More Myth-Making

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Jeremy Potter, Good King Richard?
&@169; 1983 Jeremy Potter, used with permission


Chapter 12: More Myth-Making

Thanks are due to the late Jeremy Potter for permission to reproduce this chapter in an html edition, and to Judie Gall for keyboarding and html markup.

Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England 1529-1532, had no first-hand acqaintance with affairs of state during Richard’s reign. Born in 1478, he was still a child when Bosworth was fought. His History of King Richard III is not a history, but a literary exercise in the dramatic representation of villainy. A third of it is in imaginary dialoque, and the remainder contains factual inaccuracies with palpable absurdities. The flavour and authenticity may be judged from its reporting of Richard’s monstrous birth, as alleged in Rous’s ridiculous canard.

This virulent piece of character assassination directed against the last Planatgenet king by someone later put to death by Henry Tudor’s son and, later still (1935), canonised as a saint, has always been a paradox and a puzzle. The most plausible explanation was put forward only in 1975 by Alison Hanham, who drew attention to the fact that More was famous as an intellectual joker and suggested his account of Richard III is to a great extent ironical, a parody of history, a jest at the expense of Polydore Vergil and the unlikely tales with which he and his like expected to gull the public. More never completed or sought to publish this work, but what was written largely in irony was published after his death and has been read straight ever since.

A surviving letter from Erasmus to Polydore Vergil reveals that the historian believed that he had offended More, and parody may have been More’s revenge. In his HistoryMore’s particularly outrageous statements and anecdotes are slyly qualified by phrases such as ‘some wise men think’, ‘they that thus deem’, ‘it is for truth reported’ and ‘as the fame runs’. These seem to be signals to the reader that what is being reported is no more than worthless tittle-tattle of the kind which historians are in the habit of passing off as historical facts. Subtle leg-pulling of this sort appears the likeliest explanation for passages which lack all credibility.

Uses of dramatic irony are hard to fathom at a distance of time, but a later example of More’s sarcasm is all but explicit. In an epitaph on himself sent to Erasmus after his resignation of the chancellorship, he referred to Henry VIII as one who ‘alone of all kings worthily deserved both with sword and pen to be called Defender of the Faith, a glory not afore heard of’. Here the context of the occasion and the backhandedness of the compliment unmistakbly indicate that the reader should insert for himself the word ‘least’ between ‘kings’ and ‘worthily’. The sharp sting of derision is evident in the last six words.

More’s set-piece description of the subject of his History runs as follows: ‘…little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crookbacked, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage and such as is in princes called warlike, in other men otherwise. He was malicious, wrathful, envious, and, from before his birth, ever forward. It is for truth reported that the duchess his mother had so much ado in her travail that she could not be delivered of him uncut, and that he came into the world with feet forward — as men be borne out of it — and (as the fame runs) also not untoothed: either men out of hatred report above the truth or else nature changed her course in his beginning who in the course of his life many things unnaturally committed.’ Later in the text Richard is awarded, for good measure, ‘a shrivelled withered arm and small’, previously overlooked.

More is here setting down, with some relish and in finely turned prose, nonsense which ‘men out of hatred report’ and some knaves pretend and idiots believe to be true. As we learn from Erasmus, having one shoulder visibly higher than the other was a characteristic of More’s own personal appearance so there are private jokes here too. (Of More Erasmus wrote to Ulrich von Hutten: ‘The right shoulder appears slightly more elevated than his left, and this trait, most readily apparent in his walk…’) Perhaps More also had a reputation for being ‘hard-favoured of visage’. Certainly he was short, dark-haired, and pale-faced, like Richard.

The account of Richard’s connivance in the death of his brother Clarence and of his aspiration to wear the crown is another passage heavily qualified by implicit disclaimers: ‘Some wise men also think that his drift, covertly conveyed, which he resisted openly, howbeit somewhat (as men deemed) more faintly than he that were heartily minded to his welfare. And they that thus deem, think that he long time in King Edwrd’s life forethought to be king in case that the king his brother (whose life he looked that evil diet should shorten) should happen to decease (as indeed he did) while his children were young. And they deem that for this intent he was glad of the death of his brother the Duke of Clarence, whose life must needs have hindered him whether the same Duke of Clarence had kept him true to his nephew, the young king, or enterprised to be king himself. But of all this point there is no certainty, and whoso divines upon conjectures may as well shoot too far as too short’. ‘Divining upon conjectures’ and ‘shooting too far’ are apt descriptions of much of what has been written about Richard III over the centuries.

