The Forgotten Art of Allegory

Much of Jonathan Swift’s seminal ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships’, or Gulliver’s Travels as it is more popularly known, is metaphor and allegory. Swift had lived through the troubles of James II’s dalliances with Catholicism, the Glorious Revolution and wrote his work during Queen Anne’s reign. He didn’t get on with Anne and was denied political and clerical advancement, spending time in Ireland where he took up the Irish cause, writing propaganda pamphlets for them.

When Gulliver extinguishes the fire in Lilliput by urinating on it, the intention may have been to refer to Tory policy, achieving a good result by bad means. The war that rages between Lilliput and Blefuscu revolves around which end of an egg should be cracked to eat it. Gulliver takes up the Lilliputian cause simply because he lands on their shores. This is surely a thinly veiled stab at the religious turmoil that still reared its head in Britain and Europe. The fighting between Catholics and Protestants over how to worship God is like arguing over which end of an egg to crack. It doesn’t matter – you still get egg. The same could apply to political feuding. The side most take is an accident of birth, simply a matter of which shore you wash up on.

Swift was drawing on a long history of allegory to make political statement indirectly. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written in 1678, almost 50 years before Gulliver’s Travels is a classic piece of allegory of the spiritual journey of man. In many classic pieces of literature commentators have seen allegory used to represent the politics of the writer’s day or to make a moral point within the vehicle of the story. The Oxford Dictionary defines allegory as ‘A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one’. It is an art that we have perhaps lost to more direct satire so that allegory passes us by as we impose our luxury of literal criticism of the establishment, political and religious, on those who wrote in a time without such indulgence.

Much of what has become the historiography of Richard III was most likely written as allegory but has been passed into culture as truth, as literal history. The moral tale is forgotten or ignored to read only what we would describe as a history, a narrative of the facts of a past that can be interpreted within the confines of their own limits. Thomas More wrote his History of King Richard III and Shakespeare his history plays at a time when written history was not what we would recognise it as today.

Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III was begun around 1513. More had first come to prominence in a parliament of Henry VII’s in 1504 when he had criticised the king’s policies. At the request of a tax of three fifteenths, More made so eloquent a speech in opposition that the tax was reduced by about two thirds. The victory for the idealistic and outspoken lawyer saw his father imprisoned in the Tower until he paid a hefty fine. Perhaps Thomas learned that he could not be so direct in his criticism of the monarch.

Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More

Amongst the first acts of Henry VIII on his accession in 1509 was the arrest and subsequent execution of Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, his father’s chief instruments of financial policy toward the end of his reign. They were unpopular and Henry thought that he would buy some instant acclaim with their blood. It was an early glimpse of a disregard for human life that suggested tyranny at the very outset of the eighteen-year-old’s rule and More perhaps envisaged his work as a piece of allegory for the king to show the dangers of tyranny and how it could cut a rule short. Richard III was an obvious personality to hang over this lesson. He had only reigned for a brief time and had been painted as something of an unpopular tyrant by the Tudor regime. More might have meant his work to be a lesson for the new king on the dangers of veering so close to tyranny so early in his rule. More’s work is littered with errors which, as I have suggested in a previous post here, may well point to its own deliberate inaccuracy.

William Shakespeare’s Richard III is similarly littered with errors, including switching the geographical locations of Stoney Stratford and Northampton in early version to have Richard ambushing Rivers rather than Rivers overshooting the meeting point and heading back without the king. Earlier in the history cycle of the Wars of the Roses, Richard is at the 1st Battle of St Albans committing dastardly murders even though he as under three years old at the time. Shakespeare may well have laid the foundations early for his masterpiece in the examination of Machiavellian plotting very early and had a very clear message for his audience that related not to the past, but to the present and very near future, as I have outlined in this previous post. Shakespeare was writing at a time of political upheaval when the succession was in doubt and the government controlled by the Cecils. Robert Cecil, son and successor to William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s lifelong councillor, was affected by kyphosis – in the unpleasant parlance if the time, he was a ‘hunchback’, just like Shakespeare’s villain.

Shakespeare Richard III First Folio

The bones that currently rest in an urn in Westminster Abbey claiming to belong to the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York are perhaps another example of allegory. The remains were unearthed during building work at the Tower of London in 1674. An anonymous writer, published three years later but naming John Knight, Charles II’s surgeon as his source, recorded;

In order to the rebuilding of the several Offices in the Tower, and to clear the White Tower from all contiguous buildings, digging down the stairs which led from the King’s Lodgings, to the chapel in the said Tower, about ten foot in the ground were found the Bones of two striplings in (as it seemed) a wooden chest, upon which the survey which found proportionable to the ages of those two Brothers viz, about thirteen and eleven years. The skull of the one being entire, the other broken, as were indeed many of the other Bones, also the Chest, by the violence of the labourers, who cast the rubbish and them away together, wherefore they were caused to sift the rubbish, and by that means preserved all the bones.

Charles II had returned the monarchy to Britain following the Civil War in 1660 and in 1674 Parliament was refusing to vote Charles funds for foreign war and religious policy so that the king was in danger of being forced to seek peace where he didn’t want it. It is worth noting that the bones were broken up and cast on a waste pile and had to be sifted out again later, meaning that they were open to contamination and no longer in the condition they were found in.

The Urn within Westminster Abbey
The Urn within Westminster Abbey

It is possible that talk of some bones thrown out of the pit had worked its way back to ears that saw an opportunity in their discovery in a location not dissimilar to that in which More had recorded them buried, though later moved from. Men were sent to pick them from the spoil and this might have been because a chance for an allegorical tale was spied. Reference to Richard III along the lines of that made by More and Shakespeare would surely serve to remind Parliament of what happened when a legitimate king was supplanted by a tyranny – for Edward V read Charles I, for Richard III see Oliver Cromwell. Charles II’s position was far from certain and as his relationship with Parliament rocked he might have feared a repeat of his father’s fate. The bones were perhaps an instrument with which he could bolster himself by reminding the country of the distant past, the far more raw and recent past and the threat he perceived to himself.

I devote the final chapter of The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy to the bones found within the Tower – not least that these are far from the only set found and not even the only set claimed to belong to the Princes. Their placement in Westminster Abbey may have served Charles II well but only cemented the reputation of King Richard III set in stone by More and Shakespeare. What if none of these pieces often used as evidence was ever meant to tell history as we would recognise it today, but only to help make a political, moral or religious point about the writer’s present? What if everything that is relied upon to condemn Richard III over centuries has been simply misunderstood and taken out of context? We have the luxury of criticising the establishment freely and openly and perhaps forget the time when to do so was to risk life and limb and allegory provided the shield with which to make those observations and complaints.

I’ve seen a fair bit of talk recently about what constitutes a Ricardian and who has the right to use that word. Examining and questioning the material to re-evaluate its meaning and stimulate a deeper investigation of the life, times and reputation of King Richard III makes a Ricardian and all should be welcome to use that name. As long as opinions are based solidly in fact, not fiction, irrespective of the conclusion each individual draws, Ricardianism should, in my opinion, be a welcoming forum for discussion.

Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions. A biography of Richard, Duke of York, father of Edward IV and Richard III is due for release in April 2016.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and Facebook at

8 thoughts on “The Forgotten Art of Allegory

  1. Charles II hid his Catholicism for nearly his entire reign. His bias was such that he wanted to believe the rumours Sir Thomas More heard were more factual and accurate than the stories Tacitus repeated to posterity about Nero. Debris from several layers entered the mound, perhaps the chicken bones could have been Roman, but the buttons and pieces of fabric looked mediaeval. Sir Isaac Newton may have been one of the “experts” consulted who passed around the bones of the two lads. The star well is adjacent to or underneath the Norman chapel. Michael Woods in one of his earlier TV programs explains why niches in walls that are inside the older Saxon mortuaries are not big enough to hold a regular sized coffin! People who were buried after a decent interval would have their bones dug up, sometimes washed and placed in a small reliquary box, which then goes in the niche. Winchester Cathedral has much larger boxes like this, so if a reliquary box is being buried under the Tower stairwell loosely before A.D 1550 (and many of the the Reformation’s religious wars!) but after the Norman Conquest, we might be seeing evidence for a Saxon custom continuing on into Norman times. Were the two lads Plantagenets, and was there a moral crisis for Catholic priests who were witnessing what they considered to be the worst sort of vandalism? Was the box buried when there was a regime change? Henry VIII triggered major changes! If the two lads were buried somewhere, and date from the 1300s or 1400s, they may have been reburied at about the time More’s RIII manuscript finds a printer!

