MOST OF WHAT is today recorded of Richard of Gloucester was first compiled under the dominance of the House of Tudor, from Thomas More’s 1520 History of King Richard III, in the time of Henry VIII, to Raphael Holinshed’s ambitious but abandoned Elizabethan-era Chronicles, published in two editions of 1577 and 1587. From the later of these two publications, originally conceived as a history from the Flood onwards, Shakespeare derived a good amount of material for his historical and tragic plays. His Tragedy of King Richard the Third is generally placed in the former category, but sometimes also the second, an ambiguity which fittingly mirrors Richard III’s legend-rich niche in English history.
Given that the ascendance of Henry VII arrived on the battlefield and with Richard III’s demise (the succession of Tudor to the House of York, on August 22, 1485, was the last such transition effected by means of physical combat), a degree of outright propaganda must be expected in the Renaissance account. In their 1954 introduction to the Elizabethan chroniclers, contained in the anthology The Renaissance in England, Hyder E. Rollins and Herschel Baker write that “with a few exceptions” these histories “are partisan, plagiaristic, uncritical, and virtually innocent of form or style.” As one would expect, Shakespeare’s Richard III as in the case of earlier accounts is crude, cunning, malformed and above all wicked.
As early as More, however, a critical eye had fallen upon the human failings to which the living Tudor king would prove himself prone. There is a chasm for instance between the inquisitional Henry VIII and More’s King Utopus, who decrees “that it should be lawful for every man to favor and follow what religion he would.” Read as a work contemporary with Utopia, published in 1516 but begun around the same time, the History of Richard III could be seen along with its fictional companion as More’s critique of human arrogance and cruelty, of which the contemporary sovereign was an egregious practitioner. A devout Catholic but also a humanist, More was eventually at the receiving end of Henry VIII’s vindictiveness, paying with his life for the “treasonous” act of refusing absolute submission to the dictator’s ever-broadening claims.
The recent Leicester excavation and even more astonishing reconstruction of Richard III’s remains now provides fresh cause to reconsider the legends. Doubtless less wicked than commonly portrayed — but necessarily capable of ruthlessness, as were his predecessors and in some cases successors — he may indeed have been as well-formed and even attractive as Nicolas von Poppelau and the superannuated Katherine FitzGerald had once recalled.
What is certain is that Richard lived at a time in which a degree of ruthlessness was a royal aspirant’s prerequisite, and the elimination of one’s rivals, both real and potential as well as past and present, a matter to be taken as granted. As late as 1541, a much crueler and much more rapacious Henry VIII was purging the already severely attenuated Plantagenet line — in this instance by ordering the execution of sixty-seven year-old Margaret Pole. (The niece of Richard III and daughter of George Plantagenet, whose legendary death in “a butt of Malmsey wine” was dramatized by Shakespeare, Pole’s gruesome beheading required eleven strokes of the executioner.) Richard III is arguably a retrospective victim of this Tudor purge.
Debate about the character and deeds of the man is certain to continue, just as the present spat between Leicester and York recalls the bloody contests between Plantagenet’s rival houses. Only with the rise of Henry Tudor were the warring roses combined. The shedding of English blood over this business of religious and clan and territorial rivalry, however, was far from over.