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SHAKESPEARE’S RICHARD III: HERO OR VILLAIN?

” Never let it be said that fate itself could awe the soul of Richard.

           Hence babbling dreams, you threaten here in vain;

           Conscience avaunt, Richard’s himself again”

(The tragical history of King Richard the Third)[1]


 

Richard’s himself again: or is he?

There is a moment in Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Third’ that is not Shakespearean. It occurs during the Bosworth scene just as the king is about to ride into battle. Unnerved by the ghostly apparitions in the night of his vengeful victims, Richard’s courage seems to desert him (‘O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear ‘). However, the sight and sound of Richmond’s army approaching rouses his natural ‘heroical temperament’ and as he rides away he whispers in White Surrey’s ear ‘Richard’s himself again’, which is not a phrase you will find in any extant Quarto or Folio edition of the play. It is, in fact, an interpolation from Coley Cibber’s seventeenth century adaptation and a small but significant example of Olivier’s editing. Its purpose is to reinforce the notion that Richard’s courage and resolution are unimpaired on the morning of battle. Its importance to Cibber (and presumably to Olivier also) is that it counters the insinuation in some interpretations of the play that King Richard was demoralized by guilt, fear and desperation at Bosworth.

 

Even though Olivier’s film is so heavily modified that much the subtlety of Shakespeare’s original play is lost, it should not be thought that his adaptation is inartistic. He is simply one of a number of distinguished actors and directors who between the reigns of the first and second Elizabeth have imposed their artistic ambition on the play. The point is that Shakespeare’s plays are not fossils set in stone. They are each subject to historical relativity and usage. Succeeding generations of actors, directors and producers have adapted them according to their artistic taste or the cultural, social and political ethos of their society. Indeed, it is possible that this play was used as a metaphor for exploring the concerns of contemporary first Elizabethans as well as those of later cultures. Modern performances of the play have portrayed Richard as a proxy for Hitler, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and ‘Rikki Ortega’ (a fictitious Californian gangster) among others.[2] Henry Goodman in the RSC’s 2003 production found ‘parallels for Richard’s deranged mind’ in the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter.[3] Anthony Sher (1984), looking for clues of Richard’s stage personality studied the psychology of the real serial killer and necrophile Dennis Nilsen who murdered at least twelve men between 1978 and 1983. Contemporary socio-cultural themes such as physical and mental disability, gender, racial and class discrimination, and the importance of Richard III as a ‘case study’ of tyranny, are all now aspects of modern performances. [4] In fact, so different is the public taste for this play today that I wonder whether Shakespeare would recognize it as the one he wrote for Richard Burbage in the last decade of the sixteenth century.

 

Sign of the times

The play that Shakespeare actually wrote was an immediate smash-hit financially and critically. Moreover, Burbage’s portrayal of Richard was so powerful that it defined performances of the play for generations afterwards and contributed an epic snippet of Shakespearean erotic mythology, which we learn from John Manningham, a student at the Inner Temple, who wrote in his diary in 1602: ‘Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’ I don’t know whether this anecdote is true or not, but it is at the very least an indication of the sensuousness of Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard and the popularity of his play.

 

The old adage that ‘plays are meant to be performed not read’ may be corny but it’s true nonetheless. The importance of actors and directors in shaping our opinion of this play cannot be overstated. In my copy of the RSC’s text, it states quite clearly that the best way to understand this play is to see or ideally to participate in it. It is my aim in this article to explore the theme of change in the production, presentation and performance of Richard III. Naturally, I am aware that it is this play that is in no small part responsible for the historical Richard’s bad reputation. Nevertheless, having written some articles in favour of the factual Richard III, I feel compelled to write a few lines in defence of the fictional one and the man who created him.

 

The distinction I make between the fictional and the factual Richard is not artificial and it is important. It is ignored or blurred too often and for too long in discussions and analysis of the play or the man. [5]  There are almost as many myths about the play as there are about Richard. Chief among these is the notion that Shakespeare is personally to blame for the misjudgement of history. I hope to show that is not true and that Shakespeare was far from being a Tudor stooge. While there is no doubt that he embraced the Tudor narrative of Richard as a villain or that he structured his play around the Tudor histories of Thomas More and Edward Hall, Shakespeare doesn’t make Richard out to be as bad as he might have done.

