Richard Remains Found, Part 2
Richard III’s Remains Found, Part 2
A closer look at the history of Richard III’s climb to power and the myth that surrounds his reign.
As you know if you have been following John Tufts’ outstanding journey as Prince Hal/King Henry V these past three years, the Lancasters usurped the throne from their cousin Richard II, who descended from the first son of King Edward III. Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI descended from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, and his wife Blanche of Lancaster, in other words from John of Gaunt’s legitimate line.
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond claimed to be the last champion of the Lancastrian line after the deaths of Henry VI and his only son, but Richmond had no real claim to the throne at all, because his descent came from John of Gaunt and his mistress Catherine Swynford. Their son John Beaufort had a son named John Beaufort who had a daughter named Margaret who married Edmund Tudor and gave birth to Henry Tudor. (He is also descended from Henry V’s widow, the Princess Catherine of France played last year by Brooke Parks in all her bubble-bathy, much-coveted blue and white gown- wearing glory. Some people mistakenly assume that this is Richmond’s claim to the throne, but it is not. After Henry V died Catherine married Owen Tudor, Richmond’s grandfather. So from that side of the family he gets his grandfather’s Welsh blood and grandmother’s royal blood of France, but not the blood of the Lancasters.)
Another confusion revolves around the illegitimacy of the Beauforts. After John of Gaunt’s wife died he did marry Catherine Swynford and did actually manage to negotiate a decree officially legitimizing their children. But that decree contained a provision that, although they could and did hold high offices in the court and the church, Gaunt and Catherine’s descendants could never succeed to the throne. Decree or not, it was still really an illegitimate line, and an illegitimate son or his heirs would never be considered a rightful king of England.
Richmond takes the throne not by virtue of any rightful claim to it, but by being strong enough and ruthless enough to just take it and hold on to it. Part of his PR campaign for his own legitimacy was to convince England that he was a good and righteous man who had saved them from a monster. This was a pretty tough sell, since Richard had always been popular in his homeland of Yorkshire, and had been a good king to the extent that the rebellion had allowed him to be. So Richmond, now King Henry VII, got his own historians to re-write Richard’s history. Suddenly all the misfortune that had befallen Richard in his life was part of a devious master plan to become king. According to this revised history, it was Richard himself who had murdered the captured Henry VI, and slain Henry’s son, who was married to Anne Neville, who Richard then forced into a mad and evil second marriage. (Anne had been betrothed to Henry VI’s son, but only as a political maneuver; they may have never even met and most historians think the marriage was never performed.) It wasn’t excessive drinking and wenching that caused Edward IV’s early death, it was his brother Richard poisoning him. Their other brother George, Duke of Clarence wasn’t an unstable man who tried twice to turn traitor against the family, he was an innocent pawn that Richard manipulated and then had killed. And of course, as his final act to secure the throne for himself, he had his own nephews, the famous princes in the tower, smothered in their innocent sleep.
Shakespeare’s dramatization of this history, which he no doubt believed was true, has been so enduringly popular and so indelibly etched in our minds that it surprises many to find out that serious historians have always known most of this to be bunk. The only claim in all this litany of evil that is given serious consideration is the last one; did Richard have his nephews murdered in the Tower of London? It might come as a big surprise, since I am clearly a fan of history’s King Richard III, that I am open to the possibility he may be guilty of this one crime. It is possible, after all he had been through, that in attempting to maintain the York presence on the throne following his brother’s abrupt departure from it, he may have ordered this done. Edward had impulsively and against all advice of his court married a beautiful widow named Elizabeth Woodville, who was a commoner and came with a large family of social climbing power-grabbing kin who were widely disliked at court. Richard may have seen the boys as not so much his brother’s sons as hers. Certainly the Woodvilles made an attempt to strip Richard of the Protectorship and take charge of the boys, and the kingdom, themselves. And the bodies found buried under a stairwell in the tower in the 1680’s are almost certainly those of the two princes. So yes, I think it is possible that Richard did it. But let’s take a closer look at the events.
After Edward IV’s death, a priest came forward with a fairly convincing story that when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville he was actually already married to someone else. This, of course, nullified Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth and made all of their children, you guessed it, illegitimate which, as we have already discussed, made them ineligible for the crown, which made Richard the next rightful King of England. This story was accepted by Parliament, who officially illegitimized the boys in a document known as Titulus Regius. Now whether you believe the story or not or whoever you believe was behind it at that particular moment is unimportant. The boys (and their sister Elizabeth, who is about to enter the story in a big way) were officially illegitimate and of no threat to Richard. He could gain nothing by their deaths, but could garner tremendous ill-will by being responsible for said deaths.
When Richmond killed Richard and became King Henry VII, he realized that some official blending of the family lines might help end the Wars of the Roses once and for all. So he decided to marry Edward’s daughter Elizabeth, thereby uniting the white rose of York with the red rose of Lancaster and making their son, the future Henry VIII the heir to both houses. (This is ironic, because Edward and Richard were already a blending of York and Lancaster blood, but more on that later.) But he couldn’t marry an illegitimate daughter of the king, only a legitimate one. So you guessed it, he reversed Titulus Regius and re-legitimized Edward’s children. Here’s the problem; if, as some historians have argued, the princes were in fact not dead but still alive and well in their royal apartments in the Tower, Henry’s action has just made the elder of them King of England. In other words, the princes being alive were no threat to Richard, but they were a deal breaker for Henry, leading some historians, scholars and just plain history buffs to lay their deaths at the foot of “the sainted Richmond.”
So what do we do with the new spotlight thrown on Richard and Richmond by current events as we prepare to enjoy a new OSF production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 2014? Here’s my suggestion. Pay close attention to the story as it develops, as they decide where to inter the remains of King Richard, and the inevitable discussion of his true place in history plays out. Enjoy it, honor it, and then put it away in the place in your mind reserved for truth and righteous indignation and forget about it. Even as I write this, I feel a little conflicted, because I think that truth just for truth’s sake does matter, even if or maybe especially if it’s five hundred years old. This is why I have never bought the “we have the plays, so why is it important that Shakespeare wrote them” argument. It’s important for a lot of reasons having to do with the fight against class snobbery and an understanding of the plays and their time, but mainly it’s just important because it’s the truth. But it is also true that Shakespeare wrote a hugely entertaining play in Richard III, containing what some observers have called “Shakespeare’s first great character.” And that character is a delightfully unapologetic villain. And because he shares his villainy and his step-by-step process directly with us, we get to go on that journey with him, we get to be the villain for a few hours, and then walk out of the theatre still good, and more importantly not in prison, because we haven’t actually done any of those things, we’ve just lived them vicariously through this fun, juicy, gloriously evil, fictional character. Nothing can take the fun out of this play quicker than trying to make Richard better, or more understandable or redeemable. (Unless of course that’s the take our director has on the play next year, in which case by all means ignore me and go with their vision. Sheesh.)
That’s all for this week, but for the really hardcore Plantagenet buffs out there, or those who would like to become one, tune in next week for some juicy interconnected tidbits. You could win final Jeopardy with something you learn next week! (If you do, please send me ten percent.)