May 2024
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Historical Thoughts: A Chivalric King Richard III

r3I know I don’t actually talk about medieval history all that much around here, even though I originally wanted to.  Instead I’ve settled for attempting to read and review more historical fiction.  I have been thinking about one particular question, though, and it’s quite relevant to historical fiction, so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see if anyone was interested.

Why is Richard III so often presented as a chivalric figure in modern historical fiction?

First, what is “chivalric”?  Well, success in war (prowess) is easily the most important factor overall.  In most historical fiction novels about Richard, he is highly successful in battle except for Bosworth Field.  He is regarded as a key figure in his brother Edward’s battle of Barnet and often he’s off fighting the Scots with great success.  Fighting the Scots is brilliant for prowess because to Richard, they were foreigners, and killing foreigners was usually second only to killing heathens, especially if they came at you first.  I came across the mystifying fact that we’re not even sure how much Richard fought except at Bosworth Field in my research last year.  He was there, but we know so little of those battles that he might not have lifted a finger to help his cause.  Of course, the fact that he was killed on the battlefield at Bosworth indicates he did think he knew what he was doing, or perhaps it indicates that he had no bloody idea.  One never knows.

Secondly, success with ladies is key.  This is the fun phenomenon known as courtly love.  Lords were expected to flirt with highborn ladies, and usually one lord would pick one lady to carry on about, although it isn’t necessary for him to actually have a proper affair with her and in fact that would be frowned upon.  Gazing and loving from afar is the best option unless you are married.  Actually, virginity was the best option (like Galahad), but not a very likely one.  Loyalty to the one you choose is essential.  What do we have in Richard but a man who is always portrayed as deeply in love with one woman?  Usually, it’s his wife, Anne Neville, but in A Rose for the Crown he is portrayed as faithful to his one mistress.  Again, this is a fun little fact that can’t be verified.  He had at least a couple of bastards, so he broke the no sex outside of marriage requirement and there’s no way to verify the identity of their mother or even how many there were.  He may well have loved Anne Neville, but history can’t tell us that and instead shows us that she was actually an heiress with rights to half the extensive Neville/Warwick land (and given the part that Richard played in killing her father and uncle and imprisoning her mother, how do we know she would have loved him?).  He wasn’t marrying a pauper and Richard was a very, very ambitious man.  It’s just oh so convenient that by marrying her he completed his consolidation of the northern Neville hegemony, isn’t it?

Third, piety!  Religion is very important.  Even though chivalric men were ultimately warriors, they were supposed to view themselves as suffering.  Strange as it may sound, they decided that warfare was a kind of martyrdom and thus eases the way into heaven.  Don’t ask me, I didn’t come up with it.  Richard is often fictionalized as an exceptionally pious man.  He probably was to some extent, but all late medieval lords were to some extent.  Richard planned for three foundations during his lifetime.  I know they didn’t all succeed, but let’s think about this.  Richard was a rich man.  He had huge swathes of countryside and even if the economy was suffering, he must have had his fair share of disposable income.  I must admit that I have not looked into this personally, but it stands to reason that he had plenty to give to his retainers since he was such a successful lord.  In addition, he probably had his share of sins to atone for.  Think of all the men he ordered killed for the sake of becoming king.  He chose his side of the Wars of the Roses, may have (probably) killed a whole bunch of people, and may even have had a say in the death of his brother.  In this context, foundations don’t mean he was especially pious.  It just meant he had the money and the desire to get himself out of the hole called purgatory with a whole lot of praying.

So those are the three tenants of chivalry, as I have gleaned from numerous sources.  Richard didn’t necessarily fill any of them.  I just think he’s been targeted by historical novelists as a figure to be redeemed.  There is no question that he was villainized by the Tudors and those associated with them, but that doesn’t make him a paragon of nobility.  I think it’s fascinating that he’s been interpreted as such and that all of his activities have essentially been removed from their historical context, evaluated, and assigned the purest possible motivations.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that he was a heavenly figure who has been getting a bad rap for hundreds of years.  I think it’s more likely that he was an extraordinarly powerful, ambitious, clever man – a man who was very, very good at governing, no less – who lived in a difficult time and had to make some very hard choices.  I often wish I could write a novel so I could put him in between as a human being, not a villain or a saint.

