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Richard III: England’s Favorite Evil Uncle

[1]

Detail, John Everett Millais’ foreboding The Princes in the Tower, 1876.

5,894 words

No author would be able to get away with writing such a story in a novel, it was so fantastic. Providence and Destiny are real. In 2012, a group of amateur enthusiasts and archaeologists traveled to Leicestershire (located in the heart of England), site of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field. They were on a quixotic mission: to find the remains of Richard III, England’s most controversial king, in the vast area surrounding the old Grey Friars Church — and on a shoestring budget. So shoestring, in fact, that excavators were forced to choose one, and only one, place in which to dig. They decided to concentrate on a single paved-over parking spot in front of a city council building. Why? Because the spot had a large “X” painted there. After cracking open the concrete and carefully digging, they began to see bones peeking out from beneath the churned earth: it was the fractured skull and curved spine of Albion’s last medieval king. Richard III, the “Black Legend” of the Monarchy, finally saw daylight once again after languishing for five hundred years in an unmarked grave.

But does he matter now? Or is this discovery, in the words of one of my scoffing British professors, of little account and even less significance?

In an age during which “diversity history” has taken over actual history — gratuitous black faces in televised European epics; the role of “golden” Achilles given to a Sub-Saharan; historians who have attempted to convince us that the goings-on in the nonwhite world were somehow more important to Western history than the study of great Westerners themselves — it’s sometimes rewarding to remember and to pore over the rich and endlessly compelling past that is ours, alone. The benefit to studying the humanities is not only found in the learning about specific contexts in which works of art or literature were produced, but learning also about the timeless qualities that have defined what we have referred to as “the human,” but is often more accurately called “the Western,” experience. How can one appreciate and hope to save his race when he has no idea what he is saving — the answers to which are only found in the words and works — the controversies, also — left behind by his ancestors? Richard III matters, because history and his era must still matter to us.

And the truth was that the fifteenth century was nuts. A French peasant girl who claimed to hear angelic voices helped to galvanize a resistance that erased the military gains legendary kings had spent decades and entire reigns winning for their kingdoms. A united Spain completed the 700 year-long Reconquista in one of the most brilliant Catholic victories against Islam in European history. Tempering this news, in the east Constantinople had since fallen to the Muslim Turks in 1453, and everyone understood that the Ottoman Empire planned many more bad days ahead for Europe. In the meantime, Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia was determined to make it as uncomfortable as possible for Mehmed II. Wacky prophets and seers like Savonarola in Florence challenged both Church and state authorities. Watching the rise and fall of these men and much of Italy’s descent into chaos and foreign invasion, Niccolò Machiavelli was inspired to later pen The Prince (written ca. 1513). Regular recurrences of the Plague stalked the land and terrorized the European psyche. Peripheral England collapsed into the worst civil war its country had suffered since the 1100s. By the dawn of Columbus’s voyage, the West had endured a long trial in which modern and more centralized European states were beginning to emerge from a century of popular revolt and bizarre lawlessness. Medieval Europe was over. The enigma of Richard III and the murder mystery that consumed his reign were not.

The Red Rose and the White

Before understanding Richard’s part in British and Western history, it’s necessary to have some knowledge of his background and the other primary players of his period — a cast of flawed but fascinating men and women who participated in one of the bloodiest (proportionally speaking) family feuds in English history. I consider the so-called “Wars of the Roses” (1453-1485) as almost an extension of the Hundred Years’ War, which was fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453. In 1453, that latter conflict ended abruptly with the outbreak of the former — a dynastic civil war that would last for three decades and devour the lives and loves of three English kings.

In one sense, Western students of history can view the Wars of the Roses as a lesson in the different varieties of bad leadership — as well as the entertaining and age-old cherchez la femme influences — that have often resulted in ruin and the ending of dynasties. By the conclusion of the Wars, the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York had eliminated both of their male lines from existence and left the way open for minor claimants to the throne (like the Tudors, who hailed from the Welsh backwaters). At no other time (save perhaps during the Norman takeover of the British Isles) were so many English noblemen and scions of ancient families butchered so thoroughly and shortly.