The literary merit of More’s work is not in dispute. It endures as a masterpiece, standing head and shoulders above the achievements of other gifted early biographers such as Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey and Roper’s life of More himelf. It is not a biography, however. The so-called History of King Richard III covers no more than the period between Edward IV’s death in the spring of 1483 and Buckingham’s rebellion in the autumn of the same year. It pictures an unnatural being and his deeds during that time, as seen through the eyes of his enemies. What has immortalised the work is the legendary tale of the death of the princes in the Tower. The original source of this heart-wrenching climax to the traditional fable of the Wicked Uncle, it has a fair claim to being one of the most misleading historical works ever written. Had the author intended it to masquerade as a contibution to knowledge, Horace Walpole’s verdict would be just. More, he wrote in his most waspish vein, ‘is an historian who is capable of employing truth only as cement in a fabric of fiction’.

Where checking is possible, the work is sadly defective in accuracy. It should, for instance, have been common knowledge in More’s day that, while Edward IV was secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville, the Earl of Warwick was at the French court negotiating a marriage for him with Bona of Savoy, the French king’s sister-in-law. Yet in the HistoryWarwick is said to have been in Spain negotiating for the hand of the King of Spain’s daughter. More understandably, like Vergil he substitutes the name of Elizabeth Lucy for that of Eleanor Butler in the matter of the pre-contract.

Most flagrant of all are the opening words of the whole work, suggestive of careful research and detailed learning: ‘King Edward, of that name the fourth, after he had lived fifty and three years, seven months and six days … died at Westminster…’ Yet Edward, in fact, died nineteen days before his forty-first birthday, and his death at such an early age, with his children so young and the succession unprepared, was the occasion of all that followed. Under such seeming precision the error is so gross as to make one wonder whether More is perpetrating a stunning deliberate mistake and laughing up his sleeve from line one. If the error was genuine, then one must suppose that it and many others would have been corrected had More himself had the work published.

The source from which he and Vergil both drew was a poisoned well. They did not invent the Tudor saga. Their contribution was to embelish and perpetuate the version of Richard current at the court of Henry VII. Through the Ropers More’s family was connected by marriage to Morton’s, and as a boy he lived for some time in the household of the man who had committed treason against Richard, was the intellect behind Henry’s usurpation and had been handsomely rewarded for his services, becoming Chancellor of England, Archbishop of Canterbury, and a cardinal. The triumphant Morton was, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, ‘not without inveterate malice against the house of York’.

In Morton’s house More would have met men like Christopher Urswick, who had been Morton’s secret messenger between England and Brittany in 1483 and became Henry’s chaplain and confessor, and Richard Fox, who had joined Henry in exile in Paris and been rewarded with the see of Winchester. More seems to have been a favourite, early recognised as a prodigy, for Morton is reported to have said of him: ‘This child here waiting at the table, whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man.’

Sir George Buck, Sir Clements Markham and others have believed that, because of his extraordinary virulence against Richard, Morton was the real author of the History of King Richard III attributed to More, but that view has been exploded by R.W. Chambers as yet another myth. However strong the influence of Morton, the style of the work is characteristically More’s. Its theme has much in common with that of his Utopia, and the abuse matches the untruthful tirade of obscenities in his Answer to Luther.

Soon juggling with the king himself, More resigned as chancellor after only three years and was later executed for high treason for refusing to conform to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy. The day of his death, 6 July 1535, was the anniversary of Richard’s coronation. As a master of the genre, More might have been rather amused at the further irony that his canonisation in the twentieth century has seemingly sanctified the gross absurdities of what ‘men deemed’ and ‘it was for truth reported’ about a fellow victim of the Tudors. His History is now published in the Yale edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, a title suggesting a divinely inpsired work as though by a St. Theresa of Avila or Lisieux (although the editor is far from holding such a view).

