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STILL LOOKING FOR RICHARD 

Introduction

According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the noun Ricardianism means ‘support for or advocacy of Richard III’. Even though I have been a supporter of king Richard III for almost six decades, I am reluctant to describe myself as a Ricardian since it implies a narrow interest in one man. I prefer to call myself a Revisionist, which implies a wider interest. This is a personal eccentricity, which I have to bear. I mean no criticism or offence to Ricardians and I sincerely hope none is taken by my frankness. However, the distinction is important to me because it has informed my personal search for the real king Richard.  I have been looking for him since I was a pre-pubescent schoolboy in East London in the fifties. During that time I have met many different ‘Richards’; the purpose of this piece is to share a few of them with you.

 

Olivier’s Richard: the bravura baddie

Although William Shakespeare bears some responsibility for my interest in the last Plantagenet king, it was Laurence Olivier who fired my imagination with his electrifying performance of the king. The first thing to strike me about Olivier’s performance was his voice. It is, as he himself described, it “ …the thin reed of a sanctimonious scholar…it set the vision going thin and rapier like but all-powerful…the perfect hypocrite…. A mixture of honey and razor blades ”[1] Olivier’s Richard is a baddie, but he was an irresistibly captivating baddie. He is witty, he is heroic, and he is sexually potent. The passage wherein he woos Anne, the mourning widow of the man he has just murdered is one of the most lascivious scenes in cinematic history. Olivier’s brilliant and irresistible theatricality is only the posturing of power. He knows how wicked his deeds are but he does them anyway. His opening soliloquy sets the scene:

“Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York…

And

“Since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well spoken days

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of the day

Plots have I laid…”

And he doesn’t disappoint: from the moment he walks on the set, he frames each event for us. He announces it in advance, providing a running commentary and evaluating its success. He seduces a grieving widow as she accompanies her dead husband’s coffin. He murders anyone who gets in his way: his brother, his wife, his nephews, his friend and comrade in arms. He lies, tricks, boasts, leers, jeers and laughs his way to the throne, delighting in his own malignity and making the camera a mirror for his vanity. And then he falls: spectacularly. Richmond invades from France and takes the initiative. His ‘supporters’ desert him and the hunchback metaphor rises to the surface; he is racked with the ghosts of those he has murdered. Typically, his courage is unimpaired. At Bosworth on his last day on earth he tells us “Richard is himself again”. Fighting with supernatural courage and ferocity to retain his life and crown; finally his enemies overwhelm him. In the end only his voice sours: “ a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse... Ultimately, Richard’s death is as much a performance as his life. Great stuff! I still watch that film today and I still have an almost irresistible urge to punch Stanley Baker’s lights out.

 

Inspector Grant’s Richard: on the bench and not in the dock

To be honest I have only read three Ricardian novels and I only enjoyed two of them. Pride of place must go to Josephine Tey. Her novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ set a very high standard for novelists to aspire too during the sixty plus years since Inspector Alan Grant made his first appearance in Ricardian literature. As an experienced Scotland Yard detective Grant has a reputation for being able to spot a criminal on sight. However, when, on being shown the NPG portrait of Richard III, he places him on the bench rather than in the dock, Grant begins to fret. From his hospitable bed and with the help of a young American researcher called Brett Carradine he begins an investigation into the allegations against king Richard, which Grant thinks changes history. Grant sees Richard as a man much traduced and he blames the historians for this. His Richard is a virtuous man, honest and loyal to a fault, brave and an able administrator. He is just, with a genuine care for the common weal. As a former soldier himself, Grant is hugely impressed with Richard’s military career (‘he was a brigadier at eighteen’). It took me a few years to find out that Inspector Grant’s version of Richard was based on the work of Sir Clement Markham. Published at the turn of the twentieth century. Markham’s account is an elegant but flawed defence of Richard, which modern scholars tend to regard like the ‘curates egg’: it is good in parts.

 

The Tudor Richard: the facts do not always speak for themselves

It is the Tudor based history of Richard started by Sir Thomas More and completed by William Shakespeare, which still dominates the public’s perception of him as a regicide, homicide, usurper and tyrant. This is the Tudor view of Richard that took hold immediately after Bosworth. Mindful of his weak claim to the throne, Henry VII ‘encouraged’ his subjects to believe that his victory and accession was the preordained ending of Richard’s tyrannical reign and, further, that his marriage to Elizabeth of York was the heaven-sent ending of thirty years of internecine civil wars. It is this doctrine that Professor EMW Tillyard calls the ‘Tudor Myth’[2] It is intended to promote the Tudor worldview not just by blackening Richard’s name but by directing what people should think about the Tudors, their claim to the throne and English history. It was a political necessity to blacken Richard’s name to enable the purity of the Tudor dynasty to shine ever brighter.

Professor Paul Murray Kendall describes the growth of this process: “In the court of king Henry VII…there existed among the men who conspired against king Richard III and bought his overthrow a body of opinion, continually enlarged by tales and conjectures concerning the past, which they had conquered. It was out of this amorphous mass of fact, reminiscence, hearsay growing ever more colourful and detailed with the passing years, that the authors of Henry VIII’s day fashioned the (Tudor) tradition.” The problem with the Tudor tradition is not simply that it represents the history of the victors, but also that it is confused and conflicting, and it is based on nothing more than rumour and gossip. It is also clear that Henry VII tampered with the historical record. He ordered Titulus Regius, Richard’s Act of Settlement, to be destroyed without being read, on pain of punishment. He also allowed his official Tudor historian to publish a false account of Richards’s title and his accession[3]. This whole episode highlights the pivotal role played by historians in shaping our perception of history.