What do you think?  Why do we put Richard on a pedestal?  The man might have killed his own nephews, after all, although personally I prefer to believe he didn’t just because I like him.  He’s by far the most likely culprit.  Any thoughts?  Or did you stop reading at paragraph 1? ;)


11 comments to Historical Thoughts: A Chivalric King Richard III

  • I’ve always known you were smart and this just confirms it.

  • Okay, I definitely think you should write a novel. Not having actually studied the era, I can’t say this with any certainty, but I am persuaded by Sharon Kay Penman’s assertion in “Sunne in Splendor” that the boys were killed by the Duke of Buckingham – although because of the phenomenon you describe, I admit I haven’t read any fiction that suggests that Richard did it. Overall I’d say you’re right, though; I’m sure Richard wasn’t what the Tudors made him out to be (hello, Shakespeare, he’s not a hunchback) and he probably wasn’t nearly as sainted as many novelists have depicted him lately.

    Jen – Devourer of Books’s last blog post..A Writer’s Childhood – Guest Post by Kelly Simmons

  • I don’t know much about Richard III (although I have bought but not yet read The King’s Daughter by Sandra Worth) so I can’t contribute to the topic…but I do love your post and discussion of chivalry.

    Nicole’s last blog post..Tuesday Thingers

  • Ok. I’m reserving judgment about Richard, though I’m not sure why he got such good PR through the ages.

    War and religion goes back a long way. It was principal way of recruiting soldiers for the Crusades. Come on a crusade and all your sins will be washed cleaned, and you will absolutely go to heaven. I worked, too!

    Nice post.

    Beth F’s last blog post..Wordless Wednesday (Feb. 11)

  • Great post! I’ve often wondered the same thing myself.

    My feeling is that a lot of novelists, feeling that Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard III is unfair, feel compelled to address the balance. Unfortunately, they often swing so far in the opposite direction that their sweet, naive Richard is a man who wouldn’t have survived to age 20 in the 15th century, much less managed to get himself crowned.

    Another factor is that novelists tend to rely very heavily on Paul Murray Kendall’s very readable, but very one-sided and romanticized, biography of Richard III.

    And I suppose another factor is the commendable desire to think the best of people. Unfortunately, too many novelists who paint Richard as sympathetic go to the other extreme and paint all of his opponents as demons.

    Reay Tannahill’s Richard III in The Seventh Son is one of the more believable fictional portrayal of Richard. It’s sympathetic, but but not a whitewash.

    Susan Higginbotham’s last blog post..Review Round-Up

  • This is an amazing post. I honestly don’t know much about Richard III beyond the Shakespeare play and what I read about him in Sandra Worth’s The King’s Daughter. I really want to read more though!