  2. I always swear that I won’t post any more on WordPress,but somebody also nearly always urges me to do so.The most often it is Matt.Our way of thinking shows many similarities, but those are the differences that urge me to take action.Now I put here what I have kept back for long,and what’s going to be on my website I’ll publish on Wix,because I don’t want a blog.
    Matt mentions here Swift.Of course,he has to do with our subject.But not only because Gulliver is also a satire.No.What I kept back and the major reason why I hate the social media,and I don’t want a blog,is this.Swift and Darwin are the two most important sources to understand what happened to Richard.Read the third part of Gulliver, where he talks to the dead.There’s the truth. That’s the human species.Just a pack animal,following the cruel laws of the material world,which later Darwin discovered.If a villain becomes a pack leader no matter by what means,they follow and support him,always ready to give another kick to the defeated hero.
    Gulliver’s Travels,Third Part. on my website I go into details about all this.In my already finished book I also mention that not Richard’s assessment should be changed,but that of the whole society,that to support its immoral establishment,misinterprets even great artistic and literary works.In most countries this is EVEN worse than in England.England should be glad of its Ricardian tradition.It is something that raises people above this mentioned ‘Darwinist’,mean instinct. It must be added that other sentient creatures also have something in them that raises them above the level of the base rules of nature.An altruist dog,a cat with a sixth sense etc.This has to do with the hopefully true duality of body and soul.
    But from the Ricardian point of view it is hopeless to understand anything if we don’t take into consideration that the behaviour of the establishment and the Tudor ‘party’has been motivated by this instinct mocked by Swift and described by Darwin as the basic rule of the material world.

  3. Having to struggle with a tablet,that yesterday,for instance,changed the word ‘Wix’into Six three times,and three times I had to get back and correct it,my posts are not what they should be.And this has to do with the essence of what I mean.No,Matt,no.Neither Britain,nor any other European country is what the brainwashed public thinks they are.A monarchy is never a real democracy. It’s another tragedy that in most parts of the world republics aren’t either.Because the mentioned brainwashed public offers itself to be manipulated. Brainwashing,manipulation,lies may be softer methods than beheadings and other methods of physical terror,but they are even more dangerous.And the victims of these seemingly softer methods are the really maverick free thinkers.The masses who only have the primitive instict of survival,are happy,but the really independent freethinkers sink into poverty and dispair. You don’t criticise the present monarchs freely,there is always a limit, sometimes it is self-censorship.They have everything their way after all.In my book I mention that Richard should be the hero of the British republicans.He was the victim of this bad system.And who spoke so freely and openly about the present queen’s role at the time of Richard’s so-called reinterment?The public swallowed the lies about it being a reinterment and not a funeral,but it was clearly just another lie.She didn’t want to give him a proper state funeral,that was the truth.The same queen who doesn’t authorise the tests of the bones of Richard’s supposed nephews.Who critised her because of this ,as she would deserve to be critised?Brainwashed halfwits insulted Richard instead that he didn’t deserve even this reburial, because he was ‘a child-killer’.The brainwashed halfwits don’t notice that even if he had ordered the killing of the boys,he would still have been a much better person than the villains who have their chapels in Westminster.
    Britain is a pseudo democracy so it’s a little better than most countries, but while it’s a monarchy,there is very strong brainwashing,which is milder but more dangerous than open terror.

  4. As some of you very nicely asked about my new writings,I ask you to visit my website richardiiiandallill-treated. simple
    It’s Simple Site after all,not Six.

  5. Thank you.It’s as provocative as my recent posts here.But I’m sure by now that these wider connections and inferences are the essential, not the minor factual details.

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