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SIR THOMAS MORE , A MAN FOR ALL REASONS: SAINT OR SINNER?

‘Not exactly the horse’s mouth’

In Josephine Tey’s spellbinding novel ‘The Daughter of Time’, Detective Inspector Alan Grant has a reputation for being able to spot a villain on sight. Whilst in hospital with a broken leg, Grant is idly flipping through some old postcard portraits to while away the time. He turns over a portrait of a richly dressed medieval man in his thirties: a judge? A soldier? A prince? Certainly someone with authority and responsibility Grant supposes. Imagine his surprise, therefore, when he realises it is a portrait of Richard III. “The monster of nursery stories. The destroyer of innocents. A synonym for villainy.” Shocked that he could be so mistaken as to place Richard on the Bench instead of in the Dock, Grant delves deeper into the mysteries of his life and reign. A friend lends him a library copy of Thomas More’s ‘The History of King Richard III’, which he reads with a detective’s eye for detail and evidence. Pretty soon he realises the fatal flaw in More’s account and raises the problem on his friend’s return.

” ‘I wanted some information about history written in Richard III’s day. Contemporary accounts.’

‘ Isn’t the sainted Sir Thomas any good then?’

‘ The sainted Sir Thomas is nothing but an old gossip’ Grant said with venom. He had taken a wild dislike to the much-admired More.

‘Oh, dear. And the nice man in the library seemed so reverent about him. The Gospel of Richard III according to St Thomas More, and all that.’

‘Gospel nothing’ Grant said rudely. ‘He was writing down in a Tudor England what someone had told him about events that happened in a Plantagenet England when he himself was five.’

‘Five years old?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, dear. Not exactly the horse’s mouth.’ “

 

I doubt if there are many Ricardians, if any, who would disagree with Inspector Grant’s opinion of ‘the sainted Sir Thomas’ and his history book: and with some justification. It contains many demonstrable errors and falsehoods, which have shaped our perception of Richard III for centuries. Even today, when there is more or less a scholarly consensus about its unreliability, there remains a perception that it is not entirely useless as a historical source.

 

The man who wrote ‘The History of King Richard III’ was not Saint Thomas More the Catholic martyr or Sir Thomas More the king’s Lord Chancellor. He was plain ‘maister’ More of Lincoln’s Inn, a brilliant and successful humanist lawyer and writer. I hope in this article to explore aspects of More’s character and life that may explain why he wrote his history of King Richard, and the historical and literary influences that guided his quill. This is not, however, a critique of this book as literature or history.

 

‘This child will prove a marvelous man’

Thomas More was born in London on the 7th February 1478 (or 1477), the eldest son of Sir John More, a successful lawyer and later justice of the King’s Bench, who rose to prominence during the reign of Edward IV. Politically, Sir John was an Edwardian Yorkist rather than a Ricardian who, despite being unfairly imprisoned by Henry VII, prospered during the Tudor dynasty. He had an enormous influence on Thomas as a child and as an adult; being, largely responsible for his son’s choice of a career at the Bar rather than the Altar. The More’s were a wealthy family of merchants and professionals. Both Thomas’ grandfathers acquired fortunes. Each played a significant part in the governance and commercial life of London during the fifteenth century, and also in various financial and advisory capacities to the king. At the age of seven, Thomas was enrolled in St Anthony’s , a prestigious grammar school in Threadneedle Street not far from his home. It had a reputation for producing England’s finest Latin scholars and Thomas was no exception. His grounding in Latin was to stand him in good stead later in life. But it was his spell as a page in John Morton’s Household that was to mark young Thomas as a teenage prodigy.

 

As Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor, Morton was the most powerful commoner in the realm. He united the affairs of church and state, and his service to Lancastrian and Yorkist kings established his reputation for integrity. Furthermore, his part in Henry VII’s conquest of King Richard and the unification of the red and white roses assured Tudor goodwill. His main responsibilities were implementing the king’s fiscal and foreign policies, for which he was amply rewarded with lucrative offices and beneficiaries. Morton was, however, deeply unpopular with the king’s subjects, who resented the heavy load of taxation and benevolences he collected from them. He is (perhaps mistakenly) believed to have been responsible for the cunning argument commonly known as Morton’s fork, which was used to extract forced loans from reluctant subjects and is best described as “persuading prodigals to part with their money because they did spend it most and the covetous because they could spare it best.”[1]

 

In 1490, Thomas More walked the relatively short distance across the Thames to Lambeth Palace, there to take up his duties in the archbishop’s household. His position as a page was not demeaning. On the contrary, it was considered a privilege for gentlemens’ sons to serve in the household of a great lord. They would learn the etiquette of the privileged and mix with the good and the great. As a page, More led a strict and simple life but not a hard one. He slept on a straw mattress in a dormitory with other sons of the gentry. His principal duties as a servitor were to wait at table and clear away after the meal. Cleanliness was particularly important for pages and their dorm was well equipped with a long communal sink and pitchers of water. However, More’s life was not wholly one of servitude and menial labour. He continued his education as a scholar at a private school within the archbishop’s establishment. Apparently, his superior intellect and quickness of wit so impressed the archbishop, that More was soon attending him in his grace’s private chambers in the West Tower.[2] William Roper (More’s son-in-law and first biographer) provides a colourful insight into More’s prodigious self-confidence at this time “…though he was young of years [Thomas] would be at Christmas-tide suddenly sometimes step in among the players and never studying the matter, make a part his own there presently among them, which made the lookers-on more sport than all the players besides. In whose wit and forwardness the cardinal [Morton was not a cardinal at the time.] would often say to the nobles that divers times dined with him ‘ This child there waiting at the table, whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man‘.”[3]

 

More had great respect for archbishop Morton, whom he considered to be a great man and an exemplar of ethical and moral behaviour. I am not myself convinced that Morton was such a paragon of virtue; yet, he was undoubtedly one of the most imposing political figures of Henry VII’s reign. His influence in shaping More’s career is undisputed. For example, in 1494 he was instrumental in arranging a place for him at Oxford University, where More could study canon and civil law under the watchful eye of the Benedictine monks of Canterbury College. Morton hoped that More would obtain his doctorate in law before taking holy orders and embarking on a career in government. However, after completing the curriculum, More left Oxford to join chambers in New Inn, there to continue his legal training. Whether this was his own choice or his father’s decision is unclear, but it is likely that it was always intended that he should practice law. If so, this was the preferred path for budding lawyers, who spent six or seven years learning their profession and ‘the affairs of men’ in the hurly-burly of the Inns of Court rather than in the cloisters of Oxford, which offered no such practical or material benefit. As Thomas More was to show throughout adult life, he was a practical and materialistic man. Quite apart from the influence of his father or archbishop Morton, the attraction of a legal career was obvious to him. Lawyers were held to be magni clarique that is important and distinguished. By the last decade of the fifteenth century, the rewards of prestige and wealth were such that the sons of the landed gentry preferred a legal career to one in the Church or in business. Just as importantly, an education in the law brought the ambitious More into contact with precisely those people who later administered the affairs of the king and state. Above all, he was temperamentally suited to be a lawyer. His advocacy skills were high quality and well honed. In the words of his most recent biographer “His polemical texts reveal the persistence, subtlety and inventiveness of his attacks against opponents; as a forensic orator and judicial examiner he [was] as fierce as he is persuasive, continually changing or extending his line of attack, looking for the smallest inconsistencies, finding weakness and deriding mistakes of terminology or presentation. More as a man is the apotheosis of the clever and practical man.”[4] He maintained a curious detachment throughout his life and was always precise and shrewd. Nevertheless, the impression remains that he was playing some kind of game. In the words of William Roper, he never in his dealings showed “of what mind himself was therein.” These were the qualities of a perfect lawyer: skilful and objective, cautious yet theatrical, persuasive and practical.

