Good King Richard

The publicity for Intiman Theater's production of Shakespeare's "Richard III," naming him as a tyrant, caused quite a stir with the local Richard III Society, resulting in this letter from Jonathan Hayes, their president and a longtime Magnolia resident:

"I note that Intiman will be producing Shakespeare's "Richard III." It's certainly great theater - his Richard must be close to the top of the list of villains we love to hate - but it is also, of course, lousy history.

Given his main source, Thomas Moore's 'History of the Reign of Richard III,' and the political climate of the Elizabethan England, it's probably inevitable that the play would be a piece of agitprop political propaganda aimed to support the repressive Tudor police state by smearing its predecessor. The party line was, "Look at the vicious tyranny we in the wonderful Tudor dynasty rescued you from." The Tudors were masters of public relations, and though they did not hesitate to use the iron fist when they felt it necessary, they did prefer the velvet glove approach.

Richard, however, was very far from being a tyrant. It is sad that his reign was so short, as he was one of the medieval period's better kings. The parliament called during his reign enacted legislation strengthening property law, reforming the justice system (including starting the practice of bail for accused persons) and prohibiting "benevolences" - a form of arbitrary tax initiated during Edward IV's reign. He was the first king to have all laws written in English rather than Latin or Norman French as had been the practice before. His claim to the throne was passed unanimously by both houses of parliament. All copies of this were later ordered to be destroyed without reading by Henry VII. Does one wonder why? It's only a lucky historical accident that one survived.

After Richard's death at Bosworth, the council records of the City of York read " was piteously slane and murdered to the grete heaviness of this citie." Hardly the epitaph of one supposedly thought to be a tyrant. And under the circumstances, a brave statement to make.

What are the facts? Shakespeare presents Richard as a misshapen hunchback with a withered arm. This is ridiculous on the face of it. Richard's entire career prior to his becoming king was military - in an age when generals fought in the front line (he was wounded at Barnet). Polypore Vergil reports that in Richard's last charge at Bosworth he person-ally unhorsed Sir John Cheney, the biggest knight in England, and killed William Brandon, Henry Tudor's standard bearer - an impossibility if he had been physically impaired in any way.

No contemporary of Richard's describes him as physically impaired - and in an age before photography, diplomats would routinely describe the physical characteristics of the rulers they were dealing with in their reports.

Shakespeare makes Richard the cause of Clarence's death. In reality, Clarence was convicted of high treason by his brother, King Edward IV; there is no implication in any contemporary record that Richard was involved at all. (Mancini believed that Richard was deeply grieved and that Clarence's death had been engineered by the Queen and her Woodville relatives.)

Richard is portrayed as having killed both Warwick and Anne's husband, the son of Henry VI, Prince Edward. Hardly likely in the case of Warwick, and untrue in the case of Prince Edward.

Richard commanded the right wing at Barnet and was wounded. Since Warwick commanded the center of his army and was killed in the subsequent rout, it is most unlikely that Richard was ever anywhere near him.

At Tewkesbury, Richard commanded the left wing. Prince Edward was in the center of the Lancastrian forces opposite King Edward IV and Clarence. Contemporary sources state that Prince Edward was killed by Clarence's men on the field of battle.

Shakespeare portrays Richard wooing Anne over Prince Edward's corpse. The reality is much more romantic.

Anne was Warwick's daughter and Richard's cousin (they required a papal dispensation to marry) and, as Richard had been brought up in Warwick's household, they had known each other from childhood. Anne, with her sister Isabel (married to Clarence), was also heiress to the great Warwick inheritance by keeping Anne as far from Richard as possible. Love (and let's face it: the Warwick estates probably also had something to do with it) conquered, and Richard found her disguised as a scullery maid in Clarence's kitchens. All indications are that the marriage was very happy; he seems to have been faithful to her, unusual for the period. She probably died of tuberculosis; no one then or until well into Tudor times ever considered he might have caused her death.

He vehemently denied at the time any intention of marrying his niece. It would have been a foolish thing to do anyway as Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate. In fact, he was in negotiations for marriage to a Portuguese princess at the time of his death - a much more suitable and logical match.

Richard is also supposed to be the murderer of King Henry VI. Our best guess is that Henry died on either May 23 or 24, 1471 - when Richard was not in London. Whoever did the actual wizand-slitting, we can be confident it was done on King Edward IV's orders.

The one "crime" that everyone remembers, of course, is the Princes in the Tower. I have to state I don't know what happened to them and nobody else does either. There is no evidence that they were murdered by anyone, let alone by Richard. There is a brief reference to them in the Great Chronicle of London as having been seen practicing archery in the Tower in the summer or early fall of 1483. After that, silence. The bones of two children were found buried in the tower in 1674. In 1678, King Charles II had some bones - presumably the same bones - buried in Westminster Abbey as being those of the two Princes. The bones were exhumed in 1933, examined and declared to be of children of the right age. Neither sex nor century of death could be determined. Expert knowledge has progressed since then, and the conclusions are now disputed.

If they were killed, it is possible, of course, that was done on Richard's orders. Again, if there was a crime, other suspects include Buckingham and Henry VII. While certainly Henry had a stronger motive than Richard, it is my personal belief (total supposition on my part) that Henry himself never was able to find out what happened to the Princes. And if he couldn't find out what happened to them, with all the resources at his disposal, it's unlikely we ever will. People just can't stand unsolved mysteries, however. They have to have an answer even if it can't be supported.

While there are many other historical inaccuracies, such as the claim that Henry Tudor killed Richard, some of which can be excused on the grounds of being good theater, there's one other I find a bit amusing. Shakespeare refers to Henry Tudor as "Richmond." In fact, Henry Tudor's uncle Jasper had forfeited the title Earl of Richmond when he was attainted in 1471. Edward IV then granted that title to his brother, Richard. The real Earl of Richmond at Bosworth was King Richard III.

Everybody loves a good villain, and "Richard III" is a true masterpiece of Shakespeare's. But it should never be forgotten that it achieves its greatness through the unjust demonizing of one of England's better monarchs in order to give support to the reigns of the tyrants that followed."

Jonathan A. Hayes

The Richard III Society was founded in England in 1924, as the Fellowship of the White Boar, by S. Saxon Barton, OBE, a surgeon with antiquarian interests. In 1956 this small but vocal body was reconstituted with a wider membership under the less romantic title of the Richard III Society, and revisionists began to call themselves Ricardians. In 1960 it came to the United States; with headquarters in New York, it now has branches all over the country, including Seattle.

Jonathan Hayes' involvement goes back to the 1970s when he was stationed in England with the Air Force. He spent two-and-a-half years living in a thatched cottage that had been built of ship timbers in 1588 - the year the Armada sailed - which encouraged him to become expert in English medieval history and customs.

The Seattle chapter meets five times a year in different members' homes. There is usually an interesting presentation pertaining to medieval history, but to quote Jonathan, "we're not a bunch of dry scholarly types reading heavily footnoted treatises."

If interested in further reading on Richard III, I recommend Catherine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" (1951), Paul Murray Kendall's "Richard III" (1955) and "Good King Richard," published in 1983 for his 500th anniversary by Jeremy Potter, president of the British Richard III Society.

So enjoy the play at Intiman (through July 15); I understand it's a great production, with costumes and sets of the period. "Richard III" is great theater, but English history it's not. If you need further information, give me a call.


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