Richard III and reading history

Kings and queens don’t usually feature that highly among my regular historical interests, but even I was fascinated to learn last month that the skeletal remains found during a recent archaeological dig in a Leicester car park (of all places…) have been identified as those of Richard III, the last Yorkist king of England – whose body had been considered all but lost for centuries. And the twists and turns of this complex historical detective story got me thinking about history and about how we portray and interpret it.

Richard has long been a controversial figure historically. Not initially ‘born to be king’, he is believed by many to have been a severely physically disabled and emotionally embittered man who connived his way to the throne, murdering his young nephews in the process (these nephews being the sad little figures known to history as ‘The Princes in the Tower’); a dark image both reinforced and exacerbated by the works of some near-contemporary chroniclers, later plays such as that by William Shakespeare, and countless portraits and engravings produced long after Richard’s death.

However, some believe that Richard has been unfairly maligned by both his successors and by later historians, chroniclers and artists. There is certainly evidence that he mediated between warring factions in the north of England and made stringent efforts to protect this vulnerable area from Scottish raids. He was also responsible for introducing legal reforms that protected the ordinary person, including laws written in English (thus understandable by anyone), and concepts (such as the use of bail) that we are still familiar with today.

Good king or not, Richard only managed to enjoy the crown for a mere two years, which is, incidentally, one of the shortest reigns in English history, before being comprehensively defeated in battle by the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor – who then became King Henry VII, thus beginning one of the most famous royal dynasties of all (his son being the notorious Henry VIII and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I).

This defeat at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 (and the dynastically significant marriage of Henry Tudor to Elizabeth of York less than six months later) effectively ended the Wars of the Roses, a long-running and very bloody 15th century squabble over the throne between two powerful royal and aristocratic factions – the aforementioned Yorkists and Lancastrians (whose symbols were the badges of the white rose and the red rose respectively).

After so many years of war and upheaval, the new monarch knew that this fragile peace still had to be maintained, and that his power needed to be grasped even more closely – this was especially true if, like Henry VII, you knew your claim to the throne was somewhat weaker than that of the man you had just deposed. It was here that a clever use of propaganda came into play – a use of propaganda that has remained part of Richard’s story right down to the present day.

The most famous surviving sources concerning Richard III, such as the work of various chroniclers and Shakespeare’s play, are from this Tudor period and later, and they almost all seem to be very much biased against him. An interesting example of this type of negative portrayal can be found in the Royal Collection, where there is evidence that an early 16th century portrait of Richard has been amended to show him with a very distinctive hunchback.

The remains found in the Leicester car park certainly showed evidence of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), but it seems that this deformity was exaggerated by Tudor artists to make Richard seem as physically twisted as he was portrayed as psychologically twisted and evil by the writers and playwrights of the day. This exaggeration would be designed to show him in the worst possible light, thus making Henry VII’s claim to the throne seem only right and proper in the face of such a ‘monster’ as king.

Whether or not Richard III was actually the two-dimensional murderous and evil pantomime villain of Shakespeare’s play can never now be ascertained with any sense of finality, but the evidence suggests that it seems more likely that this was a highly exaggerated version of his life, an account that, in the hands of a master playwright, probably melded fact and fiction to create one of the greatest theatrical bad guys of all time.

Richard was, without a doubt, a very powerful man – and we all know of the destructive behaviours and attitudes that invariably result from the exercise of such power, even in the 21st century. And he was also a man immersed in a very violent and bloody world; this being an era in which warfare was common, and life really could be nasty, brutish and short.

This combination of power and violence would indeed make it entirely possible that he was involved in the deaths of the young princes, as later chroniclers such as Sir Thomas More and Raphael Holinshed (both sources for Shakespeare’s take on Richard) would have it, although it must be said that there is no definitive evidence either way.

But Richard was almost certainly a lot more complex – and a lot more human in his complexity – than the chroniclers (and playwrights) would seem to have us believe. The well-known actor Anthony Sher, who has played Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company, rightly points out that, despite so many assumptions to the contrary, the play “wasn’t a historically accurate depiction: Shakespeare was a dramatist, not a historian… This is one of those cases where the fictional account of a person’s life has become more famous than the real one”.

However, the fact that this very deliberate posthumous interpretation of Richard and his life has echoed down the centuries to us today is a vivid example of how we interpret lives and events both around us now and in the past via the media and historical writing – and very clearly demonstrates a wider truth: just how powerful and persuasive even relatively subtle political spin and its associated propaganda can be. From this, it becomes obvious that these seemingly modern concepts have been utilised effectively for centuries – because they work.

And they work because of human nature being the way it is. It can be easy to believe such simplistic and two-dimensional popular media interpretations of, for example, a long-dead king, simply because such accounts come from sources we believe (or want to believe) are knowledgeable and reliable, and that conform to (and are reinforced by) long-held collective stereotypes of what we think a man of ‘that type’ should be like – stereotypes in part produced by the repetition of often subtle propaganda.

It’s comfortable and safe, we believe, to stick with what we think we know. It’s harder to analyse the available historical sources with an eye to whether they are trustworthy or not, from the perspective of the 15th century, say, and with an open mind to the possibility of what we discover not being what we think we know – and harder still to take a further metaphorical step back into the past and look at the life of a man such as Richard III from the perspective of his human existence instead, with all the faults and flaws (both large and small) that entails.

Looking at the bigger picture, the truth is very rarely as simple as an individual being solely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and the truth, however we define it, is even more rarely ideologically black or white, especially when it comes to history. It is true, though, that much of the history that we know has been written and interpreted by the privileged and the ‘winners’ (and mostly continues to be so), so you’re usually only going to get a particular version of somebody’s life or a sequence of events rather than a more complete view of the matter in hand.

However, it is important to remember that such versions of history, which can often become historical ‘fact’ given enough time and repetition, are frequently only what we think we know about a medieval monarch or a famous battle or a revered public figure of the past (or anyone, really), and what we think we know isn’t always true – but it often comes with a kernel of truth at its heart. Sometimes that kernel of truth is hard to find (as, it seems, with Richard III), especially when the sheer weight of centuries means little in the way of sources – reliable or otherwise – survive.

Powerful figures will always create their own public image during their lifetimes, but this public image is also often created for them, whether by the media, or friends and family, or enemies of the personal or political kind. It becomes crucial to try to see beyond the public face and remember that how a person wants to portray themselves (or is portrayed) to the outside world and how a person appears to be in public is not the same as who they actually are – or were. The reality of such a person is wrapped up in a deliberately created covering made up of  many complex layers of image and exaggeration and perception and propaganda which only increase with time and reiteration.

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