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Henry Payne’s painting of Lancaster versus York, Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens, 1910.

Indeed, the Wars proved that kingdoms could have too much of a good thing — in this case, the number of male heirs born to Edward III (1312-1377), all of whose descendants fell upon one another during the murderous fifteenth century. The old King’s issue did nothing so well as it did annihilate itself. The Wars of the Roses were an example of the kind of farcical and tragical history Europeans have made a specialty of since at least the siege of Troy 3,800 years ago.

Henry VI, “the Mad”

Henry VI, the reigning king when the Wars began, was a failure. He neglected his duties as a monarch and husband when he devoted himself, not to running the realm, but to preparing for the Christian afterlife. By most accounts, he was a pious simpleton who preferred to wall himself off from the world as if he were a monastic, rather than the King of England and France. Nowhere was the charismatic and capable blood of his father, Henry V, in evidence in this, the hero of Agincourt’s pathetic offspring. It was to both of their misfortunes that Henry VI married the beautiful and ten-times-more-willful French princess Marguerite (or Margaret) of Anjou. The King apparently found the sexual act shameful and distressing, and after performing his duties toward Marguerite, he suffered a mental breakdown that lasted for months. Throughout his reign, Henry periodically retreated from the world of obligation, leaving the business of running his kingdom to the Queen and to her court favorites, such as Humphrey Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, and Henry Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset. It has been a universal historical pattern: no one has ever liked foreign queens with uppity and imperious manners, and “favorites” have been liked even less. A weak king, a controlling queen, and obnoxious, overmighty subjects: a recipe for disaster.

The House of Plantagenet had ruled England since Henry II in the twelfth century. Since then, the line had forked into two main branches: those of Lancaster and of York. Henry VI was the last monarch of the Lancastrian line, symbolized by a red rose. His cousin was Richard, Duke of York (and Richard III’s father), and the leading figure of the House of York, whose symbol was that of a white rose. There were many who considered Richard of York to have the better claim to the throne, for he was descended from Edward III through both his paternal and maternal lines. This wouldn’t have been an issue had Henry VI been a halfway decent monarch; but Henry was dull, timid, a terrible leader, and prone to psychological fits and breakdowns. His father had made England a great military power — all but won the Hundred Years’ War for the English. But by 1453, Henry VI had lost all French territory, save the tiny port of Calais. As embittered English noblemen returned from the French front in defeat, they found the home front in disarray as well. The King suffered from madness, and factions had arisen to fill the void of power, one of them led by Queen Marguerite, Buckingham, and Somerset; and the other led by Richard of York, the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Warwick.

This was the era in English history plagued by “bastard feudalism,” in which overmighty subjects and noblemen — largely as a consequence of the Hundred Years’ War — controlled private armies that they then used to terrorize the countryside and to settle disputes with their neighbors (usually ending with one of the chief combatant’s heads decorating the drawbridge of the other’s). Perhaps the best way to understand such people and the dynamics in which they operated and manipulated is to view them as mafia dons. England had become less a coherent kingdom than a geographic territory riven with these petty warlords.

Instead of detailing the complicated history of the Wars of the Roses and subjecting readers to endless numbers of “Henrys,” “Edwards,” and “Richards,” suffice to say that the House of Lancaster fell (interested readers may find this decent genealogical tree [3] of Edward III’s descendants helpful). Henry VI was imprisoned and met a suspicious end there. Richard of York also died, but in battle and while fighting in the 1460 snows of Wakefield. The banner of York passed to his eldest surviving son, Edward, who went on to win a series of dazzling victories, and then won the throne itself in 1461. This dynastic conflict was particularly brutal and wasteful. Whole generations of blue-blooded men fell or were executed by their enemies. Few armies considered taking prisoners worth the effort, and so they thought little of slaughtering the wounded and captured. Queen Marguerite fled to France, along with her young son. A victorious Edward IV prepared to reunite the kingdom after decades of unrest.

