The original "Tricky Dicky"?

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, June 26, 2007 ,

Today is the anniversary of the Duke of Gloucester, ascending the throne no more legitimately than his immediate predecessors or his successor, as Richard III.

The details of his reign are less important than the propaganda that has blackened his name since the sixteenth century on. He is regarded as a usurper (as were Henry IV, Edward IV and Henry VII) and a man who disposed of all his opponents (as did all the Lancastrians, Yorkists and, particularly, the two first Tudors). In particular, he is seen as the murderer of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Available evidence on that deed (again, hardly unusual for the period) points as much to Henry VII as the villain as to Richard III.

Ah but Henry VII, who had no rights to the throne whatsoever and he knew it, won the war, had himself crowned and, just as his son, systematically disposed of anybody and everybody who might have had a better claim and who simply opposed him. The two Henrys were considerably more efficient than Richard in this respoect and they and their dynasty, consequently, survived.

It is not the various political innovations that were truly the Tudors' achievement, as much of that had been started by the Yorkist kings, but by the efficient and skilful use of propaganda.

The court historian Polydore Virgil, the courtier (until his coscience got the better of him) Sir Thomas More and the playwright who knew which side his bread was buttered on, William Shakespeare produced a vivid but villainous figure of the evil, monstrous, hunchbacked usurper.

Interestingly enough the whole Shakespearian sequence of the Wars of the Roses is considerably more balanced than the last play in it and it is notable that Shakespeare never managed a play about Henry VII. In fact, the worst episode in the entire cycle is the murder of the Rutland, the Duke of York's youngest son and the witch-like Queen Margaret's taunting of the captured general with a napkin dipped in the boy's blood. Margaret, herself responsible for much of the trouble that undermined Henry VI's reign, is, of course, a Lancastrian.

Once we get to the last play, Richard III, all nuances disappear and one can see why. The Tudors were, rightly, uncertain of their rights to the throne and had to paint their immediate predecessor as a usurper.

The first two Tudor kings were not precisely popular and their memory, even in Elizabeth's day, was far from rosy so the immediate predecessor had to be a double-dyed villain. And so he has remained largely to this day though not for all. In Tory Historian's view the best analysis of the problem of the Princes in the Tower is in a novel, Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time".


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I am picking my way through vol. III of Harold Nicolson's diaries, which is of course very good. He mentions in there seeing the Olivier's 1955 Richard III, and praises it to the skies.

    I suppose this is one nore I must add to my list.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. A great film, but not a mythbuster. Richard III established a quite reasonable claim to the throne (far better than HVII) by questioning the legality of the marriage that produced the 'Princes in the Tower' and hence had little need to muder them. Whereas Henry VII... Its a good case, but the rumours of the Princes' death were around before 1485. So non proven may be the best verdict - Kendall of course pointed to another culprit altogether, not implausibly. Now if the recent book suggesting that the younger prince survived has any validity, the Ricardians are in business.

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. The big picture is that England, as other than a fleeting construct, is the work of Gauillaume the Conqueror. Frogs ruled for about 300 years, after which chaps who thought of themselves as English staged endless murders, rebellions and betrayals as they fought for the throne. After a century or so of this, Henry Tudor, making much of his Welsh descent, put an end to the madness. When his line petered out England was ruled by a succession of Scots, a Dutchman and then Krauts. I conclude that the English are rather good at parliamentary democracy but make rotten Kings. The obvious exception is George Washington.

  7. Firstly, Lex, the film is very well worth seeing even though John is right - it is no mythbuster but a very straightforward adaptation of the play. But nobody has ever managed a Richard to rival Olivier though, I have to admit I have not seen the latest RSC production yet.

    I am sorry, dearieme, but that is a very muddled comment. The Normans were not precisely French (I assume that is what you mean) but Norsemen. They did speak French but the people they conquered were Anglo-Saxons with some Danish and a good dollop of Celtic. Not English, not really at that stage. Some thought of themselves as English but others mostly felt loyalty to counties. The endless murders etc etc were staged by the Normans as much as the Anglo-Saxons and the subsequent Plantagenets, the last of whom was Richard III. By this stage they were definitely English. Henry Tudor was half Welsh with a good deal of French thrown in - Henry V's widow was a grandmother. Royal families across Europe were rarely of the same nationality by blood or culture very often as the people they ruled.

  8. Anonymous Says:
  9. Insofar as there was some notion of what it was to be English, and I think there was, Henry 1 took good care to marry into the old English line. The French were probably evel less certain of their identity, but I doubt if the Angevins really thought of themselves as French, more particularly after the French Kings started to take over their possessions in what is today France. Dearieme's picture is sadly flawed, but it would be good to explore the extent to which national identity existed in the 10th to the 12th centuries.

    Getting back to Richard III, it would be interesting to ask why the professional historians are so adamant about accepting his "guilt" whereas the amateurs rally to his defence. The evidence (and here Josephine Tey would find even stronger support from much that has come to light since she wrote) is far from unequivocal on the subject and both motive - that eternal cry of both fictional and non fictional detectives - and record seem to point to the guilt of Henry VII. Good to know what fellow readers think of the case for the younger Prince's survival, but even without that, I cannot see what Richard would have gained from murdering them.

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