 

‘An intensely practical and decisive man’[5]

By the time he was thirty, More’s legal practice was flourishing. He was by training and by experience a generalist; appearing, as counsel in criminal cases at the Kings Bench and advising clients on, the common law, Canon law, Roman law and maritime law. He is reputed to have been ‘with the Archbishop of Canterbury (the dominant landowner) every day. He was also the legal representative for the City guilds and chief negotiator for the City mercers. He represented the City merchants in their dispute with the Duke of Buckingham and the Bishop of Norwich. In litigation he favoured advising a settlement between the parties to a trial, since this compromise suited his personal preference for good order and harmony. In Soper’s words“…sith there was at that time in none of the Prince’s courts of the laws of this realm any matter of importance in controversy wherein he was not with the one part of counsel. Of whom, for his learning, wisdom, knowledge and experience, men had such estimation that, before he came to the service of king Henry VIII at the suite and instance of the English merchants, he was by the king’s consent in certain great causes between them merchants and the merchants of [the Hanseatic League]…”[6]

 

By the time he was forty, More’s legal future was assured. He was appointed Lent Leader of Lincoln’s Inn, where he lectured on ‘Law-French in Statutes’. His subsequent appointment as Double Reader suggested he could anticipate elevation to the bench. In 1510, he received his first judicial appointment as one of two Under-Sheriffs of London, hearing criminal trials in the Sherriff’s Court, Guildhall and acting as official counsel to various City bodies. He earned the respect and affection of the City for his fair and quick decisions and his habit of occasionally remitting the fees that the litigants were expected to pay. There is, however, another side to More’s legal character, which is revealed by his involvement in the ‘Hunne Case’. This controversial and notorious litigation involved a direct attack on the authority of the Catholic Church. It may even be taken as an indication of the Protestant reformation yet to come in England.

 

Richard Hunne was a wealthy Whitehall tailor who refused to make a customary offering to his local rector. His case was taken to Lambeth Palace, where Hunne was adjudged to be at fault. Still he refused to pay. On Hunne’s next attendance at his parish church, the priest (Thomas Dryfield) excommunicated him with the words ‘Hunne thou art accursed and thou standest accursed’. Exiled from his community and with his mortal soul at risk, Hunne hit back. He issued a writ of praemunire accusing Dryfield and his assistant of slander. By invoking the Praemunire Act of 1393, Hunne was asserting the king’s superiority over papal authority and clerical courts, as the final arbiter of his subject’s rights. He argued that the church authorities had no right to claim his property and further that the hearing at Lambeth Palace took place before a ‘foreign and illegal bar.’ The ecclesiastical authorities responded by charging Hunne with heresy and imprisoning him in the Lollard’s Tower. It seems to us like a fabricated charge; except, that Hunne did have Lollard sympathies and connections. His father-in-law was an evangelist in that cause. It may even have been Hunne’s Lollard beliefs that prompted him to challenge the legitimacy of the offering in the first place. The case had a sensational outcome as Hunne was found hanged in his cell before he could be brought to trial. The Church authorities said that he hanged himself; whereas, the Coroner’s inquest determined that Dr Horsey the bishop of London’s Chancellor had murdered Hunne. The public furore that followed was exacerbated by the Bishop of London’s decision to convict Hunne of heresy posthumously. His remains were exhumed and ceremoniously burned at Smithfield along with his books. Hunne’s death and the denial of secular justice against his murderer raised serious questions about the rights of clerics to be tried only in Church courts. The matter was considered so important that it was debated in parliament and in convocations. The king himself initiated a number of debates on the Hunne case and its consequences.

 

More was involved in the case. He attended a conference with the king where Hunne’s death was discussed. He was also present when the ecclesiastical judgement was passed on Hunne’s body. More was later to write ” I know it from top to toe. I suppose there are not many men who know it better.”[7] Afterward, he wrote a colourful and amusing account of the conference with the king, in which he ‘goes to great pains’ to defend the Church from ‘each and every criticism’ and concludes that Hunne committed suicide when he realised his praemunire suite had failed. “There is no reason to believe that More was deliberately misrepresenting the truth he was only putting what was natural to him in putting a lawyers gloss on ambiguous circumstances.”[8] Whilst, they must not mislead the court or conceal relevant information, it is not unusual for lawyers to put a positive spin on a weak case. After all, their professional duty is to their client and not to a search for truth. The jury (or the court in certain circumstances) are the sole arbiters of truth. What is disturbing, however, is Ackroyd’s explanation for More’s conclusion, which he suggests was based on More’s personal beliefs rather than the merits. “Lawyers are not necessarily supposed to be devout or principled except in the minutiae of legislation but for More the law was a central image of natural reason and authority. It furnished the principles which governed his behaviour in the world, established upon order in all its forms.”[9] If Ackroyd’s is right, More’s apparent loss of objectivity goes beyond putting a positive spin on a weak case; it perpetuates an injustice. The fact that More admitted he did not shrink from mendaciolum (a small lie) suggests how difficult and tricky he could be.[10]

 

‘A man for all seasons’

We know from More’s published works (poems, epigrams, polemics, letters and books) that he was well able to express his opinions and emotions on parchment or in print. Although his style was more Chaucer (bawdy, earthy) than Spenser (poetic), he had a flair for drama, and used his literary skills to educate rather than to entertain. It was while he was studying at Oxford and later in the Inns of Court that More came increasingly under the influence of a group of literary clerical scholars, known collectively as English renaissance humanists. He was well acquainted with the Latin grammarian John Holt and he studied Greek under William Grocyn, the first Englishman to teach it. Later he became associated with Thomas Linacre the eminent physician and scholar, and with the erudite John Colet. The term ‘renaissance humanism’ does not denote that these learned clerics and others like them held a common philosophical position, since they did not. Their appellation as humanists is derived simply from the fact that they studied a cluster of scholarly disciplines comprising grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and ‘moral philosophy’. Classical Latin and Greek were the languages of these men. It is possible, that More’s association with such erudite ecclesiastics caused him to contemplate swapping a temporal career for a spiritual calling. At any rate, at the turn of the century he abandoned his legal practice and entered the Carthusian Monastery at Charterhouse, just outside the city walls, where he remained for four years as a lay member, participating fully in the spiritual life of the monks without taking holy orders. Eventually, the call of his temporal ‘work in the world’ proved too enticing for More the practical man. He left the monastery to stand for parliament.

