Richard III: ‘a serviceable villain’?
My interest in Richard III was kindled when I was a young bookseller, because my boss was a member of the Richard III Society. I’ve subsequently read several books about the Wars of the Roses and also visited Richard’s castle at Middleham. That he had strong links with Yorkshire has increased his fascination for me.
Few English kings have inspired such intense posthumous opinion as Richard. Henry VIII, Charles II and George III have all had their fierce supporters and detractors, but none has had vitriol heaped upon him as Richard has. He could hardly have been as wicked as he was reputed to be; his shimmeringly evil reputation, much enhanced by the distorted character that Shakespeare created to please his Tudor mistress, even had the unintentional effect of giving him the same kind of glamour as Milton’s Satan. Shakespeare was also responsible for exaggerating his physical deformities; unlike Dorian Gray three hundred years later, the fictional Richard’s evil soul was supposed to have been made manifest in an ugly face and twisted body.
The Richard III Society was founded to put the record straight, but, like almost all societies that support the memory of controversial historical and literary characters, it quickly became so partisan that some of its published ‘research’ stretched the facts. Nevertheless, it is to one of its present-day members that we are indebted for the discovery of Richard’s remains under a car park in Leicester. Amazingly, modern science, in particular miraculous DNA matching techniques, proves conclusively that the bones did belong to this last Plantagenet king. I am sure that a great book will come out of the story of their discovery and testing (which, as last night’s Channel 4 programme showed, has been meticulous).
In the popular imagination, Richard’s worst act has always been his reputed murder of his two nephews, the so-called ‘princes in the tower’. They were the heirs of Edward IV. The elder of them, Edward V, was never crowned king, but the title was reserved for him, even so; the next King Edward was crowned Edward VI. There is no proof that Richard killed the two princes. It is known that they lived in the Tower of London for many months and gradually disappeared from view; first they were seen playing frequently, then infrequently, then not at all. Although it is fairly certain that bones discovered in the tower in the late 1990s belonged to the princes, there is no conclusive proof of who murdered them. Was it indeed Richard? Or did the order come from Henry VII (the preferred candidate of the Richard III Society) after his accession? Of course, I don’t know, though I’d rather like to think it was Henry myself, partly because Richard has always been such an underdog, partly because Henry was a cruel cold fish of a man. He was certainly capable of killing them.
Whoever it was, the outpouring of emotion that this murderous act has generated is illogical. Perhaps it is because they were children; perhaps because one of them was a king and kings were sacred. Yet there can have been no king between William I and Richard III who did not commit murder, except, perhaps, Henry VI, who was himself murdered for the national good; and, although the Tudors themselves considered the murder of kings to be taboo, Shakespeare’s own queen, Elizabeth I, herself killed an anointed queen, Mary Queen of Scots. I conclude that Richard’s infamy stuck because of the genius of Shakespeare himself. The beauty and the irony of these famous lines have touched every generation since they were written in 1592:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
The bones retrieved from the car park were of a slight and delicately-formed man; he did, indeed, suffer from scoliosis, but it probably only made one shoulder appear slightly higher than the other; otherwise, he may have cut an attractive, even a refined, figure. I should never want to lose Shakespeare’s magnificent villain, but perhaps now that the real Richard has been found, he can co-exist with his alter ego. There is surely room in our heritage for both of them.