Scientific reconstruction of Richard III
Scientific reconstruction of Richard III

Avunculicide would be just as accurate, since of course we’re referring to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1483 became King of England after having disposed of the niggling little obstacle of the previous king of England, 14-year-old Edward V, who’d become king upon the death of his father, Edward IV, Richard’s brother. Young Edward and his brother were the famed “Princes in the Tower” whose disappearance has led to such explosions of verbiage in the last four hundred years.

Richard is in the news again lately because – in an absolutely thrilling discovery – his bones were recently excavated from a car park in Leicester. The identity of the bones was only just now conclusively established using sorcerous DNA technology, so there’s very little speculation and all that much more astonishment: here, after four centuries, are the remains of the last Plantagenet king, the loser at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It’s not every day that history steps so vividly into the popular-news limelight.

He’s always occupied the more rarefied versions of that limelight, the realm of historical speculation – and of books, especially books. Thomas More’s riveting History of King Richard III, first published in 1557, is a thriller of deceptive dramatic complexity, and it was gobbled up by Raphael Holinshed for his 1578 work Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, woven into a broader historical narrative that painted Richard as nothing less than a serpent in a garden of roses. It was all so vivid, it’s little wonder it drew later dramatists like flies – and it’s with one of those dramatists that our little tour of Richardiana must begin:

penguin richard iiiRichard III by William Shakespeare – Surely no single writer’s version of a historical figure has been this definitive since the Gospel of St. John: Shakespeare’s Richard (in the play first printed in 1597) – ruthless, venal, almost buffoonishly evil – has become so cemented in the popular historical consciousness that there’s simply no dislodging him. This “troubler of the world’s peace” is smarter and funnier than all the virtuous victims that populate the play, whose self-righteousness he wheedles when he can’t simply overthrow it. It’s an entirely masterful stage creation – Shakespeare is clearly revelling in some of his best work – and like all the best such creations, it convinces. This Richard instantly became every bit as real as the actual flesh-and-blood (and bone) Richard had ever been – real enough to cast a shadow over every single word subsequently written on the subject. This Richard is so evil we root for him. And rooting for him is just what our next author had in mind.


daughteroftimeThe Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – 355 years might separate these two works, but they’ll be inseparably joined for the rest of time, and it says a lot about Tey’s 1951 murder mystery that it’s enjoyed very nearly the same sway at Shakespeare’s play – in fact, in many circles, even more. Shakespeare is easy for scholars especially to disregard as the willing dupe of Tudor propaganda, who was in any case spinning fictional stories for the stage (his fast-and-loose dealings with historical fact were well known even in his own day), whereas Tey not only researched her novel but then had he main character duplicate that research right in front of the reader – in fact, the research is the plot of the book. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital and bored enough so that when his eyes light on a portrait of Richard he begins to wonder the famous monster of English history doesn’t look like a monster. Grant begins to read the sources in-depth and comes to the conclusion that Richard was framed – that he was in fact a generous and kindly monarch who had nothing to do with the death of his nephews. The book burst on the reading public and the historical establishment like a bombshell, and it still makes genuinely fascinating reading today, when most of Tey’s other novels have long since begun to show their age. And quite apart from its literary merits, it changed forever the nature of Richard III studies: it created the Richard Fan Club.

richard iii - kendallRichard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall – Every single biographer of Richard III from that point onward had to deal with the Richard Fan Club, even if their professional dignity (or snobbery) couldn’t allow them to stoop even to mentioning Tey’s name. In 1956 the greatest of those biographies appeared, by Professor Paul Murray Kendall, and it’s fair to say this is the first major modern biography of Richard that’s written by a member of the Fan Club. Kendall is an encyclopedically authoritative writer (the sheer sugary scholarship of his prose is still a wonder to behold), and one of his aims is the same as Inspector Grant’s: to renovate Richard’s dark reputation – to find the monarch underneath the monster. Instead of reading unrelenting evil back into the original sources for Richard’s life and reign, Kendall reads the sources themselves – and often draws from them a far more forgiving account of Richard than fans of Shakespeare’s caricature could have imagined. Although Kendall is careful not to summarily acquit Richard of the crimes history’s imputed to him (the aforementioned regicide and avunculicide), he gives us a Richard who could be acquitted.