 

‘Matters of state, not fit to be suffered’

We now have a better appreciation of Tudor bias. The depiction of Richard as a monstrous villain without any redeeming characteristics was necessary to bolster Henry VII’s weak royal title. The fact is that in Tudor England and particularly during the Elizabethan period the condemnation of Richard in literature was practically unanimous. Regardless of his personal opinion, therefore, Shakespeare had little choice other than to conform to the ‘tenets of Tudor orthodoxy’. The Privy Council enforced strict censorship of ‘certain matters of state not fit to be suffered’. Shakespeare would have been extremely foolish to depart from the prescribed doctrine on touchy issues such as the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.[6] The contemporary notion of kingship held that it was contrary to God’s law to depose a crowned and anointed king. Even a tyrant enjoyed God’s protection; however, whereas a tyrant must be endured a usurper was outside God’s law and could be overthrown with impunity. It was, therefore, necessary to depict Richard III as a usurper and a tyrant. Otherwise, it would call into question Tudor legitimacy and, more importantly, the validity of Elizabeth’s succession.[7]

 

In that context, it is all the more remarkable that Shakespeare does not depict Richard as the unrelieved monster of Tudor dogma. He is charismatic and his sardonic humour soon has the audience laughing with him; indeed, they are, in a sense, his co-conspirators. From the moment he enters the stage, Richard takes control of the play and the audience. Conversely, Shakespeare does all he can to downplay Richmond’s role. He writes nothing to make him personally attractive to the audience. He is not even mentioned until the fourth act and doesn’t appear on stage until the last. There is no scope for the audience to form any sort of relationship with such a boring, distant and obscure antagonist. Neither does Shakespeare write anything to counter suggestions that Richmond’s claim to the throne is questionable. In fact, it is soon clear that Richard cannot be defeated by any human adversary, least of all Richmond whose sole purpose is to be the clunky deus ex machina figure who is still alive at the end;[8] it is an indication of his dramatic irrelevance. I will return to these points later but for now I want to mention the play’s textual history.

 

Textual problems

Shakespeare wrote this play either in 1692 or 1694. The case for 1692 is based entirely on speculation about Shakespeare’s professional relationship with Ferdinando Lord Strange, a descendant of William Stanley the earl of Derby.[9] Although that date cannot be dismissed out of hand, it seems more likely that the play was written in 1594 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They were by far the most important and influential company of actors and in Richard Burbage they had the greatest actor of his generation. Writing for them was a good career move for Shakespeare who needed a star actor to play Richard. The Tragedy of Richard III together with the three parts of Henry VI comprised Shakespeare’s first tetralogy of history plays.[10] He wrote the second tetralogy about a few years later. Confusingly, these plays are about earlier kings: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. The two tetralogies together chart the course of English history from the reign Richard II to the death of Richard III.

 

It is disappointing — to say the least — that none of the surviving Quarto and Folio texts of this play were authorised by Shakespeare. Experts cannot even be sure whether the synthetic text currently used in performance is an accurate representation of the version first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Quarto text of the play (a small booklet) was printed in 1597 (Q1) and thereafter re-printed five times (in 1598,1602,1605,1612 and 1622). Unfortunately, each re-print was copied from the previous one, thus perpetuating existing errors and adding new ones. Consequently, every print after Q1 is different from every other print, which makes the Quarto version useless as a performance text. It is possible (I put it no higher) that Q1 is a ‘memorial’ version of the play assembled from memory by actors who had lost or forgotten their prompt sheets, or who wished to streamline the play for a provincial performance.[11] The First Folio (F1) version of the play was published in 1623 as part of a compendium of Shakespeare’s plays. It might have been copied from an independent manuscript that pre-dates Q1 (Is it Shakespeare’s original version? Who knows?) Understanding the relationship between these versions of the play is the most difficult textual problem of all Shakespeare’s plays; it has troubled scholars for years. F1 is longer than Q1. Whether, this us due to a reduction in Q1 or an enlargement of F1 is anyone’s guess. All we can truthfully say about these texts is that they differ from each other and are error-full.[12]

 

Coley Cibber (1671-1757) was an actor-manager, who at the turn of the eighteenth century wrote and printed a vigorous and populist adaption of Shakespeare’s play. He reduced its length by cutting all but eight hundred lines from Shakespeare and adding two thousand of his own, together with lines from Henry V and Henry VI part 3. The characters of Clarence, Edward IV, Rivers and Queen Margaret are omitted altogether. Despite being mocked at the time for its crudity, Cibber version became the standard performance text from 1700 until 1821. It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the F1 became the preferred stage text play. Cibber understood his audience. Shakespeare’s play was too long for eighteenth century playgoers who had no connection with, or understanding of fifteenth century politics. The real problem for purists is that Cibber’s adaptation concentrates attention even more on Richard at the expense of his lively interactions with Edward, Clarence, Margaret and Buckingham, which make Shakespeare’s play so compelling.[13] In that sense, Cibber’s alterations are crude.

