TT: A King by the Bard Maligned

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and hear why I think it’s not possible to make a villain into a hero.  Then come and join me and Alan as we take a look at a good man transformed by Shakespeare into a villain.

Oh!  I’ll be doing a signing at Page One Books on Saturday (November 16th) at 3:00 pm.  I hope some of you will be able to drop by.  I’ll probably read from Treecat Wars and certainly take questions about just about anything.

JANE: When I read Josephine Tey’s excellent novel, The Daughter of Time, I was shocked to realize how horribly Shakespeare had maligned King Richard III in his play, The Tragedy of Richard the Third. I even felt a touch guilty.  Shakespeare makes Richard III such a compelling villain that the play is among the most powerful of his early works. And, of course, I’d believed all the lies…

My Kingdom for More Horsepower!

My Kingdom for More Horsepower!

ALAN: I only recently read Josephine Tey’s novel. My perception of Richard was coloured by what I learned of him in school, which itself was probably much influenced by Shakespeare.

JANE: Shakespeare shouldn’t take all the blame.  According to The Riverside Shakespeare, by the time Shakespeare sat down to write his play, he was drawing on a tradition over a hundred years old.  Interestingly, one of the works that was most influential on Shakespeare was written by a science fiction writer.

ALAN: Who are you referring to here? Nobody springs immediately to my mind…

JANE:   Maybe it would have helped if I’d said this SF writer was also a Catholic saint.  The author of the work that perhaps did the most – after Shakespeare’s play, that is – to destroy Richard III’s reputation was the History of King Richard the Third written by Thomas More.  (Catholics may be familiar with him as Saint Thomas More.)

ALAN: Oh! Of course!

JANE: More was also an early science fiction writer.  He wrote Utopia, which not only gave the English language a new word, but provided some very interesting world-building, as More sought to eliminate those qualities (such as valuing gold) that he felt led to a multitude of human failings.

Shakespeare clearly drew heavily on More’s History of King Richard the Third.  Given More’s later prominence, it’s likely the original work would have survived to continue blackening Richard III.  However, Shakespeare’s play with its compelling drama – after the Henry IV, Part One, it was Shakespeare’s most reprinted work – certainly brought More’s version of the king to the masses.

ALAN: And it certainly cemented one (possibly biased) view of the events firmly into the popular culture. Once something like that takes root, it’s almost impossible to overturn.

JANE:  Ah, the power of pop culture…

Tey’s The Daughter of Time would be a remarkable novel, even if it didn’t provide a treat for history buffs.  There are few novels where a normally active protagonist is forced to solve the “case” from a hospital bed.  And, of course, since the novel has a contemporary setting (contemporary at the time it was written, that is), Alan Grant faces a very cold case indeed.

Since I think Tey’s novel can hold up even if one knows in advance the conclusion the detective will reach, let’s take a look at the historical realities.  You’re a Yorkshireman and therefore probably sympathize with Richard III.  Why don’t you weigh in?

ALAN: In many ways, of course, Richard III was my king, given that he was of the house of York. My history lessons at school certainly emphasised his evil reputation, but I well recall my history teacher going out of his way to tell us that the stories about Richard III were just that – stories, with no real evidence other than hearsay to back them up.

Anyway – this is the historical background. But beware, it gets very confusing; there are a plethora of Richards and Edwards involved in it all, so hang onto your hat and take a deep breath.

JANE: Hat tied on securely.  (I had to get one.  I don’t usually wear a hat inside.)  Notebook in hand to record Richards and Edwards.  Go for it!

ALAN: After Henry VI was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury, the house of Lancaster was in complete disarray. The Yorkist king Edward IV took the throne.

Edward IV was the eldest son of an earlier Richard, the third Duke of York. It was this earlier Richard who had been Lord Protector of England during one of Henry VI’s periods of catatonia. However this earlier Richard died in battle against Henry VI, which is why his son Edward IV took the throne after the Yorkist armies destroyed the house of Lancaster.

JANE: (scribbling busily): Edward, son of Richard, former Lord Protector…

ALAN: Edward IV had a younger brother Richard, named after his father. This Richard’s official title was Duke of Gloucester. I’m not sure if he ever officially inherited the title Duke of York, (though he was definitely known as Richard of York; note the absence of the word Duke in that phrase). In terms of power and influence, he was certainly Duke of York in all but name because Edward IV appointed him to head the Council of the North, thus giving Richard control over the entire north of England. The city of York became Richard’s power base. By all accounts, Richard administered his mini-realm very well indeed and he was a popular figure, well liked and respected.

JANE: (still scribbling): Okay.  Richard, son of Richard, brother of Edward.  Duke of Gloucester.  Also known as Richard of York, even though he wasn’t the duke.

You know… A lot of problems would be solved if the English kings were more creative – or at least more consistent – in their names.

Go on…

ALAN: (taking a deep breath): When Edward IV died, his son and heir, also called Edward, became (in theory at least) King Edward V. However Edward V was only twelve years old. His Uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, leader of the Council of the North, was appointed Lord Protector of the realm until the child would be old enough to inherit the throne. The young Edward and his nine-year-old brother Richard (yes, another Richard who also briefly held the title Duke of York) were held in protective custody in the Tower of London.