we speak no treasonWe Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman – The Fan Club wasn’t done with Richard by a long shot, however, and those acquittals came in droves, none more floridly and effectively than Rosemary Jarman’s lush 1971 historical novel We Speak No Treason, in which readers see Richard refracted through four main other narrators, each one of whom gives us shards and pieces of a figure Jarman can hardly wait to exonerate. She didn’t originally intend this over-bursting manuscript for publication, and it shows on every page: there’s a very odd, often beautiful, gaudily ornate, and rawly personal fluorescence to these pages. The multiple narratives bring us closer and closer to Richard, and the closer we get, the more convinced we are of his inherent nobility and – in a neat elbow to Shakespeare – how easily that nobility can be ridiculed by lesser folk if it suits their needs (and how that kind of political calculation can become codified into history). The hard kernel of Richard’s guilt – the disappearance forever of his nephews – is here pulverized under a pile of partly purple prose. Readers will come away thinking just the same thing they thought when they finished Tey and Kendall: that there’s a very good chance this Richard person has been dealt a raw hand by posterity.

richard iii - rossRichard III by Charles Ross – a corrective of sorts was in order, and Charles Ross provides one in this 1981 biography. It’s thorough and balanced, even a touch on the dry side; there’s nothing in it to approach the grandiloquent mastery of Kendall’s book, but there’s likewise nothing to suggest partisan blinders. I don’t see a bit of this ‘dry’ business – I think Ross is a fine historian (his book on Edward IV is even better than this book, but Edward isn’t turning up in parking lots, so it doesn’t matter), and the extensive context he provides in this book is just what Richard III needs. Here we have the two things that tend to be overshadowed by the glitz and glitter of nephew-killing: that Richard wielded enormous power for years as Edward’s most trusted lieutenant, and that Richard did, in fact, rule the country after he stole its crown. Shakespeare the dramatist could be free to give us a Richard who was nothing but evil, but nobody in power can be only evil, all day long. Even Richard Nixon signed a few important pieces of legislation in his day. But when it comes time to weigh the evidence about those Princes in the Tower, Ross in sober judgement thinks Richard did it – and he has some unkind words to spare for all thoseĀ lady novelists out there who might think otherwise! The Fan Club certainly didn’t like that!

the-white-queen3The White Queen by Philippa Gregory – The Richard Fan Club can look to quite a few more contemporary novelists for succor. The literary heirs of Rosemary Jarman (or Thomas More, if that’s your way of thinking) are legion: in the pages of historical fiction, the Wars of the Roses will never stop. Almost all the big names have dipped a toe in these waters, and unless Hilary Mantel decides to write Middleham Castle, the biggest of those contemporary names is surely Philippa Gregory, whose smash it novel The Other Boleyn Girl has already been filmed twice. In 2009 Gregory left off chronicling the Tudors and turned to York and Lancaster in her “Cousins’ War” books, starting with The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower and the inveterate sparring-partner of Richard. But if the Fan Club was hoping for the ultimate fictional vindication in these pages, it was disappointed: Gregory paints a human but decidedly ambiguous portrait of Richard and doesn’t exactly exonerate him of his most famous crime. It’s an elegant and fast-paced book, but it’s no white-wash.

Of course, in the time it’s taken us to get this far, a dozen more books, articles, and monographs on Richard have been written, both by the Fan Club and its enemies. Guided tours like this one through the annals of Ricardiana have been done wonderfully already (curiously, both camps tend to agree on which books are the ones most worth discussing – almost as though reading were a kingdom no grasping hands could sully?) and will continue to be done, especially now that Richard is here among us again, fit to be cellular-tested and facially reconstructed and mitochondrially analyzed. And defended anew, Gawd help us.


© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue