Of Owls and Richard the Third, Part II

by Theodore Dalrymple (July 2013)

By far the most important English King for me during my childhood was Richard III; or, more accurately, Shakespeare’s Richard IIIRichard III. The film captivated me when I was about 10, and I have subsequently found the malignity of evil always more fascinating, emotionally and intellectually, than the beneficence of good. Fictional or dramatic heroes have been to me ever since but pale and uninteresting shadows of villains. Heroes, in fact, tend to bore me as villains seldom do. And this is thanks to Richard III, in the special sense above.

When, therefore, I saw a biography of Richard III (Richard III: England’s Black Legend by Desmond Seward) in the window of a charity (thrift) shop near my home, together with a book about owls, I bought it. Not only did I buy it but I read it, and was somewhat surprised that, in effect, it endorsed the Shakespearian view of Richard’s character. Published on the 500th anniversary of Richard’s accession to or usurpation of the throne, Richard emerges as very much the unscrupulous, hypocritical, treacherous monster depicted in the play.

I believe this is no longer the orthodox view of him. The accusers are now the dissenters. And a friend of mine, who grew up in the Soviet Union and lived there until he was twenty-five, dislikes Shakespeare’s play because of its crude and seemingly propagandistic encomium to Henry VII, of the type to which his upbringing in the great motherland of ubiquitous and compulsory lies had made him allergic. Henry VII himself in truth was no mean slayer of his enemies, at least the equal of Richard III at his worst, but he was the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, reigning monarch when Shakespeare wrote. Queen Elizabeth’s title to the throne depended upon Henry VII’s, and his depended on the right of conquest rather than on any plausible claim by royal descent. That conquest could itself be justified only if Richard III were a bloody and tyrannical usurper of a quite unparalleled type; so that my friend sees the whole play as an elaborate apologia for a current political regime.

The irony here, of course, is that the objection to the play is itself highly political. The sycophantic message at its end – assuming that it was not justified by the historical facts, and that Henry VII did not ‘Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac’d peace,/ With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!’ – could hardly efface, neutralise or outweigh the poetic, dramatic and psychological brilliance of what had gone before. And it should be remembered that Shakespeare’s depiction of Queen Elizabeth’s father in Henry VIII is by no means flattering: though of course he was a mere continuator of the dynasty, not its founder, so the question of his character was perhaps less a sensitive matter despite his reign having been more recent.  

There is probably no finer portrayal of the intelligent, charming, plausible, unctuous, ruthless psychopath in literature than that of Richard:

What do I fear? myself? There’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

At first we are told by Richard that his wickedness derives from his physical condition of hunchback:

I that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing word, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain…

By making him a cripple, then, fate has precluded Richard from enjoying the normal comforts and pleasures of human existence. We believe what he says because it is plausible. And yet, in the very next scene, Richard seduces Anne, widow of Edward, Henry VI’s son whom Richard has himself killed, and in the presence of the corpse of Henry VI, whom Richard has also killed. Later in the play he persuades Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV, whose brother he has executed and whose two sons (the Princes in the Tower) he has had killed, to act as go-between in his proposed marriage to her daughter. The notion that his deformity precluded him from being a lover and therefore pointed him in the direction of villainy is clearly false, a rationalisation and a deception.

Strangely enough, those who have tried to rehabilitate Richard have tended to deny that he was crippled. It was as if they accepted the causative link between deformity and evil character. Of course they would deny this: they would say rather that they were only trying to show that the monarch’s supposed deformity was just another example of the falsehoods told about him. But here I think they are not being quite truthful with themselves. They want their Richard not only to be undeformed, but handsome.

When his skeleton was found recently buried in a car park in Leicester, the town to which his body had been carried (whether ignominiously or not is still a matter of dispute) after the Battle of Bosworth Field, it was obvious that he had a marked scoliosis rather than a kyphosis. The scoliosis was severe enough to have given him a noticeable deformity – one of his shoulders was reported in contemporary documents to have been higher than the other – but not severe enough to have made him ‘the bottled spider, the bunch-backed toad’ of Shakespeare’s play. So were his detractors or his defenders right?

There is a kind of apostolic succession among those who have sought to restore his reputation. The first was Sir George Buck, whose history of the king’s reign was published in 1646, 24 years after the author’s death; then came Horace Walpole, whose Historic Doubts on the Reign and Life of King Richard III was published in 1768; then Sir Clements Markham’s history, published in 1906; and finally Josephine Tey’s popular novel, The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, in which her fictional detective, Alan Grant, laid up in hospital after an injury, attempts to reason out who murdered the Princes in the Tower and comes to the conclusion that it was Henry VII. (Thanks to my purchase in the charity shop I have now read all these books, and others besides). I think it fair to say that the majority of work published since Tey’s novel has been on the side of rehabilitation.

What can be set against this formidable array of rehabilitation? Sir Thomas More wrote what has been described as the first masterpiece of English prose about Richard – his History of King Richard the Third – which more or less relays the story Shakespeare told. But in a book entitled Richard III and his early Historians 1483 – 1535, published in 1975, the mediaeval historian, Alison Hanham, suggests that More did not intend his work to be taken literally and that it was in fact satire, at least in part.

After More there was Shakespeare, of course, who used Holinshed’s rehash of More. And the fact is that the influence of one Shakespeare is greater than that of a thousand scholars. In so far as most people know anything about Richard III, they know it from Shakespeare.

There have been attempts to steer a middle course between the two schools, but on the whole they have not been successful. James Gairdner, a nineteenth century archivist whose biography of Richard went through three editions, and the value of whose work, according to the entry in the latest edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, was vitiated by his conservatism, granted Richard many good qualities but still made him guilty of at least some of the crimes imputed to him. It was as if Gairdner thought that in any dispute over facts there must be truth on both sides.

After the king’s skeleton was discovered, a computerised reconstruction of his face was produced by an academic department of physical anthropology. I don’t know enough about the reliability of this method to say whether the face produced was really that of Richard III; but a spokeswoman for the Richard the Third Society, a band of learned and dedicated people valiantly working to rehabilitate the king’s reputation, was immediately recorded as saying that the face was that of a sensitive and good man. A man with a face like that, was the implication, could not have ordered the murder of his own nephews in the Tower. This suggests that murder is written on the face; as someone who has had more to do with murderers than average, I can say that this is often the case but not always. And there is murder written on many people’s face who have never committed murder.

Again, there is a dispute over what character a contemporary portrait of Richard III – the famous one in which he is putting on or taking off a ring from his little finger – suggests. In Josephine Tey’s novel there is a discussion between the characters about this, and they none of them agrees. For me, it is an intelligent but not kindly face; rather obviously cruel and cynical. But I concede that that is not evidence. In my heart I want Shakespeare to be right.

The crucial question about Richard III, it seems to me, is whether he did indeed order the murder of the Princes in the Tower. If he did, he was the ruthless and unscrupulous power-seeker of popular legend; if he did not, then he has been traduced. I am not sure why, after so long a lapse, it should be so important to set the record straight about him. Clearly he is powerfully symbolic of something, because there is (as far as I am aware) no King John, King Stephen or King James II Society to set the record straight about these hated or derided monarchs.      

I hesitate to be hesitant, but the evidence about the Princes in the Tower points both ways. It is of course possible that they died of natural causes and were not murdered at all: it would not have been unusual in that era for two children to die in quick succession of an infectious and communicable disease. But there is no evidence in favour of this hypothesis (or against it, for that matter).

But it is more likely that they were done away with. They were taken to the Tower while Richard was Protector (more or less Regent); they were never seen again. And the fact is that when children disappear from view and are not seen again, they are usually killed close to the time they disappeared, not several years later. And Richard clearly had an interest in having them out of the way.

When he was made Protector, he accepted that Edward IV’s son was heir to the throne, to reign as Edward V. But just before the coronation, the Bishop of Bath suddenly came forward with the convenient story (convenient to Richard’s ambition, that is) that he had married Edward IV to Lady Eleanor Butler, and that therefore Edward’s supposed marriage to the mother of the princes was bigamous and invalid, making the Princes bastards and therefore not eligible as heirs to the throne. Richard was next in line, and it was upon the bastardy of the Princes that his claim rested.

The story of bigamy all seems suspiciously convenient to me, and rests upon the word of a man of very doubtful probity; it is not likely that everyone would accept it, and many would continue to see Edward V as the real king – which they could not if he were dead. Moreover, there were contemporary rumours, for what they are worth, that Richard had had the Princes killed.

On the other hand there is no evidence that would convict Richard in a court. Curiously, on Henry VII’s accession and for years afterwards the new monarch made no reference to the murder of the Princes as one of the justifications for overthrowing Richard, as surely would have been logical if the Princes had in fact been murdered by him. Now if Richard were a usurper, and Edward V were still alive at the time of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry VII would not be king: Edward V would be. Therefore Henry VII would have had an interest in killing the princes if they were still alive when he seized the throne. This is the case made out by Sir Clements Markham who, incidentally, was a remarkable polymath: a writer of books about Peru, the translator of Garcilaso de la Vega Inca, founder of the world rubber industry by arranging the smuggling of rubber seeds to Asia from the Amazon Basin, promoter of Polar exploration, as well as historian of Richard III. 

Though the evidence about the murder of the Princes is decisive in neither direction, almost nobody fails to take up a strong position on Richard’s guilt or innocence. It is as though the figure of Richard awakens every man’s inner Manichaean: either he is a parfit gentil knight or a monster of depravity. We take up a position according to our inclination. Those who defend him supply him with all the virtues: he was a wise legislator, a brave warrior, a loyal brother, an uxorious husband, a fond father, modest and beloved of the people. How his detractors portray him requires no elaboration. They hold to their positions with a strength disproportionate to the evidence.  

It is only right that Shakespeare should have the last word, however, because he said almost everything that can be thought. His Richard was the first Nietzschean:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe;
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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