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Richard III gets a brand makeover

Richard IIIRichard III, the marketing angle? Incredible as it may seem, there is one – and Mediapost claims to have detected it.

The spectacular discovery of the last Plantagenet monarch’s remains under a Leicestershire car-park has been derided in some academic quarters as a stunt that offers little new insight into the historical record (unlike, for example, the discovery of Troy).

Not so. Instead of a cripple “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” we have been presented with incontrovertible evidence of a fit, 32-year old man, at 5ft 8in tall for his era but for a curvature of spine that set his right shoulder above his left, and possessed – according to the reconstruction of his skull – of a personable, sensitive appearance ill at odds with the psychopathic villain of Shakespeare’s imagination.

How much, then, was the Tudor “brand makeover” of Richard a carefully fabricated lie designed to cement the succeeding dynasty’s undoubtedly shaky claim to the crown of England?

The fact is, back in the 1480s anyone who was anyone – well, nearly anyone – was a bastard. The Princes in the Tower were bastards (or so Richard persuaded Parliament on acceding to the throne in 1483); Henry, Duke of Richmond – the victor of Bosworth Field – was most certainly a bastard, tracing his ancestry to King Edward III via the bar sinister on both sides of the family; and so – according to some – was Richard’s elder brother Edward IV: the son of an English archer rather than the 2nd Duke of York – though, understandably enough, no one was prepared to openly address the matter during the charismatic, 6ft 4in warrior’s lifetime.

In a country riven by a generation of civil war, legitimacy was a necessary though not sufficient qualification for long-term kingship. And Richard, unlike most other contenders to the throne during that period, had an unimpeachable claim to it. However, the paramount requirement in that anarchic and bloody era was ruthless leadership, on and off the battlefield. Edward IV had it, but his predecessor – mad, incompetent but very legitimate Henry VI – did not. Result: civil implosion and the Wars of the Roses. That was the thing about the Medieval state. Weak leadership was not simply a failing in a king, but a mortal sin: because sooner or later it plunged the country into internecine strife (note the reigns of Stephen, John, Henry III, Edward II and Richard II).

Henry VI eventually paid for his incompetence with his life – he was starved to death in 1471, probably on the orders of an exasperated Edward IV. Twelve years later, a similar succession crisis seemed to be shaping up when Edward himself died prematurely, at 40. The plan was that Edward’s son – known to history as Edward V – would succeed him. But Edward was only 12 and the substitute sibling, his brother Richard Duke of York, considerably younger. Either way, they would be puppets in the hands of the Nevilles, Stanleys, Woodvilles, de la Poles and Percys – the aristocratic “cousins” who were the powers behind the throne at that time. Another round of civil war loomed. Forseeing this, Edward had made Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, their protector. Richard had proved himself very competent, on and off the battlefield. A surprisingly enlightened administrator who in effect already ruled in the north of the country, he had also proved his martial valour at the decisive battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury (1471) which had ensured a Yorkist was put back on the throne. Later, Richard played a leading role in pacifying Scotland. Edward had every reason to be grateful. Most of all, he trusted Richard implicitly. What could possibly go wrong?

In placing the two princes in the protective “custody” of the Tower of London (then simply another royal palace) and subsequently disbarring them from the succession, Richard may have acted out of cruel necessity, or naked ambition. Conceivably both. Did he really believe the princes were illegitimate? We don’t know. Did he have suspicions that his own brother was illegitimate? We don’t know. Was his own dynasty likely to be strengthened by, in some way, disposing of potential rivals who might provide a rallying point for disputing his own position? Yes, it was. At that time, he had a son, also Edward (in those days they were all Edward, Richard or Henry, it seems), who died the subsequent Henry VIIyear, 1484. Did the Princes die in 1483 (thus effectively excluding the Duke of Richmond, later Henry VII (left), as their murderer – he was in France at the time, and in no position to gain access to the Tower)? Almost certainly – nothing more is heard of them after the summer of that year. What’s more Richard, though he denied killing them, failed to provide the living evidence that would have discredited any such claims. Did he, or his agent the Duke of Buckingham/ Sir James Tyrrell, do the heinous deed? Beyond reasonable doubt, no. On the balance of probability, yes. Did Richard have any defensible argument for doing what he probably did? Raison d’état, maybe. Pretenders purporting to be the young Duke of York were to cause Henry VII endless trouble during the earlier part of his reign.

Richard has been set up in history as the Arch-Infanticide. In reality, what use is it judging him by the standards of our own time? His code of conduct was not identifiably worse than that of his predecessor – himself a regicide – or his successor, a consummate Machiavellian who discreetly saw off many an opponent at the gallows. That’s what monarchs did then – if they wanted to survive. Richard’s misfortune was to be betrayed on the field of battle – by an ally connected through marriage to the other side. Even his enemies conceded he fought courageously to the end.

If the Battle of Bosworth had gone the other way – and it very nearly did – we can be tolerably sure we would not now be obsessing about the fate of the Princes in the Tower. To the victor the spoils.

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One Response to Richard III gets a brand makeover

  1. Whoa there, boyo! Who did history at uni then?!
    Seriously, fascinating and much better than marketing stuff…
    Gerry

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