The enigmatic Richard III

OK, so the leader on my blog states a ‘little bit of history’ will be included, ‘mainly the Plantagenets’. This might seem like a pretty random subject to include on a blog about writing. It is – a bit – but as history is a subject I’ve always loved and one that provides a great deal of fodder for my writing nosebag, it might not be as arbitrary as it first appears.

A few years after starting my current work in progress, I came across the book Richard III: The maligned King by Annette Carson. Now, I’m not going to debate the accuracy, or not, of the claims made by Carson in this book, I’m just going to say it excited me more than any history book ever has.Prior to this book all I knew of Richard III was based on what I was taught at school: Richard III was a deformed, mean spirited old man who imprisoned and murdered his nephews in the Tower of London in order to seize the throne of England. He got his comeuppance when the rightful King of England, Henry Tudor killed him at Bosworth field. (I imagine I’m in the majority in believing this account for many years, except perhaps for anyone brought up around York).

Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham....

What Carson’s book reminded me is that history is only a record of what we are told by our ancestors – the bits they want us to know. The many Tudor monarchs who ruled after Richard III had ample time to bad-mouth the man from whom they had taken the throne. (Henry Tudor, by the way, had no legitimate hereditary claim  and Richard III was already King when the princes were murdered.) They were ably abetted by a playwright living during that era, Shakespeare, who really went to town with the claims of Richard’s deformity…

But I, — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
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 world, scarce half made up…”

Propaganda might seem like a 20th century invention, but it has been going on since man could speak.

I’m not going to claim Richard III didn’t murder the princes (no-one really knows), or that he didn’t have his darker side. In some ways knowing definitively what he was like as a man and as a king, might make him less inspiring to me as a writer. I like the enigma. Having read a number of books since Anne Carson’s (and planning to read many more), what interests me is the conflict in Richard’s character and the fierce nature of his maligning.

It is my ambition to become a good enough writer to produce a play, or novel, anything in fact that accurately evokes my sense of this man. For me Richard III was an excellent soldier; strong and skilful. He was also very intelligent, interested in law and progress.  Richard was devoutly religious and attempted to improve the rights of the common man. He was possibly more devoted to his wife than was usual for men of his era and position. He was also the last King of England to lead his men out to battle.

On the other hand Richard III was ruthless. He acted decisively where executions were concerned and certainly, as a man who valued loyalty so highly (his motto being loyaulte me lie – meaning loyalty binds me), he was particularly hard on those who appeared loyal then betrayed him. I am also interested in how he is often represented as a bit of a control freak, who took his administrative duties a great deal more seriously than his predecessor. I imagine him being frustrated by the negligent attitude of other holders of high office towards their duties.

I wonder if in his last years he would have been torn apart by the frustrations of his office and questions of morality. Regardless of the fate of the two princes or his professed desire for the throne, as a man who had so adored his brother Edward IV, I think he would have been morally tormented by having to declare Edward’s sons illegitimate. I don’t think he would have seen a problem with it in a pragmatic sense; it is undoubtedly true England was better governed by a seasoned soldier than a twelve year old boy. He would certainly have accepted this.

I truly believe Richard was striving for peace in his time. He kept the southern lords in post when he took the crown because, as he was seen as a northerner, he needed their support. Of course once they tried to unseat him he was forced to bring in men from the north he could trust. The southerners were never going to be happy being ruled by northern Lords, so it did not help his popularity, but he did what had to be done. I envisage him as being utterly exasperated and frustrated by such matters. The more he tried to keep things stable and get on with business, the more the world appeared to conspire against him. Not least because of the rumour mill eagerly spreading lies about him.

By the time his young wife was dead (less than a year after his only son), Richard could have felt, if it came to it, he may as well (as Tolkien would say), ‘Make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.” He saw his chance to save his country by his own hand on the field of battle. By all accounts he took down the big men surrounding Henry Tudor. Unfortunately Tudor had the luck of the devil, so we’ll never know what kind of a king Richard would have been had his reign been longer. All we have is a tantalising glimpse of an enigmatic man.

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