[4]

You can buy It’s Okay to Be White: The Best of Greg Johnson here. [5]

Edward IV, the “Sunne in Splendour”

Edward’s reign was not wholly peaceful. Rebellions against his authority erupted several times — once seriously. Two of them were led by his own younger brother George, the Duke of Clarence, and one led by Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (known as “the Kingmaker”) — both of whom were formerly his steadfast supporters. The King felt that he had no choice but to execute Warwick and “perfidious Clarence.” Edward’s youngest brother Richard, meanwhile, remained ever-loyal. The fratricidal feud that led to George’s death embittered Richard toward his eldest brother’s (the King’s) in-laws: the Woodville clan, nearly all of whom were as profoundly unattractive in their conniving nastiness as they were fair, blonde, and physically beautiful to the eye. It was they who had done their best to sever the bonds of attachment between Edward, George, and Richard in order to advance their own interests at court. By the late 1470s, George and other former Yorkist allies were dead, and Richard had been appointed (or banished) to a post in northern England as Duke of Gloucester, which kept him from interfering in Woodville plots. It seemed that Edward’s wife and the Woodvilles alone enjoyed having the King’s ear.

Before Edward’s marriage to smokeshow Elizabeth Woodville, it was almost unheard of for an English king to marry an Englishwoman (nevermind one who had already been married and borne a child). Marriage was not an institution for princes to indulge in their pleasure or passions; that was left to the ancient and accepted practice of keeping favorite mistresses on-hand. Matrimony was a political match meant to cement bonds with rivals and to propagate the dynasty with legitimate heirs. As a rule, English kings married foreign princesses in order to gain alliances and fat dowries. Edward’s honoring of his “secret” engagement and subsequent marriage to the widowed Elizabeth was indeed so inexplicable that contemporaries ascribed it to Woodville witchcraft. She bewitched Edward, certainly, but only because she was possessed of surpassing sex appeal. Their union had the added disadvantage of sabotaging Warwick’s marriage negotiations with French royals on Edward’s behalf. The humiliation and loss-of-face Warwick suffered, and after he’d proved so instrumental in helping to win the day for the White Rose of York, permanently soured the relationship between King and Kingmaker.

Richard III, “the Crooked-Backed”

Once Edward IV died suddenly in 1483, his crown passed to his twelve-year-old son Edward V; his second son — just nine (and also named Richard) — was next in line. Their uncle acted swiftly and intercepted the party traveling with the heir to the throne while on its way to London. Through a series of dizzying power plays, Richard seized the office of “Protector of the Realm,” executed many of his enemies, and isolated his nephews in the Tower. He then rehashed the old canard asserting that his brother Edward IV was a bastard, therefore rendering his entire line illegitimate (with their mother Cecily Neville still alive, this must have made for some awkward family gatherings). Richard was the sole Yorkist heir to the throne. He arranged for a lavish coronation in July, and thus completed his coup. Now remained only to tie up the loose ends.

At first, Richard’s entry into London had been popular. Just as he’d done at his post in the north, so his supporters expected him to do in the south: “drain the swamp” and rid everyone of the loathsome, social-climbing Woodvilles. But once he’d had himself crowned and denounced his brother as an illegitimate love-child; once he’d lopped the heads off several noblemen on spurious charges; once it became increasingly clear to everyone that the two princes had likely been smothered in their beds — his popularity evaporated. When Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond, and with a minor claim to the throne through his mother, mustered an army and landed on the Welsh coast, many disaffected elements joined his cause. By now, this was old-hat for Richard, for he was used to both leading and fending off uprisings, thanks to his service in the Wars and his later forays into Scotland. He had the larger army and was confident that he would beat back or kill the Tudor upstart. God had always been on the side of York. On the morning of 22 August, 1485, the two armies clashed at Bosworth Field. Everything was on the line.

