IN 1485 on Bosworth Field the battle axes of August
put an end to Richard III's brief reign--at two years the shortest for any English monarch who achieved the throne as an adult. After Richard died, the crown he had worn into battle was placed on the head of the victorious Earl of Richmond, who thus became Henry VII, ushering in the Tudor line which would hold until the demise of the Virgin Queen. Richard's corpse, stripped and flung across a horse, was exhibited for two days in a Franciscan friary in Leicester to prove that the tyrant was indeed dead, before being laid to rest without stone or epitaph. In time his coffin--belatedly supplied--became a horse trough outside an inn. That too disappeared, leaving Richard the only English sovereign since 1066, with the questionable exception of Edward V, not to have his remains enshrined in a suitable royal sepulchre. Little wonder; Richard became, as Charles Ross remarks in his splendid addition to the English Monarchs series, "the most persistently denigrated of all English kings."
He has fascinated posterity with equal persistence, a circumstance with which Shakespeare has had much to do. His Richard III, always popular, has attracted a succession of great actors including, in our own day, Laurence Oliver, whose often revived 1956 film has been enjoyed by millions. Never mind that the play's other characters refer to Richard as a crookback, hedgehog, "lump of foul deformity," or bottled toad or spider. He is cleverer than they, and complicates response by making us his confidants.
As Ross' introductory chapter surveying the fact and fiction of Richard's historical reputation makes clear, Shakespeare's hero-villain was no mere figment of the dramatic imagination, but followed a whole century of bad-mouthing. The Warwickshire antiquary John Rous (d. 1491), for example, tells us that this king was born with teeth and shoulder-length hair after a two-year confinement in his mother's womb. Doubts have been expressed about this report. Sir Thomas More wrote a notable--and notably hostile--account in his History of King Richard III, which Shakespeare knew either firsthand or, more likely, through the Chronicles of Hall and Holinshed (who helped themselves to More). By elaborating upon a view of Richard already current, these spokesmen promoted the Tudor myth of the recent past, a myth that served the propaganda imperatives of the new dispensation. Richard had become evil incarnate, while Henry Tudor was virtue personified, or (in Edward Hall's words) "more an angelical creature than a terrestrial personage."
Eventually, late in the last century, a reaction came, as Richard found champions who reversed the elemental blacks and whites of the early commentators. Henry was now the detestable villain, Richard the epitome of British pluck. X-ray examination of a frequently copied early portrait disclosed that Richard's straight shoulder line had been painted over to suggest deformity. On both sides of the ocean societies were formed to rehabilitate Richard's name. In this country the Friends of Richard III included Tallulah Bankhead and Helen Hayes as founding members.
The professional historian has, as his delicate task, to steer an impartial course between calumniators and apologists, and by laborious sifting of the evidence, to arrive at a closer approximation of the truth about Richard's reign than has been hitherto available. For this endeavor Ross is admirably qualified. Professor of medieval history at the University of Bristol, he is the author of the well-received Edward IV for the same English Monarchs series, and of The Wars of the Roses, as well as a number of learned papers on 15th-century England.
Whatconclusions does Ross arrive at? In Henry VI, Part III (recently revived with much success by the Royal Shakespeare Company) the playwright has made "misshapen Dick" one of the slaughterers at Tewkesbury of captured Prince Edward--Henry's heir--while his horrified mother stands helplessly by. Later Richard stabs to death the king himself in the Tower of London. Not guilty on both counts is Ross' verdict: Prince Edward died in battle, and the decision to do away with Henry must have been made personally by Edward IV. To what extent Richard figured in the overthrow and elimination of brother Clarence remains debatable, but again the king bore ultimate responsibility, although Clarence may indeed, as in Richard III, have met his end by being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Insufficient too is the evidence that Richard procured the death of his queen in order to marry--incestuously--his niece Elizabeth of York, and thereby deflect the dynastic aspirations of Henry Tudor. In his march to power Richard did, however, ruthlessly rid himself of such potential impediments as the moderate, upstanding Lord Hastings, accused of treason on trumped up charges, seized in the council chamber at a signal from Richard, and summarily executed without even the semblance of a trial.
But the most notorious of Richard's alleged crimes was the murder of Edward's two young sons in the Tower, to which Ross devotes a whole chapter. During the summer of 1483 the boys were seen playing in the Tower gardens, and again, later, after they had been withdrawn into an inner apartment. Then they were seen no more. Long afterwards bones turned up, first in 1647, in a walled-up room where they had been presumably left to die in a peculiarly Poe-like refinement of murder for which there is no 15th-century precedent. Other human bones surfaced in 1674, and, after being declared to belong to Edward V, were ceremonially reinterred in Westminster Abbey. Ross, who has consulted medical and dental experts (the tomb was opened in 1933), thinks that the latter remains indeed likely belonged to the princes and that Richard perpetrated the crimes. Usurpers perforce did away with the kings they had deposed lest they became the focus for subsequent rebellion. Thus the realities of political power dictated.
As befitted royalty, Richard indulged his tastes for splendor and finery; for music too, and the manly sport of hawking. In battle he fought valorously. He won praise for his building projects. The law fascinated him, and he was an early proponent of legal aid for the underprivileged. His only parliament did away, although not for all time, with the arbitrary exactions known as benevolences. Greedy and self-serving, Richard yet gave generously to Cambridge colleges, and to chapels, parish churches, and religious houses, besides founding numerous chantries; for he saw himself as a truly religious man. His personal library included a Book of Hours with a private prayer, full of anxiety, by Richard himself, asking Christ to defend him from evil and free him from tribulations. In these contradictions, no less than in the high drama of his career, resides the perennial fascination of this not, in the last resort, wholly atypical product of a ruthless and violent age.
Ross' prose isn't stylish, perhaps, but it is always lucid and readable, and he happily spares readers the purple excesses and grinding of axes that the subject has too readily invited.
Linda Simon's heroine in Of Virtue Rare, Henry Tudor's mother, turns up naturally enough in Ross' pages, where she is characterized as "active and intriguing." Her piety impresses Simon, and Margaret's strength, determination, and uncompromising standards for this author prefigure her great granddaughter Elizabeth I. The dust wrapper blurb boasts that the book is the first full biography of the subject. That is no doubt true, but not enough is known about her to fill a proper biography. So Simon, best known for her lives of Thornton Wilder and Alice B. Toklas, devotes pages of her slender volume to Joan of Arc, and other interesting --if familiar--matter which don't tell us much about Beaufort. She also quotes poetry mostly in ye olde quainte spelling. There is much unverified--and unverifiable--embroidery. "The pain (of labor) was frightening, but the midwives' comfort and encouragement alleviated some of the fear"; and so on, for several paragraphs behind which lie, as the notes acknowledge, Beryl Rowland's Medieval Women's Guide to Health and Harvey Graham's Eternal Eve: The History of Gynaecology and Obstetrics. All harmless enough; Simon no doubt found her researches rewarding. Whether readers will find them equally so is another matter. I did like one inadvertently risible touch, though. Simon tells how, when Owen Tudor--Margaret's former father-in-law--was executed and his head displayed in accordance with the barbaric custom of the age, on the market cross, a woman each day combed his hair and washed his face and circled it with lighted candles. "Even in death," Simon triumphantly concludes, "Owen Tudor lost none of his charm."