There is a glut of articles saturating the press at the moment posing some pretty unpleasant questions about Richard III. Maybe it’s time for some answers. We are constantly asked why we are celebrating a child-killing tyrant, or what Richard III ever did for us. Sadly many of the articles cannot answer their own questions because their content demonstrates such a fundamental lack of understanding of the real issues.
Richard III has divided opinion for over 500 years and shows no sign of ceasing to do so as he is laid to rest for the second time in his long and eventful after-life. The Richard III Society exists to promote the re-examination of Richard III and his times. Contrary to the popular impression, most Ricardians are not the ‘loons’ David Starkey sees or any of the other names bandied about, none of which are complementary and all of which are unnecessary and unpleasant.
I’ve been accused of presenting Richard III as a proto-democrat before now. I think it was meant as an insult, but it bears some examination. In the case of Catherine Williamson in 1472, Richard broke the rules of the bastard feudalism under which he lived to hand over men in his service for trial for murder when he would have been expected to protect them. In 1480 he found in favour of John Randson against Sir Robert Claxton, Randson’s social superior who also had a son and son-in-law in Richard’s service. There are a string of examples like these spanning his time in the north. Championing the common man in pursuit of justice unfettered by social rank or wealth? Isn’t that something we could applaud?
What did he ever do for us? More than you might think.
Richard III held only one Parliament during his brief, two year reign. Amongst its statutes were several that we might applaud and which were to have long-lasting impacts. The second statute of the Parliament of 1484 abolished benevolences, a system of forced gifts to the crown used extensively by Edward IV to circumvent Parliamentary taxation. During Henry VIII’s rule Richard’s law was being quoted to Thomas Wolsey when the second Tudor monarch tried to re-impose benevolences. Richard III bolstered Parliament’s power and control over the raising of money at the expense of the Crown’s independence. It was an attitude diametrically opposed to this that led to the fall of Charles I and the Civil War. The fact that you know what tax you will pay and are not at the mercy of HMRC knocking on your door to tell you that the government would like you to give them a large cash gift, which is not optional and will not be repaid, is thanks to Richard III.
Other statutes curbed the corruption rife in the cloth trade and drove out fraud from land transfers. It was not illegal to fail to declare a fault in a title to land when selling it, meaning that buyers could be tricked and defrauded. Richard’s law codified a requirement to be honest and open and is considered a bedrock of English land law even today. If you have ever bought land or property, you have done so in safety and security in part because of Richard III’s legislation.
Anti-alien legislation featured in Richard’s Parliament and was immensely popular. It sought to place restrictions on imports and foreign merchants to protect English trade and jobs and to improve the nation’s finances. Supporting and safeguarding English industry against cheaper imports is still an issue today. Richard III took a positive step to defend jobs. An exception to these constraints was allowed for the printing industry. Books flowed into England from the Continent to the profound benefit of knowledge and learning and the spread of the printed word in England. It is the nature of tyranny and tyrants to control access to information, to prevent its free flow, not to actively encourage it.
The composition requirements of jury membership were re-defined by Richard III’s Parliament so that men had to be worth a specified amount of money to sit on a jury. We may not recognise this as a pillar of our legal system today, but there are still rules defining those disqualified from sitting on juries. In Richard’s time the issue was corrupt juries, often imported and appointed by one of the parties to the case, or easy to bribe because they could not afford not to take the inducement offered. Fair and equitable justice was of concern to Richard III, just as it is of concern to us now. On a different playing field than we enjoy today, the principles applied might be ones we would approve of.
Have you, or anyone you know ever benefitted from legal aid? If so, you can add another item to the list of things Richard III did for us. He established an early form of legal aid that allowed those without the means to employ lawyers to appeal directly to the royal council to have their case heard. Tyrannical repression of the masses hardly fits with improving access to the law, which this Parliament, for the first time in England’s history, published in English. Rates of literacy may not have been high but the emerging merchant classes could read as well as the nobility and clergy – they had to in order to go about their business – and a law in English must have felt like it belonged to an Englishman more than one in prosaic, restrictive and elitist Latin or French.
Then there is that whole bail issue. Richard III certainly did not invent bail. What he did do was to make vital and seismic changes to the law as it existed. The Parliament Rolls record that ‘various people are arrested and imprisoned daily on suspicion of felony, sometimes out of malice and sometimes on vague suspicion, and thus kept in prison without bail or mainprise to their great vexation and trouble’. A suspect could be deprived of their goods and property, even the tools of their trade, before a judge had even weighed the evidence against them. If they were found innocent, there was no requirement to return the confiscated goods and men could be left unable to pursue their profession and make a living. A malicious charge with no base could therefore see a man left destitute. What Richard’s Parliament did was correct this inequity. This is surely a right enjoyed by many today.
From his late teens, as Duke of Gloucester, Richard had displayed an interest in championing the cause of the common man and pursued equity unbounded by social class or wealth. Do these sound like the concerns of a tyrant? It bears more of the hallmarks of my proto-democrat. Those at risk of the greatest loss under Richard’s rule were those with the most to gain from the maintenance of the status quo – the nobility, the minority who ruled the majority. This view offers another explanation for the loss of noble support suffered by Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth. It was not his tyranny that drove them away, but the very opposite. Who knows what the political landscape of England might have looked like if Richard had longer to pursue his programme?
What of all of those evil crimes?
Usurper? No. It is simply a factually incorrect term for what happened in 1483. Richard was asked to take the throne by the leadership of the City of London and those members of Parliament who were in the capital. It is an important distinction to note that Parliament was not in session at the time, so Parliament didn’t make the request, but a committee of those assembled for the Parliament planned for later that month did. To usurp is to take the power of another illegally or by force. What Richard did was not illegal, nor did he use force. In legal terms, he didn’t steal the power of another either, since Edward V had been declared illegitimate and unable to succeed based on evidence that was presented to that Parliamentary committee and London’s elite. Many will scoff at this lost evidence, but why? Simply because it doesn’t fit with their view of the man and it is too difficult to question that belief.
Murderer? In the cases of Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Haute, probably, by today’s standards. Probably not by those of his own time. All five of those men were found guilty of treason based on evidence that was shared around London. It is true that they had no formal trial, but Richard was Constable of England and was entitled to act as judge and jury in cases of treason based on evidence that he had seen. He publicised this evidence and it was accepted by his contemporaries. Why is it, then, that some find it so hard to accept that evidence now? There doesn’t even appear to be room to discuss it for some.
The death of the seventeen year old Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales and only son of Henry VI is frequently attributed to Richard III whilst he was the eighteen year old Duke of Gloucester. Ignoring the fact that according to most contemporary sources Edward died during the battle and so murder is hardly an applicable label for his death, at least one eye witness account states that Richard’s vanguard were pursuing the Duke of Somerset while King Edward’s centre attacked the Lancastrian centre, where Prince Edward was stationed. It is most likely that Richard was nowhere near Edward when he died. It is also likely that Edward died during the fighting and was not ‘murdered’. It is possible he was executed after the battle, but given that the very point of the battle was to conclude matters between the Houses of Lancaster and York, and given the recent history of the Wars of the Roses, there could have been no other outcome. If Richard was involved, unlikely as it seems, it would have been in his role as Constable of England, dispenser of royal justice.
Shortly after the Battle of Tewkesbury, Henry VI died in the Tower of London. In spite of the story put out, exemplified by The Arrival of King Edward the Fourth’s assertion that Henry died of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’, it seems certain that he was put to death. Contemporary chronicles, including Warkworth, state that Henry was put to death, ‘being then in the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many other’. Phillipe de Commyne, a Burgundian writer who never visited England, asserted that he heard that Richard ‘slew this poor King Henry with his own hand, or caused him to be carried into some private place, and stood by while he was killed’. This may well be true. As Constable, it was Richard’s function to see the king’s justice dispensed. Who else might Edward trust to see this unpleasant job done, especially considering that it almost certainly had to be done. If Richard did the deed, or oversaw its completion, it cannot have been done without Edward IV’s instruction.
Then, of course, there are The Princes in the Tower. It is one of history’s greatest and most enduring murder mysteries precisely because it is a mystery. I can freely admit that Richard might have had his nephews killed. He has to be the prime suspect if there was a murder. Could you convict him in a court of law? No. Not even a civil court using a balance of probabilities test. You might think you could, but you really couldn’t. There are other suspects, other outcomes, every bit as likely and fascinating to examine. Yet for some it’s easier just to deny any possibility but Richard’s wilful guilt, however unlikely, unnecessary and out of character it can be argued the murders would be.
All of the fuss about the re-interment of Richard III bemuses some, but Richard himself would have recognised the process his remains are undergoing and indeed might well have expected it sooner. In 1476, whilst Duke of Gloucester, he was chief mourner when the mortal remains of his father Richard, Duke of York and his brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland were transferred from their original burial place near Wakefield, where both had died in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. Over a period of nine days a funeral procession made its way in pomp and reverence to the family mausoleum at St Mary and All Saints Church, Fotheringhay. In 1484, as king, Richard organised the re-interment of Henry VI’s remains, translating them from their humble resting place at Chertsey Abbey to the royal splendour of St George’s Chapel. He certainly wouldn’t have found anything, with the exception of Protestant ceremony, odd or disconcerting about the treatment he is receiving now.
Why do we care about Richard III? The British love an underdog, a wronged man, and for many Richard has been wronged by history. The myths obscuring his character don’t stand up well to scrutiny and it is this that interests Ricardians. In an age where labels are discouraged and we pride ourselves on tolerance, how is it that a person can be called a ‘Ricardian loon’ on live television simply for believing a man might not be the evil murderer he is accused of being? Ricardian baiting has become a national pastime, but it only works because some Ricardians will always take the bait. There are Ricardians who take their views to an extreme and are as unreasonable and sometimes as unpleasant as those who refuse to re-examine the evidence available about Richard III.
The interesting place is the quiet, reasonable space in the middle where there is a real story to be told and a debate to be had.
The shame is that this space is lost to the sensationalist, noisy extremes with more volume than knowledge.
Matthew Lewis is 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. Both novels are just 99p or 99c each until Sunday 29th March 2015 to celebrate re-interment week.
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.