LIFE AND REIGN
KING RICHARD THE THIRD
by Mr. HORACE WALPOLE
- L’Histoire n’est fondée que fur le temoignage des Auteurs qui nous l’ont transmise. Il inport donc extremement, pour la sçavoir, de bien connoitre quels etoient ces Auteurs. Rien n’est à negliger en ce point; le tems où ils ont vecû, leurs naissance, leur patrie, la part qu’ils ont eue aux affaires, les moyens par lesquels ils on été instruits, et l’intérêt qu’ils y pouvoient prendre, font des circonstances essentielles qu’ils n’est pas permis d’ignorer: delà depend le plus ou le moins d’autoritè qu’ils doivent avoir: et sans cette connoissance, on courra risque très souvent de prendre pour guide un Historien de mauvais foi, ou du moins, mal informé.
Hist. de l’Acad. des Inscript. Vol. X.
LONDON: Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall M.DCC.LXVIII.
As nations grew polished, History became better authenticated. Greece itself learned to speak a little truth. Rome, at the hour of its fall, had the consolation of seeing the crimes of its usurpers published. The vanquished inflicted eternal wounds on their conquerors – but who knows, if Pompey had succeeded, whether Julius Caesar would not have been decorated as a martyr to publick liberty? At some periods the suffering criminal captivates all hearts; at others, the triumphant tyrant. Augustus, drenched in the blood of his fellow- citizens, and Charles Stuart, falling in his own blood, are held up to admiration. Truth is left out of the discussion; and odes and anniversary sermons give the law to history and credulity.
But if the crimes of Rome are authenticated, the case is not the same with its virtues. An able critic has shown that nothing is more problematic than the history of the three or four first ages of that city. As the confusions of the state increased, so do the confusions in its story. The empire had masters, whole names are known only from medals. It is uncertain of what princes several empresses were the wives. If the jealousy of two antiquaries intervenes, the point becomes inexplicable. Oriuna, on the medals of Carausius, used to pass for the moon: of late years it is become a doubt whether she was not his consort. It is of little importance whether she was moon or empress: but how little must we know of those times, when those land-marks to certainty, royal names, do not serve even that purpose! In the cabinet of the king of France are several coins of sovereigns, whose country cannot now be guessed at.
The want of records, of letters, of printing, of critics; wars, revolutions, factions, and other causes, occasioned these defects in ancient history. Chronology and astronomy are forced to tinker up and reconcile, as well as they can, those uncertainties. This satisfies the learned – but what should we think of the reign of George the Second, to be calculated two thousand years hence by eclipses, lest the conquest of Canada should be ascribed to James the First?
At the very moment that the Roman empire was resettled, nay, when a new metropolis was erected, in an age of science and arts, while letters still held up their heads in Greece; consequently, when the great outlines of truth, I mean events, might be expected to be established; at that very period a new deluge of error burst upon the world. Christian monks and saints laid truth waste; and a mock sun rose at Rome, when the Roman sun sank at Constantinople. Virtues and vices were rated by the standard of bigotry; and the militia of the church became the only historians. The best princes were represented as monsters; the worst, at least the most useless, were deified, according as they depressed or exalted turbulent and enthusiastic prelates and friars. Nay, these men were so destitute of temper and common sense, that they dared to suppose that common sense would never revisit the earth: and accordingly wrote with so little judgement, and committed such palpable forgeries, that if we cannot discover what really happened in those ages, we can at least be very sure what did not. How many general persecutions does the church record, of which there is not the smallest trace? What donations and charters were forged, for which those holy persons would lose their ears, if they were in this age to present them in the most common court of judicature? Yet how long were these imposters the only persons who attempted to write history!
But let us lay aside their interested lies, and consider how far they were qualified in other respects to transmit faithful memorials to posterity. In the ages I speak of, the barbarian monkish ages, the shadow of learning that existed was confined to the clergy: they generally wrote in Latin, or in verse, and their compositions in both were truly barbarous. The difficulties of rhime, and the want of correspondent terms in Latin, were of no small impediments to the severe march of truth. But there were worse obstacles to encounter. Europe was in a continual state of warfare. Little princes and great lords were constantly skirmishing and scrambling for trifling additions of territory, or wasting each others borders. Geography was very imperfect; no police existed; roads, such as they were, were dangerous; and posts were not established. Events were only known by rumour, from pilgrims, or by letters carried by couriers to the parties interested: the public did not enjoy even those fallible vehicles of intelligence, newspapers. In this situation did monks, at twenty, fifty, an hundred, nay a thousand miles distance (and under the circumstances I have mentioned even twenty miles were considerable) undertake to write history – and they wrote it accordingly.
