by Dr Lesley Boatwright MBE *
Dr Lesley Boatwright MBEThe Society's mission statement, printed in every issue of The Ricardian, is as follows: 'In the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote in every possible way research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period, and of the role in English history of this monarch.
Such a reassessment has, in fact, been in progress for centuries – 'As soon as the Tudors were gone and it was safe to talk', says Brent Carradine in The Daughter of Time. Sir George Buck, Master of the Revels to James I, began the process. He was followed by such diverse writers as Horace Walpole, Sharon Turner, Caroline Halsted and Sir Clements Markham.
In 1951 came Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, in which the rehabilitation of Richard III is set in the context of a modern detective story, leading us through all the improbable crimes attributed to Richard and dismissing them as calumnies, and unfair calumnies at that. Four years later, Paul Murray Kendall published his Richard III, a well-researched biography that went somewhat beyond the limits of documentary evidence into the realms of sensitive and imaginative sympathy with its subject.
The 1950s were a crucial decade for the reputation of Richard III. As well as the publication of those two important books, it also saw the re-founding of the Richard III Society in 1956. The Society had previously existed as the Fellowship of the White Boar, a group of antiquarians, novelists, and their friends, founded by a Liverpool surgeon, S. Saxon Barton, in 1924. With the change of name came perhaps a greater gravitas and a more militant missionary approach.The fact that Richard III may not have been as black as he had been painted began to seep into the national consciousness.
Fifty years after the re-founding of the Society, has the hoped-for reassessment been secured? Certainly much progress has been made, but we cannot yet rest on our laurels.
In his book The Three Richards (2005), Nigel Saul comments, 'Just when Richard [III] appeared to have scored a posthumous triumph over his opponents, the pendulum began to swing back. A reaction set in, and the king's critics found themselves triumphing in argument again.' Saul attributes this to a new interest in the sources for the reign. Alison Hanham had shown that criticism of Richard ante-dated the Tudor period, pointing to the Crowland Chronicle and the work of Domenico Mancini, discovered in 1934. Saul says, 'In the last few years the battle for Richard's reputation has accordingly gone full circle. After a period when Richard's defenders were firmly in the ascendant, opinion has swung back to roughly where it was.'
The trouble with reassessments is that they can go round in circles, and a reassessment may be reassessed. Sometimes work needs to be done all over again. If what Saul says is true, it is very depressing. But is it true? And what aspects of Richard's reputation are meant? The full Tudor package?
Some historians still maintain that Richard was probably guilty of the most serious charge, the killing of his nephews. Professor John Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses (2001), says, 'Inevitably it was rumoured that the princes were already dead and Richard's failure to put them on parade in order to scotch a story so damaging to his shaky reputation is a clear indication of the truth of the rumour.' Professor Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown (2005), states categorically that as Buckingham went to Westminster Hall on 26 June the princes were being murdered in the Tower (but Colin Richmond, in his TLS review, called her two pages on the period between Edward IV's death and Richard's coronation in July 'a tissue of nonsense'). 'There can be little doubt,' says Nigel Saul, 'that Richard planned to dispose of the princes sooner rather than later'. Rosemary Horrox, Richard III, A Study of Service (1989), speaks of Richard's 'putative murder of his nephews', seeing Buckingham's rebellion as 'the most plausible context' for this: 'the princes appear to conform to the pattern established by earlier deposed kings, who remained alive until a rebellion in their favour demonstrated that they were still a threat'.
On the other hand, Sean Cunningham, who wrote the book on Richard III in the series on English Monarchs published by The National Archives (2003) is less adamant, saying 'it must be accepted that Richard removed from power a child whom it was his sworn duty to protect ... this is the fact about Richard's reign that is hardest to dismiss.' This is not an imputation of murder. He points to the 'forceful campaign' waged by the Richard III Society against the Shakespearian view of the matter and adds, 'Most academics, too, have moved to a more moderate position'.
This is true. Academic historians, by and large, now do not repeat the many other accusations against Richard found in the Tudor writers, the full Thomas More treatment. To that extent, the Society's campaigns have succeeded. Most historians also use rather more circumspect language when it comes to the Princes: 'putative murder'. These are excellent developments. But there is still a long way to go. No historian (that I know of) has produced a narrative in which Richard could not 'scotch the story' that damaged his reputation because he simply did not know what happened to the Princes, yet this is just as plausible as the theory that he murdered them.
Nowadays, too, the terms of the debate are shifting somewhat. It is not so much about Richard III as about the period of Richard III. As Sean Cunningham says, 'Richard has been put back into the context of an aggressive society riven by feuding over land and influence.' Sharon Turner in the nineteenth century had already set Richard against the background of his violent times, saying, '[he] did not live in an age of modern moral sensibility'. Moreover, the more interesting debates are now following Paul Murray Kendall into the more sensitive and imaginative regions, and asking, not 'Did Richard III have the Princes killed?' but 'What was it like to be Richard III?' Was he, or would he have been, given longer on the throne, a 'good king'? – and what is a good king anyway?
