And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 5. februar 2011

Under the Hog, part I - Histories and Mysteries

The Cat, the Rat and Lovell our Dog
Rule all England under a Hog.
- William Collingbourne, July 18, 1484

Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

Not as we are but as we must appear
- Funeral Music, Geoffrey Hill

King Richard III of England (1483-85 is a celebrated figure in York and in the following blogpost I aim to present my encounters with Richard III throughout the city. The present blogpost is a historical prelude for the benefit of the reader and the indulgence of the writer.


Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

King Richard III is generally remembered as one of the most ruthless and villanous kings of English history, a legacy mainly due to William Shakespeare's poetic continuation of Sir Thomas More's propagandistic histories. Richard is here described not only as a murderous schemer, but also as a man deformed and, as Shakespeare puts it, "cheated of feature by dissembling nature." His physical appearance is an aspect perennially perused throughout the play, and partly stems from one of the few portraits of him, a portrait which was slightly altered in the Tudor era to add monstrosity to the last Plantagenet king. For comparison see the painting at the end of this blogpost, which is the oldest surviving painting of Richard.

I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

Richard came to power following the death of his brother, king Edward IV (April 9 1483), and he was appointed protector awaiting the maturity of his nephew, the then twelve year old Edward. The young prince was taken in custody by Richard and the prince's uncle Anthony Woodville, earl Rivers was executed on suspicion on plotting against the crown, an event included in Shakespeare's chronicle of Richard's alleged cruelty. Later that year Richard seized the throne following a complex process of court politics and intrigue reaching its conclusion with his coronation July 6 1483. 

Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes
Whom envy hath immured within your walls!
Rough cradle for such little pretty ones!
Rude ragged nurse, old sullen playfellow
For tender princes, use my babies well!
So foolish sorrow bids your stones farewell.
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

According to Shakespeare Richard was driven by insatiate ambition, as stated: 

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to cheque, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
- King Henry VI part III, William Shakespeare

An equally plausible motivation, however, would be to avoid that instability inherent in a child-ruler, a scenario all the more poignant due to the preceding decades of conflict, an epoch inaccurately labelled the wars of the roses.

Richard's government - both as protector and king - was marked by tension and unrest, shown by the rebellion of 1483 and the dissatisfaction with his clique of advisors, elegantly - but inaccurately - phrased by William Collingbourne:

The distich pertains to Catesby, Ratcliffe and Lovell - whose emblem was a dog - and of course Richard whose coat of arms depicted two white boars.

As chauffèd Bore his bristles doth upreare
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

However, Richard's government was also a time of some civic progress and occasional calm, making his reign less trouble than we are led to believe by Shakespeare. The recurrent tension, however, must be ascribed perhaps more to dynastic factors, such as the young age of the prince and the Woodvilles, than any demonic behaviour on behalf of Richard III. Doubtlessly he got rid of political opponents in circumstances that must have appeared dubious at best to his contemporaries, and he may very well have had some demons of his own to battle, but he was also the head of a kingdom in severe financial and political difficulties, looking back on decades of civil strife and his actions may very well have been driven by a desire for stability rather than personal ambition. His brief reign is still a matter of contention between scholars and laymen alike, and especially Richard's role in the mysterious fate of prince Edward and his younger brother, collectively remembered as the princes in the tower. Whether there ever will be a resolution to the latter question is dubious, whether there will ever be consensus concerning the character and rule of Richard is impossible, despite The Richard III Society's commendable and untiring quest for truth. 
Come, muster men: my counsel is my shield;
We must be brief when traitors brave the field.
- The Tragedy of Richard III, William Shakespeare

6 kommentarer:

  1. Ah, the never-ending disagreement between cynicism and naïvety. I truly envy your ability to always see the best in people, Steffen; to actually believe that a Medieval ruler assassinated his nephews for the good of his "country" (I do not know the period sufficiently to judge whether this is an anachronism or not; some sense of Englishness is certainly documented, I think, but I am unsure of what social strata this applied to) rather than for his own personal ambition! I can do little but wrinkle my nose and commend your charity.

