The 2nd October 2013 marks the 561st anniversary of the birth of one of England’s most controversial monarchs, King Richard III.
On the throne for just 2 years, he has spent more than half a millennium dividing opinion and is still doing just that today, perhaps more than ever. With a judicial review of the decision to reinter his remains at Leicester Cathedral due to take place on 26th November, I wonder what King Richard might make of all of the controversy surrounding him on his birthday.
Do you know what?
I think he’d quite like it.
Richard, as Duke of Gloucester and as king, was no stranger to controversy and can often be found courting it. The first glimpse of this can be seen in his dealing with the feud between the Stanley and Harrington families. I have written a separate blog about this dispute entitled ‘Hornby Castle – The Price of Power’ so I won’t go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that Richard took a side and made it very clear that he was doing so. When Lord Stanley sought to blast the Harringtons out of Hornby Castle with his immense canon Mile Ende, the 17 year old Richard can be found issuing a warrant on 26th March 1470 signed ‘at Hornby’. He had clearly placed himself in the way of Stanley’s ambitions to defend a family I think he viewed as far more loyal and more deserving of his brother the king’s rewards.
When the Earl of Warwick rebelled, Edward IV was forced into exile in Burgundy. He boarded a ship at Lynn on the Norfolk coast for an uncertain future. With him, amongst others, was his youngest brother Richard. The date that they took ship is recorded as 2nd October 1470. Richard’s 18th birthday. I don’t think that he would have hesitated a moment to sail with his brother though it seems likely his mentor Warwick and the brother to whom he was probably much closer, George, were on the other side and staying may have seemed an easy option at the time.
When Edward IV invaded France in 1475 there was no fighting. Edward signed Louis XI’s Treaty of Picquigny which effectively bought off the English king and his nobles with hefty bribes, termed pensions by Edward, who was keen to put a positive spin on the campaign. A few dissented from the Treaty. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was amongst them. Louis had a private interview with Richard before he left France and gave him gifts. He doubtless used the opportunity to measure this intractable young man. What did he find? When Edward had been keen to accept Louis peace terms, Richard argued that, in spite of Burgundy’s failure to provide the promised aid, they had enough of an army to defeat the French in the field. Then, if he still wished, Edward could negotiate a better peace from a position of power and return to England having achieved martial glory. I suspect Louis, The Universal Spider King, found a man willing, even keen, to fight for what he believed in. Fiercely loyal to his friends and prone to seeing things in black and white, right and wrong, with no room for shading or half measures.
1482 saw Richard handed command of a campaign against Scotland that Edward IV lacked the drive to pursue personally. As well as retaking the strategically vital border town of Berwick for the final time, the campaign saw Richard marching his army all the way to Edinburgh without the loss of a single man. This was in part due to the meltdown of Scottish internal politics, but Richard gave orders that his men were not to sack the city and so it was. He controlled his army so completely that there was no looting or unruly behaviour whilst he occupied Edinburgh before withdrawing to England having achieved his aim. Edward IV wrote to Pope Sixtus IV after this Scottish campaign with unrestrained praise for his brother; ‘Thank God, the giver of all good gifts, for the support received from our most loving brother, whose success is so proven that he alone would suffice to chastise the whole kingdom of Scotland. This year we appointed our very dear brother Richard Duke of Gloucester to command the same army which we ourselves intended to have led last year, had not adverse turmoil hindered us.’ Of Richard’s control and mercy, Edward wrote; ‘The noble band of victors, however, spared the supplicant and prostrate citizens, the churches, and not only the widows, orphans, and minors, but all persons found there unarmed.’ The temptation, and the popular choice, would surely have been to allow his men to run riot in Edinburgh in vengeance for years of border raids to enrich themselves and blow off steam, but Richard opted for honour and strict control instead.
