrelled with Edward IV and been deprived of some of his power, but this was – after warnings given – returned to him just before the king’s death. Hastings was certainly no cosy daddy-figure.

10) As for the allegedly illegal execution – and this is the most important ingredient in the murky soup of supposition – the accepted legal powers of the High Constable, (one of Richard of Gloucester’s long-held and most powerful offices) empowered him to hold an immediate trial of Hastings for treason in that place and at that time, and to pass sentence without leave of appeal. The other members of the council present would have stood witness, thus there was no outcry against the following execution. Since no documentation survives (and indeed the Court operated under the Law of Arms and was not required to keep records), it is impossible to say if any such trial took place. There is no specific evidence that it happened. Nor is there any specific evidence that it did not. However – since Richard of Gloucester was most certainly empowered to hold such a trial, it is logical and natural from what is known of his concern for the justice system, that he would have used the legal powers at his disposal. What is now doubted and frowned upon by modern judges with little or no comprehension of the medieval mind, would have seemed utterly right in those days – and in fact utterly necessary according to the situation. Summary courts with powers of life and limb, such as that of the High Constable, were important elements in the exercise of authority during the Middle Ages, and in fact Hastings himself presided over just such a summary court at Calais.

For this knowledge I am entirely indebted to Annette Carson and her recently published book RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER, AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND which outlines with considerable clarity and detail, based on existing documentation and clear historical precedent, the official powers the Duke of Gloucester held in 1483. This book does not set out to prove the rights and/or wrongs of the situation regarding Hastings’s execution, nor does it prove that any trial took place. It does indicate, however, that a trial could immediately have been called, and that if the proceedings found him guilty of treason Hastings would have been justly and legally executed.

In the first months of 1483 after King Edward’s death, the country was in a perilous position, and it was the duty of the Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm to keep the land and its people safe. There had already been an attempt to raise an army and civil war might have ensued (certainly the queen’s family continued organising uprisings, which came to fruition in the autumn months). It was Richard’s principal responsibility to be aware of all dangers and put a stop to them before the risk might escalate. Such an attitude must have been paramount when faced with whatever treason was discovered. That his actions are now seen as suspicious is a function of the villainy later attributed to his actions, and appears to ignore the pressures and demands involved in his personal responsibility for national security.

Today, amongst those interested (whether or not they have researched the era or the life of Richard III at all) there is a somewhat irritating attitude by which if you argue and judge Richard III guilty of something, then you are being open minded and unbiased. Whereas if you argue and judge him innocent, then clearly you are prejudiced and are making an attempt to exonerate and justify him and treat him as a saint.

But most of those who exhibit the former attitude appear to think the powerful lords of the late fifteenth century must have been weaklings and brainless puppets, too stupid or frightened to stand up for themselves. They sat meekly, it seems, while the wicked Duke of Gloucester got away with anything and everything. It is unwise to so vastly underestimate the over-riding power of the lords and the church, the three estates of parliament and the Royal Council during this period. Had they so meekly acquiesced to apparent villainy, they would, in fact, have been complicit to it. Instead no single man ever held absolute total power, not even the king.

See Annette Carson’s book RICHARD III; THE MALIGNED KING which remains a reliable source for the arrest and execution of Lord Hastings and the other important events of 1483 following the death of King Edward IV.

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