“Sixteenth-century historians made it their business to blacken Richard (III)’s character…”[i]
King Richard III, Unknown Artist, Late 16th Century
For the Plantagenet dynasty, King Richard III (Richard) was a contested ruler during the Wars of the Roses, the son of a Yorkist king, and the last king in a long line of Plantagenet rulers. Conversely, for the Tudor dynasty, Richard was a scapegoat, a means by which to legitimise their claim to the throne, and the embodiment of evil. The Tudor Myth, as a result, emerged creating an ideology for the Tudor Dynasty. Evidently, a scholarship surrounding this myth surfaced – three of the key players of interest: Polydore Vergil, Sir Thomas More, and William Shakespeare. Each individual employed a number of themes, sources and tropes in order to blacken Richard’s name and reputation.
The Wars of the Roses
The White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster
The Wars of the Roses were a sequence of dynastic civil wars in England that lasted from 1455 to 1487 over the legitimacy and right to the throne of England. The conflict was fought between two factions of the Plantagenet dynasty – The House of York and the House of Lancaster.
Richard reigned between 1483 and 1485; the origins of his reign were quite contested. Richard was eventually killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and succeeded by Henry Tudor, later known as King Henry VII.
The Tudor dynasty. What was the Tudor Myth?
The Tudor Rose
The defeat of Richard signalled the commencement of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudor regime required a foundational myth that supported their claim to the throne after the conclusion of the Plantagenet dynasty. Henry VII set about branding a new Tudor culture and foundational myth. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, subsequently, wished to prove that the Tudor dynasty was more successful than the Plantagenet dynasty and desired to suppress internal struggles and external struggles, particularly from Spain. The Tudor Myth, thus, espoused the concept that the Tudor monarchs were saviours from both the horrors that England faced during the Wars of the Roses and the tyranny of particular monarchs of the Plantagenet dynasty. For literature of the period, this meant a greater autonomy of Tudor tendencies. The Tudor dynasty became a galvanizing, radical force eventually producing a Tudor Myth.
Polydore Vergil – Anglica Historia
From ‘Crabb’s Historical Dictionary’, Polydore Vergil, 1825
Vergil provided the Tudor Dynasty with an important national history in Anglica Historia, initially commissioned by Henry VII, and later Henry VIII, to write an official history of England around 1505. Vergil clearly states his thoughts on Richard’s reign in the opening remarks of the text – “Richard duke of Glocestre, who thowght of nothing but tyranny and crueltie…”[iii]. In line with other historians espousing the Tudor Myth, Vergil described King Richard III as follows:
…(Richard) was lyttle of stature, deformyd of body, thone showlder higher than thother, a short and soure countenance, which semyed to savor of mischief, and utter evydently craft and deceyt[iv].
For Vergil, Richard was a villainous tyrant whose reign had negative impacts upon England, and led to anarchy. Vergil, notably, had profound influences on later scholars and authors of the Tudor dynasty, including More and Shakespeare.
Sir Thomas More – The History of King Richard III
Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More, 1527
More had an invested interest in the Tudor regime, with Henry VIII paying particular attention to More, eventually appointing him member of the Privy Chamber in 1518 and later Lord Chancellor in 1529. His text, written around 1513, described Richard’s physicality in length in the beginning of the text to construct an image immediately for the audience:
…(Richard) was in witte and courage egall with either of them, in bodye and prowess farre vnder them bot, little of stature, ill fetured of limes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right, hard fauoured of visage, and suche as is in states called warlye, in other menne otherwise, he was malicious, wrathfull, enuious, and from afore his birth, euer frowarde[v].
The use of a trope concerning deformity clearly tarnished the character of Richard and, as such, highlighted the positive aspects of the Tudor monarchs, such as Henry VII and Henry VIII who were represented as well-formed, superior monarchs. Hence, More clearly presented a blackened image of King Richard III in order to accentuate the positive features of the Tudor dynasty.
William Shakespeare – The Tragedy of King Richard III
Martin Droeshout, William Shakespeare, 1623
Shakespeare’s stage play notably portrays a blackened image of Richard. It was under Elizabeth I’s reign that the playing company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men under James I, was founded, of whom Shakespeare was a notable member. Along with More’s physical depiction, Shakespeare provided the character of Richard with a soliloquy in which he acknowledges his deformities and plans to usurp the throne:
I that am rudely stamped…
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up –
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous…[vi]
From this excerpt and the tropes employed, it can be identified that Richard is a villainous character whom, as a result of his deformity, plans to usurp the throne. Clearly Shakespeare reflected the desires of the Tudor monarchs to present Richard as an unsuccessful and evil tyrant, legitimising the Tudor claim to the throne.
Evidently, the primary sources discussed presented blackened representations of Richard clearly influenced by the Tudor dynasty and nationalistic Tudor Myth that surfaced under the reign of Henry VII, and continued to ferment under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Themes of physical deformity, tyrannical upheaval, murderous deeds, and religious transgressions, ultimately resulted in a tarnished representation of Richard, leading to the overwhelmingly affirmative and superior portrayals of Tudor monarchs in English history.
- Gairdner, James. History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition, International Student Edition, edited by Julia Reidhead. London, Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Hanham, Alison. Richard III and His Early Historians 1483-1535. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
- More, Sir Thomas. The History of King Richard the Third, edited by Richard Bear. University of Oregon, 1997. http://www.r3.org/bookcase/more/moretext.html
- Vergil, Polydore. Anglica Historia, Books 23-25, edited by J.B. Nichols. London, 1846. http://www.r3.org/bookcase/polydore.html
- Zeeveld, W. Gordon. “A Tudor Defense of Richard III.” PMLA 55.4 (1940): pp. 946-957.
[i] “Tudor Myth” in “Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature, Revised Edition.” Ed. Marion Wynne-Davis. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1997.) Available from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/blit/tudor_myth
[vi] Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition, International Student Edition, edited by Julia Reidhead. (London, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 548.