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9 May 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 11:05am

Hugh Trevor-Roper on whitewashing Richard III

"Richard III may not have been much worse than his rivals; but it is difficult to believe that he was any better."

By Hugh Trevor-Roper

Richard III is an elusive character. We know much against him but little that we can entirely trust. Commynes regarded him as a monstrous tyrant: but may not Commynes have taken his views from the exiled Henry Tudor? Sir Thomas More and Polydore Vergil wrote of him with retrospective detestation: but did they not write under the triumphant Tudors? The Tudors, having erected their dynasty on his ruin, had a natural interest in blackening the last Yorkist king: it was not till they had ceased to reign that voices were raised in defence of Richard III. By then it was too late: Shakespeare had written. The public character of Richard III had been set, as immutably as that of Hamlet or Iago; he was a “poisonous bunch-backed toad,” the type of deliberate, machiavellian, scientific villainy.

Obviously we cannot accept this picture. We know that in the North, the seat of his personal power, Richard was “entirely beloved,” even after his defeat and death. There, as Bacon afterwards wrote, his memory “laid like lees at the bottom of men’s hearts, and if the vessels were once stirred, it would rise.” Even if the Tudor tradition contains some truth, was Richard much worse than his rivals? Henry IV, Edward IV, Henry VII all, like him, achieved power by usurpation, violence and murder. May it not be that Richard’s chief fault was his failure to last, and so live down the common origin of kingship, whether Lancastrian, Yorkist or Tudor? But for the issue of Bosworth, might he not have proved as useful a king as Henry VII?

So we may speculate – unplausibly, I think: for Richard, with his lavish grants to unreliable magnates is very unlike the prudent Henry Tudor. Nor are the Tudor writers necessarily to be disbelieved simply because their words were convenient to the new dynasty. After all they wrote for a public which could remember the facts, and under a dynasty which was no longer either precarious or vindictive: years before More or Polydore Vergil wrote, Henry VII had raised to his defeated predecessor a monument and an alabaster effigy. Richard III may not have been much worse than his rivals; but it is difficult to believe that he was any better.

Professor Kendall, however, will have no such timid reservations.* To him (a professor not of history but literature) Richard is a hero, a solitary good and great man in a naughty age, the victim of malevolent slander by such Tudor hacks as Sir Thomas More and such muddled historians as James Gairdner. My only objection to this engaging hypothesis (apart from my deep respect for both More and Gairdner) is that it nowhere rests on any positive evidence. It is simply presupposed, and the history of Richard’s life is then re-arranged around this central but quite unsubstantiated presupposition. Do Richard’s northern clients praise their powerful patron? Then this is evidence of his virtue. Do rival magnates fail to echo this praise? Ungrateful wretches! On the other hand any praise of Lancastrians or Tudors, or criticism of Richard, has base, interested motives and can be disregarded. So the complexities of fifteenth-century society are reduced to terms of private virtue and vice: the virtue of Richard III, the vice of his numerous enemies. This may be an antidote to Shakespeare. It is not history. For history I prefer the admirable work of Gairdner at which Professor Kendall so impertinently sneers, even while he rifles it.

Of course the Professor has some awkward hurdles to negotiate. Those little Princes for instance … did Richard murder them or not? Professor Kendall is undaunted by this little difficulty. The little Princes clearly bore him. They were, he explains, insensitive to their good uncle’s charm: graceless wretches, they must have taken after their mother. Therefore no tears are wasted on them. But what happened to them? Oh, they just disappeared. No doubt someone did them in—possibly the Duke of Buckingham—see Appendix I … And so the hurdle is past and we are in the open again, following our unsullied royal pilgrim through the wicked world to the Greek tragedy of Bosworth Field.

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And yet, can we really dispose of the Little Princes so easily? What would Richard III have been if they had not been liquidated? We should never have heard of him. Clearly we cannot skip this hurdle. So we turn to Appendix I and study the evidence. And what do we find? Even if we ignore Sir Thomas More’s circumstantial account (dismissed by the Professor as “vivid imagination” and an “outworn yarn”), there are still strong reasons for believing, and no reasons for disbelieving, that Richard murdered his nephews to secure the crown. The Princes were murdered soon after July 1483 and their fate was so effectively concealed that even on Richard’s death it could not be discovered. Now there was only one man who, at the time of their death, had at once an interest in it, the authority to procure it, and the power to conceal it. That man was Richard III, who was openly accused of it at the time, but did nothing to refute the accusation. And anyway, why should we reject More’s account as an “outworn yarn”? It is documented and credible, and it was confirmed 150 years later when the skeletons of the Princes were found, buried, just as he had said that they were, in the Tower, “at the stair foot, meetly deep in the ground, under a great heap of stones.” Why should we ignore both evidence and probability and judge Richard’s character as if the Princes had conveniently evaporated in the night?

Indeed, why should we whitewash Richard at all? Set out all the facts learnedly and at length; put the most favourable construction on them; dismiss as hostile propaganda all extant opinions and imagine instead the character of a very perfect, gentle knight; extenuate, as an exceptional “breach” of this character, one illegal execution; slide over a few others; by-pass the inconvenient Princes; ignore the plain fact that at the end, Richard was deserted by those of his accomplices whom he had not previously slaughtered; and even so, what is he but a great baron who, from his private empire in the North, usurped the crown and then, having cut down all rivals but one, was himself cut down? The fifteenth century bred such men. Some of them can still interest us. Their record lives in perpendicular churches, great colleges, noble libraries, exquisite tombs—the by-products of their monstrous lives. But to describe any of them—and especially Richard III—as a good man is absurd. Only one of them, Henry VI, has any claims to goodness. He was so good that he was nearly made a saint. But he did not seize the crown, he lost it; he did not murder, he was murdered; and he was mad.

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7 January 1956

Trevor-Roper was reviewing Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall.