Richard Marius, Thomas More
Alfred A. Knopf, 1984
© 1984, Richard Marius; used with permission
(Part Two of Two)
This chapter has been broken into two html files; the first part reproduces pages 108 through 122 of the text. Thanks are due to Richard Marius for permission to reproduce this chapter in an html edition, and to Judie Gall for keyboarding and html markup. Proofreading by Laura Blanchard.
Even Professor Kendall could hardly claim that Richard’s command to execute Earl Rivers, Richard Grey, and Thomas Vaughan was hurried up lest Richard feel too soft to do the deed. Beheading was the means by which traitors were usually put to death, and the manner of the executions might allow the common folk to suppose that Hastings and the others were guilty as charged. But nothing could hide from thoughtful men the truth as More saw it many years later, that Richard “caused them hastily, without judgment, process, or manner of order, to be beheaded, and without other earthly guilt but only that they were good men, too true to the king and too nigh to the queen.”
More’s delineation of Richard’s character shows a striking consistency, and it seems dubious that he manufactured this coherence out of whole cloth. Richard’s loathing of sexual sins is remarkable, and although More stresses this part of his character merely to show that Richard is a hypocrite, the force and constancy of Richard’s animadversions against sexual offenses is striking.
His attacks on his mother’s morals are more than striking, they are shocking. He claimed that both Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard’s older brothers, were not sons of his father. In fact the surviving iconographical records show that both Edward and George were fleshy and blonde and that Richard was slender and dark. Edward had been born at Rouen in Normandy in the spring of 1442 when the Hundred Years’ War was drawing to an end and the English were losing. There had been gossip about a certain archer named Blayborgne who was said to have shot Edward’s mother with an arrow not tipped with steel. The slander was widely circulated. An Italian visitor, Dominic Mancini, was in England in 1483 and wrote an account of the usurpation of Richard III that came to light only a generation ago. He claimed that Edward’s mother, Cecily of York, told people that Edward IV was a bastard when she became enraged over his sudden marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.
Such an outburst by the queen mother herself may not seem credible at first reading. But then we recall the formal declaration of Queen Isabeau of France, wife to the mad King Charles VI a century before More wrote his History, claiming that her son Charles VII was not fathered by her lawful husband, broadcasting doubts about the succession to the French throne that were finally resolved only by the witness of Jeanne Darc, who got her information from angels. So we cannot rejectout of hand the report of a maternal confession of adultery, and we cannot dismiss the possible effects of such a confession on a brooding son who might believe only himself legitimate, as Richard obviously did.
More thought these and all of Richard’s other condemnations of sexual impurity were merely perverse and reported them as such. But the sincerity of Richard’s scruples is more probable than not. The age knew its melancholiacs who wallowed in the infinite details of sin and gloomily counted the costs of their own wickedness and ranted against the wickedness of others. Richard may represent those who desperately yearned to find meaning in the universe, for if God punishes sin in overt and unmistakable ways, the demonstration of coherence in the world may be stronger than the questionable demonstration of mere logic. Martin Luther was born in November of the same year that Richard usurped the throne of England; his scrupulosity created the greatest religious upheaval in Christian history. Scrupulosity was an affliction well known to priests and occupied a prominent place in the confessional manuals intended to help confessors deal with various sorts of penitents. More himself made mention of it, and his own preoccupation with sex in his works may have respresented a form of it. It may be that we understand Richard best if we interpret him, not as More did, a man consumed by wicked ambition, but rather as a self-appointed prophet of God commissioned to make right the sins of his family, which, so the Bible says, might be visited on children to the third and fourth generations unless someone atones for them.
More took Richard’s attacks on the legitimacy of his kin as hypocritcal slanders; Richard may have seen them as confession. But even if More’s interpretation is askew, the consistency of his portrait testifies to determined research, and willy-nilly he gives us a more satisfying and coherent image of Richard than the king’s many modern apologists have managed to create.
By far the most controversial part of More’s History is his account of the murder of the little princes. His tale has passed through Shakespeare into common currency, and it is so stark, so poignant, and so terrible that it has naturally drawn hard rebuttal from modern revisionists.
In the summer of 1483, the little princes disappeared forever; that much is certain. Did Richard have them killed? More, writing a generation afterwards, said that even in that late time some wondered if the children had perished in the days of Richard III. So he acknowledged speculation–revived in modern times–that the little princes may have survived Richard only to be done to death by Henry VII, Richard’s conqueror. But although he detested Henry VII (a fact that those who claim More to have been a Tudor propagandist always forget), More had no such doubts about the fate of the children. He was sure that they had been murdered shortly after Richard usurped the throne and that Richard commanded the deed; he was almost certainly right.
Richard had the most obvious reasons for wanting them dead. He had lived through a tumultuous civil war that had been enough to teach im that powerful men were always itching to rally around a standard of revolt. If such a flag could be raised for a prince of the blood royal to restore him to a rightful throne, noblemen with great lands, great debts, and empty wallets might readily spring to arms, looking for the main chance in the change of kings. Richard never appears to have felt secure on his throne; his swift, lawless, and lethal moves against those who threatened him are enough to show that he was capable of murder if by murder he could rid himself of the mortal danger he must continually face as long as the little princes remained alive.
More’s account of the crime itself is open to doubt. He said it was engineered by Sir James Tyrell, a man longing for a way to rise in the world. Richard, on a progress from London to Gloucester, had tried to get Sir Robert Brackenbury, who More says was Constable of the Tower, to kill the princes, but Brakcenbury refused. While the royal party was stopped at Warwick, a page proposed Tyrell’s name one night shortly after Brackenbury’s refusal. Richard was at the moment having a bowel movement, More says, but he arose at once, hitched up his breeches, and went to get Tyrell out of bed. Sir James was willing.
The next day Sir James rode up to London with a letter from Richard to Brackenbury, giving Tyrell charge of the Tower for the night. More here makes a critical error, probably because he was himself deceived. Robert Brackenbury did not become Constable of the Tower until July 17, 1483. Before that date, the Tower was in the charge of John Howard, one of Richard’s most intimate friends. John Howard was the father of Thomas Howard, the victor of Flodden, and the grandfather of the Duke of Norfolk, who was, in Roper’s words, Thoms More’s “singular dear friend.” This John Howard was made Duke of Norfolk on July 28, 1483, and it is of some interest that Richard, the little Duke of York and brother to the child king, Edward, was also Duke of Norfolk, having been married to Anne Mowbray–who had already died, age nine, bequeathing her equally young husband the vast Mowbray estates. Her deceased father had been Duke of Norfolk, and the title accompanied– or could accompany–the Mowbray lands. John Howard had every reson to want the little princes dead since he was, by an act of Parliament passed in 1478, next in line for this inheritance should Anne Mowbray die without heirs. Since Anne had died, her heir was her young husband, and should he die, John Howard’s fortune would be made.
Professor Kendall scorned More’s assertion that Brackenbury, who would not kill the little princes himself, had handed the Tower over to Tyrell surely knowing what was intended. So it would seem. But More’s error in identifying the Constable of the Tower offers an interesting conjecture–that he got this part of the story from the victor of Flodden and that he was simply misled. Thomas Howard would have been happy to mislead a young historian in the interest of protecting the Howard family name and helping to cover up the close association of that family with the usurper.
John Howard would have been unlikely to take such an important step as murder wthout some command from Richard III. And it was this warrant, it seems, that Tyrell brought into London from Warwick, where Richard rested, perhaps supposing that distance from the deed would clear him of suspicion. By More’s account, Tyrell used a couple of thugs named Miles Forest and John Dighton, who smothered the children in their blankets around midnight. People slept naked in those days, and the two bodies were laid out on the bed so that Sir James could inspect them. He ordered them to be buried at the foot of a staircase, fairly deep in the ground under a pile of stones. More had heard that they were later moved to another place, but no one knew where. And Tyrell could then have ridden back out to Warwick to assure Richard that the princes were dead.
Such is More’s account, and some details seem much too good to be true. Anyone reading More’s version will see that he was himself uncertain about many parts of the story. But is it to be rejected entirely? Probably not, especially if one of his informants was the elder Thomas Howard or even Howard’s son, the Thomas Howard who was the Duke of Norfolk while More was Lord Chancellor, handing on a tale that his father had passed on to him.
