There is a shop in Wakefield that sells party dresses for little girls. The name over the door is ‘Little Princess’ and its stock is overwhelmingly pink. As well as dresses, it sells shoes, capes, handbags, party bags, toys, napery and little crowns – almost all in pink.
To the girls of my generation, frilly party dresses were a cause for rebellion. I and my contemporaries fought hard to be allowed to wear trousers (‘trews’, as they were called by shop assistants, to make them respectable and distinguish them from what boys wore; I remember that my grandmother almost fainted the first time I appeared in a pair of trousers with flies) and later jeans. When we were a little older, we wanted to be different (like everyone else) by dressing entirely in black. We recognised that, although these battles were trivial in themselves, they were necessary to give us identity, to reject the ideas that we existed to be sweetly dressed up and that we were correspondingly feeble-minded, not to be taken seriously. I think that it is a great shame, therefore, that the current generation of little girls has taken what to me seems to be the retrograde step of favouring the types of apparel that my mother’s generation was all too keen on thrusting upon its daughters.
In case you are wondering, this post is not shaping up to be a feminist piece, however. What I should like to focus on is what is apparently a prevalent ambition amongst today’s little girls: to become a princess.
I have no illusions about my ancestors. I am quite certain that every one of them toiled at some menial occupation. Their very names suggest that they were shepherds, hewers of wood and farm labourers. The ones that I know about were domestic servants and small shopkeepers. I know that their womenfolk led drab work-filled lives which were unfairly skewed towards the service of their men: my paternal grandmother had four brothers and each Saturday night was made to polish the shoes and press the suits of them all, so that they would look smart for church on Sunday. Yet at least it is unlikely that any of my female ancestors suffered the worst possible of fates: I’m pretty certain that none of them was a princess.
I’ve been prompted to think about this by reading history books for most of the weekend. Princesses were powerless pawns, to be manipulated by their powerful fathers and brothers. Brought up to believe that the men in their families were infallible and that therefore all the wars that they engaged in were just, they were then obliged to perform complete about-turns as these same men married them off to sworn enemies for dynastic advantage or to fulfil the terms of a treaty. Henry VIII repeatedly betrothed his daughter Mary to various crowned heads of Europe during her childhood, then changed his mind as he fell out with them and finally rendered her prospects hopeless when she was of marriageable age by repudiating her mother and denouncing her as a bastard.
Girls whose betrothals culminated in marriage were sent far away from home. Many never saw their families again. They arrived in a strange, hostile country, often unable to speak the language, usually able to keep their accompanying entourage only for a short time, sometimes to be married to a man three times their age, or, conversely, to a boy ten years their junior. Death in childbirth was common and likelier for a royal wife than for a peasant woman, subject as she was to the barbaric quackeries of doctors of any period before the mid-nineteenth century. It was a very exceptional royal husband who was faithful to his wife. He was likely to regard her as a baby-producing machine and reserve his affections for his mistresses. The wife would suffer even greater ignominy if she failed to produce an heir. If she had no children, or all her children were daughters, it was always her fault. Although her father and her brothers may have taken elaborate steps to hedge about her dowry with conditions, captive as she was in a foreign country, she had no wealth that she could call her own and faced destitution if she displeased her husband or he died (like Henry VIII’s elder brother Arthur) and her father-in-law was dubious about her continued usefulness. Discarded or disgraced princesses could hope, at best, to be exiled to a nunnery; more commonly they were executed or died in mysterious circumstances.
Curiously, although widows were often regarded as a nuisance and marginalised, some royal widows managed to become extremely powerful. Isabella of France, Edward II’s wife, was one of these. She almost certainly engineered her own widowhood by arranging to have her royal husband killed and then ruled in his place during her son’s minority. Posterity has denounced her as a wicked murderess, unmindful of the fact that killing was the business of kings. Her son, Edward III, eventually murdered her lover, but he spared his mother and allowed her to continue maintain the lifestyle of a great lady after he took control of his throne.
But Isabellas were few and far between. Most princesses were faceless, downtrodden and decorative: if not dressed in pink (as far as I know never considered to be a regal colour), their other purpose, besides child-bearing, was to look the part.
And that is why I think it is sad that little girls aspire to this ‘ideal’. They want to look the part. They have yet to understand that this particular look, if they don’t grow out of it, may condemn them to life in a gilded cage. As for many footballers’ wives, their idyll may end in divorce – which is a risky way of gaining independence – or it may eventually goad them into committing a crime that removes their freedom forever. Isabella was a fairytale princess who got away with murder. But she lived in the fourteenth century. It is a harder feat to accomplish today.
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.