Of course, we’ll never know exactly how Richard died at Bosworth, but forensics is an illustrative art and a powerful science. His bones tell the story of a man whose skull was pierced through by a blade, and the back of his head severed, most likely by a halberd. Either of these wounds would have been fatal. The King rode into battle on horseback, then got himself into trouble. Seeing Henry Tudor’s retinue break off from the main force of his army, Richard couldn’t resist gathering his most loyal followers and charging the Welsh Pretender directly. This turned out to be a fatal mistake. A cavalryman’s advantage was in his height, mobility, and the great power of his horse; all of this vanished and became a liability when he was trapped in a crowd and assumed the focus of those below him (this was why warhorses learned to kick and wheel). Henry Tudor’s men (who were likely French mercenaries) knocked the King from his perch, then stripped off his helm and rained blows down upon him as he refused to surrender. Many of the other injuries dealt to his body were ones inflicted posthumously and performed as acts of ritual humiliation — the final one being the parading of his broken and naked corpse into the nearby town. Henry Tudor was now Henry VII.

Richard was entombed at the nearby Grey Friars Church, but a half a century later, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and church lands, including the one where Richard had been placed. His remains were dumped into an anonymous pit and his former casket was used as an animal trough. Whatever one might think of Richard, he was a brave man and one who grew up and reigned during an era when kings were expected to defend in person their crowns on the battlefield, putting their faith in their own courage and God’s will to win the day. He was the only English king to die leading his troops into battle, save the Saxon ruler Harold in 1066.

Tudor Propaganda Campaigns

The secret mischiefs that I set abroach / I lay unto the grievous charge of others . . . But then I sigh, and with a piece of good scripture / Tell them that God bids us do good for evil. / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With old odd ends stol’n out of holy writ, / And seem a saint when most I play the devil. [1] [6]

The quote above is taken from Shakespeare’s Richard III (1593), the eponymous character describing for sixteenth-century audiences the supposed dastardliness of an ill-fated fifteenth-century monarch. But it could just as easily apply to any number of modern Leftists, who have plundered the archives of Western texts — upending shelves and ripping venerated books from their bindings — in order to tear away useful sentences and ideas, all out of their original context, and impress them into the service of twisting “good scripture” into a “villainy” that would fool the credulous and unthinking among us. In doing so, they’ve left our collective library a mess of shredded books and paper — a symbol of the damaged and shoddy “intellectualism” that dominates in these times. The nature of villainy never changes.

But I must admit, Richard III has never been one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. Although the Bard wrote a number of “political” dramas, Richard could neither escape, nor transcend, its agitprop of a plot. While taking into account the necessity of the willful suspense of the imagination early modern literature requires, some scenes strained even the liberal credulity with which I have always read such works. For example, in the space of 200 lines, Lady Anne Neville switched from disconsolate and furious widow, who was in mourning for her husband, the Prince of Wales (whom Richard had slain at the Battle of Tewkesbury), to a woman so much seduced by Richard’s charm that she agreed to marry her late beloved’s killer. [2] [7]

True, Richard was one of Shakespeare’s more memorable bad guys, and his scheming was fun to follow; but as for his motive for evil — his envy and insecurity about his crippled appearance — it felt a bit hollow. Then there’s the personal dislike that I have for the Tudors, whose claim to the throne was through an illegitimate line. Henry Tudor (or Henry VII) was a brilliant administrator and knew how to cement his authority by undercutting the power of the English nobility. But he was a miser of a man and hard to like. The phrase: “hauled off to Star Chamber” originated with him. His son was a fat megalomaniac, who swerved manically from allowing women to dominate his agenda, to cruelly dominating them in turn, and with little time spent between those extremes. Although he severed England from the Church of Rome, he himself died a bad Catholic (no one can seriously argue that he looked on his subjects’ versions of Protestantism with anything but horror). As for the rest of the lot, Elizabeth was all right.

Under the Tudors, Richard was universally condemned as a tyrant and child-murderer. Obviously, Tudor historians had an interest in depicting his character as a black one, and Shakespeare’s grotesque Richard is dismissed now as literary fantasy because of this. The other famous Tudor history that dealt with Richard and his crimes is not so easily brushed aside as a mere political hit-job, for it was written by a man dedicated to truth and to his own convictions — Sir Thomas More. And More’s Richard in his History of Richard the Third (composed ca. 1513) was an unequivocally guilty man.

