Richard III and me

Posted: October 14, 2012 in Richard, Duke of Gloucester/Richard III, Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

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.

  1. Fiz says:

    What a lovely, balanced article! I wish all Ricardians were as rational! Bravo!

  2. 1karla says:

    Great article Karen! Should be read by all those partisans of either side, but they won’t, alas. I never believed in either Shakespeare’s over the top villain or the saint that some try to make him. To me he is, just like Warwick, a man. With good and bad all in him. And if they were both very much men of the 15th century, what else could they have been? I am a bit more forgiving about his taking the throne though. If he hadn’t it would almost certainly have been hìs and his family’s heads on the block, a new round of civil war and a mention in the historybooks that it was all Gloucesters fault for faling to act.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I’m not unforgiving about him taking the throne. He was just following family tradition there. 😀 I’m just not as convinced as some that it mattered a jot whether Edward IV went through a form of marriage with Eleanor Butler, not in terms of Edward V’s kingship, anyway.

  3. 1karla says:

    O, and still don’t trust Henry Tudor!

  4. 1karla says:

    About Edward and the Butler marriage, as we historians know only too well, as soon as it mattered you could always come up with some reason for annulment etc. And as an underage king was a threat to national security, and his mother and her family rich in enemies, somebody would have come up with a pretext to unseat Edward V soon enough. Which is probably why Edward IV made his loyal brother protector…

    • anevillfeast says:

      There are those who insist that Clarence’s treason trial was to do with him somehow having evidence of the precontract. It goes like this: Clarence was Warwick’s son-in-law; and Eleanor Butler was Warwick’s niece so clearly Warwick knew, and he told Clarence and…. It’s the ‘clearly Warwick knew’ bit that gets me. If he knew, he’d have used it. He didn’t.

  5. jayne62 says:

    Have to say at one time I was a die hard Ricardian, after reading Sunne in Splendour and No Historical Fiction, b ut since discovering your wonderful blog and many others and starting to read books that i should have read long ago, I am now I am pretty sure in the middle with you allthough i lean slighly mor Yorkist than Lancaster, but am prepared to listen to rational and interesting opinions from others who do not think as I do, Thank you Karen for a wonderful post .

  6. Great post, Karen – I couldn’t agree more. Many people fixate endlessly on one aspect of Richard’s life, and the whole is rarely (if ever) taken into account. He is whitewashed or demonised and there’s very little by way of a middle ground (and that’s from people on both sides of the argument).

    Also, it’s not just the fanatical Ricardians whitewashing, it’s the methods with which they defend him. They attack, insult and harangue anyone who dares to not quite agree with them. It’s their way or no way, and this is something that’s put a lot of people (myself included) off Richard altogether.

    With regards to the issue of Perkin Warbeck: many say “but Richard wasn’t named in person.” But how many “unnatural Uncles” did Edward V have? 😛 I think that’s just wishful thinking on behalf of Richard’s more “hard line” of adherents. And that’s another point. It’s their little fantasy world, with their fantasy King. If you dare to intrude on that fantasy with your common sense, they will go on defensive and eat you alive. They have made Richard into what they want him to be and they’re sticking to it.

    At least, that’s what it feels like at times. Of course, not every Ricardian does this. There are several who, like yourself, are perfectly rational and well balanced human beings. But there is a “Cult of Gloucester” who you need to watch out for.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Hannah. Yes, there are some who respond with open hostility unless their view of Saint Richard is upheld. I think it’s really sad, as this is as poor a representation of the man as Evil Villain Richard.

      • misshannah1980 says:

        I don’t think they realise how ironic they’re being in that, too. It is sad, as you say. Richard was an interesting and complex man and their sanctification completely over-looks all of that.

  7. Esther says:

    Nice plea for more balance — especially now. I can understand an initial pro-Richard overreaction after the Tudor demonization of him, but it has been 500 years. A little more even-handed-ness is needed, IMO … For example, people note that Richard was attracted to Anne’s land, is probably true, but I doubt that Anne married solely for love … she wouldn’t have wanted Richard if he hadn’t been the king’s brother, who could protect her from George. Of course, love could have arisen even in a political marriage.

