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."

Saturday, July 28, 2007

For Openers

I'm fascinated by Richard III and by the Wars of the Roses and have done a fair amount of reading on the subject, though I can't name all of the battles that occurred before Barnet in their proper order. As a novelist heading toward the end of her current project (yay! land!), I've been thinking of the next book, and it's likely that I'll set it during the Wars of the Roses. More than that I haven't decided; one of the reasons for this blog, in fact, is to sort out my own ideas.

But the main reason for this blog is that I'm an avid reader of historical fiction who chooses books mainly based on whether they're about people and places I'm particularly interested in (though lately I've been branching out a bit). Naturally, a lot of the novels I gravitate to concern the Wars of the Roses.

Lately, though, I've been noticing a distressing sameness to most of these novels: they all feature a Richard III who's little short of sainthood. He marries his wife solely for love, not paying the least bit of attention of all that family land. ("What? You mean you're an heiress too? Gollee!") He takes the throne only after days of agonized soul-searching. He's universally beloved by his subjects, except by a few churls who are motivated only by self-interest. All who oppose him, especially Those Nasty Woodvilles, are portrayed as having few if any redeeming qualities.

I have come across one recent exception, Reay Tannahill's The Seventh Son. Her Richard III is a sympathetic character, but not a saintly one. He's very much a man of his time, who's prepared to act ruthlessly when it suits his purpose.

The Internet isn't all that much better. The Richard III Society (incidentally, I'm a member; one of the many commendable things about the Society is that it doesn't impose a litmus test for membership) does have excellent websites with much objective information. Venture off those websites, however, and one either gets the saintly Richard or the monster of Shakespeare's play, with very little in between.

Fortunately, recent nonfiction, such as A. J. Pollard's Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, offers a much more balanced view of Richard. Unfortunately, this view isn't much reflected in recent fiction or the Internet. (Perhaps scholars need to blog a bit more.)

Hence this blog. It's a modest attempt to disseminate my own unromantic perspective on Richard III: that he was neither saintly nor satanic, but somewhere in between.

One more thing: in setting up this blog, I've probably been influenced a great deal by Alianore's excellent blog on Edward II, a troubled king who until her blog came along was getting almost universally bad (and often entirely inaccurate) press on the Internet.

So here's to objectivity!

Oh, and one more thing. We have some occasional fun on my main blog, so don't think for a minute we won't have some fun on this one too.