According to contemporaries and later Tudor scribes such as More, Richard was to blame for a number of crimes:

  1. He colluded in the execution of his brother George, Duke of Clarence
  2. He killed Henry VI while the deposed king was imprisoned
  3. He was responsible for the death of his wife, Lady Anne Neville
  4. He attempted to seduce his niece (and sister of the two princes), Elizabeth of York
  5. He ordered the murder of his nephews, the princes in the Tower
[8]

Edwin Austin Abbey’s very deformed Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Lady Anne, 1896.

None of these allegations would a jury convict Richard of today, for lack of evidence (or for compelling evidence that proved the contrary). The most plausible charge was the last one, but it was a doozie. The death of such a tyrant at the hands of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was thus a just and sweet turn of Fortune’s hand. Thank goodness the embarrassing relatives from the Marches made themselves the pointed tip of Providence’s spear! To this was added the medieval belief that wickedness showed itself in outward perversion: Richard was supposedly a hunchback. His brothers Edward and George, meanwhile, were tall, graceful, and handsome men in their prime. Richard was the dark runt. It was this crippled appearance that motivated Shakespeare’s Richard to match his “deformity” with his “[determination] to prove a villain.” [3] [9]

But More made numerous and glaring errors throughout his History, beginning with the very first line: “King Edward of that name the Fourth, after he had lived fifty and three years, seven months, and six days. . . died at Westminster the ninth day of April, the year of our redemption, a thousand four hundred four score and three . . .” [4] [10] It was a well-known fact that Edward IV had died at the age of forty, not fifty-three. Inaccuracies like these and ones coming from a man of truth raise the question: was More simply sloppy? Or was his piece of propaganda made deliberately false in order to mislead the reader — or to mock the very task More had assigned to himself? His History remained unfinished at the time of More’s execution (by order of Henry VIII), and the manuscript was published posthumously.

History had an enormous influence on Shakespeare and others. Of course, the playwright used artistic license when it came to fleshing out Richard’s evil character; in the play, Richard was responsible for pitting his two elder brothers, King Edward IV and George, the Duke of Clarence, against one another, ending in the latter’s execution by drowning in a vat of Malmsey (or Madeira) wine. In reality, all evidence pointed to George’s own stupidity and jealousy as the cause of his treason and subsequent demise. More, though he did not commit fully to charging Richard with many of the sins Shakespeare later attributed to the last Plantagenet king, provided the Bard with a biased primary source from which to draw. Its inaccuracies left the door open for literary revisionists like Josephine Tey (who wrote The Daughter of Time in the 1950s), to attack the myths that had so blackened Richard’s name. [5] [11]

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You can buy The World in Flames: The Shorter Writings of Francis Parker Yockey here. [13]

Revisionism and Rehabbing the Monster 

The so-called villains and “black-hats” of history are just as important and often more fun to explore than its heroes. This is how, I suspect, people who have become revisionist historians begin: as interested students and pseudo-biographers of the past’s bad boys (and girls). And upon intense study of their subjects and historical mysteries, they then fall under a kind of spell, which might be called “love.” The development of feelings for one’s subject is a well-known phenomenon among biographers who, after finishing a monograph on a famous figure, have either grown to passionately love or loathe him.

In one amusing article entitled, “Historians Who Love Too Much,” a scholar recounted that during her research into the life of Noah Webster (of Webster’s dictionary), she found herself at the Amherst College Special Collections waiting on the archivist to bring out to her Webster’s letters and other items of interest. To her delight, the archivist also supplied “a swirl of ginger hair” that belonged to Webster himself. She confessed that she “[felt] closer to [him] than [she] had ever felt when reading even his most personal papers. That lifeless, limp hair had spent decades in an envelope, in a folder, in a box, on a shelf, but holding it in the palm of [her] hand made [her] feel an eerie intimacy with Noah . . .” [6] [14] She experienced an overwhelming desire to brush the lock against her cheek — and at that moment, she froze. Too Far. Time for some fresh air and perspective.

But this kind of obsession explains Richard III’s committed fanbase, as well as the devotees of probable monsters like Gilles de Rais. [7] [15] They see themselves as the champions of men who have been unjustly savaged by history (the pathological Leftist worship of nonwhite killers and/or communist leaders is another matter). The publication of Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which skewered the image of Richard created by More and Shakespeare, and blamed the death of the princes in the Tower on Henry VII, revitalizing historical inquiry into the murder mystery and thus into Richard’s culpability. It also made Richard a cult hero.