    FWIW, I rather think Buckingham did it without Richard’s knowledge. It wouldn’t have been the first time (Edward II was not only killed without the knowledge of the king Edward III, but according to two historians, it was done without the knowledge of the official regent Isabella), and I can’t find any reason why someone planning a rebellion would have told the king. Judging from the time it took Henry VII to make political capital out of Perkin-as-imposter, I don’t think Richard had the time to make political capital out of Buckingham’s action. (If Perkin was the young duke, I am curious as to how he would have known if his brother was killed on Richard’s orders … someone could have lied to him, perhaps) Also, since making political capital involves different issues than simply Richard’s guilt, I don’t think Richard could have made anything of it … he did put the boys in Buckingham’s care.

    FWIW, though, according to both Gairdener and Ross (neither being considered “pro-Richard”), Anthony Wydeville, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan all got some sort of a hearing (it wasn’t a formal trial, but wasn’t similar to what happened to Hastings)

  8. Anerje says:

    I did my dissertation on Richard III and his life on political crime. There’s no doubt in my mind that that he was a ruthless, usurping, tyrant – or as I like to say, a man of the times. He had such good role-models in the form of his father, and brothers Edward and Clarence (the latter I have a liking for, even though he was probably rotten to the core). Richard pulled off an amazing coup d’etat and paid the price for it. But I don’t ‘hate him’ for murdering the ‘little princes’, I try to fathom out the workings of his mind. I am certain he was guilty of some od the crimes for which he was accused, but aquit him of others. Of the princes, I wouldn’t expect him to do anything other than murder them – he would not share power with the Woodevilles, especially as they would likely have the upper hand. He would not have felt sentimental towards them – he had rarely seen them. I’m sure Edward IV would have discussed disposing of Clarence with him, so they both had their brother’s blood on their hands. I wrote 15,000 words on this, so a short post here would not even begin to cover my opinions, but I’ve managed to precis it as best I can. I would love the bones in Westminster Abbey to be examined to see if any conclusions could be drawn.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I’d love to read your dissertation, Anerje!

      • Will Glover says:

        As Anerje says, Richard III was a man of his times.

        He was raised to maturity in a time of civil war driven by the notions of the divine right of Kings and the purity of royal blood. With his countrymen and women he witnessed war, violence, murder, the murder of children, love, family, loyalty, betrayal, treason and death. Whether good or evil, he could not have been immune from such influences.

        From the Yorkist perspective, the Duke of York’s blood was of divine royal purity. The true sons of York would be vessels of that blood. If Richard became convinced that Edward was an untrue ‘bastard’ then the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives in support of Edward would have been an unthinkable tragedy with only one solution. If Edward was a true York but if Richard viewed the royal bloodline as being tarnished by Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (a view held by Warwick) then the only solution would be the same.

        If Richard murdered the Princes, he would have seen the sacrifice of their lives as his duty to God and Country and consistent with the sacrifices of the prior thirty years.

        Richard died with the same conviction to the monarchy: “Not one foot will I fly,” said he, “so long as breath bides within my breast; for, by Him that shaped both sea and land, this day shall end my battles or my life. I will die King of England.”

    • laure says:

      I am intrigued by your dissertation topic Anerje! I wish you could have delved in further into what your wrote about and your arguments. I am always in the look out for new ideas and arguments about Richard!

  9. Anerje says:

    oh, and one of my very good friends is a member of the Richard III society. We get along fine – in part due to my not buying into the crook-backed monster created by Shakespeare:>

    • anevillfeast says:

      Some of them seem to feel that you have to be one or the other. When I talked about Hastings being executed without trial, it was assumed that I believed all the other stuff as well. I don’t. Or not all of it.

  10. Donna says:

    Interesting post and comments. What’s exciting is that the truth would be more complex and interesting than either the two extremes ofTudor propaganda and Ricardian whitewashing (although I must admit to having Yorkist and Ricardian sympathies). I have a sense that there is a rich and fascinating real story there about the man and his times, and we may never know the truth.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Donna. I have Yorkist and Ricardian sympathies as well. Most of the time. Being first and foremost a Nevillphile, I tend to make a little switch for a bit. Around 1469-71 😀 I can see the Lancastrian point of view, as well. They were done wrong in a lot of ways. I think the ‘real’ story behind Richard, should anyone manage to piece it together, will be far more interesting than anything we’ve seen so far.

  11. Excellent post – I wonder if like Jack the Ripper and JFK – we will possibly never know and always we will keep searching. I do like a middle ground.