If we take a survey of our own history, and examine it with any attention, what an unsatisfactory picture it does present to us! How dry, how superficial, how void of information! How little is recorded besides battles, plagues, and religious foundations! That this should be the case, before the Conquest, is not surprising. Our empire was but forming itself, or re-collecting its divided members into one mass, which, from the desertion of the Romans, had split into petty kingdoms. The invasions of nations as barbarous as ourselves, interfered with every plan of policy and order that might have been formed to settle the emerging state; and swarms of foreign monks were turned loose upon us with their new faith and mysteries, to bewilder and confound the plain good sense of our ancestors. It was too much to have Danes, Saxons, and Popes to combat at once!
Our language suffered as much as our government; and not having acquired much from our Roman masters, was miserably disfigured by the subsequent invaders. The unconquered parts of the island retained some purity and some precision. The Welsh and Erse tongues wanted not harmony: but never did exist a more barbarous jargon than the dialect still venerated by antiquaries, and called Saxon. It was so uncouth, so inflexible to all composition, that the monks, retaining the idiom, were reduced to write in what they took or meant for Latin.
The Norman tyranny succeeded, and gave this Babel of savage sounds a wrench towards their own language. Such a mixture necessarily required ages to bring it to some standard: and, consequently, whatever compositions were formed during its progress, were sure of growing obsolete. However, the authors of those days were not likely to make these obvious reflections; and indeed seem to have aimed at no one perfection. From the Conquest to the reign of Henry the Eighth it is difficult to discover any one beauty in our writers, but their simplicity. They told their tale, like story-tellers; that is, they related without art or ornament; and they related whatever they heard. No councils of princes, no motives of conduct, no remoter springs of action, did they investigate or learn. We have even little light into the chambers of the actors. A king, or an archbishop of Canterbury are the only persons with whom we are made much acquainted. The barons are all represented as brave patriots; but we have not the satisfaction of knowing which of them were really so; nor whether they were not all turbulent and ambitious. The probability is, that both kings and nobles wished to encroach on each other: and if any sparks of liberty were struck out, in all likelihood it was contrary to the intention of either the flint or the steel.
Hence has it been thought necessary to give a new dress to English history. Recourse has been had to records, and they are far from corroborating the testimonies of our historians. Want of authentic materials has obliged our later writers to leave the mass pretty much as they found it. Perhaps all the requisite attention that might have been bestowed, has not been bestowed. It demands great industry and patience to wade into such abstruse stores as records and charters: and they being jejune and narrow in themselves, very acute criticism is necessary to strike light from their assistance. If they solemnly contradict historians in material facts, we may lose our history; but it is impossible to adhere to our historians. Partiality man cannot entirely divest himself of, it is so natural, that the bent of a writer to one side or the other of a question is almost always discoverable. But there is a wide difference between favoring and lying — and yet I doubt whether the whole stream of our historians, misled by their originals, have not falsified one reign in our annals in the grossest manner. The moderns are only guilty of taking on trust what they ought to have examined more scrupulously as the authors whom they copied were all ranked on one side in a flagrant season of party. But no excuse can be made for the original authors, who, I doubt, have violated all rules of truth.
The confusions which attended the civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster, threw an obscurity over that part of our annals, which it is almost impossible to dispel. We have scarce any authentic monuments of the reign of Edward the Fourth; and ought to read his history with much distrust, from the boundless partiality of the succeeding writers to the opposite cause. That diffidence should increase as we proceed to the reign of his brother.
It occurred to me some years ago, that the picture of Richard the Third, as drawn by historians, was a character formed by prejudice and invention. I did not take Shakespeare’s tragedy for a genuine representation, but I did take the story of that reign for a tragedy of imagination. Many of the crimes imputed to Richard seemed improbable; and, what was stronger, contrary to his interest. A few incidental circumstances corroborated my opinion; an original and important instrument was pointed out to me last winter, which gave rise to the following sheets; and as it was easy to perceive, under all the glare of encomiums which historians have heaped on the wisdom of Henry the Seventh, that he was a mean and unfeeling tyrant, I suspected that they had blackened his rival, till Henry, by the contrast, should appear in a kind of amiable light. The more I examined their story, the more I was confirmed in my opinion:—and with regard to Henry, one consequence I could not help drawing; that we have either no authentic memorials of Richard’s crimes, or, at most, no account of them but from Lancastrian historians; whereas the vices and injustice of Henry are, though palliated, avowed by the concurrent testimony of his panegyrists. Suspicions and calumny were fastened on Richard as so many assassinations. The murders committed by Henry were indeed executions —and executions pass for prudence with prudent historians; for when a successful king is chief justice, historians become a voluntary jury.