Indeed, the cult surrounding Richard is itself fascinating, for its members have viewed the King as something of a wronged saint or martyr. Redeeming the name of a nearly six-hundred-year-old monarch is intensely personal for these “pro-Ricardians.” I visited the primary website dedicated to defending this man, whose members have called themselves “The Richard III Society.” A reading of their raison d’être elicited a sympathetic response:

In the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote . . . research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period, and of the role of this monarch in English history . . . The Society is perhaps best summed up by its Patron, the present Richard, Duke of Gloucester: “. . . the purpose — and indeed the strength — of the Richard III Society derives from the belief that the truth is more powerful than lies; a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.” [8] [16]

A powerful statement, and one we on the Dissident Right can appreciate, especially when it comes to revisionism and the championing of truth among the welter of lies and propaganda fed to our people. Whatever readers might think about Donald Trump, for instance, he is not the “black legend” of the presidency as propagated by countless authors and media types. He’s no “authoritarian,” “white supremacist, “ or “fascist” bogeyman. Neither was “fascist bogeyman” Adolf Hitler himself guilty of all the endless and often ludicrous crimes attributed to his name. Reason forbids it. There were only so many hours in his day that the German Führer could devote to being atrocious. Counter-Currents is a wonderful example of the kind of revisionism that dispels Right-wing “black legends” and restores their names to the proud pantheon of white advocates and heroes.

Did He Do It?

As praiseworthy as their mission is, are the members of the Richard III Society correct? Each year they meet at an old church near Bosworth Field to pay homage to and hear an Anglican service said in Richard’s honor (granted, they look more like a comic-con outfit, their tee-shirts printed with Richard’s image and tucked into pairs of mom jeans; they were attending a service in a centuries-old church for an English monarch — they couldn’t wear an actual collar!? But the decline of Western standards of dress is another essay). [9] [17]

I accept some of the Society’s arguments as valid: Richard showed every sign of being a loyal supporter of Edward IV during and after several uprisings against his brother’s leadership. He performed his duties as warden of the north country with aplomb on and off the battlefield. Locals within his domains appreciated his fair arbitration and his swift handling of disputes. He “drained the swamp,” so to speak. As one of his supporters put it, “he developed a particular dislike for the bad administrator . . . how we wish we had Richard III now.” [10] [18] Fine words, Mrs. Sutton! Neither was he the monster depicted in Shakespeare — a caricature invented for its theatrical and political effect. The near-miraculous coup pulled off by the Society in the finding of Richard’s remains was, however, a victory sobered by the fact that the scoliosis of Richard’s spine was proven beyond a doubt. That part of Shakespeare’s and More’s illustrations of the King was vindicated (even if he was not as misshapen and stooped as they had suggested).

The truth is that after 500 years, no smoking gun in the murder mystery of the princes in the Tower will ever be forthcoming. Workmen on the building uncovered the bones of two children buried beneath a staircase in the seventeenth century, but it’s uncertain whether or not these were twelve-year-old Edward V and his nine-year-old brother — and determining their identities would do little to solve the mystery, in any case.

Historians must thus work on probabilities and accept unsure conclusions. The princes vanished during Richard’s brief reign; observers who once saw them playing in the gardens outside the Tower (during this period it not acquired its dark reputation, but was a royal residence) or viewed their faces in its windows, noted their disappearance by late 1483. Richard, knowing that his life and leadership hung in the balance, had first stalled then canceled young Edward V’s coronation, proclaiming himself the only legitimate Yorkist heir. If his enemies, led by the Woodvilles, were to regain control of the princes, Richard would surely have either been killed or forced into exile, his northern estates confiscated. He therefore had the most compelling motive, means, and opportunity to murder his nephews. It was telling that the princes’ mother supported the Tudor rebellion. As his unpopularity grew, Richard had only to produce the two princes to a suspicious populace and parade them through London’s streets in order to allay their fears. But he never did so.

