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Is it just my imagination or do I detect a faint grin of belated (about half a millennium belated) satisfaction playing about the long-jawed skull of Richard III? Because when it came to reinterments, he was a stickler for doing the right thing. In 1476, as Duke of Gloucester and chief constable of the kingdom, he had his daddy, Richard Duke of York – killed at the battle of Wakefield 16 years earlier – taken in a grand cortège from Pontefract to Fotheringhay Castle for reburial, where he threw a slap-up shindig for 15,000 people.
Nine years later, as a beleaguered king, Richard was at it again, this time reburying the remains of the Yorkists’ rival, poor, pious, mad Henry VI – whom Richard may have had a hand in finishing off – in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where he still lies, in greater state than a Leicester car park. This was a gesture of shrewd politics: an attempt, albeit optimistic, to reach out to alienated Lancastrians. But, from whatever level of the car park Richard has been residing, you know he is enjoying the current joust between Leicester and York for the privilege of burying his remains.
Would we all be so excited if the bones had turned out to belong to, say, George II – who, after all, was another (indeed, the last) king who led his troops into battle? I do not think so. And this is because, however much his supporters, the so-called White Boars, will not admit it, it is his demonisers who have made Richard loom so large in our shared memory. From Thomas More (whose unfinished History is the first great historical novel in the language) to chroniclers Hall and Holinshed and, of course, Shakespeare, who gave his bent form (perhaps we should now call him Swayback?), Richard acquired the stature of an Antichrist.
Shakespeare’s version, indebted to all of the above, with their fables of his withered arm, is performed so often it is easy to forget what an astounding tour de force the play is. From the moment the misshapen cynic appears in Henry VI, Part 3, a dark star is born: the template for Iago and Edmund. It is exactly because the feral Richard sneers “this word love, which gray-beards call divine” that the man who confides “I am myself alone” is so irresistibly sexy.
Torn between their crush and their mission of vindication, Ricardians have overcorrected, turning him into a much traduced paragon of devoted governance, personal piety (to be sure, he wrote prayers for himself of slightly crazed fervour and had a neurotically unpleasant distaste for women he decided had “fallen”) and compassion for the poor.
But the truth is that Richard was neither Antichrist nor paragon. He was just your average Machiavellian man on the make. The Prince was written 28 years after Richard’s death at Bosworth Field but its recipe for success described Richard to a T. Anyone, Machiavelli wrote, “who considers it necessary in his newly acquired principality to protect himself from his enemies” should “make himself loved and feared by the people, to be followed and revered by his soldiers, wipe out those who can or may do you harm, renovate ancient institutions with new ones, to be both severe and kind, magnanimous and generous, wipe out disloyal troops and create new ones.”
Well, almost. The fear and wiping out bits, Richard was a past master at; magnanimity came harder, although he was fiercely loyal to the friends and allies he made during his 12 years governing the north from York. It was to the northerners that he finally looked to prop him up against those who were revolted by his usurpation, but in the end they were not enough.
The tricky thing about the fear-love calculus is that you need to get it exactly right – and, when his older brother Edward IV died suddenly aged 40 in April 1483 leaving a 12-year-old heir, Richard was presented with a humdinger of a Machiavellian moment. Should he let the kingdom slide back into chaos or should it get the smack of his firm rule?
He was eight when his late-lamented father had perished failing to take the crown from Henry VI merely on the pretext of his unfitness to rule. York had only tried to do what Henry’s grandfather, Bolingbroke, had done to Richard II. And so the bloodlust of the magnates was unleashed, a pageant of clan hatreds and vendettas that splashed gore around the English Midlands in the last great smashmouth feudal battles. And it turned out that little Richard was really good at the whack and slice stuff in the thick of the fray, standing by Edward at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury.
Richard’s dilemma was tricky. Part of him was the bent figure avid to be the true chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, though Donatello’s St George he was evidently not. But the other half of him was (like his brother) an exemplar of the new governance: the professionalised, bureaucratised stewardship of estates and revenues, not to mention the manager and manipulator of reputations that would emerge with frightening force under the Tudors. Bye bye, feudals; hello, oh-oh, Mr Thomas Cromwell.
But all the benefactions to Cambridge colleges, the endowments of chantries, the attentiveness to fish trapping on the River Ouse would not do it if you overplayed your hand when it came to the wiping-out side of the equation. Richard’s transgressions were not just the stuff of Tudor propaganda; they were noticed at the time and made even former allies wonder when they would be next. Spring had barely turned into summer in 1483 when Richard as “Uncle-Protector” of his nephew, Edward V, put it about that his late lamented brother had an unlawful marriage with Elizabeth Woodville and that the new boy-king was a bastard. Already conveniently in the Tower of London, he and his small brother were seen playing in the yard and then never again. The bones of two youths roughly their ages were found under a staircase leading to the White Tower in 1674. Someone summon the DNA people!
Such was Richard’s taste for pre-emptive strikes that, if you were of the Queen Mother’s party or even soft on her, when you went to a council meeting you had no idea whether you would exit again – except via the shortest route to the bloody chopping block.
So why, in our age when the monarchy has to be so well-behaved (or do its best to be), would we not be entranced with Richard, who was so very beguilingly wicked? And now we can read the story of his end written on his bones even more graphically than the chroniclers could contrive. For at Bosworth, Richard did the ballsiest thing: seeing the day turning, he took the column of his “main battle” and charged the Tudor army, aiming to smash his way through to kill Henry Tudor, his Lancastrian challenger and distant cousin.
He almost succeeded, even when the squishy ground lost him his horse and somehow the golden circlet on his head was dislodged. Down went Henry’s standard bearer; down in a crash of feudal hardware went Sir John Cheyne; only then the king noticed Sir William Stanley’s scarlet-coated soldiers, meant to be his reinforcements. His last words had nothing to do with horses but were, with comical disingenuousness: “Treason! Treason!” The halberd pierced his brain and it was all over.
Not quite. It was a backhanded compliment of sorts that made Henry Tudor expose his corpse for two days at Greyfriars – a Leicester monastery paved over centuries later to make a council car park – half naked, the bottom half covered by “a poor black cloth”. Now we have physical confirmation of the mutilations inflicted on the body, including a targeted low blow through the right buttock, although the greatest indignity may have been the measly 10 quid Henry (who became famous for never throwing good money after bad) shelled out for his coffin.
So the least someone can do for the king we love to hate and hate to love is to give him a slap-up reinterment. Hey, nobody’s perfect. A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!
The writer is an FT contributing editor
An editing error about Thomas Cromwell has been corrected since publication
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