This is a development very much to be welcomed. 'No man is an island' – even a king must be seen and assessed in the context of his times. Research into any aspect of the later fifteenth century will shed its own light. The Richard III Society actively promotes such research.
Serious historical debate may well take itself round in circles, be enthused with the discovery of new documents, take colouring from the ethos of its own age. That is the way the historical process of looking at history works. There is another dimension to the reassessment of Richard III, the amazingly strong attraction of the Unsolved Mystery. Constant interest is shown in the major mysteries of the past, both distant and immediate, both Whodunnit and What Was Done. The 'Mystery of the Princes in the Tower' takes its place with other classic conundrums, such as Who was Jack the Ripper? What happened to the Marie Celeste? Who killed Kennedy – a lone gunman or a conspiracy? Did anyone kill Marilyn Monroe? Where is Lord Lucan? People like to come up with a new theory about one of these eternal teasers and write a nice, fat paperback about it. Yet the nice, fat paperback may be based on a wild, reputation-destroying speculation: current theories about Jack the Ripper bring in the royal family and a major Victorian artist. Moreover, the fashion today, arising perhaps from the many police dramas on television, where too much mystery would confuse the viewers, is for the prime suspect often to be the guilty party. The days of the Least Likely Person as the murderer went out with Agatha Christie. And so Richard, the prime suspect, is again seen as guilty.
What was the full Thomas More treatment, that still seems to be current in some quarters? Let us look at the dossier that has been built up against Richard III:
A lot of people still accept the whole eight-point package. Why? There seem to be three kinds of people who do so:
It is the general public who still go along with the full anti-Richard package. Why?
Perhaps, two words: William Shakespeare.
A work of art generates its own momentum. Art gives shape to themes and bullies facts into submission. When facts get in the way of art, it is the facts which lose credibility. Shakespeare's Richard III is a brilliant play, a shapely surge of satisfying wordcraft – but it is not history. I love Shakespeare's play Richard III. I love the Richard depicted in it. I love the villain who turns and winks at me at intervals as he sets about his villainy. But he is not the Richard III I recognise as a historical figure. When I first joined the Richard III Society, someone told me he thought that the play should be known as Derek IV – it does not depict the real Richard, so could be about anybody. There have been other attempts to pervert history in the same way (do you remember MacBird? – suggesting that President Johnson connived at the killing of Kennedy?) – but Shakespeare was an eternal genius, and his play has entered the all-time repertoire, and so Richard's posthumous reputation is in the hands of the theatre as President Johnson's never was. So the Richard III Society is needed to say, 'Yes, it's a wonderful play, but it isn't history'. We are not here to belittle Shakespeare, simply to say, 'he shaped Richard in the image of a villain because it was good theatre – now go away and look at the facts'.
While people still take their historical stance from William Shakespeare, there is a major role for the Richard III Society.
It is probably true to say that most members of the Society joined because their imagination was caught. At the 2005 AGM a show of hands indicated that most people present had joined after reading The Daughter of Time, a book which has as its theme the unfair treatment of Richard's reputation through the ages. It seems therefore that a major motive for joining the Society is a sense that Richard III has been unfairly treated by posterity.
A sense of fair play is very deep-seated. One of the most enduring legacies from childhood is the sense that things ought to be fair. A heartfelt cry of 'It's not fair!' is the child's first line of defence against the world. As we grow up, we soon realise that society is not fair, but still cry out against this. Writing of the Royal Navy in Nelson's time, Jack Nastyface was not bothered about the fact that sailors were flogged, but he objected because flogging was unfairly imposed. No poll tax has ever been successful: the system is perceived to be unfair. People may select aspects of unfairness to mind most about, and actively work to defeat those they judge important, or within their power to do something about. Several thousand people across the world think that the unfair treatment of Richard III's reputation is worth protesting about.
The Richard III Society, above all, wants to set the record straight. 'Great is truth, and it shall prevail,' (from the Apocrypha). As our Chairman, Phil Stone, always says, we are not the Richard III Adoration Society. We are a society of people who prefer that history should be based on ascertained facts rather than on intuition, propaganda and spin. We are not even Counsel for the Defence, whose job is to set a client's case in the best possible light even if it means setting uncomfortable facts on one side.
We want to strip away the spin, the unfair innuendo, Tudor artistic shaping and the lazy acquiescence of later ages, and get at the truth.
This paper was written by the late Dr Lesley Boatwright in 2005. Undoubtedly the 'eight-point' package will be re-examined in view of the results of the Greyfriars Dig. The Society will continue with its mission statement to secure a reassessment.