 

The most famous of all northern European humanists was Desiderius Erasmus (the ‘prince of humanists’), whom More met and became friends with in 1499. Erasmus described More as a ‘man for all seasons’ due to his ‘affability and sweetness of character’. In 1516, he published More’s most celebrated volume ‘Utopia’, which in its structure and content reveals the author’s humanist leanings; as does his most controversial book ‘The History of Richard III’. These two volumes are a clear indication of More’s philosophical interest in the contrast between just and unjust kingship, and that his concern was not restricted to the lessons of Richard III’s reign. In a Latin poem written to celebrate Henry VIII’s accession, More highlights the ‘atmosphere of fear and suspicion’ caused by Henry VII’s rapacity, which, incidentally, was an opinion shared by many of More’s contemporaries. Nonetheless, the promise of a ‘golden age’ that accompanied Henry VIII’s accession was the redeeming finale of More’s poem, in which he expressed the hope that Henry would repeal unjust laws and remit unfair debts, and that he would maintain the peace and stability that allowed piety and scholarship to blossom.[11]

 

“One thing pretended and another meant”

I must now turn to More’s ‘History of Richard III, which I will refer to as the ‘History’ from now on. While we can speculate why More wrote it, we cannot dismiss it merely as Tudor propaganda.[12] That is the opinion of professor Richard Sylvester In his definitive study of the History. Sylvester argues that More was neither pro-Tudor nor anti-Plantagenet. He was as much pro-Edward IV as he was anti Richard III. For instance, even as he welcomed the accession of Henry VIII he took the opportunity, in the celebratory poem to which I have already referred, to criticise the ‘oppressive acts and devious dealings of Henry VII. He makes a similar point, albeit obliquely, in the History: “…all things in later days were so covertly managed, one thing pretended another meant, that there was nothing so plain and openly proved but that for common custom of close and covert dealings men had it ever inwardly suspect…[13] More is not here just referring to the reign of Richard III but also to the reign of Henry VII during the period when Perkin Warbeck was a threat to the Tudor hegemony. In Sylvester’s opinion, More has depicted Richard as a cacodemon because that is what his oral and written authorities told him. He accepted their narrative not because he was biased but because he trusted them. Chief among these authorities was John Morton. He played a big part in the downfall of king Richard and was an eyewitness of some events. He also possessed (in More’s opinion) ‘the very mother and mistress of wisdom and deep insight into the political world.[14] The fact that Morton died in 1500 and that More did not begin composing the History until about 1513 (leaving it unfinished around 1518-20) raises interesting questions about Morton’s contribution. What did he know? And, how did he contribute to the History?

 

I will deal with the second question first because it raises the issue of authorship. Beginning, with the early revisionist histories of king Richard’s life and reign, some scholars have doubted More’s authorship of either the English or the Latin, or both editions of the History. For revisionists’ the dichotomy between More’s reputation for integrity and his polemical History is explained by substituting the wily and inveterate schemer Morton as the author of (at least) the Latin version. Support for this contention was claimed from a piece of ‘literary gossip’ that appeared in an aside is Sir John Harrington’s book ‘The Metamorphosis of Ajax’ (1596) ‘”…the best, and best written part of all our Chronicles, in all mens opinions; is that of Richard III, written as I have heard by Morton, but as most suppose by that worthy and uncorrupt [sic] magistrate Sir Thomas More…” [15] As Dr Kincaid points out, ‘Harrington was an inveterate gossip, not necessarily to be believed’.[16]

There is, however, better reason for believing that Morton gave More a ‘polemical tract’ attacking king Richard, which the latter probably used as an aide-memoire for his own narrative.[17] Be that as it may, the case for More’s authorship of the English and Latin versions of the History is considered by modern scholars to be unanswerable.[18]

 

On the question of what Morton knew, we must bear in mind that as important as he was, Morton was only an eyewitness to some of the events of 1483. There is much in More’s History that could not possibly have come from him or the clique of Lancastrian dissidents who shared Richmond’s exile and (no doubt) dined with the archbishop at Lambeth Palace. Morton was not, for example, present at Stony Stratford when the Duke of Gloucester arrested the king’s uncle and stepbrother. Neither was he present when the Queen was persuaded to allow her youngest son, Richard duke of York, to leave the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. Furthermore, Morton is not an eyewitness to the alleged murders of Edward V and his brother.[19] Though, he might well be the instigator of the rumour that they had been murdered. More’s other oral sources included but were not limited to: Sir John More, John Roper, Richard Fitzjames, Sir Thomas Lovell (fought for Richmond at Bosworth), Christopher Urswick (priest and Tudor spy in 1483), Bishop Fox of Winchester (in exile with Richmond), Roger Lupton (Mayor of London) and Sir John Heron (an early adherent to Richmond). When he cites one of these ‘authorities’ or others who occupied similar positions, he usually refers to them in the phrase ‘men say’. The opinion of these ‘wise’ men was much valued by More. He relied on them when balancing different interpretations against each other. Generally, More is not too concerned about the accuracy of dates, names and places since these could be checked later (but never were). What is notable, however, is that he never spoke to anyone at Henry’ VII’s court who had served king Richard or who could even be said to have liked the dead king.

 

In addition to his oral authorities, More had a number of written works available for consultation. Some of these pre-date the History, whilst others are contemporary with it. Pietro Carmeliano was a court scholar during the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII who wrote the ‘Life of St Catherine of Egypt’. He extolled Richard’s princely virtues when he was alive and denounced him as a tyrant when he was dead.[20] Bernard André’ was Henry VII’s official biographer. He wrote ‘Vita Henrici’, in which he to portrayed king Henry as angelic and king Richard as demonic. The sycophant John Rous wrote ‘Historia Regum Angliae’, during the reign of Henry VII. He denounced king Richard as the anti-Christ having previously acclaimed him for his nobility and virtues. Whether or not More used the Chronicles of Robert Fabyan, Polydore Vergil’s ‘Anglica Historia’ or Domenico Mancini’s ‘De Occupations Regni Anglie Per Ricardum Tercium Libellus’ is a matter of pure conjecture.[21] Some of More’s factual inaccuracies suggest that either he did not know of the Second Continuation of the Croyland Chronicle or he had not read it. Even so, it is safe to say that he would hardly have credited a less defamatory portrait of king Richard than the one he describes in the History. In the words of professor Sylvester: “The indictment against the king had been drawn-up by men whose judgement he respected; it’s terms were supported not only by most of his oral informants but also by writers whose version of events had been set down before he began to compose his own narrative.”[22] In early Tudor England there was hardly a voice raised in defence of the last Plantagenet. The official records such as Titular Regius and Richard’s signet letters were almost certainly not available to More. It is only by comparing his narrative with credible contemporary sources that we can test the historical accuracy of More’s History.

 

Although More’s portrait of Richard accurately reflects the opinion current in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII and some details can be corroborated by independent records (e.g. the allegation that Edward V was bastardised due to his parents’ bigamous marriage), there are some notable errors and omissions in the History for which there is no excuse. These range from getting Edward IV’s age wrong to naming Elizabeth Lucy as the lady alleged to have still been married to Edward IV when he wedded Elizabeth Butler. However, what Inspector Grant and others overlook in their criticism of More’s History, is that he never claimed it was anything other than a reflection of public opinion in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Neither did he claim to be more authoritative than his sources. “He asks us not to credit that ‘what men say’ happened, did happen, but that they really said it did happen.”[23]

 

Professor Paul Kendall is not sure whether More ever intended the History to be factual. He suggests that what More learned from his sources, he used to fashion a version of events that satisfied his humanist leanings. “A dramatic boldly performed narrative soaring beyond actualities into art and seek psychological verisimilitude rather than factual accuracy.[24] Writing from a purely literary perspective, professor EMW Tillyard also believed that More’s History was intentionally creative rather than historical. “More’s History transcends the sorting of evidence and abides as a classic record of fundamental human nature”. In Tillyard’s opinion it has tragedy and comedy. “The episode where Queen Elizabeth is persuaded to give her youngest son into the care of Richard Gloucester is more tragic than anything the English drama produced till the great age.” On the comic side, Tillyard draws attention to Dr Shaa’s pre-arranged Sermon at St Paul’s Cross, which descends from high drama to farce thanks to Gloucester’s mistimed entrance.[25] Even so, there is no doubting More’s contribution to the shaping of Richard III’s black legend. He was the first to suggest that Richard had ‘long forethought’ to seize the throne, even before his brother was dead. And it is More’s narrative that names Richard as the prompter and guiding spirit behind all the events that followed Edward IV’s death.

