Monday, May 6, 2013

A Five Hundred Year Smear Campaign

The big news in Britain a few months back was the unearthing in a Leicester car park of the remains of Richard the Third, who was killed at the nearby Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

If you were to ask the proverbial man on the street what he knew about this English king, he’d likely say, “Nothing” (at least here in the States). But if he did have anything to say about Richard, it would likely be that he was a hunchback, that he killed his nephews (the famous “princes in the Tower”), or that he was an all-around bad guy.

Well, it turns out that at least one of these things can now be laid to rest as being true: Richard III was indeed a hunchback, since the skeleton unearthed in Leicester shows clear signs of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.

As for the other things? Well, though never proved to be true, they are still what people believe about the king, over 500 years after his death. This is primarily the fault of Shakespeare, whose play is what most folks think of when they think of Richard III. The problem, however, is that Shakespeare got his version of Richard’s life from Sir Thomas More, who was writing during the reign of Richard’s rival and successor, Henry VII.

I saw The Tragedy of King Richard the Third last year, with Kevin Spacey as the notorious king. Much as I love ol’ Kev, I remember thinking after seeing the play that Richard seemed awfully over-drawn, and the plot very over-the-top. In the story, the title character is made responsible for the murders of eleven people: King Henry VI; Henry’s son Prince Edward; Richard’s own brother, the duke of Clarence; Earl Rivers; Richard Grey; Thomas Vaughan; William Hastings; the duke of Buckingham; Richard’s queen, Anne Neville; and of course, Richard’s nephews, the two “princes in the Tower.”

I mean, come on. Eleven? Really? Remember, this is supposed to be a “history.” Too bad “jumping the shark” wasn’t one of the myriad phrases coined by Shakespeare.

Anyway, while at the Hilo Library book sale last week, I happened across The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey’s classic mystery story about Richard III.

Having just finished an article in Science News about the recent unearthing of the king’s remains, I decided to fork out the 25 cents—even though I have another copy in Santa Cruz—and reread the story, which I hadn’t read since high school.

I’d forgotten just how terrific it is. In the book, Tey’s sleuth, Inspector Alan Grant, is bedridden and bored, and becomes obsessed with a portrait of Richard III that hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

It is the face, various characters in the story observe, of a saint, of a great judge, of a cripple, or even like that of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Inspector Grant resolves to investigate—from his bed—the alleged murders of the two princes by the king, and along the way, he (via Tey) debunks a host of generally-accepted beliefs about Richard III. In the end, Grant decides that the matron of the hospital comes closest in her assessment of the portrait: “[I]t is a face full of the most dreadful suffering.”

Josephine Tey, who penned the novel back in the 1950s, isn’t the only one trying to rescue poor King Richard from the bad rap he’s suffered under for half a millennium: There’s a Richard III Society, dedicated to “secur[ing] a reassessment of the material relating to [Richard’s] period, and of the role of this monarch in English history.” If you are interested in the controversy, and the facts supporting Richard III’s innocence of the crimes attributed to him, you should definitely check out the Society’s website.

According to the Society’s Patron, Richard, Duke of Gloucester:

[T]he purpose—and indeed the strength—of the Richard III Society derives from the belief that the truth is more powerful than lies; a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilised values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.

This quote is reminiscent of a passage from Tey’s The Daughter of Time (in a letter to Inspector Grant from his cousin Laura):

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed. Very odd, isn’t it?

Yes. Very odd, indeed. And this is clearly why folks get their panties in such a twist over the idea that Shakespeare—who never even attended grammar school—might not be the author of the plays that bear his name.

But that will have to wait for another time, another post.


  1. For some reason (you'll probably guess), Richard III always reminds me of Boris Godunov.

  2. Great post. Thanks, Leslie!

    Taking Shakespeare's word for it about Richard III would be like accepting at face value Kathryn Bigelow's version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty." Or Ben Affleck's version of "Argo." Or so many other examples. It's art, not journalism.

  3. Lee Harvey Oswald, as he said, was a patsy. Just thought this was a good time to mention it.

    But, Ginny, I do think KB's version of the hunt for bin Laden or Afflecks' Argo was much, much closer to the truth Shakespeare's tale, which isn't in the ball park, as both of their movies were, as I understand it. Do you disagree?