 

‘The Play’s the thing…’

‘The tragedy of King Richard the Third’ is indubitably a psychological profile of a dramatic villain. Richard’s solo entrance and memorable opening soliloquy are indicative of his dramatic dominance and also of Shakespeare’s artistic intention to create a star theatrical villain rather than continue the cyclic theme of atrocity and revenge, as seen in the Henrician plays.[14] It is a change, which whether intended or not, challenges the idea that the first tetralogy represent a serial epic that is intended to be seen as a set and in sequence after the second tetralogy. It is a conundrum that has produced two distinctly different schools of thought. One is teleological in nature; the other is analogical.

 

The teleological theory interprets the cycle of history plays from Richard II to Richard III within the context of Tudor historiology and literature. The death of Richard III is seen as the preordained end of a curse that had afflicted England since the murder of Richard II. In the three parts of Henry VI, Shakespeare constantly links the present with the past. He never lets us forget that the usurpation of Henry Bolingbroke and the murder of Richard of Bordeaux were the root causes of division and tumult. Professor EMW Tillyard writing in the mid twentieth century argues that all four plays are united in political themes of order and chaos, and unity and civil war. : “The main business of the play [Richard III] is to complete [the] national tetralogy and to display the working out of God’s plan to restore England to prosperity…in its function of summing-up and completing what has gone before, Richard III inevitable suffers as a detached unit.” [15] He asserts that such a conclusion is inescapable in view of the ‘plays failure to remember’ Clarence’s perjury to Warwick, Queen Margaret’s mock crowning of York, the murder of Rutland and the murder of Prince Edward by York’s sons; If it were not so, implies Tillyard, the play would not make sense to audiences. ” For the purposes of the tetralogy and most obviously for this play, Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into the haven of Tudor prosperity” [16] Tillyard’s suggestion that Richard III is a religious play can only be substantiated if it is judged according to the traditional Tudor narrative, wherein both Richard and Richmond are God’s instruments. Richard is God’s scourge; Richmond, his emissary.

 

Tillyard’s only concession to Richard’s dramatic importance is that he is so evil and depraved, and his sins are so vast that his evil is absorptive and not contagious “He is the great ulcer of the body politic into which all impurity is drained and against which all the body politic are united.”[17] Nowadays, Tillyard’s ideas are regarded as sentimental “The view from a Cambridge college window looking out at a world at war [the Second World War] and nostalgic for a more stable and comprehensible historical process”[18] Whilst there are some obvious flaws in professor Tillyard’s logic, it is ridiculous to suggest that his ideas are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. However, his assumption that all Elizabethan’s shared the Tudor view of harmony is patently untrue. There was extreme political and religious division among the population.

 

The play’s theatrical history shows that from the sixteenth century until the twenty first century, political thinkers have used it as a medium for expressing their concerns in times of oppression and/or suppression. These performances use Richard’s rise to power, his elimination of opponents, his dissembling and his amorality as an oblique warning against the onset of tyranny in their own times. The fact that the play lends itself to this approach indicates that it is far more complicated than professor Tillyard suggests. It’s a point picked up by Sir Richard Eyre, former Artistic Director of The National Theatre. His production of Richard III starring Ian Mckellen toured the world in 1990 and inspired the subsequent film. Eyre’s decision to set the play in the 1930’s during the rise of Fascism was an artistic one based on his opinion that ” We have to keep thinking of ways of doing Shakespeare’s plays. They don’t have absolute meanings. There is no fixed, frozen way of doing them. Nobody can mine a Shakespeare play and discover a ‘solution’ [sic].” [19] However, in 1991 he took the play to Rumania, which he regarded as its spiritual home and used its enduring political power as a warning against tyrants such as the Romanian despot Ceausescu, and others such as Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Eyre even suggests that Richard III could be seen as a handbook for Tyrants.

