Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dead King Watch: Richard III

The late great Peter Cook as Richard III (yes, I know, I have used this picture on my blog before)

Richard III died on 22 August 1485, killed by the army of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth, which makes today the 521st anniversary of his death. Richard appears in the 2002 List of '100 Great Britons' (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public) though the BBC History Magazine lists him under 'doubtful entrants, based on special interest lobbying or "cult" status', and comments: 'On the list due to the Ricardian lobby, but a minor monarch'. The Ricardian lobby? Eh? Who the hell are these guys? And why have they formed a cult around someone who died 521 years ago? Well, this is apparently a frequently asked question on their site...

Q:Why do you believe Richard was a good king?

A: 'As king, Richard attempted to provide justice for all, including the poor and the vulnerable and this was demonstrated in his parliament. Richard understood the value of peace and trade, and he encouraged foreign trade and immigration of skilled craftsmen. He had an open mind with regard to invention and innovation and he encouraged the fledging printing industry. He was a talented administrator and following his elevation to the crown established the Council of the North to govern his former palatinate, an organisation that was so successful it was retained by the Tudors and survived until the mid-seventeenth-century. As duke, Richard had a reputation for being good and fair in his dealings but his reign as king was too short for his potential to be fully realised.'

Well - I am no medieval historian, and while it is true that if Richard III did encourage the immigration of skilled craftsmen to England he was a braver man than most of today's politicians, overall this is about as convincing as the stories - given colour by Shakespeare - which simply portray him as an evil 'poisonous hunch-backed toad'.

Richard was born in 1452 at Fotheringay Castle, the eighth and youngest and fourth surviving son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York and Cecily Neville, and there had therefore been no thought of him ever becoming King. However, his Dad did have a minor claim to the throne and when he was just three years old, the Wars of the Roses began - between his dad and the House of Lancaster - another noble family over this. When his father was killed in 1460, at the Battle of Wakefield, Richard's older brother, the 18 year old Edward, took charge of the Yorkist forces and led them to victory at the battle of Towton in 1461 - claiming the throne in the process and becoming Edward IV.

At this time, Richard was just nine years old and, bless him, he didn't really have a clue what the fuck was going on. One moment he was told that his dad and one of his brothers had been killed and their heads placed on spikes for the public to see at York - and the next moment another of his brothers was declared the King of England. Richard spent much of his childhood at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, under the tutelage of his uncle Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick - a family friend.

During the reign of his brother, King Edward IV, Richard demonstrated his loyalty as well as his skill as a military commander. He was small, stocky but a good jouster. He was rewarded with large estates in Northern England, and given the title Duke of Gloucester and the position of Governor of the North, becoming the richest and most powerful noble in England and a loyal aide to Edward IV. By contrast the other surviving brother, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was executed by Edward for treason.

By 1471 - the Lancastrians - and others who had stood in Edward's way like Warwick - were completely crushed. Henry VI was murdered in order to make sure of their defeat - and the only rival left was Henry Tudor - in exile abroad. In 1472 - at this time of peace, Richard married Anne Neville, Warwick's daughter and a childhood friend. He lived in York.

Then in 1483 - his brother Edward died, leaving his sons age 12 and 9 the heirs to the throne and Richard as Lord Protector. However, Edward's wife - their mother - Elizabeth Woodville - did not want Richard around exerting influence while the boys were growing up, so Richard had the Woodville's executed and the boys imprisoned in the Tower of London and then murdered. Richard was now King. When one of his supporters - Lord Hastings - thought Richard was in danger of becoming a tyrant, Hastings too was arrested and executed. This act of despotism horrified even his closest supporters like Buckingham - but when Buckingham rebelled he was also executed on the orders of Richard.

As AL Morton notes, Richard's struggle with the nobles who had helped him to power was an 'inevitable struggle [which] involved all the kings of the period in a contradiction that remaned insoluable till almost all the great families had become extinct.'

Rather like Stalin later on, even Richard's family were now stressed by the whole power struggle thing. Richard's son died in childhood in 1484, and the sadness of this prompted his wife, Anne to illness and also death. Richard was now completely alone - and deeply unpopular - save for a few sycophantic hangers on.

The exiled Henry Tudor now saw his chance to return to England and place his claim to the throne, promising to marry the daughter of Edward IV and so unite the Houses of York and Lancaster in peace if he won. Richard stood only for eternal war - he wanted his enemies and rivals destroyed.

As Morton notes, 'When Henry Tudor, who produced a remote claim to the throne, landed at Milford Haven, the treason and desertion that had been a constant feature of the age reasserted itself and Richard found himself almost without supporters. The Battle of Bosworth field, fought on August 22nd, 1485, by a mere handful of men on either side, ended the Wars of the Roses and with them a whole historic epoch in Britain.'

In the battle, Richard led his 120 strong hand-picked mounted bodyguard into a suicide attack in order to try and reach Henry Tudor and kill him, and in doing so achieve an instant victory. Richard cut through Henry's men but at the crucial moment was let down by the Duke of Northumberland, who refused to join battle and help him out. Richard was cut down crying 'treason, treason' to Northumberland - making him the only King to have been killed in battle. The battle stopped and the Crown was placed on the head of Henry Tudor.

According to local tradition in Leicester, Richard had gone to see a seer in the town before heading off for the Battle of Bosworth Field. She told him 'where your spur should strike on the ride into battle, your head shall be broken on the return'. On the ride into battle his spur apparently struck the bridge stone of the Bow Bridge. Afterward, as his naked dead body was being carried from the battle over the back of a horse, his head struck the same stone and was broken open. With all due respect to the people of Leicester, this story strikes me as being complete and utter bollocks. Richard's corpse was then left exposed in a house by the river for two days so all could see him, before it was placed in an unmarked grave.



At 7:42 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Someday you should write a history of the monarchy. Fun read.

At 5:10 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You will look at the Tudor claim for the succession, won't you? Jolly stuff under the queen's sheets, methinks. And not by the king...

At 6:22 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

When I have done all the monarchs I might then do a post not only summing them up as a collective and trying to trace the path of succession...

At 6:28 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

...but also contextualising the Dead Kings in the context of debate between Marxists over the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England, with particular reference to the work of Robert Brenner.

Then again, perhaps I'll give that last one a miss.


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