 

Even though More’s reasons for writing the History are wholly obscure now, post-Tudor scholars have repeatedly question his motives and what he actually thought he was writing. For example, Kendall writes that he ‘undoubtedly set about his History for the same reason that according to Falstaff the earl of Worcester rebelled ‘it lay in his way and he found it’.[26] Whereas, Horace Walpole writing in 1768 believed that “[More] wrote his History to amuse his leisure and exercise his fancy.”[27] These seemingly flippant reasons might be closer to the mark than we think. For instance, Peter Ackroyd raises the intriguing possibility that both the English and the Latin versions of the History were written as a rhetorical and grammatical exercise for Oxford students.[28] The supporting evidence for this theory is both circumstantial and cryptic; yet, it does exist. First, there is More’s mysterious reference to a ‘schoolmaster of Poles’ (St Paul’s?): second, there is the fact that one of the extant manuscripts of this work is endorsed with the preface that it was written exercitationis gratia (‘for the sake of practice’). Finally, there is the fact that both the Latin and the English versions comply with More’s own methods of composition and revision, which he also impressed on his children.[29] As Ackroyd notes, More’s humanism had a practical purpose, and as a successful lawyer he was more interested in the practice and usage of advocacy than its theory. It is possible, therefore, that the long and complex debates on the merits and abuses of sanctuary and on king Richard’s royal title, which dominate the History ,are lessons in the art of disputation similar to those experienced by More during his own education.[30] The speechmaking is certainly more reminiscent of an exposition of the law than a record of what was actually said by those present in 1483. “One of the models of its form is clearly Sallust and More had been instructed to teach Sallust at Oxford. He had also recommended that author for his children’s’ reading. And what could be a better way of studying classical rhetoric and vocabulary than to apply them to the description of more recent events” [31] It is equally possible that More’s humanist leanings, his interest in history and in ‘kingship’, and his contact with Morton and the men who had fought King Richard, fuelled a ‘boyish interest’ in the dead king. His own interest in the classical Greek and Roman historians may have encouraged him to emulate them. In particular, he had a deep interest in the accounts of Tiberius’ tyranny, which were written by Tacitus and Suetonius.

 

It is more likely, however, that he wrote the History for a substantial reason other than mere interest.[32] He may have intended it to be a metaphor for his own doubts and his fear of Henry VIII’s instinct for despotism, which was already apparent by the time he was writing the History. He could not make his thoughts plain on pain of death, so his message is more oblique and very cleverly constructed. Nothing in More’s History could be mistaken as applying to Henry VIII. Read literally, it coruscates king Richard’s tyranny whilst justifying the Henrician Tudors as the opponents of tyranny. More’s philosophical and psychological interest in tyranny and government is evidenced by his poems and other written works: especially Utopia. The History may have been an attack on the real-politick of his day. He may even have regarded it as a worked example wherein a ‘good’ monarch would benefit from its powerful depiction of monstrous injustice. Of course the corollary of this was that it might give the potential despot ideas about subtleties of policy, which later generations would identify as Machiavellian. It would indeed be unfortunate if it provided Henry VIII with a convincing illustration of what he could do given free rein to his powers.

 

Whatever More’s reason for writing the History may have been, he put down his quill sometime between 1518 and 1520. He never returned to his manuscripts, which remained unfinished and unrevised; clearly, it was not meant for publication. The reasons for this have troubled Scholars almost as much as More’s reason for picking-up his quill in the first place. There are many different theories, two of which, bear testament to More’s concerns about the Henry VIII despotic tendencies. Sylvester postulates that he might have been troubled by the possibility that it would become a kind of ‘manual’ for Henry if he wished to exercise his will unfettered. More could not take that risk and so the History remained unfinished. Professor Kendall notes that More stopped just as Richmond was about to enter the narrative. At which point it became too dangerous for More to write about Henry VII’s oppression even by analogy. And so, the History remained unfinished and unpublished in More’s lifetime.[33] The third theory is more mundane but equally credible. It is possible that he simply lost interest in the project, particularly if it really was nothing more than a student exercise. Anyhow, by the second decade of the sixteenth century, More might still have been making-up his mind about the role he was to play in the king’s service. His life as a royal servant promised to be challenging, since the king was more often guided by his personal will and appetites than by reason. Although such wilful governance was anathema to More, he was confident of his ability to ‘bend with the wind’, so that what he couldn’t turn to good he could make less bad. He always gave his opinion according to his conscience when asked, but he never opposed the king’s will publicly. In view of the difficulty of maintaining a distinction between his private and public beliefs, it is possible the More simply abandoned the History in favour of his little booklet Utopia, which expertly expressed his own private views of governance and kingship even more obliquely than the History.[34]

 

Finally, it is possible that More became too embroiled with advising the king on the Lutheran texts that were appearing in England around this time. He was one of those who advised Henry on his own written defence of the Catholic faith, which earned him the title ‘Fidei defensor (defender of the faith). More himself took up the cudgel in support of his king, trading insult for insult with Martin Luther in a series of booklets. Compared to the existential threat to the established Church posed by Luther’s heretical doctrine, More may have considered the History a self-indulgent trifle.

[1] Peter Ackroyd – The Life of Thomas More (Vintage 1999) p.31 quoting from E Foss – Judges of England (London 1848-64) p.66

[2] Ackroyd p.28

[3] Richard Sylvester and Davis Harding (Eds) – Two Early Tudor Lives: the Life and death of cardinal Wolsey by Geo Cavendish & the Life of Sir Thomas More by William Roper (Yale 1962) pp.197-98

[4] Ackroyd p.52

[5] Ackroyd p.148

[6] Sylvester (Roper) p.200

[7] Ackroyd p.151; citing The Complete Works of Thomas More (Yale) V6, p. 318

[8] Ackroyd p.152

[9] Ibid

[10] Ackroyd p. 163-164; in a letter to Wolsey, More explains that the post of Canonry of Tournai had previously been conferred on his friend Erasmus, and that as compensation for Erasmus withdrawing from it, a better or greater provision should be made for him. None of this was true, of course, but it illustrates More’s willingness to lie.

[11] Ackroyd p.127

[12] Richard Sylvester (Ed) – The History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More (Yale 1963) p. lxv and passim

[13] Sylvester (Roper) pp. 81-82 and n82/22 p.262; see also Paul Kendall (ed) – The Great Debate (Folio Society 1965) p.103; Kendall contains a useful modern English version of More’s History.