 

I must admit that the most memorable performances that I have seen (Olivier, Mckellen, Sher and Rylance) have been when the play was performed alone rather than as one of a sequence of plays. As a schoolboy, I watched the BBC’s 1960 production ‘Age of Kings’ in which  the first and second tetralogies were broadcast over many weeks. As I recall, Paul Daneman was a drab and unconvincing Richard and Sean Connery was a surreal Hotspur. I found Peter Hall’s 1963 RSC production of the Wars of the Roses, which was based on the first tetralogy, equally uninspiring. Ian Holm’s Richard being small of stature was incapable of dominating the play physically or dramatically. I was not impressed. I learned later that this casting was deliberate. The aim was to portray Richard as just another royal pretender.

 

My difficulty with the teleological and analogical concepts is that they are prescriptive. Tillyard’s Richard is God’s instrument and therefore not responsible for his actions as the end is pre-ordained. The notion that the play is actually a metaphor for tyranny is equally limiting since it dismisses Richard as nothing more than a cruel brute of a type that historically were responsible for countless innocent deaths. In my personal opinion, neither approach does justice to Shakespeare’s artistry and this play’s complexity. The reality is that Richard displays aspects of both theories and more. We cannot even be sure of the play’s genre. Shakespeare called it a ‘tragedy’; the compilers of the First Folio, classified it as a ‘history’. In the last century, professor AP Rossiter identified elements of comedy in the play. What are we supposed to think? I don’t believe that Shakespeare’s creativity was limited by anything so rigid as genre. Polonius’ suggests as much in this little speech to Hamlet wherein he introduces ‘the actors’ to the prince. “The best actors in the world either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, not Plautus too light for the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.” [20] I like to think that Shakespeare was writing from his experience with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

 

Shakespeare’s description of the play as a tragedy does not imply an ethical or emotional judgement. It is a definition of the plays structure, which is based on the classical Senecan tragedies that depict the rise of great men and their downfall at fortune’s wheel.[21] It is Shakespeare’s way of heralding his artistic transition from the dramatization of chronicle histories to the creation of a histrionic and complex theatrical protagonist as the centrepiece of his drama. It was professor A P Rossiter in a lecture given ten years after Tillyard’s book who drew attention to the paradoxicality of Richard’s character, which he suggests “…decisively complicates the plays moral and political significance.[22] The problem as Rossiter sees it, is the illogicality between the concept of Richard as ‘a huge triumphant stage figure’ and his depiction by Tillyard within a rigid Tudor concept of retributive justice. Richard contradicts the expressly Christian notion of the Vice character in medieval morality plays; he is “…a heroic exemplar of humankind as being able to exert will; the world is poorer for his loss.”[23] This characterization also undermines the simplistic analogical idea that Richard is simply an evil man in a long line of evil men.

 

Shakespeare’s apparent conformity with conventional Tudor historiography is therefore complicated by his depiction of Richard as a caricature combining features from three theatrical characters familiar to Elizabethan audiences: the ‘de Casibus tragedian’[24], the demonic-comedian Vice character of the morality plays and the Marlovian Machiavellian of the Elizabethan stage. Above all, Shakespeare’s Richard is an actor. He is charming, witty, intelligent and eloquent, and dissembles his many parts so brilliantly that those whom he intends to kill do not realise until the very last moment that he is not their friend. He is Shakespeare’s version of a ‘thoroughly bad man in the role of a monarch and hero’ Rossiter describes him thus: ” He [is] a mocking comedian, a ‘Vice’ king but with a clear inheritance from the old Vice moralities: part symbol of evil, part comic devil and chiefly — on stage — the generator of roars of laughter at wickedness the audience would …condemn in reality.”[25]

 

His sardonic sense of humour is not a conventional rendering of Tudor doctrine. He makes us laugh. We are on his side. We enjoy this gritty comedy because we are Richard’s confidantes. We see the fools he dupes through his eyes and with his mind. We rejoice in their downfall. Richard is not just a consummate actor; he is also a consummate villain. He knows what he wants. He delights in telling us what he is going to do, and he does it. He can assume any mood or passion at will. He is believed without question. He has perfected simulation of every feeling and phrase to serve his purpose. And he has eliminated any weakness that might betray him, such as feelings of compunction, pity and uncertainty of mind.[26] Richard has all the qualities of the complete Machiavellian: ” …lifelong and unremitting vigilance in relentless simulation and indomitable deception.” [27] By presenting Richard in this form, Shakespeare is neither proving nor de-bunking the Tudor myth. Instead of certainty we have only ambiguity.