    I, too, joined the Richard III society around the same time you did and did not renew my membership b/c it was a very knowledgeable group who was far more interested in Richard than I was at the time and I just had nothing to contribute. I converted after reading “Sunne in Splendour” (in the 90s) and and have since found a good group of people on Sharon K Penman’s FB page in which to discuss and read about Richard that doesn’t make me feel like a complete ninny.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks! I have a Richard page on facebook, as well, devoted to the middle ground. From time to time, discussions have got a little emotional, but for the most part people respect each other’s views and someone who says ‘I think he did do bad thing X’ isn’t hounded and howled at. SKP’s groups are a bit of a mixed bag, for me. A lot of sensible people with one or two extremists. Makes for lively conversation sometimes!

  12. Gayle Simmonds says:

    If Warwick knew about Edward IV precontract with Eleanor Butler, he wouldn’t have divulged it to anyone because he wanted Edward to make an advantageous foreign marriage. That wouldn’t have been possible with a pre-contract hanging out there. And then Edward snuck off and married the first beautiful woman who held out! Pretty clever of Elizabeth Woodville. Richard, after Edward’s death, knew that his only protection from the Woodville’s was gone and he had to depend upon himself. By their actions in not informing of the King’s death, they condemned themselves to his mercy. He had to get rid of them. Kings made these types of decisions all the time back then. At least they did if they had the backing of the Barons and the common people

    • anevillfeast says:

      Considering that Warwick, immediately on hearing the news of Edward’s marriage, set clever men to finding ways to get him out of it, had he known of any precontract, he’d have had his just cause.
      I tend to think it might have been the meeting at Stony Stratford, and Edward V’s obvious preference for his uncle Anthony Wydeville, that gave Richard pause for thought, and possible reason to worry about his own fate and future. But I agree, this is the most likely reason for his decision to depose his nephew. Kings made all sorts of decision about getting rid of all sorts of people. Most used due legal process. In the case of Hastings, no-one’s yet come up with an argument that convinces me than any kind of legal process was used. The haste of Hastings’ death (and of all those arrested at the time, only Hastings was executed) bothers me a good deal.

      • Esther says:

        I agree that the killing of Hastings is disturbing . Peter Hancock wrote a book, “Richard III and the Murder in the Tower” theorizing that Hastings knew about the pre-contract, but didn’t tell … and when Catesby told Richard about it, Richard lost it. I don’t think he proved his theory, but at least he recognizes the importance of that beheading. I can’t help wonder why the absence of a trial in medieval cases have that effect. By Tudor times, at least, trials usually justified some already made decision; they did not insure that only the guilty were punished. Was there a significant difference between a Plantagenet trial and a Tudor one, where verdicts were known in advance and actual guilt or innocence comparatively irrelevant?

  13. Marina says:

    A great idea for a discussion.

    My first time ‘encountering’ Richard of Gloucester was when I was about 10-11, reading a book called “The Black Arrow”. He had a minor role in it, but a completely unforgetable one. I still think it was probably his best portrail – a soldier first, ruthless but the leader men would die for, highly rewards good service and appreciates loyalty above all else.
    I’ve got into the Wars of the Roses just this past year, read some books and discussions and came to a tentative conclusion that no matter what he did in his life, next generations would not have singled him out (for whatever reason) as a monarch if not for Shakespeare’s play.
    As much as I like him as an historical character, there is nothing extraordinary about him or his actions:
    (Shakespeare’s) Henry V executed people without trial.
    (Shakespeare’s) Henry IV executed people without trial, while not even being a king.
    (Shakespeare’s) King John killed a small child.

    What makes Richard III special is that the play about him is (some say) better written.

    About the princes, it very convinient to remember that they were kids and very convinient to forget that these kids have been trained for power from age 0. They were being trained with a sword from the age of five no doubt, to hunt, to lead and to kill. If everything went as planned, wee Edward would have been King, suddenly not seen as a child anymore. Even though they were armless in the Tower, they were not defenceless. Not unlike the victims of, say, Henry VIII who, despite killing mainly women, is not as demonised.

    Either way, I do not believe him responsible for their killing, mainly because it caused more problems than it solved. He would have done what Henry VII later did with the Earl of Warwick.

  14. anevillfeast says:

    Esther, I really don’t know the intricacies of either Plantagenet or (particularly) Tudor law. I read the Hancock book, reviewed it here some time ago, and wasn’t convinced by his hypothesis.
    (I wish I could reply to a reply, but wordpress doesn’t seem to allow that.)

    • Esther says:

      Read your review. My point was not that Hancock was that convincing, but that at least Hancock recognized the problem of reconciling the “good Richard” with Hastings’s execution. I’m simply puzzled why we react more strongly to one crime (the execution of Hastings without trial is one murder) whereas an execution with a trial (such as Anne Boleyn) involved two crimes: corrupting the system, to secure a guilty verdict and the “judicial murder”.

