Sunday, July 4, 2010
Richard III: the maligned king - Annette Carson
Richard III is one of the most controversial figures in English history. For centuries he was seen as a monster, largely thanks to Shakespeare’s villainous portrayal. Only a few authors, George Buck in the 17th century & Horace Walpole in the 18th century, saw past the distortions of the hunchbacked monster of Shakespeare’s play & went back to the original documents to rewrite the story of Richard’s life. In the 20th century, a whitewashed version of Richard appeared. The most famous & in some ways most influential of these pro-Ricardian books was not history at all but a novel, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. This is a detective novel with a difference. Inspector Alan Grant, in hospital after an accident, relieves his boredom by researching the mystery of Richard’s reputation & especially the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. With the help of a young American researcher, Grant discovers a noble prince, maligned by his enemies in life & vilified after death by the man who defeated him at Bosworth & usurped the throne, Henry Tudor.
The formation of the Richard III Society in the 1950s was instrumental in fostering research into Richard’s life & times but the controversy still remains. Pro & Anti Ricardians still fight it out with every book published. I’m a member of the Richard III Society. The Daughter of Time was the book that started me on a fascinating journey of discovery about Richard & the mystery of the fate of the young king, Edward V & his brother, Richard, Duke of York, known to history as the Princes in the Tower. I was very pro-Ricardian when I was young, influenced by Josephine Tey & all the historical novels I read that portrayed Richard as more sinned against than sinning.
My view of Richard has become greyer as time has passed. I don’t see him as England’s Black Legend (the subtitle of Desmond Seward’s 1983 biography) but I also can’t quite see him as the paragon of Annette Carson’s book, Richard III: the maligned king. In the matter of the Princes, the sticking point for me is that they were never seen again after Richard ascended the throne & Richard never addressed the rumours about their fate. If they were alive, why not produce them? If they had been sent overseas or to Richard’s Northern estates, there would surely be some record. If they died a natural death, produce the bodies & bury them. If they were truly illegitimate, they were no threat to Richard’s position & no one would rebel in their favour. But if the precontract was a fabrication... You see, I’ve tied myself up in knots again! This is why Richard’s story has fascinated me for so long. There’s no definitive answer & I’m always interested in reading another opinion on all these contentious issues.
This is a meticulously researched book. Carson has gone back to the available sources & provides a very useful Appendix assessing these principal sources. There are very few contemporary sources for the period of Richard’s reign. Only Dominic Mancini’s Usurpation of Richard III (written by an Italian envoy for the Archbishop of Vienne) & the Second Continuation of the Crowland Chronicle (written by an unknown cleric at Crowland Abbey) are contemporary & they have problems. Mancini didn’t speak English so got his information from the small Italian community in London. He left London before Richard’s coronation. The writer of the Crowland Chronicle seems very well-informed up to the period of Richard’s assumption of the throne but less so afterwards. After Bosworth of course, the Tudors were only interested in validating their position & blackening Richard's reputation. Titulus Regius, the Act of Parliament setting out Richard's claim to the throne was repealed unread & all copies destroyed. Luckily one copy escaped destruction & was discovered in the 17th century. The official Tudor version of Richard's reign was written by historians such as Polydore Vergil & Bernard Andre & of course, Thomas More's History of Richard III which formed the basis for later versions of the story, including Shakespeare's play.
Everything about Richard is contentious. Did he ascend, assume or usurp the throne? It depends on what you think of the precontract which may or may not have existed between Richard’s brother Edward IV & Lady Eleanor Talbot. If Edward & Eleanor were married, his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (mother of the Princes) was invalid, the children were illegitimate & therefore Richard was legally heir to the throne. If you don’t believe in the precontract, Richard deposed his nephew & illegally usurped the throne. John Ashdown-Hill’s recent book on Lady Eleanor Talbot is a fascinating contribution to that discussion. I reviewed it here. Carson concentrates on Richard’s actions in the last few years of his life. I enjoyed this book very much. It’s refreshing to read such a passionately argued defence by an author who has a firm command of the sources. Carson also has a very interesting theory about the fate of the Princes. I think anyone interested in the Ricardian controversy would enjoy this contribution to the debate.