If I do not flatter myself, I have unravelled a considerable part of that dark period. Whether satisfactorily or not, my readers must decide. Nor is it of any importance whether I have or not. The attempt was a mere matter of curiosity and speculation. If any man, as idle as myself, should take the trouble to review and canvas my arguments, I am ready to yield so indifferent a point to better reasons. Should declamation alone be used to contradict me, I shall not think I am less in the right.
LIFE and REIGN of King RICHARD III
Historic justice is due to all characters. Who would not vindicate Henry the Eight or Charles the Second, if found to be falsely traduced? Why then not Richard the Third? Of what importance is it to any man living whether or not he was as bad as he is represented? No one noble family is sprung from him.
However, not to disturb too much the erudition of those who have read the dismal story of his cruelties, and settled their ideas of his tyranny and usurpation, I declare I am not going to write a vindication of him. All I mean to show, is, that though he may have been as execrable as we are told he was, we have little or no reason to believe so. If the propensity of habit should still incline a single man to suppose that all he has read of Richard is true, I beg no more, than that this person would be so impartial as to own that he has little or no foundation for supposing so.
I will state the list of the crimes charged on Richard; I will specify the authorities on which he was accused; I will give a faithful account of the historians by whom he was accused; and will then examine the circumstances of each crime and each evidence; and lastly, show that some of the crimes were contrary to Richard’s interest, and almost all inconsistent with probability or with dates, and some of them involved in material contradictions.
- 1st. His murder of Edward prince of Wales, son of Henry the Sixth
- 2d. His murder of Henry the Sixth
- 3d. The murder of his brother George duke of Clarence
- 4th. The execution of Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan
- 5th. The execution of Lord Hastings
- 6th. The murder of Edward the Fifth and his brother
- 7th. The murder of his own queen
To which may be added, as they are thrown into the list to blacken him, his intended match with his own niece Elizabeth, the penance of Jane Shore, and his own personal deformities.
Henry the Sixth
Hall, who closes his work with the reign of Henry the Eighth,says, that ” the prince beyinge bold of stomache and of a good courage, answered the king’s question (of how he durst to presumptuously enter into his realme with banner displayed) sayinge, to recover my father’s kingdome and enheritage, etc. at which words kyng Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or, as some say, stroke him with his gauntlet, whome incontinent, they that strode about, which were George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas marques Dorset (son of queen Elizabeth Widville) and William lord Hastynges, sodainly murthered and pitiously manquelled.” Thus much had the story gained from the time of Fabian to that of Hall.
Hollingshed repeats these very words, consequently is a transcriber and no new authority.
John Stowe reverts to Fabian’s account, as the only one not grounded on hear- say, and affirms no more, than that the king cruelly smote the young prince on the face with his gauntlet, and after his servants slew him.
Of modern historians, Rapin and Carte, the only two who seem not to have swallowed implicitly all the vulgar tales propagated by the Lancastrians to blacken the house of York, warn us to read with allowance the exaggerated relations of those times. The latter suspects, that at the dissolution of the monasteries all evidences were suppressed that tended to weaken the right of the prince on the throne; but as Henry the Eighth concentrated in himself both the claim of Edward the Fourth and that ridiculous one of Henry the Seventh, he seems to have had less occasion to be anxious lest the truth should come out; and indeed his father had involved that truth in so much darkness, that it was little likely to force its way. Nor was it necessary then to load the memory of Richard the Third, who had left no offspring. Henry the Eighth had no competitor to fear but the descendants of Clarence, of whom he seems to have had sufficient apprehension, as appeared by his murder of the old countess of Salisbury, daughter of Clarence, and his endeavors to root out her posterity. This jealousy accounts for Hall charging the duke of Clarence, as well as the duke of Gloucester, with the murder of prince Edward. But in accusations of so deep a dye, it is not sufficient ground for our belief, that an historian reports them with such a frivolous palliative as that phrase, as some say. A contemporary names the king’s servants as perpetrators of the murder: Is not that more probable, than that the king’s own brothers should have dipped their hands in so foul an assassination? Richard, in particular, is allowed on all hands to have been a brave and martial prince: he had great share in the victory at Tewksbury: Some years afterwards, he commanded his brother’s troops in Scotland, and made himself master of Edinburgh. At the battle of Bosworth, where he fell, his courage was heroic: he fought Richmond, and endeavored to decide their quarrel by a personal combat, slaying Sir William Brandon, his rival’s standard-bearer, with his own hand, and felling to the ground Sir John Cheney, who endeavored to oppose his fury. Such men may be carried by ambition to command the execution of those who stand in their way; but are not likely to lend their hand, in cold blood, to a base, and, to themselves useless assassination. How did it import Richard in what manner the young prince was put to death? If he had so early planned the ambitious designs ascribed to him, he might have trusted to his brother Edward, so much more immediately concerned, that the young prince would not be spared. If those views did not, as is probable, take root in his heart till long afterwards, what interest had Richard to murder an unhappy young prince? This crime therefore was so unnecessary, and is so far from being established by any authority, that he deserves to be entirely acquitted of it.
