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Mythmaking: BONES IN THE RIVER

Night. The late Middle Ages. An angry mob rips open the sealed tomb of a man and carries his fleshless skeleton through the town streets, jeering. Reaching a field of execution, the bones are hurled on a pyre and burnt, then crushed to small fragments. This indignity not being enough, the desecrated remains are then gathered up and hurled unceremoniously into a Leicestershire river while the throng gazes on, casting  abuse at the meagre remnants of the hated dead man as the waves swallow them…

A version of  River Soar myth about Richard III, now disproved by the finding of his lost grave?

No, but the above story is almost certainly the origin of this once pervasive myth.

It was John Wycliffe, who produced the first Bible in English, whose bones met this fate. A Yorkshire man, who was educated at Merton College in Oxford, he was a noted theologian and philosopher, who became the rector of Lutterworth in Leicestershire. He wrote books that were considered heretical and was accused of  inspiring the Peasant’s Revolt. His followers, the Lollards, were often persecuted…and executed…long after his death. He himself remained a threatening figure to the church even years after he died of a stroke. As he had escaped the normal heretics’ punishment of death by burning, when he lived, it was decided to vent the punishment on his remains. So his skeleton was disinterred, burned and hurled into the River Swift.

Somewhere along the line, this true tale ‘grew in the telling’ and changed, as such stories often do; repeated over and over with added embellishments and errors  they  lose their original meaning and only retain fragments of the truth…in this case, that the remains of a persecuted man had been dug up from the grave by a mob and thrown into a Leicestershire river. To the average person, centuries after the event, who was better known and more interesting to tell such tales about,  a slain King or a heretical theologian?

Once Stuart era cartographer John Speed had written down the legend in regards to Richard, it swiftly took hold and was accepted henceforth accepted as truth by many…including numerous historians, although without one scrap of hard evidence (these historians shall remain nameless!)

The mythologisers had put the wrong man in the wrong river.

You know the rest.

wycliff

 

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Thomas More, John Morton and Richard III

(by Annette Carson)

On the matter of sources that are usually cited for the origin of Richard III’s blackened reputation, it occurs to me that I’ve done quite a lot of reading lately around Thomas More’s influential Richard III, which means I have been delving more deeply into the analyses published in the Appendix to my book Richard III: The Maligned King.

Many scholars of 16th-century literature subscribe to the view that More was writing satirical drama to pillory his exemplum of ‘The Tyrant’, personified (regrettably) by Richard III in his unfinished book. Dr Arthur Kincaid led the vanguard in 1972 with his assessment that its dramatic structure is paramount to its proper appreciation, which was accepted by R.S. Sylvester in the 1976 Yale edition of Richard III which I think is still considered the gold standard (see page xvi). Other analyses have been content to follow Kincaid’s lead, e.g. a paper dated 1982 by Elizabeth S. Donno in Renaissance Quarterly. Alison Hanham continued in the same vein in Richard III and his Early Historians (1975), although Hanham fell into a common error by categorizing More as an historian. As early as 1963 Sylvester’s commentary in Vol. 2 of the Yale ‘Complete Works of Thomas More’ had made it clear that already the literary world rejected it as constituting what we (or historiographers) would call history, and indeed the title ‘History’ of Richard III was almost certainly attached to it posthumously. In support of Kincaid et al. are the contemporary reports that More was fascinated by the theatre, had already tried his hand at writing plays, and was known to leap up on to the stage during performances and interpolate an off-the-cuff role for himself.

Thomas More had spent a number of his young years in the household of Cardinal John Morton, under the cardinal’s tutelage, and in the early 1600s the idea that Cardinal John Morton authored More’s book was current among members of the antiquary movement. They knew of a certain tract hostile to Richard III written by Morton which was in the library of More’s son-in-law – some had read it, others knew of its contents, so there clearly were close similarities between the two works. Since then, scholarly assessments of More’s English and Latin have decided against Morton’s authorship (which wasn’t very likely anyway, especially when you consider that Morton died in 1500).

Nevertheless, knowledgeable 17th-century antiquaries like Sir George Buck and Sir William Cornwallis were so vehement and outspoken about the authorship of More’s book by Morton that I believe they should not be ignored. My proposition is as follows … (1) That More DID have access to Morton’s tract, and (2) that its contents DID prompt More’s embarking on his Richard III project, to the extent that that’s where he got his entire premise of Richard as tyrannous, hypocritical, murderous, etc. Thomas More was thus fully equipped with the ready-made central villain for his polemic against tyranny, fleshed out with Morton’s anecdotal reports of his various crimes. I then propose that (3) working from this basis, More added all the embellishments that transformed it into a piece of dramatic craftsmanship – the condemnatory language, the dialogue, the moments of high theatre like the confrontation with Hastings – until he had something that satisfied his muse. In other words Morton loaded the gun and More discharged it with results that Morton could only have dreamed of.