[14] Sylvester (History) p. lxvii

[15] Elizabeth Storey Donno (Ed) – Sir John Harrington: a new discourse of a stale subject, called The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) (London 1962) pp. 107-198

[16] AN Kincaid (Ed) – The Encomium of Richard III by Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (Turner and Devereux 1977) p.iii

[17] Sylvester (History) pp.lix-lxxiii; AN Kincaid (Ed) – The History of King Richard the Third by Sir Geo Buck (1619) (Alan Sutton 1979) Chapter VII passim: Buck said he saw the tract, which is no longer extant

[18] Sylvester (History) ibid; citing RW Chambers – The authorship of ‘The History of King Richard III’ in WE Campbell (Ed) – The English Works of Sir Thomas More (London 1931) pp. 24-53; Kincaid

[19] Sylvester (History) ibid; citing AJ Pollard – The Making of Thomas More’s Richard III published in ‘Historical Essays in Honour of James Tait (Manchester 1933) pp.223-284

[20] Pamela Tudor-Craig – Brochure for Richard III’s biographical exhibition at the NPG 1973. Carmeliano’s ‘Life of St Catherine of Egypt’ was exhibited at the NPG in 1973 (No.100). It is a second copy dedicated to Sir Robert Brackenbury and contains a glowing description of king Richard’s virtues in peace and war (‘…what emperor or prince can compare with him in good works and munificence”.). However, in 1486 in a poem dedicated to the new-born Prince Arthur, he charged Richard ‘the tyrant’ with the murder of his nephews.

[21] Sylvester (History) p.lxxi-lxxv; see also CAJ Armstrong – The Usurpation of Richard III by Dominic Mancini (Oxford 1969 edition) pp. xix-xx. Dr Armstrong discusses the relationship between Mancini and More in which he raises concerns about the provenance of More’s information. The importance of this lies in the fact that Mancini substantiates More ‘on many points’. In fact, More and Mancini are closer to each other than to the Croyland Continuation or to Polydor Vergil. The point is, of course, that they were probably using the same informants. Given that these informants were Richard’s political and dynastic opponents it is hardly surprising that they coincide on some points. What is remarkable is that they don’t agree on much more, since there are some significant discrepancies. Furthermore, as Dr Armstrong acknowledges Mancini harboured an unreasoned animus towards king Richard (that he was all along aiming for the throne) (Mancini p.17)

[22] Sylvester (History) p.lxx

[23] Sylvester (History) p.lxxviii

[24] Kendal p.25

[25] EMW Tillyard – Shakespeare’s History Plays (Penguin 1962) p.38

[26] Kendal p.25; this is a reference to a comment by Sir john Falstaff, a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV part 1.

[27] Kendal p.170

[28] Ackroyd p.157

[29] Sylvester (History) p.xii; in a ‘charming’ letter to his children, More admonishes them to write everything in English first ‘for then you will have far less trouble turning it into Latin; not having to look for the matter, your mind will be intent only on the language’. He also emphasises the need for revision to detect and correct solecisms. More was given to the careful revision of his own work, which, as Sylvester points out, may have served as a kind of paradigm for the complex sequence of drafts that were developed in the composition of the HISTORY

[30] Sylvester (History) pp.26-38`; see also Kendal pp.50-62. In the fifteenth century the abuses of sanctuary argued by Buckingham were a bone of contention between the laity and the clergy. By the time More was writing the History the privileges of sanctuary were much reduced.

[31] Ackroyd ibid; Goius Sallustius Crispus (‘Sallust’) (86 BC-35BC), was a Roman historian whose works were noted for their brevity, the use of rare words and unusual phrases.

[32] Sylvester (History) pp. xcviii-xcvix passim

[33] Sylvester (History) pp. cii-ciii; Kendall p.28; who notes the irony of More’s position in that his defamation of Richard III came in part from his detestation of Henry VII’s statecraft.

[34] George M Logan (ed) – Thomas More: Utopia (Cambridge UP 2016, 3 rd edition)

The Maligned Ricardians

Part 2 – Sir George Buck

“The historiographer must be veritable and free from all prosopolepsies and partial respects; he must not add or omit anything, either of partiality or of hatred.”

(Sir George Buck – The History of King Richard III)

 

Introduction

Sir George Buck (1560-1622) faithfully served two English Monarchs in a distinguished career spanning forty years. He was variously a sailor, soldier, diplomat, courtier, Member of Parliament, member of the Privy Chamber and last the King’s Master of Revels from 1610 until shortly before his death in 1622. He was also a noted antiquarian and highly regarded by other leading scholars of his day. The duke of Buckingham thought he was one of the few scholars qualified to compose an English Academy.[1] In addition, he was an author who wrote seriously about serious subjects. He published a number of historical treatises and other works, some of which are no longer extant. Those that we have show him to be a conscientious and thorough researcher and a learned scholar. His work in the Revels office is testament to his literary and gentlemanly qualities; during his tenure he made regulations and strictures about profanity, blasphemy, religious controversy, the presentation of royalty on stage and politically sensitive issues. And yet his notoriety is derived chiefly from the publication in 1646 of his magnum opus, the History of King Richard III, which for convenience I shall call ’Buck’s History’.

 

My idle curiosity about Buck was first aroused by something Paul Kendall wrote in his biography of king Richard III. His poor opinion of Buck’s History seems so incongruous compared to his good opinion of the author and his historical achievement that the circumstances are worth quoting in full: “The first substantial assault [on the Tudor tradition] was delivered about the same time by Sir George Buc (sic), Master of the Revels to king James I and a man of considerable learning and industry, one of whose ancestors had fought for Richard at Bosworth Field. His “History of King Richard III in five books, first published in 1646 and then included in White Kennett’s ‘ Complete History of England’ 1710, is so desultory in organisation as to make for grim reading; it is blundering and uncritical, and as prejudiced in its direction as the tradition it attacks. Yet it is Buc (sic) who first makes use of the manuscript of the Croyland Chronicle to point out some of the inaccuracies in Vergil and More, who seeks sources more nearly contemporary with Richard than the Tudor writers, and who was the first to reveal that the tradition was not inviolable.”[2], Kendall referred to Buck again In his introduction to the ‘Great Debate, describing him as a Yorkist partisan and his History as ‘cumbersome and capricious’.[3]

 

I was at a loss to understand how a man of such learning, industry and achievement could write something so dreadful that Kendal thought it desultory, blundering, uncritical, prejudiced and capricious. Sadly, idleness and not curiosity got the better of me. I did not bother to read Buck’s History until after the discovery of king Richard’s grave in 2012. The recovery of his earthly remains re-awakened my long dormant interest in his life and times. I soon realized that almost every historian who bothered to write about Buck’s History in the three centuries since its first publication shared Kendall’s disdain for it. The list of its faults and deficiencies is far too long for me to catalogue here. At the very least Buck is accused of partiality, of singularity and of being a professional panegyrist. His professional competence and integrity have been attacked by implications that he fabricated evidence and misread his sources. The consensus of historical opinion is that Buck’s History’ is worthless. The sharp contradiction between the good opinions of Buck’s learning and industry and the denigration of his History raises a literary conundrum, which I hope to explain in this piece and thereby showing why Buck’s reputation as a careless and irresponsible historian is undeserved.