 

Self evidently, historical facts are the building blocks of history and historians must not get them wrong. It was the historian EH Clark who wrote: “I am reminded of Houseman’s remark that ‘accuracy is a duty not a virtue’. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using properly seasoned wood and properly mixed concrete in his buildings.”[4] Nonetheless, facts do not necessarily speak for themselves. Peoples’ opinions are influenced by the selection and arrangement of appropriate facts. And it is the historians who decide what facts are important, and their context. Necessarily, this is a subjective exercise; it is a mistake to think that facts exist independently of a historian’s interpretation. What constitutes an important ‘historical fact’ as opposed to an ordinary unhistorical fact depends on the historian’s viewpoint. For instance, our picture of England during Richard’s reign is incomplete. This is not just due to gaps in the sources or records but also to the fact that those we do have are largely written by a small number of people in southeastern England. We know quite a bit about the discontent of the Yorkist gentry in London and the south, but we know little or nothing about how his reign was viewed outside that area.   Our view of Richard’s reign has been pre-determined for us by people who, for whatever reason, took a particular a view and preserved those ‘facts’ that supported their view. Not only are the facts we do have subjective; we almost certainly do not have all the facts.

 

The modern Richard: a study in polemics

These problems raise important ethical and professional questions about impartiality and objectivity. Can historians remain objective? Should they be objective? Professor John Gillingham explores these questions in an essay about Richard’s character.[5] He identifies the dichotomy between Richard’s behavior before 1483 and the nature of his alleged crimes thereafter as the central problem in explaining his character, which he argue raises ‘unhelpful issues of guilt and innocence’. It creates a hostile, adversarial environment in which every scrap of information is heavily scrutinized in case it sheds light on the mysteries of Richard’s protectorship and reign. He argues that the whole process has developed the features of a courtroom trial (indeed it has). This is awkward because (in the words of historian David Knowles) “…an historian is not a judge, much less a hanging judge” Professor Gillingham adds that it is this reluctance to judge historical characters, allied (in this case) to a realization that “… the evidence base is non-existent” that has led to an accommodation between the traditionalist historians and Ricardians.

He may well be right, but I see little or no evidence of any such ‘accommodation’. Indeed, traditionalist and Ricardian literature and their respective websites are replete with strident and in some cases intolerant views on Richard’s guilt or innocence. Unfortunately for the disinterested observer, too much of this writing is polemical: some for him but most against him.   Professor Charles Ross put his finger on the key issue for modern historians: “ The extraordinary problems of the evidence are highlighted by the difficulty historians have always found in providing an answer to the vital question: when and why did Richard seek the throne for himself?” [6] Clearly, anybody wishing to write a balanced piece about Richard has to struggle with the paradox of his behaviour before April 1483 and the crimes he is accused of thereafter. Professor Ross assures us that the modern approach is to ignore the Tudor tradition in favour of inferring Richard’s “…character and motives from a close scrutiny of the events themselves without preconceptions.” Ross further argues that modern historians have a much better understanding of the Tudor tradition and a wider knowledge of fifteenth century English politics, adding for good measure that this has resulted in “…a more critical appreciation of the value of the Tudor tradition and a certain unwillingness to throw the whole bodily out of the window, especially when it can be confirmed by contemporary evidence…”[7] Even for a neutral observer, these comments raise two obvious issues. First, one wonders how closely the events of these times can be scrutinized given the ‘extraordinary problems’ of the evidence alluded to. Second, the suggestion that the Tudor tradition is confirmed by contemporary sources simply begs the question, since the probity of the contemporary material is precisely the issue disputed by Ricardians. The Tudor writers may simply be repeating the mistakes of fifteenth century sources.

 

The return of the king

The rescue of Richard’s bones from a municipal car park and their reinternment in St. Martin’s Cathedral, Leicester is a historic moment, which I welcome. It enables people to focus on his humanity, which is a much-needed balance to the Tudor inspired caricature we are familiar with. We know what he looked like, what he ate, what he drank, that he had scoliosis, and exactly how he died — in graphic detail. Nevertheless, his reinternment with honour has done nothing to close the rift between Ricardians and traditionalists. More worryingly from my perspective, is the impression I get that the drama surrounding his discovery and reinternment, and the keen debate it has provoked, may be transforming the last Plantagenet king into a cult figure.   Moreover, the discovery of his bones, invaluable though this is, does not actually advance our knowledge and understanding of the defining events of his life: the bastardization and deposition of his nephew Edward V, and the disappearance of the two Princes in the Tower. A dearth of reliable contemporary sources, the growth of an enduring legend, epitomized by Shakespeare, and the passage of time have conspired to prevent us from being able to establish what truly happened during the critical period of Richard’s life. I accept that on the material we have now we cannot know the truth. We can interpret the material according to our personal agenda, we can analyse peoples’ movements and actions and we can infer their intentions and motives. But, as things, stand we can never know what the actual truth is.

For me, therefore, the search continues….

[1] Laurence Olivier – On Acting (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1986). I suspect Olivier was really a Ricardian. This is what the thought of Shakespeare’s history “I didn’t read any of the books that were around, protecting Richard from the false rumour written by this tinkerer with melodrama, whose name is William Shakespeare, who got it from someone else, who got it from someone else, who got it from someone else, who got it from someone else. I just stayed with the man.” (p79)

[2]. EMW Tillyard Shakespeare’s History Plays (Penguin 1944); pp. 29-32

[3]. It was (and is) unheard of for a Parliamentary bill to be repealed without being read. It is indicative of Henry VII‘s desire to suppress the truth.

[4]. EH Clark- What is History? (Palgrave Macmillan 2001 edition) at page 5

[5]. John Gillingham (editor) – Richard111: a medieval kingship (Collins & Brown 1993) pp 11

[6]. Charles Ross – Richard III (Yale 1999) at page 64.

[7]. Ross at page LXVI

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