Sunday, February 10, 2013

This Son of York

At a young age, I saw Shakespeare’s Henry V and was hooked forever. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival ran the history plays chronologically, so annually thereafter I saw the three parts of Henry VI, then Richard III. I became a devotee of the history of the Wars of the Roses, the ongoing civil wars of 15th century England where the White Rose of York battled the Red Rose of the Lancasters and the throne bounced between them,  until the Last Plantagenet succombed to the sword of the Tudors.

 I read and re-read Josephine Tey’s book The Daughter of Time, which made a plausible case that Richard III had less cause than Henry Tudor (Henry VII) for killing the Princes in the Tower—Richard’s nephews, whom he had caused to be named illegitimate. I devoured history books that remarked (sometimes grudgingly) upon Richard’s contributions as a notably fair minded king for his time, particularly in legal matters. Of course, he was no saint;  the middle ages were too much about politics and violence for that.  Yet he seems to have been honorable, within the dictates of the time.

Richard was the slim, dark brother, the eighth and youngest child in a family of large fair men.  He had scoliosis, or curvature of the spine that made one shoulder higher than the other and probably caused him chronic pain.  Yet he was a warrior who rode, fully armored, into battle many times.  Indeed, this young Duke of Gloucester was a commander by the age of 17.  He was devout in his faith, collected books, and even reputed in one account to be a dancer.

As a child, Richard lived for years away from home, with the Earl of Warwick. Initial plans for his marriage to Anne Neville, Warwick’s daughter, were entangled in the politics of the period, as her father threw in his lot with the other side. When it became possible again, their alliance was complicated by the fact his older brother George was already married to Anne’s elder sister and did not want to share the Neville estate. George tried to hide Anne from Richard by whisking her away and disguising her as a scullery maid, but Richard rescued her. Sounds a bit romantic, doesn’t it?  

He died on Bosworth field in 1485, where even his enemies conceded he fought bravely before being felled by a blow to the head. But history in this case truly was written by the victors, and his reputation, as well as  his appearance, were sculpted by the victorious Tudors into the massive villainy of Shakespeare’s character. The few contemporary accounts don't agree with an unremittingly evil Richard as painted by the propaganda.

Richard's body was attacked after death, stabbed and his feet cut off.  He was buried (and perhaps reburied) without ceremony under a garden at Grey Friars.  Now, his remains have been uncovered under a car park, identified by DNA compared to living descendents of his family.  His face, reconstructed by forensic scientists, now looks out upon us, serene, perhaps enigmatic.

And so, the story is revived, with the romance and wars of the late Middle Ages again the subject of discussion and debate. The battle of the Red and the White Rose will go on in pubs and debate halls.  Who did kill the princes in the tower?  Who was the scoundrel, and who the hero?  And meanwhile, the bones of the last king to die in battle on English soil will be re-buried in Leicester Cathedral.

Richard III Society
Guardian Roundup 
Yahoo Photo Gallery 
How Richard Looked (Daily Beast)


JCF said...

My (English major/Anglophile/resident of UK in early 1950s) late mom absolutely ADORED The Daughter of Time (she was always trying to get me to read it---perhaps now I shall!). I'm sorry she didn't live to see this.

...though of course---as w/ her being a life-long SF Giants fan, before they won 2 World Series---wherever she is, I have faith she knows. ;-)

JCF said...


Benedict 16 going, going, GONE!

IT said...

On THAT, JCF, I will quote Andrew Sullivan today:

May the sunlight now come in; may accountability be taken; may a new fearlessness, guided by the Holy Spirit, give the church new life when its strength and vitality are in such profound crisis. May we see real punishment for the enablers of child rape; may we see more married priests and a serious discussion about women priests. May we see a return to the core truths of our faith: that God exists, that God is love; that this love became incarnate to rid us of the dead-end of worldliness into the wonderment of caritas. This is a chance for renewal. And repentance … as Lent inexorably approaches and Easter finally beckons.

Know hope.