 

The History of King Richard III 1646

Dr Arthur Kincaid has no doubt that “ The picture which critics over the intervening centuries have handed down to us of Buck as a careless and irresponsible scholar has attached to him accidentally from two major causes. The first is the carelessness of those who wrote about him and did not seek far enough for his sources.” I pause there simply to point out, as Kincaid does, that there may be many genuine reasons why documents referred to by Buck are no longer extant or cannot be found: fire, vermin and other calamities may have destroyed or damaged some documents, and miscataloguing might result in others being lost, It is worth also briefly referring to one example of the “extraordinary carelessness” of a t least one twentieth century historian when criticizing Buck. It concerns AR Myers’ introduction to the 1973 reprint of the 1646 Edition. Myers gives three examples of what he says is Buck’s unreliability. The first, is an assertion that Buck omitted ‘the crucial’ Latin word (violenti) when quoting from Croyland. Kincaid contends that quite apart from the question of whether ‘violenti’ was a crucial word in the context of Buck’s point, Myers fails to explain that there is no way anybody can ascertain whether Buck actually did exclude the word, since the section of the original manuscript where it would have appeared has been burned away. Myers second point is, in Kincaid’s opinion, “ so blatant an example of either carelessness or perversity on Myers part that it vitiates anything else he may have to say. It is a claim that Buck ‘quotes a statement from Camden that no one has seen since’.” Kincaid comments that, leaving aside the impossibility of proving that ‘nobody has seen a document’, the statement from Camden’s ‘Britannia’ to which Buck referred “ can be most easily be located in that work by looking-up ‘Richard III’ in the index and turning to the page number there listed.” It seems that Myers had not even bothered to check Camden’s ‘Britannia’ for himself. Myer’s third point cannot be investigated, since he cites an incorrect page number.[4] Another notable feature of Buck’s History, which his critics fail to mention is that of the many hundreds of sources he has cited only a handful remain unaccounted for.[5]

 

However, in Kincaid’s opinion: “by far the worst damage to Sir George’s scholarly reputation derives from the amazing alterations made to his work by the mysterious George Buck, Esq., who in the year 1646, twenty-four years after the author’s death published a truncated and heavily revised version of the ‘History’ under his own name.” [6] One gets a feel for just how truncated the 1646 edition is from the fact that it is less than half the length of Buck’s original. As usual, the devil is in the detail and Kincaid goes to considerable lengths to examine that detail.[7]. I can only summarise the changes. Some are stylistic and the work benefits from these since the original tends to verbosity and lacks “grammatical subordination”.[8] Unfortunately, the substantive revisions went too far; brevity was achieved only by drastically summarising important material. The result is a loss of nuance and a briefness that undermines the effectiveness of Buck’s arguments. Any criticism of John Morton is softened. Much of the marginal documentation (equivalent of today’s footnotes) is either omitted altogether or copied incorrectly. Information that Buck obtained by word of mouth (e.g. from the antiquarian John Stow) is reduced to the status of hearsay. Printing and copying errors abound and the younger Buck’s florid style masks the sense of the Buck original. The list of defects goes on.[9]

 

A good example of the damage done to Buck’s original can be seen in the treatment of the famous letter from Elizabeth of York to the duke of Norfolk in which, inter alia, she expressed her concern that Queen Anne would never die.[10] In his original manuscript, Buck is responding to the accusation that Richard murdered his wife and afterwards proposed marriage to his niece, Elizabeth. He offers this letter as a supplement to his main point that Richard had no reason to murder Anne if he wished to re-marry; he could have divorced her. The letter is merely indicative of Elizabeth’s youthful naivety in not realizing that a man did not need to kill his wife in order to re-marry. In the original, this letter is not offered as proof positive of anything.[11] In the 1646 edition, the context of Buck’s original discussion is changed. Now, the emphasis is on the accusation that Richard proposed marrying Elizabeth after murdering Anne and that Elizabeth detested the prospect, as if these were the main points to be disproved. The younger Buck then cites the letter as evidence disproving them. Regrettably, he fails to mention that the Sir George Buck had actually seen and read this letter, which was shown to him by his patron Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, a descendant of the Duke of Norfolk.   It was a crass misrepresentation Buck’s original argument and an omission that would cause later historians to question his integrity.[12]

 

The History of King Richard III 1979

The truth is that Scholars have known of the existence of Buck’s original manuscripts for centuries. However, they seemed to have casually assumed that the original and the printed edition were so similar as not to matter. It wasn’t until the first quarter of the twentieth century that Frank Marcham, whilst writing of Sir George Buck, suggested that “ because ‘the edition of 1646 is nearly worthless,’ and the original ‘contains a good deal of interesting information on literary matters’, the History’ should be carefully edited’”.[13] In the last quarter of the twentieth century Dr Arthur Kincaid produced such a work. His modern edition of Buck’s original manuscripts is both scholarly and comprehensive. From it we get a much more accurate appreciation of Buck’s contribution to the Ricardian narrative and his historiological achievement.

Although Buck was naturally sympathetic to Richard, he approached his ‘History’ like a defence lawyer: on the basis of evidence where it exists, and where it does not exist he attacks the prosecution’s lack of evidence. If he cannot exonerate Richard, he mitigates on the basis of precedent or raison d’état. His prolixity, which some complain of, is deliberate. It is a lawyerly characteristic, which though annoying to those who like a more analytical style, has the virtue of ensuring comprehensiveness by providing facts with explanation, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding caused by a casual précis. For example, Buck believes he has already produced sufficient evidence to prove that Perkin Warbeck is actually Richard duke of York.[14] However, more evidence is available if required, which from an abundance of caution Buck includes (abundans cautela non nocet). This was the method by which he constructed Richard’s defence and it was his thoroughness that enabled him, for instance, to be the first historian to recognize the irony underlying Sir Thomas More’s own History of king Richard III. Nonetheless, it is true that sometimes he allowed his enthusiasm too much scope; his long genealogical digressions add nothing to the Richard’s defence. The criticism that his style is pedantic is probably justified.

 

Buck’s research is truly extensive[15]. He uses classical and religious sources as well continental ones, which he deploys as evidence or precedents. For example, when he is arguing that the historic judgment of Richard is unduly harsh compared to the judgments passed on other kings who committed the same or worse acts, he uses Henry IV as an example of a king with a good reputation who actually deposed an anointed king and usurped the crown. Of the Tudor sources, he relies primarily on Thomas More and Polydore Vergil, supplemented by cross-references to the likes of Rouse, Fabyan, Grafton, Hall and Holinshed. He also trusted his friend, the antiquarian and historian, John Stow who was a discerning and relatively objective source with whom Buck could discuss his work.

 

Buck’s best contribution to the Ricardian debate is his use of the second continuation of the Croyland Chronicle to undermine the veracity of the Tudor tradition. The importance of Croyland lay in its independence from Sir Thomas More and the official Tudor sources. Buck was also the first to use Titulus Regius to prove both More and Vergil wrong about the basis of Richard’s title to the crown[16]. His documentation was methodical. He indicated in the margins of his manuscript all his primary sources and their whereabouts. He made a point of seeing sources for himself; where that was impossible, he quoted trusted colleagues who had seen the relevant source (e.g. Sir Edward Hoby who had seen Morton’s polemic).

 

Buck’s ethical approach to historiography is described in his dedication: The historiographer must be veritable and free from all prosopolepsies and partial respects; he must not add or omit anything, either of partiality or of hatred.” As Dr Kincaid observes that is an ethical standard any historian would be proud of.[17] Buck had no interest in concealing the truth. His motives are charitable, since he believed that all historians should show charity. He wrote the History of King Richard the Third because he believed the common chronicles were wrong. The accusation that he was uncritical, is not only unfair it is also untrue. He fully appreciated the difficulty of judging the reliability of sources. He had this general advice for those following Tudor sources: “And I advertise this by way of caution, because they that read their books should be well advised to consider and examine what they read, and make trial of such doubtful things as are written before giving credit unto them” and later “ For it is a hard thing to find that prince’s story truly and faithfully written, who was so hateful to the writers then; for when they wrote they might write no better. And therefore, these reasons being considered, their writings must be regarded and the author’s censured.[18]

 

His handling of Thomas More is an indication of his critical alertness and advocacy skills. He was the first historian to realise that More writes ironically and that if one ignores the irony and takes the statements seriously, a more sympathetic picture of Richard emerges; one that is much more in accord with the objective records we have of his life and reign. For example, in the scene where Buckingham, with the citizens, begs Richard to assume the crown for the common good, More writes: “These words much moved the protector, which else as every man may wit, he would never in likelihood have inclined to the suite.”[19] In writing this, he means the opposite. He is writing with what Kincaid calls a ‘knowing sneer’ at Richard’s dissimulation. Buck habitually disregards the sneers, and quotes More as if he wrote in all seriousness. By this means, he uncovers the basic matrix of fact upon which More’s History is based. As Kincaid writes: “The facts remain stable; only the interpretation varies, as Buck demonstrates. More chooses to attribute to these facts vicious motives, Buck to apply charity. Any good deed, Buck says, may be depraved by a foul interpretation.”[20] Nonetheless, and despite his undoubted accomplishments, it would be wrong to think that Buck was perfect, because he wasn’t. He made mistakes; some were inconsequential, others were crass but none were dishonest or malicious.

 

He got into a muddle about Bishop Stillington’s part in the pre-contract scandal. Having quoted Commynes that it was Stillington who told Richard that his brother’s marriage to the widow Elizabeth Grey was bigamous because Edward was already married to another English lady (Lady Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot),[21] he got the chronology wrong. In Buck’s History, The Talbot family complained to Stillington about the wrong done by Edward to Lady Eleanor and her family, and sought redress. Stillington agreed to intercede with the king on their behalf; however, he was afraid to speak to Edward direct and raised the matter with Richard, then duke of Gloucester. Buck describes what happened next: “…the duke of Gloucester dealt with the king about this business, but he could do no good for all the affect thereof was naught, and that was that. The king grew exceedingly wrath with the bishop of Bath for revealing his marriage.” The outcome was a bad one for Stillington as he was disgraced and imprisoned; although, “not long after king Edward died.”[22] Dr Kincaid cannot say where Buck got this story. He suggests that it may have been something Stow (or somebody like him) had said or he may have constructed a plausible chronology from the few known facts, or he may simply have been “indulging his taste for elaborating dramatic scenes from meager suggestions.” Be that as it may, Buck’ s account is hardly credible since his own source, Commynes, makes it clear that Stillington told Gloucester about the pre-contract after the death of king Edward IV.[23]

 

It would be equally wrong to ignore the allegation that Buck is biased. Kendall thought he was. In his Ricardian biography he said Buck was prejudiced; later, he called him a Yorkist partisan.[24] The fact is, Buck is not a disinterested observer: how could he be? He came from a Yorkist family. His great grandfather was wounded at Barnet and killed at Bosworth fighting for Yorkist kings. His grandfather and his father had been taken under the wing of the Norfolk Howards who were also Yorkists by affiliation and temperament. Buck’s dislike of John Morton has an edge of loathing that only a confirmed Ricardian could replicate. He makes his views known in the opening paragraph of Book three: “…some politic and malicious clerks hating king Richard and seeking to be gracious to his enemies employed their wits and their pens to make king Richard odious and abhorred, and his memory infamous forever…for this purpose they devised and divulged many scandalous reports, and made false accusations of him. And they made libels and railing pamphlets of him…And so vehement and constant they were in their malicious prosecution thereof, as that they did not only defame and belie him in his lifetime, but as farforth as lay in them, they persecuted even his shadow and his ghost and they scandalised extremely the memory of his fame and name.” [25] However, despite his personal aversion to Morton, Buck remains true to his own creed and uses only evidence, particularly Titular Regius and the virtually contemporary second continuation of Croyland, to prove the factual errors of the Tudor tradition.

 

The question of the authorship of More’s History

It is not essential for my limited purposes to consider the question, of who wrote More’s History. However, it is a loose end, which in an earlier post I promised to deal with. We need not doubt that Buck believed that Morton wrote a polemical ‘book’ in Latin about king Richard. We have Buck’s word for it in a passage wherein he describes Morton as “…a good clerk who made his pen the weapon and instrument of his malice and of his rancour and of his hatred. And for this purpose he made a book in Latin of king Richard and reported his acts and charged him with many foul crimes and aggravated them. And on the other side he extenuated or suppressed all his virtues and good parts. And this book of Dr Morton came afterwards to the hands of Mr More.”[26] Neither, should we doubt that Buck thought that More had edited and adapted Morton’s book and added a bit to it before publishing it; we have Buck’s word for that also, in a subsequent passage: “…and this More having been a servant of Morton…accordingly, he translated and interpreted and glosed (sic) and altered his master’s book at his pleasure, and then he published it.”[27] And we cannot doubt that Morton’s book existed, since Buck’s closest friend Sir Edward Hoby (1560-1617) told him so. In a marginal note to his original manuscript Buck wrote: “This book was lately in the hands of Mr Roper of Eltham, as Sir Edward Hoby, who saw it, told me.[28] These comments and other circumstantial details have raised doubts about the authorship of More’s History (I shall continue to call it that) in the minds of some historians.

 

Professor Richard Sylvester in his definitive modern edition of More’s History has examined this issue carefully. [29] He is at pains to distinguish questions about the accuracy of More’s History from those about its authorship. This is important because the controversy surrounding the life and reign of king Richard and More’s account of that time is so inflammatory that any analyst commenting on these issues needs to keep a cool, objective head. First, we have what Sylvester calls ‘literary gossip’ in Sir John Harrington’s ‘Metamorphosis of Ajax” (1596): “ the best and best written part of all our Chronicles in all mens opinions; is that of Richard the third, written as I have heard by Moorton, but as most suppose by that worthy, and uncorrupt Magistrate Sir Thomas More.” [30]Next we have another marginal note written by Buck. This one is next to the entry for bishop John Morton in Buck’s copy of Francis Godwin’s “Catalogue of the Bishops of England’. It reads thus: “This Morton wrote in Latin the life of K.R.3, which goeth in Sir Thomas More’s name — as S. Ed. Hoby saith & that Sir William Roper has the original.[31] Last, we have an assumption that there are passages in More’s History, which he cannot possibly have written as he was a child at the time when the events described occurred . For example, there is a scene in the Grafton texts that appears to prove the author was present at Edward IV’s deathbed. [32]

 

I will deal with the last point first since it is a non sequitur. The fact that More could not have been present at some of the events he describes does not prove he was not the author. It serves only to confirm that he was not writing as an eyewitness. Harrington’s comment and Buck’s note in Godwin can be dealt with equally briskly since neither comment is proof of Morton’s authorship. In fact, they both emanate from the same source. Sir Edward Hoby was a fried of Harrington and buck’s closest friend: he is almost certainly the source for both these comments.[33]

 

The evidence against Morton’s authorship when taken together is almost overwhelming. First there is the objection that he could not have written any of the extant versions of the texts, since they contain details of events that took place after his death in 1500 (e.g. Tyrell’s confession in 1502). There are also stylistic similarities between More’s History and his other literary works, which suggest he is the author. Sylvester suggests “ …the man who could describe Pico’s complexion as ‘entermengled with comely ruddes’, was probably the same man who described Jane Shore walking through the streets of London’ while the wondering of the people caste a comely rud in her cheeks.” Of course, this argument by analogy might be inconclusive were it not supplemented be the testimonies of Halle (1458) and Bab (1557), A Scham (1552) and Harpsfield (1556) along with Rastell and Stapleton (1588) who all acknowledge More as the author.