 

[1] Coley Cibber – The tragical history of King Richard the Third. Altered from Shakespeare by Coley Cibber, Esq. (London 1769 print) p.66

[2] John Jowett (ed) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Oxford 2000) p.17; Annalieze Connelly (ed) – Richard III: a critical reader (Bloomsbury/Arden 2013) pp.111-150 passim.

[3] Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Macmillan/RSC Shakespeare 2008) p.167.

[4] Bate ibid; Connolly pp.33-45 passim; the rise of Material Culturism has politicized the play. Material Culturists use a close examination of the play’s text to identify the ‘dominant hegemonic force in society’ (e.g. Crown, Church, Family and so forth) and the methods for disseminating their doctrine/ideology. By analyzing the text Material Culturists hope to spot examples of dissent and complicity with the dominant force’s doctrine/ideology. It is a methodology that tends to spotlight those people who are disadvantaged and/or marginalized by society, by virtue of their race, religion, gender, class or disability.

[5] Stephen Greenblatt – Tyrant: Shakespeare on power (The Bodley Head 2018) pp.53-95; professor Greenblatt has an interesting theory on tyrants and especially how they come to power. His view of Richard is wholly negative. He is a ‘worthless piece of work. There is no secret about his cynicism, cruelty and [treachery], no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe he could ever rule the country effectively… he leaves nothing behind except wreckage. It would have been better had he never been born’. Greenblatt is a professor of the Humanities and an expert on the works of Shakespeare: I am not. Nevertheless, there is much about his book with which I disagree. It is, I believe a good example of the simplistic thinking that comes from basing an opinion of the play on a study of the text conducted in an academic vacuum without the context of performance. But most of all I cannot accept his premise that Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard is an accurate representation of the real man, or that it was ever intended to be

[6] Greenblatt pp.1-23; contains a discussion on Shakespeare’s freedom of speech in the context of late Elizabethan religious fanaticism, domestic political intrigue and the threat to the English succession from a foreign power.

[7] Jowett pp.11-16

[8] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – “dues ex machina (literally: ‘God from the machine’): a divine power, event, or person arriving in time to solve a difficulty (often rather contrived) interposition, esp. in a novel or play”. For example, ‘and then I woke up’.

[9] Jowett PP. 4-6; Shakespeare’s manipulation of history to put a positive spin on William Stanley’s part in Richard III’s downfall has tempted some scholars to speculate that the play was written in 1692 for Lord Strange’s Men. Ferdinando Lord Strange was a descendant of the said Thomas Stanley Earl of Derby and also of Henry VII (by Henry’s granddaughter Margaret Clifford). This may explain why Shakespeare has tactfully ignored Stanley’s acquiescence in Hastings’ execution, his part in crushing Buckingham’s rebellion, the rewards he received from King Richard and his ‘wait and see’ policy in 1485. Thomas Stanley is also portrayed as leading the Stanley contingent that surrounded and killed the King, whereas it was actually his brother William. It might also explain why Thomas Stanley has such a prominent role in the final scenes: presenting Henry with his crown and predicting the joyous union of York and Lancaster. Lord Strange and his family were noted for their Roman Catholic sympathies; however, in true Stanley fashion they managed to keep on the right side of the Reformation by hunting down Jesuits. From both the protestant and the catholic perspectives, Strange’s loyalty was suspect.

[10] Jowett pp. 73-74; the three Henrician plays were first published under the following titles: The First part of Henry VI (taken from the First Folio, there being no earlier text); The Contention of the Houses of York and Lancaster (now Henry VI part 2) and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth (now Henry VI part 3).

[11] Bate p.18; the title of the 1597 print makes interesting reading: “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, containing the treacherous plots against his brother Clarence; the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews; his tyrannical usurpation; with the whole course of his detested life and deserved death. As has been lately performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s men, his servants”

[12] Jowett pp.110-120; Bate pp.9-15; both these editors provides extensive discussion on the textual chronology and problems arising from Quarto and Folio editions. See also Julie Hankey (ed) – Shakespeare’s Richard III in Performance (Junction Books 1981) pp. 27-32. It is also worth considering EAJ Honigmann (ed) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Penguin 1968) pp. 242-244. His textual notes were still helpful to me fifty years after they were written.

