Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

So the science is in, and it looks like the bones found under a Leicester car park really were that of the late King Richard III. To the great credit of the dedicated sleuthing of his modern cheerleaders, the Richard III Society, he was exactly where they said he would be. To their great disappointment, he turned out to genuinely have a severe spinal deformity, if not exactly a hunchback, and to be rather slender, even feminine, in appearance, just as the contemporary historians (many of them Tudor propagandists) said he was. Still, it's nice to have the Middle Ages on the front page for a change.

As the Richard III Society were intimately involved in the discovery, the question of his posthumous reputation came up again, and I find this the more interesting part, since it involves history rather than archaeology. The Society seem occasionally slightly alarming in their devotion to a canny usurper and probable child murderer, and it's interesting to think about why people are so intrigued by perceived historical grievances in this way. I once shared a house with a woman who would literally rage at the historic indignities heaped on 19th century Native Americans, or Britain's actions during the Irish potato famine, but who was largely indifferent to the fate of present day Somalis or Ethiopians.

There is no doubt that Richard III was ill-served by history. Tudors (themselves usurpers) deliberately bolstered their own claim by blackening his name with that commonplace of history, victor's justice, and their accounts went unquestioned by Regency and Victoran historians who liked to pigeonhole historical figures into what '1066 And All That' parodied as Good Things and Bad Kings. Richard III was a Bad King, and that was that. Most damaging for his reputation has been that the main fictional portrayal of him in public circulation is as the Machiavel in Shakespeare's play. The Richard III Society feel this is unfair, and they have a point. But it's not a great one. Richard undoubtedly was a loyal brother while Edward was alive, but when he died he seized his chance with both hands and wasn't too fussy about what happened to those who got in the way, fabricating evidence of his brother's bigamy, ambushing and murdering his sister-in-law's family, arresting and 'disappearing' his nephews, and generally going about removing opponents with a terrible steely-eyed ruthlessness. Yes, he was surely a clever man, a competent general, a capable administrator and inspired genuine loyalty in his followers. Yes, in the 21st century we no longer regard physical disability as an exterior manifestation of a sick soul, as they did at the time. But he was no angel, and in their quest to chip away at some of the accretion of bad history, the Richard III Society have been guilty of some of their own, much of it wishful thinking. Why can't he be regarded simply as a complex individual, with positive and negative facets, like most people, historical and contemporary?

He always puts me in mind of a figure I'm more familiar with, that of King John, another flawed and complex individual, clever - sometimes too clever by half - a gifted administrator with an eye for detail, a competent, even occasionally brilliant military commander who never lost a battle at which he led, undoubtedly charismatic, calculating, but untrusting, occasionally to the point of paranoia, a careless despoiler of his nobles' wives and daughters as a kind of droit du seigneur (albeit no different from Richard I or Henry II in that regard, it must be said, or many Princes of Wales since), and with a cruel and occasionally arbitrary streak that even his admirers found hard to forgive. As with Richard III, history has judged John more harshly than his brother Richard I (who was a very similar personality), because of his expedient disposal of his nephew and rival Arthur, and because the Church (who wrote the histories) were scandalised by his defiance of the Pope. Like Richard III, John has become a Shakespearean pantomime villian, in a play that has done just as much to traduce his own reputation - it is little performed now, but in the 19th century it was one of Shakespeare's most popular. There he is portayed as weak, vaccilating and petulant, a puppet of his domineering and ambitious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is a view of him which lived on via various portrayals of Robin Hood, especially the Disney cartoon version (where is mother is replaced by a talking snake, with obvious Biblical overtones), which has done for his modern reputation very much what Shakespeare did for him among the Victorians. There is a grain of truth in it, but not much more than that.

And it always makes me wonder why Richard III has a society devoted to rescuing his reputation, but John doesn't. The country owes more to the man who reformed English justice and administration and who (albeit grudgingly, and with his fingers metaphorically crossed behind his back) signed Magna Carta, than the man who plunged the country back into a civil war it was only just recovering from. Such are the vaguaries of history, and the reason it is endlessly fascinating.


  1. Let's have this King John Lackland Appreciation Society then!

    Step 1: Facebook Page
    Step 2: Pilgrimage to Worcester
    Step 3: Well published search for the Treasure of King John (in the Wash)
    Step 3: viral on Youtube
    Step 4: International conference, BBC documentary
    Step 5: canonisation

    "Gentle kinsman, go,
    And thrust thyself into their companies:
    I have a way to win their loves again;
    Bring them before me."

  2. Haha, you're on. Funny you should mention the lost Crown Jewels (including "Excalibur" according to some accounts); I've had a mind to write something about that for a while.

  3. Here it is!