More’s motives in writing it and in breaking off writing it can only be surmised. He was about thirty-five at the time and neither chancellor nor saint, but an up-and-coming young lawyer with strong political principles and a genius for descriptive prose and the vivid expression of ideas. There are versions in both Latin and English, and he must have derived satisfaction from the literary exercise. His classical models were Seutonius and Sallust, but above all Tacticus’ Annals, which had been recently re-discovered. Thus Edward IV is cast in the role of an Augustus as a counterpart to Richard, portrayed as a modern Tiberius. In composing an historical treatise with a moral purpose he was emulating fellow humanists of his time in Germany and Switzerland. His History has been described as ‘an attack on the non-moral statecraft of the early sixteenth century, exactly as Utopia is’.

The obvious example of a machiavellian prince in More’s youth had been, not Richard III, but Henry VII. More’s youthful epigrams express hatred of just the kind of tyranny practised by the Tudors, and it was this which was to bring him to the block, where in his execution speech he claimed (improbably) to be the king’s good servant, but (truly) God’s first. As the Duke of Norfolk had warned him: ‘By the mass, Master More, it is perilous striving with princes.’

More had first incurred the royal wrath as early as 1504, when as a newly elected burgess he persuaded parliament not to allow the king the full grant which he was seeking. In revenge, Henry VII had More’s father imprisoned and fined. When, after five more years of extortionate taxation, the king died unlamented, More’s congratulatory verses to Henry VIII on his coronation contained a message of hope that tyranny was dead and even a specific reference to the end of a ‘gloomy reign’.

The History was probably written four years later (possibly not until 1516/17), and Paul Murray Kendall has pointed to the significance of its abandonment at the very point where Henry Tudor was due to make his entry. In the text so far, Richard may have been partly serving as a substitute target, appropriately endowed with Henry’s dissimulating character, and it would have been neither truthful to present Henry as the angel of salvation which the story demanded (and as Grafton and Shakespeare followed Polydore Vergil in rounding off), nor safe to present him in his true colours. How far More was prepared to go is indicated when he refers to Henry VII’s reign in the following critical terms: ‘…all things were in late days so covertly managed, one thing pretended and another meant, that there was nothing so plain and openly proved but that yet for the common custom of close and covert dealing men had it ever inwardly suspect, as many well conterfeited jewels make the true mistrusted.’

In Kendall’s words (in this Introduction in Richard III: The Great Debate, 1965): ‘Master More, MP and lawyer, would know that it was impossibly dangerous for him to reveal his feelings about Henry VII, and Thomas More, historian, could preceive that he would be unable to continue his work without doing so. Therefore, abandoning the “middle way” of history, More expressed his political concerns more oliquely in the satiric fantasy Utopia (1516) and then more directly by entering the service of the king in 1518′. More’s Yale editor, R.S. Sylvester, makes the further point that when the History was written Buckingham’s son, Edward, the third duke, was heir presumptive to the throne. The English version of the History ends after the Buckingham rebellion with Morton inciting Henry to treason, the crime for which Henry’s son was to execute Buckingham’s son not long after More wrote.

The political delicacy of this aspect of the subject matter is likely to have made publication unthinkable, but it is conceivable that in putting the work aside More was influenced by the knowledge that he had been unjust to Richard. ‘More would not object if his History were construed as a polemic against tyranny,’ writes Professor Sylvester: ‘what he could not allow was for it to be used as a piece of sheer political propoganda.’ It is yet another irony that the work has been just so used ever since the author’s death.

Henry VII deserves consideration not only as More’s real target but as himself the king of myth-makers. It is not hard to beileve that More had the widely hated Henry at least partly in mind when he wrote this description of Richard: ‘He was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not hesitating to kiss whom he thought to kill, pitiless and cruel, not for evil will always but oftener for ambition and either for the surety or increase of his position. “Friend” and “foe” were to him indifferent: where his advantage grew, he spared no man’s death whose life withstood his purpose.’

Henry’s record was indeed a foxy one. Even his name is not above suspicion. His grandfather had been Owen ap Meredith ap Tudor, in English Owen Meredith, and Henry’s name was therefore properly Henry Meredith (or, in Welsh, Henry ap Edmund). Before and at Bosworth, he styled himself Earl of Richmond, although his family had been deprived of the title and he had no right to use it. The honour of Richmond had been forfeited to the crown under Edward IV, so that at Bosworth the real Earl of Richmond was Richard III.

Henry’s Welshness was also not quite what he wished to be believed: through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, he was half English; through his father, one quarter Welsh and one quarter French. He used the Welsh connection to associate himself with the Arthurian legend and the ancient British kings, choosing as his emblem the red dragon of Cadwallader, although he probably sprang from humble stock in Anglesey and it was Richard who, through his Mortimer blood, could more justly claim descent from Welsh princes.

After his victory Henry cheated so comprehensively by attempting to date his reign from the day before the battle that an outraged parliament legislated to outlaw any such thing for all time. He was slow to fulfil his long-standing promise to marry Elizabeth of York and, when married, reluctant to have her crowned in case it should be said that he occupied the throne by right of his wife’s inheritance. For her first lying-in he sent her to Winchester so that his son, who was duly named Arthur, might be born in the ancient capital of Wessex. After his marriage he adopted the enblem of the single white and red rose to symbolise his status as unifier of York and Lancaster, but seems to have revived the use of the red rose for this purpose. The usual Lancastrian emblem was the white swan, while the Yorkists normally displayed the falcon and fetterlock and Edward IV’s sun in splendour.

Although Henry claimed the sovereignty in his own right, Richard’s proclamation of 23 June 1485 denouncing him was wholly accurate in declaring: ‘One Henry Tudor … usurpeth upon himself the name and title of royal estate of this realm of England, whereunto he hath no manner interest, right, title, or colour, as every man well knoweth.’ If, constitutionally, Richard’s claim to the throne was debatable, Henry’s was not even that: he occupied the throne by divine right (it was said) because God had granted him the victory in battle. Yet there are historians who seek to demolish any suggestion of legitimacy in Richard’s case while stalwartly making the best case they can for Henry, who was king simply because he said he was and no one was in a position to argue. While ‘the usurpation of Richard III’ is on every historian’s lips, ‘the usurpation of Henry VII’ is scarcely a familiar phrase.

Indeed, such is the magic of myth that continuing forbearance in criticism of the record of the favoured dynnasty is commonplace. When, for example, Henry VIII arbitrarily executes a handful of Plantagenets we are told (by Professor Mortimer Levine) that in the circumstances he ‘could not be expected to be tolerant’. Yet when Richard III arbitrarily executes Hastings cries of ‘tyrant’ and ‘reign of terror’ rend the pages of history books. Anyone foolhardy enough to suggest that Richard could not be expected to be tolerant of Hastings plotting against his life could expect his reputation as a scholar to be submerged under a barrage of academic anathemas. The double standards of some historians of the Tudor period are not edifying.

Those who preserve and propagate Tudor image-making seldom acknowledge that the true Lancastrian heirs werre the Protuguese and Spanish royal families — through John of Gaunt’s marriages to Blanche of Lancaster and Constance of Castile. Constance’s daughter married Henry III of Castile, grandfather of Isabella, who became the wife of Ferdinand of Aragon and mother of Catherine of Aragon. Thus a true union of the red and white roses occured when Catherine (red) married successively Prince Arthur and Prince Henry (white through their mother) . Queen Mary, the unhappy offspring of the second marriage was the only monarch whose rose was legitimately double-coloured (and in Philip II of Spain she married another Lancastrian heir).

It is a measure of Henry Tudor’s success as a myth-maker that both the hollowness of his pretension and the opprossivness of his rule compared with Richard’s are so little recognised even today. Under his and his chancellor’s tax system, known as Morton’s Fork, the rich were assessed on the basis that they could obviously afford to pay, and the poor on the basis that they were concealing what they had and could also afford to pay. Henry’s justice was exemplified by Star Chamber trials, and his avarice led him even into the mortal sin of simony (selling church offices), to which the Yorkists never stooped: for the deanery of York, for example, his asking price was one thousand marks. The attainders of his last parliament (1504) numbered fifty-one, the highest on record — a greater number even than his first, when Richard and his supporters were attainted.