One theory has suggested that Richard’s servant James Tyrrell committed the deed, not on a direct order, but on a wish fulfillment of the kind interpreted three hundred years prior by a few intrepid knights of Henry II as permission to assassinate Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. [10] [18] In an interesting episode, Richard visited Canterbury Cathedral, the scene of the shocking crime, in 1484 and knelt at the altar of Becket’s shrine. Was the King trying to make his peace with his conscience, confessing to the martyred saint, patron of clergymen, his own sins?

[19]

Guilty: Laurence Olivier in Richard III (1955).

Richard was probably a piece of work, his ruthlessness owed to his coming-of-age during the decades of violence and treachery we have called the Wars of the Roses. How he could have emerged from the maelstrom with anything but a cold and pitiless understanding of the world is the question. It would be many times more shocking had Richard decided to spare the little princes, rather than having arranged for their deaths. Yes, Richard likely ordered his nephews’ murders, not because he was an irredeemably evil man, but because he was a practical man, and one who had absorbed the hard and bloody lessons of the Wars: to keep and win power — to restore peace and order — princes must sometimes commit vile acts that, if the need arises, he can later justify or blame others for their doing. [11] [20] Atonement could be had in the building of churches, the funding of pilgrimages, and the saying of masses. Absolution could await the deathbed.

Unfortunately for Richard, death came sooner than expected, and a family of status-seekers and virtue-signallers took over the kingdom and proceeded to malign his memory. It’s a dark moral. Internecine warfare is fatal; once-vibrant bloodlines go extinct. If we wish ourselves and our posterity to survive with any kind of luster, we must win our battles for that survival at all costs. And at least in Richard’s case, even his enemies could not deny his valor, for he did not die squirming like a worm in the dirt and begging for forgiveness and mercy, but he succumbed while cursing the names of all his foes. Richard matters, because the way we have collectively interpreted our history — and the means by which we have done so — matters.

It is unlikely that any “colored” propagandist will be quite as eloquently degrading to us as Mr. Shakespeare was to Richard, but our graves will be just as disgraceful, our dishonor just as complete, and our legend just as black as was the last White Rose of York.

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Notes 

[1] [24] William Shakespeare, Richard III (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1.1, 25, 30.

[2] [25] Shakespeare, 1.2, 1-211.

[3] [26] Shakespeare, 1.1 27, 30.

[4] [27] Thomas More, The History of Richard the Third (Thomas More Studies, 1513), 1-5.

[5] [28] Josephine Tey’s 1951 Daughter of Time is part old-fashioned detective novel and part historical fiction. In her story, a laid-up detective becomes fascinated by the murder mystery of the princes in the Tower. He disproves Richard’s guilt and fingers Henry VII for blame.

[6] [29] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” in The Journal of American History, vol. 8, no. 1 (June 2001), 129.

[7] [30] Baron Gilles de Rais (ca. 1405-1440) was a nobleman from the north of France and a contemporary and fellow-soldier of Joan of Arc. After he retired from the battlefield, de Rais became an incurable spendthrift, often hosting lavish plays on his estates, after which none of the costuming or silverware was ever reused. His family became so fed up with these habits that they pleaded before the King of France to halt de Rais’s profligacy. De Rais then fled to Brittany (which did not honor the King’s sanction against him) and there indulged in a new and more horrifying compulsion: the kidnapping, sexual abuse, and murder of an unknown (but high) number of children, most of them little boys and youths. When a local clergyman finally caught on to De Rais’s depraved killings, he lodged a complaint against the disgraced ex-soldier, and a French court tried De Rais for murder and witchcraft. He was sentenced to death and hanged atop a burning scaffold. There are some moderns who have rejected De Rais’s guilt, believing that it was a nasty political set-up. It probably wasn’t.

[8] [31]Mission [32],” the Richard III Society, 2020.

[9] [33] See Timeline’s Richard III: Fact or Fiction — Medieval Tyrant Documentary [34]

[10] [35] This a quote from Anne Sutton as she appeared in Richard III: Fact or Fiction.

[11] [36] See Amy Licenses, “New Evidence: Was Richard III Guilty of Murdering the Princes in the Tower? [37]” in the New Statesman (March 5, 2013).