    S. Krishna’s last blog post..Booking Through Thursday

  • Paul Trevor Bale

    I’d like to correct a few things, first most notably your remark “Think of all the men he ordered killed for the sake of becoming king.” Well, only one actually, Hastings, but he had been caught in a plot to murder Richard and Buckingham. Later using his powers as Protector, he sent Rivers, Vaughn and Grey to trial and execution, again for plotting against him, in other words treason. He also did not really want to be king and accepted the crown when asked to take it by Lords and Commons, when he was the only man capable of keeping the realm on an even keel. he was the best man for the job, and had he not been betrayed at Bosworth by a couple of self serving lords we would be praising Richard for having been one of the most enlightened monarchs ever.
    “I came across the mystifying fact that we’re not even sure how much Richard fought except at Bosworth Field in my research last year. ” This bewildered me as you cannot have done your research in the right places. His action at Barnet is well documented. He saved the day in this his first battle. Such a good job had he done his warrior brother gave him the charge of the vanguard at Tewkesbury a few weeks later, which dealt the final crushing blow to the House of Lancaster. His disgust at his brother’s deal with French King Louis XI made him turn round and ride home, only one of a couple of lords not to take a bribe {called pension by all who took one]. Richard wanted war with France, something the French did not forget, hence the aid later given to Henry Tudor by the French. Such was French fear of King Richard.
    And yes, he invaded Scotland very successfully and reached and took Edinburgh, bringing the Scots to the negotiating table. His charge at Bosworth was something that had it succeeded would be called brilliant, and succeed it very nearly did. He did it because of the afore mentioned treachery of the Stanleys, who I would gladly take out and boil in oil slowly!
    I have to admit that female fiction writers have not at times done Richard any favours by their romantic look back through rose tinted glasses at him, and particularly at his marriage, which probably was a love match, but even if not, it certainly became one, as the evidence shows. Doctors had to prevent him sleeping with his wife during the last weeks of her life, something chroniclers would not mention unless they found it odd that a king and queen should actually sleep in the same bed. Richard also locked himself away for three days in his grief when she died, during a solar eclipse, that is fact. The bastard children may simply have been a young man sowing his wild oats while trying to emulate the elder brother he idolised at the time.

    I don’t like the Tudors or the way the uninformed denigrate Richard (as evil beyond belief) but praise Tudor (who WAS a definite usurper) as the Saviour of the Country!!!!!!!!
    Richard was definitely NOT a usurper but was requested by the Powers That Be to take the Throne and had the best attended Coronation in living memory, jointly with his wife, Anne. Tudor , on the other hand, did not have a well attended Coronation and had to be coerced many, many months later to have his wife, Elizabeth of York – beloved of the Country as Tudor could never be – crowned in her own right.!

    Tudor’s unbelievably underhanded deviousness (in dating his reign the day BEFORE Bosworth) is praised while rumours of Richard’s ‘wrongdoings’ are taken as gospel!!!!!!!! Like you repeating the “may have (probably) killed a whole bunch of people, and may even have had a say in the death of his brother” and ” The man might have killed his own nephews, after all, although personally I prefer to believe he didn’t just because I like him.” I’m pleased you said the last part of that sentence as I agree with Annette Carson’s recent conclusion that “despite Shakespeare and centuries of tradition, the idea that Richard had the princes killed in the Tower with nobody noticing, is as laughable as the idea that he killed them and kept it secret”. As for your mention of his brother, by this I imagine you mean Clarence, who was tried by the Lords and Commons and found guilty, deservedly, of treason, and executed on the direct order of King Edward. Richard is on record as pleading on Clarence’s behalf, and leaving the capita in disgust at his failure the day before George was executed (not, I am certain, though it is a good legend, in a butt of malmsey – more likely a comment on his drinking, as Clarence was probably alcoholic in his last years.)

    In view of the fact that Richard’s body was so terribly desecrated after so bravely attempting to kill the usurping Tudor so that no more Englishmen died on the battlefield, I can take little joy in the truth that, for the rest of his life Tudor had to look over his shoulder to keep himself safe and that his careful saving of the money that he stole from his heavily oppressed citizens was so blithely squandered by his son, the woman killing Henry VIII (yet another Hero??!!!).

    I give here, an excerpt from a recent letter of a friend of mine to a paper.

    “For those who do not know, Richard III did not murder women (unlike Henry VIII), did not indulge in financial extortion (unlike his brother, Edward IV) did not promise pardon and safe conduct, only to renege on his promise – or behead someone simply for using the word “if” (unlike Henry VII), neither did he indulge in religious persecution, burn people at the stake, or violate sanctuary (unlike kings before and after him). Oh, and by the way, he did not murder his nephews as rumours , – to say nothing of his very, very possible nephew – Richard, Duke of York aka Perkin Warbeck, who Henry Tudor did kill.

    If Richard was such a monster and tyrant, why did the mayor and council of York risk their lives in Tudor’s England by writing in their records that – ‘Richard, late mercifully reigning over us — was pitifully slain and murdered — to the great heaviness of this city’ Did people really write such eulogies to tyrants. I think not! In contrast, there was in the main, general rejoicing over the death of the hated Tudor. Little did they know what lay ahead!!”

    I am a huge admirer of Richard’s (you guessed that didn’t you, come on now!) but do not see him as a saint, as he was in many respects very much a man of his time. His enlightened legislation in his one and only parliament, and the love and respect he earned while lord of the north, showed him however to be ahead of his time in the way he ruled, and the way he treated everyone in the same fair and just way, no matter what walk of life they came from. His personal charisma shines down the centuries and explains the fascination so many have for him. Not to mention the wish to right a terrible wrong, that may well have died a long time ago had not the Tudor tradition (better known as rumours and lies) found such a brilliant artist to dramatise it, writing one of the greatest parts for an actor in the English language. And DRAMATISE is the operative word, for Shakespeare was not writing history, but drama.

  • Josh

    @ Mr. Bale:

    I will respond to Meghan in a minute, but in all fairness, I found your response rather comical. Part of this was the emphasis, then super emphasis and questioning emphasis and the like, but that isn’t actually anything solid.

    More to the point is that I don’t get what you were getting at. To take a couple of snippets, you noted these English kings who were heroes a la Henry VIII. The last I checked Henry was not a hero, nor was the fascination with him because people worshiped him for his philanthropy. Henry is an interesting king because he married so often and almost single-handedly created the Protestant revolution in his kingdom–instead of Luther nailing fliers to the Cathedral, Henry announced that there would be a new church, one not behooved to Rome. Why exactly this happened is up for debate, but such power, vision and force of will to pull it off makes him interesting, not his heroism and failed wars with France.

    As for the rest of it, honestly you are debating politics versus propaganda. Sure, the Tudors did a thorough job of slandering him, but this doesn’t mean that Richard was a saint, either–and Meghan, disagree with me if I am mistaken–but it takes a fine tooth comb to decide what stories, legends and propagandistic announcements bear any weight. Sure they could, but they also could not have any reality. The flip side, of course, is that the best lies are those things which people either want to believe in or are close enough to the truth that their basis is in fact.

    That Richard was a polarizing person is undeniable, but certainly that he was vilified so thoroughly has something to do with it as much as his personal charisma while alive. As for his fighting abilities, I am sure he was trained to fight, but I would not be in the least surprised if Richard didn’t actually do much fighting. On one hand fighting kings give heart and morale to their men, on the other hand they can’t see the whole field and have a tendency to get stabbed a lot (or in later wars, shot).

    Believe what you want about your hero, the fact is that he had his own strengths and weaknesses, some the same some different from those who came before and after. He probably had a greater claim to the throne than did Tudor, but at the same time his nephews hang over his neck. Who is regarded as a hero largely depends on your own lens and bias (and which accounts you read when in your thinking about this hero).

    You should tell all of these people to read my blog ;P

    I don’t know who killed the nephews, and as I said above, closest to the truth is the best lie. Not saying that Richard killed them, just that he did have motive and opportunity.

    I would say that Richard is on a pedestal for the same reason many other real people in historical fiction are on a pedestal: because of charisma, events in their life and the ability to create a compelling, epic story about them. See Julius Caesar, Alexander, Alcibiades, Richard Ceur d’Leon, Joshua Chamberlain, etc…

  • Meghan

    Kathy – Aw, thanks! You wouldn’t think so if you saw my last essay. LOL.

    Jen – If I thought I could write, I would. I’ll stick with writing history, I actually have a shot there.