      • anevillfeast says:

        It’s when someone starts off with an extreme view of Richard that this weird justifying/excusing/ameliorating goes on. I have my own ideas about why Hastings was executed how and when he was, utterly unproveable! Your point supports the idea of an irreconcilable dichotomy – either love Richard and find excuses for everything he did; or hate him and use everything he did to show how evil he was. Not only do I not think that unnecessary, I think it’s counterproductive. Richard did what he did, good and bad, and we can’t change that. Refusing to accept (as many Ricardians do) that anything he did was other than pure, noble and good doesn’t make that the case. (And it isn’t fair to the historical Richard, it really isn’t.) I get the feeling that if some were forced to accept that Richard wasn’t a saint, their worlds would crumble. I really want to reassure them, you know, tell them that there came a day when I accepted Richard wasn’t a saint and I still like him! One of the accusations that’s tossed my way is that I’m not ‘open minded’. It’s being open minded that got me to the point I’m at. It’s as if anyone who believes Richard wasn’t perfect MUST have an extreme negative point of view. All they need to do is convince me that he was a saint and lo! suddenly my mind will be open. I talk not from personal malice but frustration.

        I’m really not hugely interested in the Tudors at all, but I wouldn’t shrug off the execution of Anne Boleyn, for instance, and say it’s all fine just because there was a trial. With Richard and Hastings (and Rivers et al) it’s like there’s a huge elephant in the room. The lack of a trial (or shortshrift, as Rivers may have got) points to something other than suspected treason and convoluted Wydeville backed plots. I’m seriously leaning towards the idea that they weren’t tried because Richard didn’t want them tried, he wanted to get rid of them without them having the chance to say a word. Strangely similar to the Boleyn case except the other way around. Henry wanted to get rid of Anne, a way was found and to make sure it was seen as aboveboard (whether it was or not) there was a trial. Doesn’t make either executions just.

  15. Hi Karen – I can certainly see where you are coming from on this. I read something as a teenager that triggered my interest, but did not follow up on it for many years. Some of the fiction is as much a whitewash of Richard as Shakespeare is a blackening. We do need to find that balance of publicizing and defending the many good things he did, while accepting and acknowledging the bad. Hastings appears to be one of the bad, but I thought that Northumberland presided at a trial (of sorts) for Rivers and co.
    I do not see Richard as being guilty of the Princes – he would have needed it known that they were gone – not the mess and pretenders that happened.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Gillian. I need to follow up that Northumberland/trial business. I understand that trials (of sorts) were not unheard of, so if there was a trial (of sorts) it’s certainly no worse than other kings did. I haven’t followed up the source myself yet, but I will.

  16. laure says:

    Loved reading all these comments. I’m currently attempting to write a dissertation on Richard III. Very early days but so many ideas are currently in my head! I really do like this whole debate on myth v. reality but it does seem pretty well done by historians. I’ve been thinking about why so many people believed contemporary sources such as More and Shakespeare when there is primary evidence for Richard being a ‘nice’ guy. I really do enjoy this aspect of Richards personality and would love any opinions! I am currently in the midst of reading a lot of Keith Dockray’s work which is excellent.

  17. Ishita says:

    Karen, like you, my first introduction to Richard is through a book: Sunne in Splendor. And as much as I try I cannot get the picture of Richard from the book from my mind. What a book!! I am in the first flush of love and is never too happy to hear negative stuff about RIII…… But being in the RIII forum has been an eye opener and I am being introduced to so many ideas and thoughts! I am hoping sometime soon, Sharon Penman’s version will mesh with the “real” Richard! And I will be less distressed with him being called “crookback devil”…..
    What is your facebook page? I love Sharon’s page!

    • anevillfeast says:

      I haven’t read Sunne in Splendour in a long long time! I’d love to read it again, but I’m avoiding good Wars of the Roses fiction while I’m writing. I don’t want to be influenced by other writers’ views. The only reference to ‘crookbacked devil’ I can find among these comments is this “in part due to my not buying into the crook-backed monster created by Shakespeare” from Anerje. I’m not sure that anyone here does buy into this view! Good luck in your search for Richard. It’s occupied me (among other things) for decades so far, and I still haven’t reached the end.

      I have two Wars of the Roses related facebook pages/groups.

      The Nevill Guide to the Wars of the Roses:
      The Real Richard? (please note the question mark! I don’t have any answers, only questions.)

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