[13] Bate p.16; Richard had 32% of the lines in F1; more than any other Shakespearean protagonist except Hamlet (37%). Richmond by comparison has 4% of the lines, which is an index of his artistic importance. In Cibber’s adaptation, Richard’s share rises to 40%.

[14] Richards solo appearance and his opening soliloquy are unique in the Shakespearean canon. He is the only protagonist to open and speak first in his own play.

[15] EMW Tillyard – Shakespeare’s History Plays (Penguin 1962) pp.200-04

[16] Tillyard ibid

[17] Tillyard p.208

[18] Connelly pp. 33-45;

[19] Bate and Rasmussen p.200

[20] TJB Spencer (ed) – Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Penguin 1996) p.115 Act 2, Scene 2; ‘the law of writ and the liberty plays’: Polonius is distinguishing between plays that follow classical principles, like Ben Johnson’s and plays like Shakespeare’s with greater freedom of structure. The mixture of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral seems absurd until we recall that Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline.

[21] Jowett pp. 23-24; Seneca (BC 4-AD 65) was a Roman stoic philosopher and dramatist. He is famous for ten tragical plays that depict the rise of great men and their ruination or self-destruction due to uncontrolled emotion or madness. Seneca was widely read in medieval and renaissance Christendom. His tragedies influenced Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers.

[22] AP Rossiter – Angels with Horns: fifteen lectures on Shakespeare (Longman 1989 edition) pp.1-22; see also Jowett p.10.

[23] Jowett pp.10-11 citing Nicholas Brooke – Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies (1968) pp. 78-79.

[24] De Casibus vivorum illustrium (on the fate of famous men): this is an encyclopedia of historical biographies dealing with the fortunes and calamities of famous men from Adam until the fourteenth century: not only their lives, but also their moral virtues.

[25] Rossiter p.15

[26] Rossiter p.17

[27] Rossiter ibid

 

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Lambert Simnel and Edward V

I’m beginning to convince myself that the Lambert Simnel Affair might have been an uprising in favour of Edward V, not Edward, Earl of Warwick….

https://mattlewisauthor.wordpress.com/2018/07/24/lambert-simnel-and-edward-v/

 

Re-enactment of, and history trail about, the Battle of Stoke Field….

Stoke Field re-enactment

Because I had considerable trouble finally reading all of this article, I have taken the liberty of copying it all, word for word. So I do not claim anything that follows . It is all Nottinghamshire live:-

“It was the site of one of the most important battles in English history, a blood-soaked clash that finally brought an end to the infamous War of the Roses.

“Yet the Battle of Stoke Field, fought near Newark in June 1487, is overshadowed by events two years earlier at Bosworth when the death of Yorkist Richard III gave the throne to Henry VII.

“Nowadays Stoke Field Battlefield, outside Newark, is just an empty field but the scene of this bloody conflict, which cost around 7,000 lives and which rewrote the history books, is being brought back to life in a joint project between Nottinghamshire County Council and the Battlefields Trust.

“A new history trail, featuring five oak panels which describe the background to the battle, the bloody events of the day and the aftermath, will bring the fascinating untold story of this bloody battle to a new audience.

“Visitors will also be able to travel back in time by downloading videos, starring re-enactors in full historical costume, who tell the harrowing, first-hand accounts of the people who were actually there as the battle unfolded.

“On that June morning, Henry VII was about to enter a conflict which would decide the future of the great Tudor dynasty.

“Across the open fields of this picturesque corner of Notts, waiting to face him, was the young pretender Lambert Simnel with his army of between 6,000 and 10,000 men — for the most part, a poorly-trained force of Irish and German mercenaries.

“Raised in Ireland, the rebel army had crossed the sea and then marched over the Pennines before fording the Trent at Fiskerton.

Stoke Field - map

“The King, boosted by a contingent of Derbyshire soldiers he had collected in Nottingham, had a similar number at his call.

“But these were professional soldiers of the crown, more disciplined and better equipped.

“The King delivered a rousing speech, exhorting his troops to fight with every sinew for God was on their side, their cause was just and, he pledged, they would be triumphant.

“Across the fields between the villages of Stoke and Thorpe, rebel leader the Earl of Lincoln gave a similar battle cry before unleashing his rag-tag army in a bid to capture the English throne.

“Preliminaries over, the two men led their followers into the Battle of Stoke Field, an engagement that historians now record as the most bloody ever fought on English soil.

“For more than three hours, axes and swords, spears and spikes, bows and cudgels, were wielded with merciless force.

