Thursday 11 June 2009

Richard III, the English Macbeth

Given the ruthless politics of the day no usurper, no matter how wide his base of support, was content to allow a rival source of authority and legitimacy to live, which would have been a dangerous political miscalculation. It cannot be proved with certainty that Mortimer and Isabella ordered the murder of Edward II, just as it cannot be proved that Henry IV ordered the death of Richard II; but murdered they were and for obvious political reasons, as was Henry VI.

Now, as far as Richard III and his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, are concerned we have no direct evidence that he ordered their murder, and we are unlikely ever to have such evidence. But to assume that he allowed them to live would reverse all we know about the dynastic politics of the day. No serious historian of the period has any doubts that, on the balance of probability, he ordered their deaths. To argue, as the Ricardians do, that they survived into the reign of Henry VII, in dark obscurity, is to stretch what is credible to breaking point, and beyond.

What I can say-and those of you familiar with the Close Rolls, Pipe Rolls and Exchequer Rolls will understand this point-is that English records contain an amazing amount of detail on financial grants, wardship, maintenance allowances, even laundry bills and the like, often for some of the most obscure individuals.

For important state prisoners, like Edward and Richard of York, the detail is especially fulsome. The little Princes are there in abundance until the summer of 1483, when all mention of them ends. As far as the official records are concerned they had, by this time, ceased to exist. If they ceased to exist in record there is no surer guarantee that they had ceased to exist in fact. They were dead.

But, even so, I do not think that Richard was as bad a king, and as dark a tyrant, as made out by Sir Thomas More and his Tudor contemporaries. As Duke of Gloucester he had been an able lieutenant to his brother Edward IV; an able soldier, an able administrator and an able judge. He went on to be an able king, ruthless, yes, but no more so than any other monarch of the day. But, save for the circumstances of his coming, and of his going, his short reign is one of the least memorable in all of English history. It is almost certain that if it had not been for the hunchback villain created by Shakespeare that his reign would be little more than a footnote in the general record, of concern only to specialists. But as the dark monster-or the maligned hero-he will live for ever in the popular imagination.

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