In 1674 two small skeletons were found in a wooden box buried ten feet under a small staircase that workmen were removing from the White Tower. They were thought to be the bones of the little princes, and King Charles II (who had his own reasons for being offended at the murder of kings) had them placed in a great urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren and enshrined in the chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey.
In 1933 the urn was opened, and the bones subjected to medical examination. The medical evidence confirmed that the skeletons were of male children of the ages of the little princes in 1483. Their discovery under a staircase is a remarkable corroboration of at least part of More’s story. His belief that the skeletons had been moved after the initial burial may derive from a deceit perpetrated on him by the Howards, who would have no reason whatsoever to direct people to the burying place of the little princes, thereby resurrecting questions along with the bodies, questions that could do the Howards no good at all.
Professor Kendall launched a volley of objections to More’s story of Sir James Tyrell’s guilt. His most important argument is that Sir James never made the admission of guilt More claims he did. Tyrell had served Richard, survived him, and become one of the few of Richard’s followers to hold important office under Henry VII. (The elder Thomas Howard was, of course, another.) In 1502 he was suddenly executed for treason, and More claimed that while he lay in the Tower awaiting the headsman’s ax, he confessed to the murders.
Professor Kendall asked why Henry VII did not give wide publicity to this confession. Why was Tyrell not given an opportunity to speak it publicly on the scaffold, as criminals sometimes did for the edification of the crowd looking on? Kendall says that Henry could only have profited from telling the world both that the princes were really dead and that Richard III was guilty of their deaths. And why, asked Professor Kendall, were the bones not dug up and displayed? Polydore Vergil, a humanist Italian, like Ammonio in the service of Henry VII, wrote a laudatory history of England at the king’s commission. He made Richard out to be a wretch and drew Tyrell, whom he also identifies as the murderer, as a reluctant worker of Richard’s will. But he says nothing of any confession by Sir James in the shadow of death.
These are heavy questions, and they may indeed be enough to bring down what Kendall calls “More’s fine circumstantial tale,” although they do not disprove More’s principal contention that Richard was guilty of commanding the children to be killed.
Sir James was a courtier in Richard’s household. More says that he had a “high heart and sore longed upward, not rising yet so fast as he had hoped.” Though Kendall thinks that Tyrell did have a position of confidence and that Richard needed no page to suggest the man’s name, we may not so easily dismiss More’s account. No evidence shows that Tyrell was intimate with Richard or that he shared in the great decisions of king and council. And a man we observe casually every day can be transformed in our own eyes when someone mentions his name in a connection that has not occurred to us. Richard might easily have failed to see Sir James as a murderer of children, and Tyrell, then capatin of the king’s henchmen, might as easily have aspired to rise yet further in the world.
Tyrell did rise under Richard, and in 1485 he was captain of Guisnes Castle, the stronghold that guarded the last outpost of England on the Continent, the city of Calais. There he remained undisturbed after Henry Tudor took the throne, and when he did depart from Guisnes, it was to become a royal councillor. He held many offices, and he rode in the lists to celebrate the elevation of Henry’s second son, the later Henry VIII, to the title of Duke of York in November 1494.
It would not be surprising if Tyrell had been dissatisfied with the rewards Richard had given him after 1483, and if he had begun to communicate with young Henry Tudor in exile in Brittany, waiting his chance. Somebody had to assure Henry that the little princes were out of the way; otherwise all his labor against Richard would have been nonsensical. Henry was not one to lay his life on the line for restoring Edward V to the throne. Had he not known that the princes were dead, he would hardly have maneuvered to engage Richard as far to the north of London as he did in the campaign that ended at Bosworth in the summer of 1485. He would not have dared take the risk that someone might release young Edward from the Tower and proclaim him king while Henry was on his way down to the city. His enterprise and his plan of attack make sense only if we assume that he knew beyond any doubt that the little princes had been eliminated.
Nothing in Henry’s character lets us suppose he would have dissolved in moral outrage had Tyrell sent him word that the princes were dead and that Tyrell was certain of their demise because he had engineered the deed. Tyrell might very well have represented the murders as something done for Henry’s sake, or he could have claimed that he was forced into the act by Richard and perhaps by John Howard. (Since Howard died fighting valiantly for Richard at Bosworth, we may exculpate him from conveying any information about the murder of the princes to Henry Tudor.) Such useful information would have brought about other exchanges of views, and if Henry and Tyrell were not friends in 1485, they might well have enjoyed the relations cemented by the advantages one greedy man hopes to gain from another.