Stoke Field - artist's impression of battle

“As cries of “King Henry” rent the air, heads were cleaved and limbs severed as the two mighty armies fought a vicious hand-to-hand conflict across the open Notts ground, rapidly stained crimson by blood.

“The battle ebbed and flowed but slowly the King’s men gained the upper hand.

“The Irish, fighting with characteristic passion and bravery, were “stricken down and slayne like dull and brutal beasts,” according to one historical account.

“A last desperate thrust against the King’s main force was repelled and the rebels took to their heels, pursued by troops intent on killing every last man.

“Down a gully leading to the Trent near Fiskerton ferry, a large body of the pretender’s men were trapped.

Stoke Field - Red Gully

“Without mercy, they were put to the sword, the carnage earning the little valley the name Red Gutter. And when it was all over only the cries of the wounded and the dying could be heard across the battlefield strewn with the bodies of more than 6,000 combatants.

“Most of the leading rebels, men like Lord Lovell, the Earl of Lincoln and German mercenary chief Schwarz, fell that day. But Lambert Simnel was spared and put to work in the royal kitchens, living to the grand old age — for the times — of 50.

“The battle, bloodier than Bosworth Field, signalled the end of the Wars of the Roses which had been raging since 1455 between descendants of the sons of Edward III, the Duke of York and the Duke of Lancaster.

“It confirmed Henry VII as the first Tudor king and a new dynasty took the crown.

“There are few reminders at Stoke Field today of the violence that occurred more than five centuries ago. One or two names suggest the deeds that went on there — Red Gutter is one, Deadman’s Field another.

Stoke Field - memorial

A stone monument which can be seen at the site of the Battle of Stoke Field

“A stone marker commemorating the battle can be found at Burrand Bush, where Henry is said to have placed his standard following his great victory. And Willow Rundle, at the side of Elston Lane, is said to mark the spot where Col Schwarz and the Earl of Lincoln fell, speared through the heart with willow stakes which then took root and sprouted.

“Councillor John Cottee, Chairman of Nottinghamshire County Council’s Communities and Place Committee, said: “We are delighted that this project will recognise our county’s only registered battlefield. Our heritage is important to us and our sense of place. The Battle of Stoke Field history trail project aligns perfectly with the county council’s aspirations to make more of Nottinghamshire’s heritage and tourism offer.

“Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors and contributes £1.8 billion per year to our local economy. Visitors will be encouraged to visit our area, stay longer and enjoy our sites and scenery which all play a part in telling the story of who we are and the role Nottinghamshire has played in shaping the history of our nation.”

“Further information about the trail, including the videos, is available from www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/BattleofStokeField

My comments: Henry Tudor didn’t give a rousing speech – he didn’t arrive on the scene until the battle was over. Francis Lovell escaped, it is thought by swimming his horse across the Trent. Schwarz’s German mercenaries, the landsknechte, were very highly trained indeed! Oh, and yes, ‘Boo!’ to Derbyshire!

 

 

 

Stanley and the Stanley Knife

They are sharp and good for purposes both fair and foul, and might even be handy for some back-stabbing (should one be of that disposition!)

What am I talking about? The Stanley Knife.

Jokes abound on certain medieval groups about these multi purpose knives being something that should have been invented by the two side-shifting, game-playing Stanley Bros of the 15thc…so I thought I would endeavour to find out if there was indeed a connection.

Here is what I’ve found…

A WILLIAM Stanley invented the Stanley Knife. No, not the one who Henry Tudor executed when he suggested Perkin Warbeck might be the ‘real deal’ but William Stanley, born in Islington in 1829. He was the son of a mechanic called John Stanley and was a descendant of  Thomas Stanley–not THAT particular Thomas Stanley, but the one who wrote The History of Philosophy in the 17th c. Author-philosopher Stanley was the son of Sir Thomas Stanley of Cumberlow, who—and this is where it gets interesting—happened to be the grandson of  yet another Thomas Stanley (they loved the name Thomas, those Stanleys! Doubting Thomases?), an illegitimate son of Edward Stanley, third Earl of Derby. Edward Stanley was the son of Thomas Stanley (that name again!) the 2nd Earl, who was, in turn, the son of George Stanley…you might also know George as Lord Strange, who was held at Bosworth by  Richard for  the good behaviour of his father, THE Thomas Stanley.