    But terming the Richard III Society's task "a quest for truth" -- there I think I must draw the line. ;)

  2. Here you mistake me, but this is perhaps due to my lack of debate concerning the nephews.

    First of all the question of their death remains unsolved and as there are no conclusions to be drawn I refrain from doing so. They may very well have been murdered on his command, but since one of the purposes of this blogpost is to debunk the Shakespearean Richard III can not judge either way due to the lack of evidence. Consequently I do not suggest that he murdered his nephews for the benefit of his country, just as I do not suggest he did not murder them.

    However, I do not consider it naive to take into account Richard's contemporaneity, quite the contrary. The Wars of the Roses was a devastating affair to the English monarchy and Richard knew the frailty of the kingdom from long experience in politics and warfare. This is a view found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

    As for any anachronisms concerning the use of the word "country", I fail to see the relevance. What I claim - based on the Dictionary - is that Richard may have sought a stable government following an age of dynastic unrest. "Country" is a term I do not use, as far as I can see, instead I write about the English government. Nor do I say he was gentleman, I merely offer a more nuanced picture of his brief reign, as ought to be the historian's ambition. There is no charity in this, only an appreciation that deeds can be spurred by other factors than personal gain, which may nonetheless have been important in his machinations.

    What I have done is merely to put Richard III into his own context and age, refusing to be subject to Shakespeare's pervasive demonization.

    However, the quest for truth is more of an in-joke pertaining to their own stated goal rather than my personal opinion.

  3. If I misunderstand you, wilfully or not (you know how I can be, at times), I am afraid I have to blame you for it, a bit. And Shakespeare, of course.

    If we are to put all flippancy aside (or most of it, anyway), I suspect that you due to the hegemony of the Shakespearian Richard (admirably enough) let the revisionist point of view dominate your account. Which is, perhaps, as it must be, but for people not as familiar with the Richard mythos (or whatever else we may call this corpus of fact, factoid and fiction) as yourself, the result (at least for me; but we both know how bad I am at reading) is that you come across as something of a Richard revisionist, if not apologist, yourself. Take, for example, the following sentence:

    "An equally plausible motivation, however, would be to avoid that instability inherent in a child-ruler, a scenario all the more poignant due to the preceding decades of conflict, an epoch inaccurately labelled the wars of the roses."

    Or the final paragraph. In both these places you seem to be suggesting that even if Richard DID murder his nephews, you're sure he did it for a good cause. I know that's probably not what you meant to say, but it's nevertheless how you came across.

    If you think I've read your post with an overly-critical (or even pedantic, or Devil's Advocate's) eye, you're probably right. However, I maintain that you did not sufficiently state your purpose, and that your choice to let Shakespeare speak for the "Richard haters" while communicating almost exclusively the revisionist point of view with your own words caused enough ambiguity to excuse my faulty interpretation.

    With that out of the way (hopefully), I cannot but applaude your attempted contextualisation and reevaluation of a popular prejudice against the Middle Ages. I am still not convinced by the revisionist argument, but my knowledge of the topic is too weak for my opinion to hold any weight, so for now, I cede the point to you.

    As for my excursus about the possible anachronicity of the concept of "countries" in the Late Middle Ages, that was primarily aimed at myself. I feel that for arguments appealing to stability and the good of the realm to have any merit, there actually has to be a documented sense of solidarity between ruler and ruled. In other words, we need to know whether the ruler felt any obligation to his people. Again, my knowledge of the specifics here is waaaaaay too insubstantial for me to comment on them, but unsurprisingly enough, my minanthropic guts tell me to doubt the existence of such a sentiment very much.

    However, I also distrust my guts, knowing their bias and in this case the epic methodological issues involved in gauging such sentiments.

    Finally, pertaining to the Richard III Society, I got that your comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek (although I can totally understand how or why you chose to interpret me literally), and my own comment was meant in like kind.