    Nicole – You’re in luck, Sandra Worth is great!

    Beth – The crusades are crazy, I think. I could never study them. I think they’re my favorite example of how we can’t understand the medieval viewpoint, try as we might.

    Susan – Yeah, I think that is really the problem. PMK did a good thing in some respects, but he’s got some unsubstantiated claims in there and there is far, far more on the topic than what he said.

    Swapna – I hope you do! I think it’s a fascinating topic. I have a ridiculous list of books about Richard III, remind me if you ever want to have it.

    Paul – I don’t disagree with you in most respects. As I said, I like Richard. I’d love to make him my life’s work (and am in the process of doing so). I’ve responded to most of your points in an email, here I will say, though, that you just listed 4 men he killed right there. Just because he decided they committed treason doesn’t mean he didn’t kill them (and we have no evidence saying they did outside of his own accusations). Most people who burned heretics at the stake thought they were perfectly justified in doing so. Doesn’t make it right. In addition, you may never have come across the fact that he allowed Anne’s mother to be treated like she was dead when parceling out her land between himself and Clarence. I don’t think I’d call that “fair and just”. Please do let me know what sources you’re using. I don’t think there is much evidence for a few of your claims (idolizing Edward, not wanting to be king, saving the day at Barnet), so please let me know where it is. And he was definitely a usurper, the rightful king was Edward V.

  • I read everything, but I don’t know enough history to offer an opinion :P I agree with Kathy, though – you should write that novel! That seems to be a common problem with historical figures…they’re often idealized or villainized, but it’s hard to look back and see them as actual people.

  • Brian Keith O'Hara

    When they did an examination of Richard’s portraits they found out the funniest thing: The Deformed Hunchback’s Portraits had all been repainted by Tudor. The original paintings contained no hint of a defect. I’ve read some revisionist, Tudor historian strain to see even the most minor defect. I’ve looked at pictures of the X-rays. These are lies made out of whole clothe. It isn’t there. Some historians are lying liars.

    And remember, Henry VII never once accused Richard III of killing Edward V or his brother Richard while Richard III was alive, not until several years after Richard’s Death and the same accusation was placed against Henry VII.
    Funny thing Elizebeth Woodville never attacked Richard while he was alive. If she had thought Richard had killed her boys, she could have rallied to Henry’s cause: she didn’t. When Henry became King she retired to a Monastery.

    At Bosworth Richard charged right into the middle of Henry’s host, to the very heart of battle and came very close to killing Henry himself in personal combat. Henry avoided the battle: he remained behind his house guard away from the battle. After Richard was killed Henry allowed Richard’s body to be desacrated, stripped naked and dragged behind a horse.
    I am reminded of Julius Caesar, who, after winning the Battle of Pharsalus, was presented with Pompey’s head in Alexandria by Pothinus. Julius Caesar was an honorable man. He showed Pothinus the price of dishonorable behavior.

    There is a debate whether Henry Stafford, The Duke of Buckingham, acted on behalf Henry Tudor. Logic says that if Richard gained the crown when Edward V was declared Illegitimate by the Church, he needed to take no further action. No one rallied to the Woodville cause. They were no threat to him.
    But Henry had to have the boys murdered. His whole claim depended on Richard’s assumption of the crown being illegitimate. But that would have meant that Edward was the King, not Henry. How inconvenient.
    We know that Henry Stafford was as much a malfactor as the Stanleys. Overthrowing Richard, gave him power, possibly letting him be Buckingham the Kingmaker. A role more worthy of a “hunchback”.

    Richard was brave by every account at Bosworth Field. But more than that his whole life he was known as personally honest and took being King very seriously. He was unwavering in his loyalty to his brother. And if York histories are to be believed, a good ruler, first as governor for his brother, then later as king.

    I think the pieces of this puzzle which don’t fit, raise all sorts of questions. Look at the potraits then look at the what the Tudors did to them. That has to mean something.