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Reading Richard III

4 February 2013

1:32 PM

4 February 2013

1:32 PM

The confirmation that bones found beneath a Leicester car park are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of Richard III has launched a deluge of familiar puns. ‘A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!’ say numerous wags on Twitter.

I wonder if Richard III would be remembered so widely today were it not for Shakespeare. The character of the play, who speaks some of the most famous lines in English, is descended from the portrait drawn by Sir Thomas More in an uncompleted history written at various points throughout the 1510s.

Many historians argue that More wrote the book to please the Tudors. This is, it is said, why he drew on the work of Polydore Vergil, an Italian churchman commissioned by Henry VII in the early 1500s to write a new history of England, which included an account of Richard’s many alleged misdeeds and usurpation providing some much needed ballast for the Tudors’s flimsy claim to the throne.

Against this interpretation is the relative absence of Henry VII from More’s text. A further layer of complexity is created by the persecution More’s father suffered at the hands of Henry VII.  These facts have led others to assert that More was writing a broad account of tyrannical monarchy rather than a straight history. Fear of tyranny, it is argued, forced More to self-censor and confine his message that evil always meets it just deserts to the past.

Another school of thought says that More was experimenting with form by writing a dramatic, literary account inspired by the techniques of the Classics. Those techniques were in the process of being rediscovered and revived by the learned pan-European elites among whom More moved. The work, it is suggested, was meant for these private audiences; but it should be noted that these elites were often part of the power networks that dominated politics and public life at the time (as More himself did, first as a lawyer and then as an administrator), so the line between public and private was blurred.

The late Elizabethan statesman Francis Bacon famously remarked that ‘truth is the daughter of time not of authority.’ The Richard III of More and Shakespeare has become the basis for the standard view. There is, obviously, another side to the story, or at least another shade. The historical case is put best, ironically, in a novel: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. This is a detective novel in which the detective asks who had the most to gain from associating Richard III with the murder of the princes in the tower? The answer is, at least according to those whom Tey read (although Alison Weir is among a group of popular and academic historians who contest some of Tey’s sources and arguments), Henry VII and his successors.

The confirmation of the discovery may reinvigorate Tey’s revision, or it may produce a new interpretation of a king whose reign seems to have been more substantial than the mere 26 months it spanned. Some recent books on this period and its questions include A Short History of the Wars of the Roses by Professor David Grummitt and Chris Skidmore’s Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors.

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