 

Fortunately, Sylvester has an explanation that is much more sensible. He argues that Morton was an important source for More but he was not the only one. More may well have used part, or all, of Morton’s uncompromising tract as a source of information but he did not incorporate it wholesale and claim credit where it was not due. Such an opinion is not inconsistent with what Buck says himself. It is noteworthy also that More’s History was never finished, which may explain why he never mentioned it. He never mentioned any of his other literary works so why would he bother to mention an unfinished manuscript? It is impossible to escape the conclusion that More probably only used Morton’s polemic tract about Richard as a source of information in his own work.[34]

 

Conclusion

The solution to this literary riddle is now obvious to me. The criticism aimed at Buck and his History is based on what is a fake copy of his original, which was cobbled together well after Buck’s death. On that basis, the criticisms are justified since it is not even a good fake. However, now that original manuscript of Buck’s History is easily accessible in the form Buck intended, we get a much better idea of its merit and its flaws. As a defence of king Richard it is undoubtedly showing its age. Not only are Buck’s language and his writing style three hundred years out of date, he got a few things wrong. His History has been overtaken by the march of time and the discoveries made about Richard’s life and reign, about which Buck could never know.

 

Nevertheless, Buck’s achievement is impressive. He was the first Ricardian to use the second continuation of Croyland and Titular Regius to prove the falsehood contained in More’s and Vergil’s histories. Not only that, but the core of his defence of king Richard still forms the basis of Ricardian literature today. That is not to ignore Buck’s weaknesses: he was partial, he made mistakes and he loathed Richard’s accusers. He was the unashamed defence lawyer who believed passionately that his client’s had suffered a historical injustice and that his reputation was worth defending. However, he built that defence on evidence rather than innuendo, gossip and rumour.

 

[1] AE Kincaid – Dictionary of National Biography online version.

[2] Paul Murray Kendall – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin 1955) at pp.427-428

[3] Paul Murray Kendall (Ed)- The Great Debate (BCA edition 1965) pp. 7-9

[4] AE Kincaid (Ed) – The History of King Richard the Third by Sir George Buck (Alan Sutton 1979) pp. xcvii-xcviii

[5] Kincaid pp.cxii-cxiii; of the many hundreds of Buck’s sources, Dr Kincaid identifies eight (“not counting commonplace books and collections of proverbs”), which cannot be found. Of these eight, less than half are of material importance. They are: (i) the letter from Elizabeth of York to the duke of Norfolk concerning her marriage, which Arundel showed to Buck, (ii) a polemic tract about king Richard written by Morton and reputedly the source of Sir Thomas More’s ‘History of Richard III, which was seen by Sir Edward Hoby and (iii), ‘an old manuscript book’ referencing a plot by Morton and Margaret Beaufort to poison the Princes.

[6] J Petre (Ed) – Crown and People (Richard III Society 1984) p247. (Crown and People). George Buck Esq was Sir George Buck’s nephew. he was a man of straw and bad character who  came into possession of Buck’s original manuscript following a dispute over Buck’s will. Nephew George published Buck’s History as his own, along with some of Buck’s other writings.

[7] Kincaid at chapters 5 and 6, pp. Ixiv-ci; Dr Kincaid examines most, if not all the relevant changes to Buck’s text and sources of criticism in a detail I cannot emulate.

[8] Crown and People; ibid

[9] Kincaid; ibid

[10] Kincaid, p191

[11] Crown and People, p249; it is possible that Buck’s main reason for mentioning the letter was to compliment Arundel on his wonderful collection of documents; perhaps he shouldn’t have bothered. Correspondence between Dr Alison Hanham and Dr Arthur Kincaid in the pages of the Ricardian during 1987 and 1988 has raised the possibility that Buck had himself misunderstood the letter.   Dr Kincaid has suggested that Elizabeth was indeed referring to her ‘hoped-for marriage’, but not necessarily with king Richard. Buck may have confused ‘mediating with the king’ for ‘marriage to the king’. The judicious placement of a comma makes all clear. See Annette Carson – Richard III: the maligned king (The History Press 2013) at pp. 297-303 for a comprehensive discussion and analysis of this point and also Dr John Ashdown-Hill – The last Days of Richard III (The History Press 2010) at pp.32-33 for a discussion of Richard’s negotiations for a Portuguese marriage after Anne’s death.

[12] See Kincaid pp. xc-xciv and Crown and people ibid

[13] Kincaid at p xcix, citing Frank Marcham – The King’s Office of the Revels 1610-1622 (London 1925) at p3.

[14] Kincaid at p 160

[15] Kincaid at pp. cviii-cxviii provides a detailed analysis of Bucks sources and his documentation

[16] Buck referred to Titulus Regius in his 1619 manuscript, which was not made public in its truncated form until 1646 and in its correct form until 1979. It was the historian John Speed who first drew public attention to Titulus Regius in his ‘History of Great Britaine (1623)’

[17] Crown and People at p248

[18] Kincaid pp. 125-126

[19] Richard S Sylvester (Ed) – The History of King Richard III by St Thomas More (Yale 1963) at p.79

[20] Kincaid pp. cxx-cxxi and 127

[21] Phillip Commynes: memoirs (Penguin 1972) at pp.353-354.

[22] Kincaid pp.183 and 184

[23] Kincaid p304, notes 183/44-184/9; there is nothing to substantiate the story that Stillington revealed the pre-contract to anybody before Edward’s death, or that his imprisonment in 1478 was due to his knowledge of the pre contract, or for revealing it to Clarence. The bishop’s imprisonment may have been due to an association with Clarence, as suggested by Kincaid. But it is more likely to have been for his criticism of the lack of due process at Clarence’s trial. See also MA Hicks – False, Fleeting Perju’d Clarence (Alan Sutton 1980) at pp.183-184. For a different theory see John Ashdown-Hill – The Third Plantagenet (The History Press 2014) at pp.141-146.

[24] The Great Debate; ibid

[25] Kincaid p120; Kincaid suggests that Buck’s dislike of Morton may have been exaggerated to deflect blame from Henry VII, from whom James I was directly descended. He overcame his difficulty by flattering James about his ancestry. By this means Buck achieves two things. First, he establishes that the breach in the English succession caused by Edward IV’s marriage, was repaired by Richard III and second he restores Richard to his proper place in history by not depicting him in his traditional role as the disruptor of the succession but as the restorer of it.

[26] Kincaid p121

[27] Kincaid; ibid

[28] Kincaid; ibid at 129v

[29] Sylvester at pp. Iix-Ixiii and Ixv-Ixvii

[30] Kincaid p.ciii; citing Elizabeth Story Dono (Ed)-Sir John Harrington; the Metamorphosis of Ajax (London 1962) at p 107f;

[31] Kincaid p. ciii, citing Francis Godwin – Catalogue of the Bishops of England (1601) p.5

[32] Sylvester pp. Ix-Ixi

[33] Hoby was probably Buck closest fried and comrade from their service together on the Cadiz expedition

[34] See also A E Kincaid and J A Ramsden – The Encomium of Richard III by Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (Turner and Devereux 1977) at p.vii

 

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