Still with me?

JANE: Arrggh…  Okay.  Edward, son of Richard, names his sons Edward and Richard…  Richard, son of Richard, uncle of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but not Duke of York (that’s nephew Richard and father Richard) gets the title Lord Protector.

No wonder Edward V and Duke Richard became  famous as the Princes in the Tower…  It’s a lot easier to remember, even if one of them was apparently a king, not a prince, and the other was a duke, as well as being a prince.

ALAN: By George, you’ve got it!

Wouldn’t it have been much less confusing if some of these people had been called George, though that might have forced a renumbering of some later kings…

Anyway, after some murky machinations, probably at Richard’s instigation, the church deemed Edward IV’s marriage to have been invalid. The young princes, Edward and Richard, were declared bastards and were therefore unable to inherit the throne. That meant their Uncle Richard (Edward IV’s brother) was clearly the legitimate king, and so he was crowned Richard III on the 6th July 1483. The young princes were never seen again.

JANE: Ah…  Although Shakespeare leaves no doubt – and indeed has a heart-breaking scene in his play built around their deaths – there is some question as to exactly who was responsible for their murders.

ALAN: And that’s where Richard’s evil reputation comes from, of course. Even though the times were cruel and hard, the murder of two young and innocent children was seen as unnecessarily cruel. It’s easy to blame Richard for the deaths. Had the children lived, they could have become the focus of a rebellion against Richard when they grew up. There were plenty of historical precedents. So he certainly had both the motive and the opportunity. But did he do it? I like to think not, though again the evidence is only circumstantial. When he was leader of the Council of the North, he proved himself to be an honourable man. Would he really have changed his character that much after he inherited the throne?

But it’s all moot, because Richard was king for only two years. Henry Tudor, whose mother was the illegitimate great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, rebelled against Richard and defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth.

JANE: Whoa…  Clarification is needed for those who are only familiar with Shakespeare’s version.   In the play, Henry is referred to as “Richmond,” after his title “Earl of Richmond.”

We’ll get back to Henry Tudor in a bit…

In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III is slain by Richmond who, although not yet crowned Henry VII, proclaims that: “We will unite the White Rose and the Red.”  The end of Richard III is not only the end of a reign, but of a long and bloody war.

ALAN: After his death at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard was buried and lost to history until, in 2013, his body was found during the excavation of what is now a car park in the city of Leicester.

It was clear that he’d been interred with some pomp and ceremony. They strangled his favourite Rolls Royce and buried the body with him to keep him company in the afterlife. Richard was an early supporter of the internal combustion engine and he deployed a whole regiment of tanks at the Battle of Bosworth. Unfortunately, they were rather underpowered and had little influence on the outcome of the battle. I’m sure things would have been quite different if they had been equipped with bigger engines. They are the reason for Richard’s famous words during the battle, “Horsepower! Horsepower! My kingdom for more horsepower!”

Shakespeare used the quote in his play but, as he so often did, he got the words a bit wrong…

JANE: Alan, I think all these princes who are really kings and dukes and the plethora of Edwards and Richards is making you lose your mind.  I’m almost afraid to mention it, but you did promise to inform us about Richard III’s contribution to physics.

ALAN: Ah yes – and this time I’m not making it up. Generations of British children have been taught the order of the colours of the spectrum of visible light by using the initial letters of the mnemonic: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).

JANE: American children – at least this one – learned Roy G. Biv.  Your version is more fun.

Going back to where we started, Josephine Tey is not the only artist or historian to try to clear Richard III’s reputation.  I have cassette tape called The Faerie Shaman by Gwydion which contains “The Ballad of Richard III.”  In addition to providing history set to dulcimer music – an interesting thing in itself – the refrain provides the provocative twist that, although Henry of Richmond is commonly thought of as Welsh, he could make as much a claim to being French.  Perhaps we can touch upon that next time, as we look at King Henry VII.

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4 Responses to “TT: A King by the Bard Maligned”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Henry VII did indeed unite the white rose with the red – but it seems he had to invent the Red Rose of Lancaster for the purpose.

    BTW, there was a George in all that, you know. You’ve left out brother George, who according to Willy went for a dip in a tub of wine and was so unfortunate as to have the cover nailed down behind him. [George, Duke of Clarence, was younger brother of Eddy4 & Dickon o’York]

  2. janelindskold Says:

    You’re right, Louis… We did leave out brother George. Thanks for filling it in. I love your nicknames for the princes!

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    Here’s the song Jane referenced in the last paragraph:

    I had to go look it up to see if she was referring to a hammered dulcimer or a mountain dulcimer–completely different instruments that unfortunately share the same name. This song is a hammered dulcimer, along with guitar, bass, and mandolin. There are some very cool instrumental descants and harmonies here. I’m going to have to try and track down more music by this guy. Thanks, Jane!

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