Travesties of Richard III

In his media blog, Roy Greenslade had a frolic, ticking off (in both senses):

Newspaper columnists found the coincidence between the downfall of Chris Huhne and the disinterment of Richard III too good a coincidence to ignore.

He listed:

That under the headline, itself a direct lift from Freedland:

Chris Huhne’s downfall heralds a winter of discontent, say newspapers

He could have added many, may more, including Peter Brookes being busy, busy in The Times:


It’s how they draw it

Suddenly there is a re-discovery that Richard of Gloucester suffered as did Jessica Rabbit:

I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.

UnknownThose of us who chewed our way through Paul Murray Kendall‘s biography, still in print but originally published in the mid-1960s (the copy on the Redfellow Hovel shelves arrived through marriage to the Lady in Malcolm’s Life, soon after), are not surprised by the re-appraisal.

Kendall achieved a small literary sensation with that book. Yet, it wasn’t ‘revolutionary’ among medieval historians — or even Shakespearean critics. Shakespeare’s immediate sources for his history plays (we’ll come back to those in a while) were:

  • Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548);
  • The Third Volume of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587);
  • The Mirour for Magistrates (1587).

Each of those “borrowed” from Thomas More’s hatchet-job, written between 1512 and 1519, buttering up to Henry VIII.

The_Daughter_of_Time_-_Josephine_TeyEven Kendall was long after Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which came out in 1951 (and was much later the CWA‘s greatest mystery novel of all time). For all the brilliance of this novel, it in turn has a remarkable origin.

Sir Clements Markham

Young Markham, born of an ecclesiastical marriage (he a canon of Windsor, she the daughter of a Yorkshire baronet) joined the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen. That took him to the South American station, where he learned Spanish, and then to the Arctic search for Franklin. He passed for lieutenant, then left the Navy for adventure and exploration, with Peru and the Incas a lasting interest.

When his father died, he needed a regular income and joined the India Office. One of his missions was to bring seeds from Peru to India that quinine might be cultivated and produced in India and Ceylon. Then he set about building a department for geographical research (not as innocent and academic as it might sound) at the India Office.

His frequent (and unauthorised) absences from the India Office took him to Abyssinia and the Arctic, and led to his forced retirement. he was already deeply involved in the Royal Geographical Society. This commitment meant, later, he was a prime mover in the Antarctic expedition of 1901-4. Indeed, it was his insistence on a navy man, rather than a scientist, that put Robert Falcon Scott in command (and he arranged the relief vessels that brought the expedition home). His reward was Scott naming Mount Markham.

All that is incidental, but establishes Markham’s credentials.

Since had been involved in something of a spat with historian James Gairdner, over Gairdner’s 1878 History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third. In  1906 Markham responded with his own thoroughly-researched Richard III, His Life and Character, seeking to establish that Richard of Gloucester was a maligned and misunderstood man. This, then, was the prime source for Josephine Tey’s novel.

The Shakespearean connection

First up, Richard III is an early play. It is generally dated at 1592, and needs to be seen at the end-piece of the “First Tetralogy”, after the three parts of that dreary apprentice-work, Henry VI. It’s a history play, not a tragedy — and even further from the mature tragedies Shakespeare knocked out a decade later. It owes a lot to the bombast of Christopher Marlowe, whose Edward II (probably of 1593) then showed Shakespeare how it ought to have been done, and so changed the English chronicle play into something more solid and coherent.

When all the misquotations and false connections between the play and the exhumation of these skeletal remains have been exhausted, perhaps someone other than Malcolm may find time to muse on whether Shakespeare later regretted his grotesque Richard.

Henry IV (both parts) — not Henry VII, please note, has a shadowy King Henry tormented by the way he came by the throne from Richard II. As he may well have been; but it’s in the context of the moment (compare Hamlet) and Shakespeare’s persistent interest in the morality of regicide — George Buchanan, Scots poet and philosopher, but also tutor to James VI and I, deserves consideration here. When we reach the end of the Second Tetralogy, Henry V has a prayer, the night before Agincourt:

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

And so to the car-park

After Bosworth Field, the Franciscan Friars of Leicester took possession of Richard III’s body. Polydor Vergil, Henry VII’s official ‘Historian’, tells that Richard was buryed two days after [presumably 25 August, 1485] without any pompe or solemn funerall … in the abbay of monks Franciscanes at Leycester. In summer 1495 Henry VII had a tomb and monument built in the abbey choir: Walter Hylton, a Nottingham worker in alabaster, got £50for the job.

In 1538 the Greyfriars of Leicester were closed down, and bits of the abbey were either sold off, pilfered, or left to decay. Robert Herrick (yes,indeed: same lot) later bought the land and had a house built on the site. When Christopher Wren (no, not him, but his dad) came a-calling in 1612, he saw the memorial Herrick had erected:

a handsome stone pillar, three foot high, bearing the inscription Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.

After that came the legends, including the plaque on Bow Bridge, set up by a local builder, Ben Broadbent, in 1856.

After which, with urban redevelopment, slum-clearance and the various monstrosities local authorities impose on the landscape, Richard’s supposed burial site disappeared under the tarmac.

And now [1]?

We have an incomplete skeleton. Carbon dating suggests late 15th/early 16th century. The DNA narrows it to 1% of the population — which still leaves considerable doubt. There is the spinal curvature, which could connect to the anecdotes of Richard’s reported deformity (of which there was a lot about in those days). There is the location, none too distant from Market Bosworth. A lot of coincidence and circumstantial evidence; but it needs an imaginative leap to “this is Richard III”. That’s what Mary Beard means by I want not just a story, but a validated story.

And now [2]?

Steve Bell’s cartoon for The Guardian had a take, different and refreshing to the usual (for which, see Brookes of The Times, above):

05.02.13: Steve Bell on Gordon Brown's legacy


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Filed under Guardian, History, Shakespeare, Steve Bell, Times

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