‘To the day of his death,’ believes a modern revisionist (V.B. Lamb in The Betrayal of Richard III), ‘Henry’s hatred of his predecessors was undiminished. Richard possessed two things which Henry never had — a sound title to the throne and the love of his subjects. Few people can forgive those they have injured and Henry was not a forgiving man.’

Since Henry would have been known to More for what he was, how many of the jewels in More’s splendid antiRichard prose did he himself realise to be counterfieted and how many did he believe to be true? Probably he did not much care. What he was presenting, for his own amusement and that of his family and friends, was an elegant essay illustrating the evils of absolute power, whether wielded by Plantagenet or Tudor. Richard is the pretext but not always the centerpiece. Despite its brevity the History includes much matter extraneous to his character and actions. There are long arguments about the principles of sanctuary and the validity of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, an attempted justification of Morton’s career, and a great deal about that alluringly ‘vile and abominable strumpet’, Shore’s wife.

His portrait of Richard III and account of events leading to Richard’s assumption of the crown must be regarded as More’s version of the prevailing orthodoxy among the victorious survivors of the reign, concerned to justify their past treasons and present respectability. But would he not also have received information from less partial quarters — his father, John More, and his father-in-law, John Roper? More’s family may have viewed Richard with indifference or disfavour, perhaps judging him to have been little different from other kings since his short-term sovereignty bequeathed no lasting benefits, and More himself was, in principle, a parliamentarian to whom all absolute monarchs were tyrants. The real Richard was irrelevant to his purpose; he was loosing off a political salvo and the bogey-man of the dynasty from whom he might expect advancement lay conveniently in the line of fire.

In 1543, eight years after his death, More’s History was published by Richard Grafton in a version which was ‘corrupt and altered in words and whole sentences’. Grafton printed it as a continuation of Hardyng’s Chronicle, completing it himself until Richard ‘the wretch’ was dead and buried ‘without any solemnity’, and his version was reprinted in 1548 as part of Hall’s Chronicle. Grafton was a rich London merchant who became a publisher in the Protestant cause and, in the line of duty as the king’s printer when Edward VI died, had the mistfortune to print the proclamation of Lady Jane Grey, as queen.

In 1557, More’s nephew, William Rastell, also a printer, published a folio of More’s works which included an authentic History, taken from a copy in More’s own handwriting. Since that date it has remained a prime source for the indictment of Richard III for unparalleled villainy. Shakespeare may be fiction, it is argued, but More is fact. He was a near-contemporary who spoke to those who had been alive in Richard’s time. Despite all the inaccuracies, exaggerations and ironies, there must be a solid substructure of truth, for More — now a saint — would never have written as he did about Richard if he had believed him to be an honourable man and a good ruler.

The time-honoured method of judging More’s work, according to Kendall, ‘is to concede all that can be demonstrated to be false and unsatisfactory but to insist that the story is fundamentally true because every detail has not been proved inaccurate. It is a method foreign to logical analyis and to law, and it apparently springs from a rooted predeliction for the Tudor tradition.’

Myth-making is the creation of fiction more enduring than fact. To be successful requires exceptional skill and luck. Henry Tudor, John Morton and Thomas More were all remarkably clever men. The luck has lain partly in the political sagacity and charismatic heroism of Henry’s grand-daugher, Elizabeth I, who has infected historians and laymen alike with a chronic attack of Tudorphilia. Mostly, however, it was to be found in the accident of William Shakespeare’s genius.

But before considering why and how Shakespeare bestowed the kiss of immortality on Henry Tudor’s version of history it will be appropriate to examine More’s account of the death of the princes in the Tower, transmuted by Shakespeare into folk-lore, and the truth about Richard’s personal appearance and character, so vividly misrepresented by these writers. For the combined pens of More and Shakespeare have proved deadlier by far then the swords of the king’s enemies at Bosworth.

Good King Richard? An Account of Richard III and His Reputation was first published in Great Britain by Constable & Sons, Ltd. in 1983 and copyrighted to the author. It has since been reprinted in 1983 and 1985 and published in paperback in 1989. All rights reserved according to international copyright law.