“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The recent discovery and identification of the skeleton of the English King Richard III (1452 – 1485) has certainly ignited a firestorm of interest in the deceased ruler. Prior to this event, I expect that the majority of people who were aware of Richard III knew of him by the villainous reputation so ably propagated by William Shakespeare in the play penned in 1592, more than a hundred years after the monarch’s death in battle at Bosworth Field.
One of the more interesting aspects of this peak in interest in Richard III is the re-examination by certain historians of his character & policies. The question has been raised as to whether or not he was truly as malevolent as the figure depicted both in Shakespeare’s play and the writings of 16th Century historians.
Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with a reappraisal of the past, as long as it is done with a certain amount of caution. It does no good to completely throw out the long accepted views of historic events on nothing more than a whim. Revisionism is understandably an ugly word, because too often it is utilized in service of presenting an extremely biased, skewed interpretation of events. But, if approached properly, a revisionist examination can offer up alternate perspectives that challenge our thinking in a healthy manner.
I am no historian (although I did minor in History in college) so I am certainly not the one to be presenting any sort of overview of Richard III’s life. Many, many books have been written on the subject, and a number of summaries of his history are also available online. Suffice it to say, his two year reign was an unsettled one. There was a certain amount of controversy surrounding Richard’s ascent to the throne of England. The disappearances of his two young nephews, whom certain people saw as the legitimate heirs to the throne, led to much speculation that he ordered their murders.
However, there are a number of positive accomplishments during Richard’s brief time on the throne. Among these, he put into practice the issuing of bail, meaning individuals charged with a crime would not have to be imprisoned for years at a time waiting for their trials. He began what was later to be known as the Court of Requests, wherein the poor who could not afford lawyers could bring their grievances. Richard also reduced taxes, something that I think many a politician wishes they could claim.
Yes, I expect Richard was involved in activities that should be regarded as immoral, if not criminal. But consider this: he was a monarch in an era when abuse of power was common, and morality was much less well defined. A look at Richard’s immediate successors to the English throne demonstrates that he was hardly unique:
Henry VII, who unseated Richard, retroactively declared himself to be King the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field. This allowed him to declare that any who fought on Richard’s side were guilty of treason, enabling him to seize their lands & properties. His son Henry VIII is notorious for having two of his six wives beheaded. His 1534 Act of Supremacy made it a treasonable offense to question the King’s authority over the Church of England, and various people were executed for defying it, among them Sir Thomas More. Henry’s eldest daughter Mary attempted to return England to Catholicism, and was vigorous in the persecution of Protestants, which gave rise to her nickname “Bloody Mary.”
In other words, this was a brutal era in history, and Richard’s actions should at least be partially judged against that backdrop, and against the actions of those who followed him.
It is also worth noting that Shakespeare, when he penned his play, certainly had an eye on remaining favorable with the court of Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare knew that, as she was the granddaughter of Henry VII, Elizabeth would want to see the Tudor dynasty presented in the most positive light possible. Which meant basing his Machiavellian characterization of Richard on the popular line of thought (some would say propaganda) advanced by historians writing during the rule of Henry VII onward.
In the end, I imagine that Richard III was not some sort of black-hearted fiend. I expect that, like so many of us, he was a complicated figure, one whose actions resulted in both good and bad, positive and negative developments for the country he ruled.