I’ve written before about my interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. The whole nation’s awareness of this monarch and his deeds was triggered earlier this year by the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester.
As a result of both this and the television series The White Queen, based on several novels written about the Wars of the Roses by Philippa Gregory, I’m sure that both historical and fictional accounts of Richard’s reign must be achieving buoyant bookshop sales at present. If so, it’s a bandwagon that I was happy to jump on myself when I visited Blackwell’s Broad Street last week, by buying a book that I’d not encountered before, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower.
The topic, of course, is a familiar one. This book, which was published in 2009, is yet another enquiry into the fate of the princes in the tower, Edward IV’s two sons Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York. Unlike many of its predecessors, however, it is a scholarly and very balanced account which, whilst not attempting to provide a definitive answer to the question of who killed the two princes (and indeed whether they were killed), presents all the facts that are known about the events leading up to their disappearance and sets down the possibilities of what could have happened to them.
The author, Professor Peter Hancock, is an American academic, which may be the reason why he is able to tell his story with such dispassionate flair. It’s a curious fact that most English people who are interested in this story become heated partisans of either Richard III or Henry VII; I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon applies to discussions about the next English civil war that was to take place in the middle of the seventeenth century, one that was arguably even more bloody and brutal than the dynastic fight to the death between the houses of York and Lancaster. On some topics, English people have a reputation for showing undemonstrativeness to the point of being phlegmatic, but many are fiercely curious about their own past and correspondingly committed to allegiances to historical characters who may or may not have been supported by those of their ancestors who actually knew these people. (From what I know of my own antecedents, for example, I’m pretty convinced that they were Cromwellians, not Royalists, though I should have preferred them to have been the latter.)
To return to Professor Hancock, he has painstakingly examined all the available documents relating to the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and, although he has not turned up much new material, his keen eye for detail and astute interpretation of the facts have resulted in some very plausible alternative accounts of what may have actually happened. I won’t say what these are, for obvious reasons. He also encourages readers to consider the actions of the protagonists from the point of view of their contemporaries and the mores that prevailed at the time, rather than through the filter of what we now consider to be acceptable civilised behaviour (though it should be added that struggles for power today are conducted with just the same naked savagery as they were in the Middle Ages).
If I have any quibbles, they are all minor ones. Professor Hancock devotes a chapter to each of the key players, including Edward IV’s mistress, Jane Shore, except, inexplicably, Elizabeth Woodville, his queen. I should have been fascinated to know what he makes of her role – my curiosity whetted further by Philippa Gregory’s fictional rendering of this enigmatic consort. The text is also somewhat repetitive in places, perhaps because it was written over a long period of time, perhaps because the structural device of considering each of the main players makes repetition inevitable; if the latter, it is a small price to pay for the all-round appraisal that such an approach allows. Finally, Professor Hancock has a few favourite words that grate on the ear. The one that I dislike the most is ‘assumedly’, which he uses in the sense of ‘I assume that’. However, I confess I prefer this to that other conjectural phrase so often cropping up in history books: ‘He [or she] must have …’
I finished reading this book on the same evening that the final (tenth) episode of The White Queen was televised. I’d enjoyed the serial up to that point, but was dismayed by the ham acting and poor fight choreography that characterised its conclusion. From the melodramatic deaths of Edward of Middleham and Anne Neville at the beginning to the risibly shabby reconstruction of the Battle of Bosworth that was meant to be its climax (it appeared to be carried out by half a dozen extras having a mock skirmish in a wood on a Sunday afternoon), for the entire hour this dramatisation teetered perilously on the brink of farce. Professor Hancock’s book, which I picked up again after it was over, provided a refreshing contrast. I recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by Richard III and the fate of his nephews.
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.