Tyrell’s confession in 1502 might have been partly religious, an effort to prepare his soul for eternity, and it would have included his communication with Henry about the murder of the princes and perhaps some nformation about the role of John Howard in the business. Tyrell’s subsequent honors, as well as the considerable favor John Howard enjoyed after Henry released him from confinement, would have been demonstration enough to all that Henry had approved of both the doer and the deed. So the confession was hardly something Henry would have wanted spoken to the public.
Henry was never popular, and his son Arthur had died only a month before Tyrell climbed the steps of the scaffold. The alliance with Spain was jeopardized by Arthur’s death. General knowledge of the early collusion between Henry and Tyrell would have brought odium on Henry at home and perhaps diplomatic disaster abroad, especially if such a revelation had led to a renewed outbreak of rebellion.
If John Howard and perhaps his son Thomas had been implicated in the murders, the estates that had come to the Howard family through the death of the little Duke of York might have been in jeopardy. Both John and Thomas had been up to their necks in the conspiracies that had brought Richard to the throne. Though Thomas More does not name him, calling him only a “mean knight,” the future victor of Flodden was sent by Richard to fetch Hastings to the Tower on the Friday morning that Hastings was judicially murderred, and he could have been the only source of the stories that More tells of the doomed lord on his way to that fatal encounter with the usurper. The involvement of the Howards with Richard had been pushed to the background by 1502, and no one in authority could have seen any sense in calling attention to it again. It would have been much better to do what was done–shut the matter up, to give out later, as Henry did, that Tyrell had confessed but to give no detailed account of the confession, to make no investigations and no recriminations, and to leave the little princes undisturbed until time had swept away their political significance forever.
More’s version of events and especially his lurid story of the death of the little princes retains its central place in any consideration of Richard III, and it has often been made a measure of More’s own integrity. As we shall see soon enough in his account of the Richard Hunne case, More was not above wrenching a historical tale around to make it prove what he wanted to prove. Yet unlike the willful distortions in the Hunne case, The History of King Richard III offers a consistent, detailed, and plausible version of events, one not published in his lifetime and consequently less open to the charge of malice that More’s accusers have made. In its general outline, More’s story enjoys the advantage of agreeing with much other evidence from the time.
The most important question a biographer can ask of The History of King Richard III is not about the work’s accuracy but rather about what it can tell us of More’s mind. Here we find two essential and enduring subjects that preoccupied him until his death–the nature of the English church and the nature of God.
More’s view of the church becomes evident in the long discussion about the right of sanctuary after the queen mother has taken the little Duke of York into the precincts of Westminster Abbey, where he is safe from English law. At the end of the Middle Ages, the right of sanctuary was one of the most vehemently debated issues in English life–one to be swept away by the Reformation of Henry VIII, except in the case of debtors, for whom sanctuary remained until the eighteenth century.
Sanctuary rested on the ancient claim of the Catholic Church to be free from the authority of the secular government, and in England sanctuary was considered a liberty of the church recognized by the Magna Carta. The theory behind sanctuary was that as the soul was superior to the body, so the church was superior to earthly governments and their laws. Part of the church’s freedom was that clergymen should not be tried in secular courts except for high treason; another was sanctuary. Some churches, including Westminster Abbey, were designated places of refuge. If someone accused of a crime could get into a church, the political authorities had no right to come in and take him out.
English lawyers believed that the source of all law was the wisdom of God; we have seen as much in our discussion of Fortescue. They were wrestling with the growing power of the secular government and the contradiction inherent in the notion that God’s law for churchmen was one thing but God’s law for everyone else was another. Churchmen clung to their ancient liberties, including sanctuary, but the clerical estate was becoming increasingly unpopular, and priestly claims to be outside the jursidiction of the secular authority enjoyed less and less support in the general public as respect for secular government increased.
