When I was about fourteen, I read Rosemary Hawley-Jarman’s We Speak No Treason and was swept away into a most wonderful world. The three unnamed narrators of the book presented a different side of a man I was just getting to know at a very impressionable age: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. I loved this book! I still have it on my shelf, the original hardback I bought after I wore out the copy in our local library. It’s still a wonderful book, but I see problems now that I didn’t when I was fourteen. The dialogue is a little Forsoothly, and some of the history is a little dodgy, but the device used – the three original characters narrating Richard’s story – still makes it a classic of historical fiction. That book very nearly turned me into an uncompromising, starry-eyed, love-him-till-I-die Ricardian.
What saved me was, oddly enough, another Hawley-Jarman book, The King’s Grey Mare, in which I (and I think I’ve mentioned this before) first met, in the literary flesh, Richard Nevill, earl of Warwick. Though it could be thought that I’ve come close at times, I’ve never quite become an uncompromising, starry-eyed, love-him-till-I-die Warwick fangirl. Ok, yes, I’m a fangirl, but I know the man’s (glaring) faults and I am happy to tell anyone who asks about the things that made him a Bad Man as well as those that suggested he might, from time to time, be a Good Man. What’s more important than any of these is that he was a most fascinating man!
I also read Daughter of Time, which gave me all the ammunition I needed to defend Richard. Bad Henry Tudor! He did in those little princes, coz it just makes more sense that way! Except, all these years later, with a grown up head on my shoulders and a far better understanding of the Wars of the Roses and the fifteenth century in general, I can’t have quite the same level of certainty.
But this post isn’t about Richard’s guilt or innocence, or Henry VII’s guilt or innocence. I was first a member of the Richard III Society back in the 1990s. Distance – a feeling of isolation – and some personal issues that had nothing to do with history, Richard or his Society, led me to a failure to renew my membership one year, and so it lasted until very recently. I rejoined (a different branch) last year and, though my dues are late (!), I will be renewing my membership in the next day or so. Despite my Nevill leanings, I was given a warm welcome by my branch. One member, and facebook friend, has very much become a Real Life friend. The Society has the opportunity to further scholarship on Richard’s reign and times. It ought to be an organisation that’s taken seriously Out There. I know the aims of the Society are to overturn the myths (often referred to as Tudor Propaganda) and rehabilitate Richard as king and as man. There’s a difference between that and denying vociferously that the man ever did any wrong in his entire life. There are explanations and excuses by the thousand, as well as outright denials. This is where many members of the Richard III Society and I part company, philosophically speaking.
At fourteen, I might have been enthralled by the portrait of a young man, deeply loyal to his family, deeply faithful to the woman he loved and married (and kind to the young girl who was once his mistress), strong in war, soft in love… But the older I get, the less that satisfies me. He was a man who married his wife at least in part for her property, who connived in the financial ruin of his mother-in-law in the process, who took his nephew’s throne (whatever the pretext, and however valid this pretext was), who ordered the executions of several men without trial, whose loyalty to Edward IV didn’t survive his death, who faced rumour, rebellion and invasion during his short reign… a man I want to get to know better, and not through biassed sources (one way or the other). I’d also love to discuss all this without feeling that I’m stepping outside received dogma. I was likened to an atheist not that long ago, someone who comes into a church and announces loudly that God is Dead. Apart from the disturbing image of an interest and support of Richard III as a religion, I don’t know enough to announce anything except: I don’t know.
I don’t know if Edward IV’s relationship with Eleanor Butler included a marriage, or precontract; I don’t know if this was enough to have his children declared illegitimate; I don’t know what happened to the boys. I’m reliably informed that, one night, a barge came up the Thames and the boys were taken aboard and sent to safety in Flanders. Without anyone knowing except those involved, and without any of them telling anyone else about it. Ever. And without either of the boys resurfacing in adulthood. (Perkin Warbeck, in my considered opinion, wasn’t the young Richard Duke of York. And, even if he was, he said that his brother had been murdered on Richard’s orders. This is not good news in light of Richard’s reputation. I’ve never understood how anyone can reconcile these two things: wanting Perkin to be young York, yet dismissing his own words regarding the fate of his brother.) I don’t know if they were spirited away to Flanders. On balance of evidence, it would seem not, and those who favour this theory have no evidence of it. I’m equally reliably informed, on an equal lack of evidence, that sir James Tyrell slipped into their quarters one night and smothered them both with a pillow, after which they were buried in the Tower, under a staircase. I don’t know if that happened, either.
I do know that William Hastings, Anthony Wydeville, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan were executed without trial. I do know that the young princes disappeared on Richard’s watch. I do know that he colluded with his brothers and his wife to have his mother-in-law financially ruined and declared dead. I also know he was a good soldier, that he and his queen seemed to have a good marriage, that he took care of his illegitimate children and loved his only legitimate child, that he had the makings of a pretty good king. And I want to know more.
So, I wonder, why isn’t that enough? Why isn’t wanting to know more, wherever it takes me and whatever conclusions I come to, enough?
The find in Leicester, the human remains that might well be Richard, has captured the public’s imagination far more than anyone would have thought it might. There are petitions circulating demanding ‘he’ be buried in York Minster. There are calls for a state funeral. The Bishop of Leicester, and the city’s mayor, have stated their case for ‘him’ remaining there, reburied at the cathedral. All this before we know for sure (or even a little bit) if the remains are Richard’s or not. We (those of us interested in Richard, the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses) have a marvellous opportunity to explore it all further and discuss it with a larger audience. The debate is, I fear, going to become cemented into two warring sides – those who think Richard could do no wrong and those who believe him guilty of serial murder. Those of us caught in the middle might just end up being squashed. And this is the reason I’m not just going to shut up and go away. Moderate, rational discussion that doesn’t come from a fixed and motionless point of either Guilt! or Innocence! is more important than ever. If anyone wants to join me in the middle ground, there will be a welcome, a cup of tea and just maybe a timtam or two.