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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

“Richard III: England's Black Legend”, by Desmond Seward

336 pages, Pegasus, ISBN-13: 978-1605985756

He did it. Richard III murdered his nephews and seized the throne for himself, only to be subsequently overthrown in his turn by the Welsh adventurer Henry VII a mere two years later. However, popular veneration of this tyrant remains a curious phenomenon. One would have thought that the Great Debate had been brought as near to conclusion as it ever can be, for while it is generally accepted that Richard of Gloucester was a capable and enlightened administrator, a loyal lieutenant to his more brilliant elder brother King Edward IV, as King himself he was ruthless and unbending (just ask his nephews). Most people discount the charges brought by Sir Thomas More, and Shakespeare as an historian is an iffy proposition, at best, and the ultimate fate of the Princes in the Tower has been established with as much certainty as can be, even in spite of the circumstantial evidence against their uncle. Yet Ricardians continue to rush to the defense of their hero as if he were still under fire from entrenched Whiggery, and in consequence anti-Ricardians continue to attack. Desmond Seward originally wrote Richard III: England’s Black Legend in 1983 as a convert to the anti-Ricardians cause; for a long time, he tells us, he believed passionately in Richard’s innocence of the crimes alleged against him. Only intense study of the sources convinced him that the “Black Legend” represented the fundamental truth about the man.

The Richard that emerges from his pages is a more interesting figure than the plaster saint that Ricardians would like us to adore, for in Seward’s eyes Richard was the complete Renaissance tyrant, a precursor of Machiavelli who stuck at nothing to achieve his ends, “the most terrifying man ever to occupy the English throne, not excepting his great nephew Henry VIII”. He learned from his formidable brother the value of murder as a political instrument and used it unsparingly when the time came to fulfil his dynastic ambitions. Seward does not hesitate to pin the killing of the princes firmly on the shoulders of the man who alone had the means, motive and opportunity for the crime. Not that his ruthlessness was without its weak side. Richard, Seward holds, was a bad judge of character, putting his trust in men who had every reason to betray him. He suffered spiritual agonies in his somber moods, endowing religious houses on a massive scale and providing for a multitude of masses for his own victims. His sense of guilt and the intensity of his nature wrought havoc with his nerves and led him to violent extremes (much of this can be sensed in his portrait; while one must not make too much of likenesses at a time when this form of art was inadequately developed, the fact is the face of Edward IV, considered exceptionally handsome, appears to us pasty and insipid, while Richard’s shows intellect, sensitivity and the sufferings of a tormented soul).

With the advent of the Tudors the blackening of Richard’s reputation began in earnest, with Thomas More and William Shakespeare the principle instruments. Exaggeration brought reaction, and in James I’s reign Sir George Buck undertook a spirited defense of Richard, preparing the way for the heavier guns fired in the 18th Century by Horace Walpole, with whose “Historic Doubts” the Great Debate really got under way. Before the end of that century Walpole’s doubts were echoed by such celebrated amateurs as John Wesley and Jane Austen, but in the 19th Century the debate rose to a higher plane with the entry into the lists of professional academics armed with detailed original research, with John Lingard and James Gairdner coming forward as supporters of the Tudor view of Richard’s villainy, whose judgment was reinforced by the exhumation of the supposed bones of Edward V and his brother in 1933. But in 1955 new life was given to the Ricardians by Paul Murray Kendall, an American historian who left the question of the murder of the princes open but whose defense of Richard’s character was reasoned, temperate and scholarly. Once again the last word seems to have been spoken, but the Great Debate goes on; indeed, what the JFK assassination is to Americans, the murder of the Princes in the Tower is to the English, and so long as the incredulous draw breath, there will be no end to either debate.

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