Monday, 4 February 2013

Some thoughts on Richard III

If you've read your Shakespeare, Richard III is practically the devil incarnate; in the first Blackadder series, he's a particularly malevolent turn from Peter Cook; for GR Elton he was the last of the monarchs before the "Tudor Revolution in Government" - the bane of an A Level student's life since the 1960s.

Problem is, of course, that not only do we know little about him, but that what we do know was in large part handed down by Tudor propagandists.  If you're Henry VIII, you're a born king, with no need to polish your ancestry up a bit.  But if you're before or after him....  Henry VII was a usurper - even if you accept his right to the throne there's no getting away from the fact that he could only achieve it in battle.  His overall position was weak, so it's always nice in that position if you've got a friendly chronicler who can boost you a bit by making your predecessor look bad.  Similarly, if you're Shakespeare, then you've got the aftermath of Henry VIII uppermost in your mind - succession is everything, whether you're trying to justify the position of Elizabeth I or James I....

Now, of course, Richard has been found under a car park in Leicester (2,500 yards under if you believe one of the Daily Mail's more glorious recent typos) - if you're a Tudor, that's probably quite fitting, if not actually better than they can ever have planned.  But, as we descend into the inevitable parochial arguments about where he should be buried, and by what rite, it's probably as well to try and put him into some kind of context.

I'm certainly no member of the Richard III society, but I do feel that he needs a bit of a reassessment.  The Elton view, that before Henry VII all was darkness, is clearly old hat.  It's even possible to rehabilitate certainly the first reign of Henry VI, and Edward IV has always had a good press, but it's possible now to see Richard as a small part of the creation of English bureaucracy, the foundation of what, for want of a better term, was the basis of legal aid, and a swathe of really quite decent legislation in his short years on the throne which really mark him out as pretty much what you want in a late medieval king.

Of course, the big problem is getting past the poor old princes in the tower.  Without going into the Blackadder counterfactual that he was in fact a loving uncle who doted on his nephews, there is scant evidence for what really happened there. I don't want to push this too far, because in historical terms it's the mother of fifteenth century conspiracy theories, but if you want someone with the motive, opportunity and means, look no further than Mr Henry Tudor, of Wales....

Whatever the truth, it's probable and (just good politics) that his reputation was blackened by his successors to a greater or lesser extent, but now that we have a body it's perhaps time for a sober reassessment of his strengths and weaknesses.  He certainly wasn't a saint, but, to adapt Shakespeare's lines for his earlier namesake Richard II,

"not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king."

And he was an anointed king - by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and, in his own opinion, by God.  I'm not sure we're in a better position to judge.

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