Richard III and The Catholic Herald

This blog is written in response to an article that appeared on the Catholic Herald website and can be found here:

The article is entitled “Richard III fans are the medieval equivalent of 9/11 truthers” and displays a portrait with the caption ‘Richard III: a monster’. So we’re pretty clear where this is going. This type of article is hardly unusual but I thought this time I’d put the record straight, for a number of reasons.

Ed West, the author of the piece and deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, then launches into a savaging of Richard III that traditional historians would be proud of. It isn’t hard to work out where the ideas come from as Mr West announces that he has read Dan Jones’ recent Wars of the Roses tome The Hollow Crown. Interestingly, he mentions The Daughter of Time but doesn’t appear to have read it, nor does he reference any revisionist history to offset the known dislike Dan Jones maintains for Richard III.

It is asserted that attempts to review Richard III’s reputation began in the early 20th century with the foundation of The Fellowship of the White Boar. It is not such a new phenomenon. Sir George Buck published his revisionist The History of King Richard the Third in the early 17th century. Jane Austen famously wrote that she felt Richard III had been hard done to by history, musing;

“The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to believe true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.”

Mr West summarises the Wars of the Roses as told by Dan Jones as “mostly a good fun read about aristocratic psychopaths chopping each other’s heads off” before warning that “the story becomes very, very dark in April 1483”. Richard seizes the throne, kills Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Lord Hastings and then, following Dan Jones’ conclusions, all but definitely murders his nephews. Richard’s coronation feast is meant to appear disgustingly opulent when it was, in fact, an integral part of a coronation until 1830 when William IV abandoned the idea as too expensive. Elizabeth Shore wasn’t paraded at the coronation, she was made to walk through London from St Paul’s as penance for harlotry and then put in prison, and all of this had more to do with being Edward IV’s mistress than Lord Hastings’ (and Edward IV’s stepson Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset too for good measure).

Let’s take a little look at how much darker things really got in 1483. Four men died to secure the throne for Richard III. Precisely four. Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. None of these executions were illegal, whatever anyone may say. Richard was Constable of England and entitled to execute men for treason based on evidence that he had seen. Whether Richard was rightfully king or not, just four men. Thousands and thousands died to win the throne for Edward IV. Towton was a truly dark day. Thousands more perished to prise him off and see Henry VI restored only to have Edward IV back in place six months later. Who then was rightful king? We are seriously supposed to believe that four deaths are worse than many thousands. Four lives lost by men at the heart of the political turmoil threatening England are portrayed as being worth so much more than thousands of innocent men dragged from field to field around England to fight battles that had nothing to do with them for lords who didn’t care about them. I don’t buy that.

Even if we allow that he may have killed his nephews this is only so distasteful because of their ages and ignores a long history of murdering political rivals. If he did it, it is inexcusable, but it isn’t the only stand out crime of history, as it is painted by those convinced of Richard’s monstrous presence, haunting the annals of England’s history. Arthur, Duke of Brittany, a nephew of King John with a stronger claim than his uncle, mysteriously disappeared in 1203 after being imprisoned at Rouen by John. No one talks about this mystery. In 1470, just before he lost the throne, Edward IV had some of Warwick’s men executed. John Tiptoft, then Constable, oversaw the trials. The men were beheaded and then impaled on spikes, left on display with their severed heads atop the spikes driven through their backsides. When Charles II became king he had Oliver Cromwell and others exhumed, their rotten corpses beheaded, the bodies thrown into unmarked pits and the gory heads placed on spikes at the end of Westminster Hall where the men had sat in judgement on his father. This after promising no retribution. The murder of the Princes in the Tower, if it happened, has obtained such currency not only because it involved children, but because it is a morality tale that suited the Tudors and subsequent generations. Whenever the story rears its head there is an important context to consider.

Richard’s illegitimate children are given a mention to further smear his character. That Richard “fathered several illegitimate children” is a stretch. It was two (that are known of), both believed to have been born before he was married. John and Katherine were acknowledged as his natural children and provided for. Is that not to be applauded? No mention is given to Edward IV’s four or five illegitimate children, nor to the record of (approximately) 24 fathered by Henry I. Of course, mention of this would make Richard look positively chaste and that isn’t the aim of the article.

All of Richard’s well attested bravery and progressive legislation is given a cursory mention, but only to point out that it all counts for nothing because, at the end of the day, “he murdered his nephews”. Somewhere, we lost the ‘probably’ or ‘I would conclude from the evidence’. This is something that always frustrates me. I can’t tell you that Richard III didn’t kill his nephews. I don’t try to. I like to explore alternatives, but it is undeniable that if they died, Richard is the prime suspect. This does not make him guilty, but neither can he be proved innocent. When Dan Jones tells you Richard did it, he’s offering his opinion, nothing more. The same is true of Alison Weir. Educated though it may be, it remains an opinion rather than a fact. We are confidently informed that by late 1483 ‘everyone thought the princes dead’. Oh, apart from Henry VII who was worried by several pretenders until the end of the century. And apart from Sir William Stanley, executed in 1495 for saying that he would not fight against Perkin Warbeck if he really was the son of Edward IV. I could go on, but it was not a known fact then, and it isn’t now.

We are told that the “odd thing about Ricardians is how unlikely Richard’s innocence is”. It is this that makes us “late medieval equivalents of 9/11 truthers”. I’m sure that’s meant to be an insult, but if being accused of looking beyond someone else’s superficially presented opinion to explore an issue and reach a well-researched, well-reasoned conclusion of my own is an insult I’d suggest that this would say more about the article’s author than me. Fear of the truth and of investigation are hardly pinnacles of freedom and democracy. That conclusion, when reached, may well be that Richard did do it. Most Ricardians will freely concede that the possibility, perhaps even the probability, cannot be denied. Re-evaluation is what Ricardianism is about, not whitewashing. Some hold the view that Richard was innocent more passionately than others, just as some, including traditionalist historians, cannot see beyond his guilt to discuss the matter openly.

For me, the odd thing about traditionalists is their unwillingness to re-evaluate anything. For every Facebook group in which you will be rounded upon for accusing Richard of the murders there is another in which any mention of his innocence will be equally strongly opposed.

Mr West should perhaps read a few more books that might balance his views before peddling incorrect fact and second hand opinion. The same could be said for many people on both sides of the arguments. Catholics have been moved and upset by the lack of Catholic rites planned for Richard III’s re-interment but The Catholic Herald does not embrace the religious aspect of this debate but chooses instead to judge and condemn a man they demonstrably lack the knowledge to legitimately pillory. Ask questions, investigate possibilities, offer opinion. Don’t present poorly formulated conjecture as fact.