Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Oh, Those Nasty Victors

If you read a piece written by a partisan of Richard III, almost invariably you're going to happen across the phrase: "History is written by the victors." (Google "Richard III history written victors" and see for yourself.)

This is one of these sayings that sounds sage on the surface, but doesn't really hold up all that well to close scrutiny. Should we assume, for example, that because the North won the American Civil War, all of the reports of the atrocities of slavery were the product of abolitionist propaganda? Or because the Allies won World War II, should we assume that reports of Nazi war crimes and genocide were grossly exaggerated? Of course, one can find people who claim that slavery was a benevolent system and that the Holocaust was faked, but such theories and their proponents are held in contempt by most responsible people.

Yet people who wouldn't give credence to either of the theories mentioned above will say, in all sincerity, that Richard III's poor reputation is due entirely to the Tudors. Had Henry Tudor lost at Bosworth, they tell us, Richard would have gone down in history as a benevolent, just king, and those pesky nephews would have been forgotten altogether. Instead, Henry VII, as that dreaded creature known as the Victor, set out to smear his rival's name.

Now the Tudors or their contemporaries can be blamed for some slurs upon Richard III. There's no evidence, for instance, that he was physically deformed, or that he poisoned his wife, or that he murdered his brother Clarence. It is historical fact, however, not Tudor fabrication, that before taking the throne in July 1483, Richard III ordered the summary executions of William Hastings, Thomas Vaughan, Richard Grey, and Anthony Woodville. Though Richard III justified their executions by accusing these men of plotting against him, nothing supports his bare allegations.

The most damning allegation against Richard, of course, is that he murdered his nephews. While it may never be proved who murdered the Princes, or even that they were murdered at all, the story itself cannot be blamed on the Tudors. Rumors that Richard III had killed the princes were current in his lifetime, and circulated both in England and abroad. Uprisings against Richard III in the south, led mainly by men who had been loyal to Edward IV, that began within weeks of Richard coronation were prompted by rumors that the princes were dead, and it was the belief that they were dead that led the conspirators to invite Henry Tudor to claim the crown, despite the fact that he was an obscure exile who had given no indication of his abilities as a ruler. What is certain is that Richard III could have quenched the rumors easily by producing the princes. He never did, not then or at any other time in his reign, and the princes were never seen again after the summer of 1483. This bare fact speaks very eloquently for itself without the help of Tudor embellishment. As Paul Murray Kendall, Richard III's most eloquent defender, wrote, "The most powerful indictment of Richard is the plain and massive fact that the Princes disappeared from view after he assumed the throne and were never again reported to have been seen alive."

7 comments:

Alianore said...

I googled "Richard III history written victors". Results: 1.5 million. Hehe. ;)

Daphne said...

I haven't read Kendall's biography of Richard III yet, but he does make a very good point. It's hard to dispute facts - in this case, that the princes were never seen again. I do prefer to think that he at least had someone else do his dirty work for him.

Gabriele C. said...

And there's the question about his motives. Did he execute those men and the kids because he was the mwuahah evil guy who just liked to kill people left and right, or did he think England needed a strong king and he was the right guy for the job, and eliminated those that could come in his way to avoid greater evil?

David Blixt said...

Cui bono? Who benefits? Richard was not alone in wanting those boys dead. And their deaths were not necessary, strictly speaking. They had already been declared bastards, so they had less impact on Richard's kingship than on, say, RICHMOND's!

But, yes, with rebellions rising hither and yon, hoping to put the princes into power, it might have been Richard. Only, if he didn't kill Clarence, and didn't kill Edward, would he start with children?

However, I am not a Richard apologist, as I live and breathe Shakespeare, and I love the lovely villain far too much. And sadly I know too little about the history to weigh in further. But it will be fun to watch! Thanks for putting the site into action!

Daphne said...

I like to think that if he had them killed it was because he knew England could not stomach another boy king and not because he was just an evil guy. Now if this was King John, I'd go for the evil every time!

Anonymous said...

there' always the possibilty the princes commited suicide...

just to play devil's advocate;)

Paul said...

That's right, they could've smothered each other simultaneously.