(The story goes that Stanley said Richard could go ahead and execute poor old George  because he ‘had other sons’; this may be purely mythical, however. Other falsehoods about Lord Strange is that he was a hapless innocent child held hostage by the nasty ‘baddie’ Richard—he was at least 24-25 at the time of Bosworth, and some sources list him as older still. A further interesting fact is that his wife Joan’s  mother Jacquetta was sister to Elizabeth Woodville.)

And so this leads us to George Stanley’s father, who was, of course, was Thomas the Trimmer, first Earl of Derby, step-father to Henry Tudor and husband of Margaret Beaufort–so yes, one could indeed say the Stanley Knife is connected to that slippery lord and his kin.

I expect Lord Stanley would have approved.

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A STRANGE TALE–THE STORY OF LORD STRANGE

Most Ricardians and non-Ricardians alike have heard the story of Lord Strange, son of Thomas Stanley. Strange was held as a surety by Richard for the behaviour of his father, and when his life was threatened, Thomas was supposed to have flippantly said, “I have other sons.” It is also claimed Richard ordered Strange’s death while on the field at Bosworth…but this never happened, of course, and Strange lived to see another day.
As usual, with anything pertaining to Richard III, there is a whole parcel of myth, legend, and downright sloppy research blurring the details of actual events. More than one non-fiction book has implied that Strange was a boy, even a child, and myth-making has continued on into the present, with one recent, rabid article writer seemingly confusing Strange’s story with that of the infant son of the traitor Rhys Ap Thomas (who was NEVER in Richard’s possession; he had asked for the child as a surety, but when Ap Thomas begged for leniency because his son was so young, Richard relented, and the boy stayed safely at home.)
So what do we know about the real Lord Strange? George Stanley was the eldest son of Thomas Stanley, and was born from his first marriage to Eleanor, sister of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, so he was related maternally to both Anne Neville and Richard III. His date of birth was around 1460 (also some sources state 1450, which may be the more accurate of the two dates, given his mother’s age) , so he was definitely a grown man at the time of Bosworth—25 at least and very possibly older than Richard himself! (So much for the ‘innocent little hostage child!)
He became a knight of the Bath under Edward IV, and held several posts during Richard’s tenure, including being Constable of Pontefract castle, the most powerful and imposing fortress in the north of England.
He was married to Joan le Strange, who was of Woodville lineage, and it was from her he received his title of Lord Strange, held in the right of his wife. Together they had a total of seven children, two of which were born in 1485 or earlier.
After his survival at Bosworth, he went on to serve his step-brother Henry Tudor, and fought for him at Stoke Field. He was invested in the Order of the Garter and became a privy counsellor.
He predeceased his father Thomas, dying in December 1503 (a few sources say 1497) after at banquet at Derby House. Rumours say that he was poisoned but nothing seems to survive about who would have committed such a heinous crime. His burial place is in St James Garlickhythe in London (which is likely also the last resting place of Richard III’s illegitimate daughter, Katherine.)

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A Strange Story – Did it Happen at All?

Thanks to Shakespeare, and virtually every other account we have, both ‘factual’ and ‘fiction’, most people are familiar with the tale of Lord Strange being held captive by Richard III at Bosworth as a hostage for his father’s good behaviour, and of Lord Stanley’s careless remark that he had ‘other sons’. As a result of which Richard ordered Strange’s execution – though Strange managed in the event to survive.

It seems to be much less well known that as far back as 1980, Peter Hammond, writing in The Ricardian published research findings of Brenda Lloyd which demonstrated that both Stanley and Strange witnessed a deed at Bewsey, Warrington, Lancashire, on 18 July 1485. Mrs Lloyd was able subsequently to trace this deed, which is still in existence. Her source referred to a similar deed, witnessed at Lathom some two or three weeks later, but unfortunately she was not able to trace the original in this case.

This evidence establishes that Strange was in Lancashire with his father in mid July 1485, and possibly some weeks later. So the usual impression we are given that either Stanley or Strange (his substitute) was with Richard the whole time is quite false.

Possibly Stanley sent Strange to Richard in early August, or thereabouts. If he did, then, considering his plans, it was a remarkably cold-blooded, not to say callous, thing to do if he had any reason to think Richard might order Strange’s death.

The other possibility is that the whole story of Strange and Richard is utter nonsense. Is there any source for it, independent of the Croyland Chronicle? Is it just another example of anti-Richard propaganda that has found its way into accepted history?

Source: Richard III, Crown and People, ed J Petrie, 1985.

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