At this point a number of questions arise. Undoubtedly the several extant versions (in English and Latin) are brilliantly conceived and executed. So why did More set his bravura piece aside and never seek to publish it? He couldn’t wait to see Utopia in print, yet he never even finished his Richard III – and, significantly, never mentioned a word of it in all the copious writings of his that are known to us. As you might expect, I have a proposition for this, too: (4) eventually, I submit, he started questioning the veracity of the information provided by Cardinal Morton’s tract. This was a private project to which he returned on and off over the span of several years, and he had probably written many thousands of words of his drama before he thought to speak of it to anyone. If he initially found some of it rested on shaky ground, this would not have bothered him: More was entirely happy with the rhetorical practice of arguing persuasively both for AND against a proposition, and in this period of time ‘historical truth’ was not a matter of great concern. My suggestion is that there came a time, however, when he simply couldn’t suppress the nagging suspicion that the basis of his Richard III story as told by Morton was unreliable. This was not merely a matter of questioning the accuracy of the events in his story, it was much more important than that: if what I suggest is the case, Thomas More’s belief in the mentor of his youth would have been shaken. Nothing less than this, I believe, would have disillusioned him deeply enough to have stopped him in his tracks.

Some musings on murder

Unlike some people – who from their certainty were not only alive at the time, but high in King Richard’s confidence – I honestly do not know what became of the two boys we call for convenience ‘The Princes’. I have read all sorts of theories about what happened to them and none entirely convinces me. However, I very much doubt they were killed by or on the orders of Richard III.

There were rumours that the Princes had been murdered while Mancini was in England (he left round about the time of Richard’s Coronation in July 1483.) But at this time, and for at least a few months more, they were still alive, as it is claimed they were still to be seen in the Tower in the late summer before being withdrawn from public gaze. This demonstrates that public rumour, even when written into a Chronicle, is not the same as fact. Indeed it would be tedious to relate the long litany of false rumours that circulated in the 15th Century – perhaps the most enduring being the belief that Richard II was still alive in Scotland as late as 1417.

It appears that at least some elements of ‘Buckingham’s Rebellion’ in the autumn of 1483, intended to restore Edward V, but then a convenient rumour spread to the effect that Edward was dead; whereupon the rebels changed their allegiance to Henry Tudor, or possibly Buckingham himself.

Rumour was certainly a powerful weapon in politics, and it is worth remembering that it was more often than not wielded by the sovereign’s enemies.

What was the purpose of murdering a deposed King? Something that was never done lightly. The answer is simple, to discourage risings in his name. It did not always work – as in the case of Richard II. But equally, if often did, as in the case of Henry VI. However, there was no point in murdering the King and leaving an element of doubt for people to build rumours upon. In the cases of both Richard II and Henry VI (and also Edward II, Hotspur and Warwick, to name but three) the body of the dead enemy was put on public display, and, in theory at least, anyone could go to look at him and make sure.

The bodies of the former Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were conspicuously not put on public display. Nor were the deaths officially announced. (And Richard was not above making public announcements and swearing oaths, even when the circumstances were uncomfortable and embarrassing.)

It has been suggested that it would have been ‘too shocking’ for the bodies to be displayed, that people would have been outraged. This misses the point. Some people were outraged, even at a time when the boys were known to be alive. By late 1483, many believed Richard had killed them anyway. So what was there to lose?

But there was something to be gained. No doubt an official explanation could have been put together. Very probably not everyone would have believed the story, just as not everyone believed the official accounts of the deaths of Richard II and Henry VI. But some would. And it would have brought about what we now call a sense of closure, to say nothing of diminishing the chances of any future imposters. What is more, the boys could have been given a proper funeral and a proper tomb, and masses could have been said for their souls. While not wiping out the grave sin of murder, it would at least have been a measure of mitigation.

Instead (according to the opinion of many) Richard just let the matter hang. The result was that many people believed he had murdered them anyway, and they never received a proper funeral, or a suitable tomb, or masses for their souls. (Because as far as I can gather neither Henry VII, or their sister Elizabeth of York, or their mother Elizabeth Woodville, or any of their other sisters, or their grandmother the ultra-pious Duchess of York, or the saintly Margaret Beaufort, ever paid for a single mass for them. Not one! It is almost as if these people believed they were alive, and thought that a mass for their souls would be a sin.)

It is one think to believe that Richard III was wicked – quite another to believe he was stupid. But then again, there are people quite willing to take as historical fact that he had a sturdy Tower staircase taken apart and hole dug beneath it ten feet deep in order to keep the secret. Really, what a secret that would have been!

Written on the 546th anniversary of the death of Lady Eleanor Talbot. Requiescat in pace

 

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