  4. It would have been nice, of course, could I claim the moral ground on this issue, yet I cannot, since, as you quite correctly points out, I have not made a sufficient statement for the purpose of this blogpost. I am aware of this, and I consider it unfortunate, especially so since I can but blame myself.

    I do not think of myself as an apologist, although I favour revisionism of this issue very strongly, yet I understand that my evasive treatment of Richard's machinations may have engendred such an impression. Again, this is unfortunate and I can only blame myself.

    My problem is not that you are pedantic. Your pedantism is a virtue to be applauded. I can be equally pedantic - or perhaps more so - in claiming that I did not so much communicate the revisionist point of view as a revisionist point of view. But this is beside the point, for as long as this has not been understood I have not done a sufficient job. Let me therefore point out what I should have done in the post itself: If Richard did murder his nephews for the sake of his kingdom, this makes him no less a cruel man, just a different - and perhaps more complex - man than what comes forth in Shakespeare's play.

    Your cynicism, as opposed to your pedantism, is a different matter altogether, especially when it is a bit errant as in this case. Rulers throughout the ages have had various reasons for committing atrocities, and stability of the realm is no less a probable reason than personal ambition. Often these reasons conflate, however, and there is much personal gain in a stable kingdom. But in Richard's case we have to take into account the dynastic situation.

    This was, as you of course know, a troublesome era, and as a nobleman of the late Middle Ages Richard would have been preoccupied with the question of legacy (this is for instance a recurring theme in late medieval romances). Richard already had a son, whereas no one could be certain what would come of his nephew. English history has sufficient evidence of the troubles following heirless monarchs, and this question may have spurred him to take the throne, either he did so by murder or not. Again, to consider this element is not at all naive.

    Concerning the solidarity between the ruler and the ruled I have my doubts as to the value of this premise. Commodus - or for that matter, the oppressive William the Conqueror may not have had great solidarity with their subjects, yet they were nonetheless self-conscious rulers of a more or less established geograpy (although borders could be blurry in both cases). I do not know where this sentiment originated, but I wonder, with the risk of sounding petty and vindictive, whether it may not in itself be an anachronism. That England was a politically self-conscious entity in the 15th century is to me the most probable alternative, especially since Innocent III in his decretal Novit ille from 1204 speaks of the King of England, thus marking him as ruler of a particular geography. But having said that, I should not claim too great a knowledge on the subject myself, and it may be I do not take your meaning.

    In conclusion, however, I should point out that I'm very grateful for your comments, especially since I am then forced to rethink my application to the title of communicative genius, but mainly because it keeps me on the straight and narrow track of historical presentation, which is a virtue to be desired above most things.

    If I, in my riposte, has misunderstood your meaning in anything, please let me know.

  5. You point out enough flaws in my own one-eyed cynical logic to be entirely forgiven for your earlier vagueness. I still may not agree with you on some points, but I need to sit down and re-read this a couple of times in order to locate these.

    One thing, though, just to keep my pedantism alive: You wouldn't happed to know the Latin phrase used by Innocent III for "the King of England"? I've tried searching for it, but with no success, and I'm curious about the phrasing. Latin names for peoples and the geographical areas they inhabit tend to overlap, and so I a curious if this is one of the earliest references to England as a country or if it is simply a normal translation of Rex Anglorum.

  6. Cynicism certainly has its uses, but as a tool of understanding history I find it must be accompanied by something more as well. I also think it is a healthy sign we still disagree on some details - because judging from previous encounters our disagreements tends to hinge on the small things - since I know, in my meticulously acquired scholarly humility, I take wrong steps often enough to be aware of the possibility of me doing so.

    Sadly I do not have the Latin text of his letters so I can't say with certainty how the title is phrased in the original language. However, for what it's worth, the translation operates with "The King of the French" and "The King of England", maybe echoing the original phrasing, yet then again maybe not.