Monday, February 04, 2013

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain

"Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold, for Dickon, thy master, is bought and sold". 

When I was a small boy, I went to Arundel castle, the home of the Premier Dukes of England, the Howard Dukes of Norfolk. It left me with a life-long interest in Heraldry and Flags, but as fascinating as the castle is there is one thing- a simple piece of paper- that left a stronger impression upon me. On that paper were the words above, and the letter was delivered into the hands of the then Duke of Norfolk on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field: the 21st August 1485.

The words were ominous, and as it turned out, true. Richard III was betrayed. The defection of the Stanley family, who were lured into backing Henry Tudor by a mixture of bribery and blackmail was the primary cause for the defeat of King Richard III and the accession of Henry VII. Richard was killed in battle and, famously, the crown of England was found on a hawthorn bush, before becoming the property of the second king to claim the throne of England by right of conquest-  the first, of course was the Conqueror in 1066. 

In many ways the changes that followed the fall of the House of Plantagenet and the accession of the House of Tudor were just as radical as the Norman conquest itself. Certainly, for all his bluster of legitimacy, the new Henry VII and his even more blood-thirsty son, Henry VIII, had anyone with the merest hint of Plantagenet blood put to death. Always after then, the constant fear of the House of Tudor was the threat to their dynasty- and sure enough after 118 years it did fail, and all of Henry VIII's dynastic hopes passed away with his daughter. By that time England had undergone a religious as well as a political revolution. In retrospect Henry VII seems to be the first post medieval King.

Yet what of Richard III?

He is -of course- Shakespeare's pantomime villain: "I can smile and murder while I smile".  Yet evidence is growing that many of the crimes laid at Richard's door- including the alleged murder of the infant sons of his brother, Edward IV, the "Princes in the Tower" - may not have been carried out by Richard at all, but by Henry.  Far from being the proto-Fascist of contemporary history, Richard III left a legacy of reform, fair dealing and military bravery that seems at odds with the crimes alleged against him. Indeed the Richard III society, whose patron is a member of the modern Royal family, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, suggest that far from being a villain, Richard was the first modern monarch: recognizing rule of law and accepting that Royal power could not be untrammeled- a position that would not be accepted by his successors until the Glorious revolution over 200 years after Bosworth Field.

It is now easier to admire the achievements of a man who ruled for only two years and was still only 32 when he was killed. Even more so, since we now understand his severe physical ailments- scoliosis- as it is revealed that his body has been rediscovered.

Richard III, whether guilty of some or all of the crimes laid against him, did not lose his throne through his own weakness, but because he was utterly betrayed- and the scale of the conspiracy is shown by a simple piece of paper in Arundel castle. 

For many, he was the last King of the true line, and the fact that the Tudors were so determined to wipe out the rest of the Plantagenet family, suggests that the little matter of the Princes in the Tower might more easily put down to Henry VII than Richard III. In which case, although history is written by the victors, it might be time to set the record straight, exonerate Richard Plantagenet and indict Henry Tudor.

Richard of York may have given battle in vain, but his reign is one of the great might-have-beens of history, it deserves more attention, if only so we understand that the so-called glory of the Tudors was built on very shaky foundations.   

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