The author of the Continuation of the Chronicle of Croyland says only, that the body of king Henry was found lifeless (exanime) in the Tower. “Parcat Deus”, adds he, “& spatium poenitentiae Ei donet, Quicunquesacrilegas manus in Christum Domini ausus est immittere. Unde et agens tyranni, patiensque gloriosi martyris titulum mereatur.” The prayer for the murderer, that he may live to repent, proves that the passage was written immediately after the murder was committed. That the assassin deserved the appellation of tyrant, evinces that the historian’s suspicions went high; but as he calls him Quicunque, and as we are uncertain whether he wrote before the death of Edward the Fourth or between his death and that of Richard the Third, we cannot ascertain which of the brothers he meant. In strict construction he should mean Edward, because he is speaking of Henry’s death, Richard, then only duke of Gloucester, could not properly be called a tyrant. But as monks were not good grammatical critics, I shall lay no stress on this objection. I do think he alluded to Richard; having treated him severely in the subsequent part of his history, and having a true monkish partiality to Edward, whose cruelty and vices he slightly noticed, in favor to that monarch’s severity to heretics and ecclesiastic expiations. “Is princeps, licet diebus suis cupiditatibus & luxui nimis intemperanter indulsisse credatur, in fide tamen catholicus summe, hereticorum severissimus hostis, sapientium & doctorum hominum clericorumque promotor amantissimus, sacramentorum ecclesiae devotissimus venerator, peccatorumque suorum omnium paenitentissimus suit.” That monster Philip the Second possessed just the same virtues. Still, I say, let the monk suspect whom he would, if Henry was found dead, the monk was not likely to know who murdered him — and if he did, he has not told us.
Hall says, “Poore kyng Henry the Sixte, a little before deprived of hys realme and imperial croune, was now in the Tower of London spoyled of his life and all wordly felicite by Richard duke of Gloucester (as the constant fame ranne) which, to thintent that king Edward his brother should be clere out of al secret suspicion of sudden invasion, murthered the said king with a dagger.” Whatever Richard was, it seems he was a most excellent and kind-hearted brother, and scrupled not on any occasion to be the Jack Ketch of the times. We shall see him soon (if the evidence were to be believed) perform the same friendly office for Edward on their brother Clarence. And we must admire that he, whose dagger was so fleshed in murder for the service of another, should be so put to it to find the means of making away with his nephews, whose deaths were considerably more essential to him. But can this accusation be allowed gravely? If Richard aspired to the crown, whose whole conduct during Edward’s reign was a scene, as we are told, of plausibility and decorum, would he have officiously and unnecessarily have taken on himself the odium of slaying a saint- like monarch, adored by the people? Was it his interest to save Edward’s character at the expense of his own? Did Henry stand in his way, deposed, imprisoned, and now childless? The blind and indiscriminate zeal with which every crime committed in that bloody age was placed to Richard’s account, makes it greatly probable, that interest of party had more hand than truth in drawing hi picture. Other cruelties, which I shall mention, and to which we know his motives, he certainly commanded; nor am I desirous to purge him where I find him guilty: but mob-stories or Lancastrian forgeries ought to be rejected from sober history; nor can they be repeated, without exposing the writer to the imputation of weakness and vulgar credulity.
Special thanks to Society member Janet Trimbath for keyboarding this electronic edition.