In 1483 Richard acted (rightly or wrongly) decisively and definitively when he took the throne. If he truly believed his nephews were technically illegitimate, then that left no option but for him to take the throne. If he really feared a Woodville takeover to his own exclusion, then he felt that left him no option but to seize power, and so he did it. If it was the opportunity he had awaited for so long then he grabbed it with both hands and would not let go. The easy option? Well, that might have been to dissolve back into the north and defend his power base, from his power base, and hope for the best. Taking the throne, whatever the real reason he did it, was not the easy option.
Then, of course, there is the greatest controversy that surrounds his name, even to this day. What to do with his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. The rebellion at the end of the summer of 1483 involving the Duke of Buckingham surely provided Richard with the perfect opportunity, if he wished the boys dead, to blame Buckingham, mourn them and move on. He could join the nation in sorrow, even apologise that he had failed to protect them from a snake in the bedchamber and the problem would be over with. He would know what was coming in terms of a public outpouring of sorrow and would be able to manage it. This was not the path that King Richard chose. Silence was far from the easy option. It allowed rumour to ferment and grow. Uncertainty was no friend to a mediaeval king. Why,then, did King Richard choose silence? Was it because he didn’t see why he should explain himself? Or perhaps because there was no murder to report and he simply wanted the boys to melt into forgotten obscurity; safe, but no threat. But that’s a whole different story!
It certainly was not the case that Richard was in the habit of keeping silent on big issues. When rumours began to grow at the beginning of 1485, as his wife of over ten years suffered from failing health, that he was poisoning her to speed her to her grave so that he could marry his (now legally illegitimate) niece, Richard did not hold his tongue. After taking the advice of Sir William Catesby and Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the king addressed the great and good of London to deny the foul rumour that he was causing the death of his wife. The easy road at such an emotionally fraught time might have been to ignore the nonsense and hope it went away. Richard chose rather to confront the matter head on and set the record straight.
Richard was not a man to shy away from controversy or confrontation.
Bosworth is the perfect, tragic demonstration of that. When Richard heard of Tudor’s landing whilst at Nottingham he was supposedly elated and keen to march on the impudent invader immediately. Some have attributed this reaction to a nervous overcompensation but I think that this is to apply hindsight to the matter. Richard would surely have been confident that he would win. Why mess about? Let’s get it over and done with now!
On the field at Bosworth, Richard led the famous, thundering charge of his household knights across the battlefield to attack Tudor himself. It is understood that Richard saw a chance to end the matter once and for all. No prolonged chase. No fleeing and regrouping for either side. It would end that morning, one way or another. We know how it did end, but this is a final demonstration of his willingness to confront issues head on, to throw himself in the way of harm for what he believed in and not to take the easy path. At the very end, offered the chance to escape the field on a horse a squire offered, Richard refused to be chased away. He refused to cower. He refused to back down from the fight. He stood, prepared to die, his spirit unbroken even as his body was crushed.
The arguments over his final resting place rumble on with no sign of diminishing in passion. E-petitions are closing with large numbers signing to show their adherence. Some are becoming increasingly vehement and angry as they fight for his bones. Most seem to feel it is a real shame that it has descended into such an undignified tug of war over the mortal remains of an anointed King of England. I thought that too. Then I thought something else.
Now, on the 561st anniversary of his birth at Fotheringhay Castle, 550 years after his time at Middleham in the Earl of Warwick’s household, 541 years after the founding of the Council of the North which he ran for his brother from Middleham for a decade, 528 years after his death at Bosworth, hasty burial at Greyfriars, Leicester and York’s recording that “King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us…was piteously slain and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie”, 1 year after his bones were dug up and examined, I have one question.
What would Richard make of all the controversy surrounding him?
I think he would smile to himself.
I think that he would think it was right and proper for people to fight for what they want and believe in (within the bounds of acceptable modern behaviour – no dragging canons the length of the country please!).
I think he would be quite pleased that over half a millennium after his death people are still talking about him.
To all sides, to Leicester, to York, to those who want to press their point, to those who think we should show more dignity, to all who love him and to those who hate him, I think he would say:
“Stand strong and true for that which you believe in. Do not be silenced.”
And I don’t think he would hesitate a moment to tell us where he really believes he should be buried.
Which is, of course, …………
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.