In More’s History, Buckingham speaks powerfully against sanctuary, adding the crafty argument that sanctuary is not for innocents, like the young Duke of York, who have committed no crime. The queen mother argues that sanctuary is granted by God’s law for anyone in danger, that it is not merely to protect accused criminals. As it happened, young Edward V was born in sanctuary, where the queen mother had fled when her husband had been temporarily driven into exile abroad. No tyrant, More has her say, had ever been so devilish as to violate sanctuary in England. And as a student of Augustine’s City of God, More would have known that the queen mother’s definition of sanctuary had an ancient validity, since Augustine reports with satisfaction that Christians who fled into churches during the Sack of Rome in 410 were spared by Rome’s invaders, the Goths.
Assuming, as we must, that More composed these speeches partly from hearsay and partly from what he thought should have been said, it seems clear enough that he supported the right of sanctuary as a necessary liberty of the church but that he also thought that the practice should be reformed. The issue would continue to haunt him, since it was related to his own profound conviction that to be the agency of divine revelation to the world, the church had to be free.
Another deep conviction of More’s life, revealed in The History of King Richard III, is the place of irony not only in events but in the nature of human beings in the world. He loved irony as a literary device, but behind the literary convention is the sense of a mysterious world directed by a fathomless God whose acts often seem meaningless and whose ways can never be understood. Irony may become a religious tool, used in much the same way we find it in classcial Greek dramas such as Oedipus the King. The efforts of men to avoid the fate ordained for them are the very instruments of bringing that fate about. The moral lesson to be learned from this irony in human purpose is abiding humility before the will of the gods and their inscrutable purpose. Or the will of the Christian God.
The sense of God’s awesome mystery informs the comments Morton makes to Buckingham in the last scene of the History. It is a part of the doctrine of Providence that More, like Jacob wrestling with the angel in the dark, was to struggle to comprehend during the blackest moments of his life. The question was this: What part does God play in human events? Do the actors on the earthly stage have any choice in their destiny? Or have their lines been written for them by an implacable and unknown power, and are their fates as inexorable as the conclusion of a play created before they were born?
Morton considers divine Providence almost casually in the review of his own career. Had the world gone as he wished, he tells Buckingham, the son of Henry VI would have ruled England and not King Edward IV. “But after that God ordered him to lose it and King Edward to reign, I was never so mad that I would with a dead man strive against the quick.” Accepting God’s judgment, Morton served as chaplain to King Edward. And he would have been glad, he says, had Edward’s son succeeded to the throne. “Howbeit, if the secret judgment of God have otherwise provided, I purpose not to spurn against a prick, nor labor to set up that God pulleth down.”
Morton starts to speak of Richard but breaks off. Buckingham must persuade him to continue. Morton protests that it is dangerous to speak of princes because they can find fault where none is intended, illustrating his reluctance with a little fable. It is as good a summary as we have of how More defined tyranny, the focus here of the discussion about divine Providence.
A lion proclaimed that on pain of death no horned beast should abide in the forest. On hearing this news, an animal with a lump of flesh on its forehead fled. The fox, seeing him run, asked him why. The animal replied that he fled out of fear of the lion’s proclamation. “What a fool you are!” the fox said. “You can stay here well enough. The lion did not mean you. That is no horn on your head.”
“I know that well enough,” said the beast, “but if he call it a horn, where am I then?”
The meaning was clear: Richard was a lion whose will crushed the restraints of law, and when the law could be replaced at whim, no man was safe, no matter how innocent. Buckingham could recall that Hastings was a traitor only because Richard said he was. In a world where law was dead and the prize went to him most swift to shed blood, Buckingham could suppose that he had better strike first to avoid being struck. The laggard, the weak, the loyal, and the confident were soon gone in Richard’s merciless universe.
Morton’s aim in More’s account is to provoke Buckingham to rebellion. If Buckingham succeeds, Morton and others like him will bow to God’s will for the kingdom–another way of saying that a successful rebellion would be accepted by the English people and that the victor over a tyrant like Richard need not fear prolonged opposition from the people.
Morton’s view had become almost a commonplace in England since the depostion of Richard II less than a century before Richard III usurped the throne. It has a stark and terrible side. In it, human beings become instruments–often unwitting–to accomplish a purpose known only to God. The Christian must believe that God knows what He is doing, no matter how chaotic, violent, or wicked the particular acts of God seem to be or what strange consequences they bring. Morton declares he will not dispute Richard’s title because Richard is a king in possession of the throne; it must follow that if another king comes into possession, Morton will not dispute his title either. God’s will is what happens, and what happens is God’s will. It is a view of divine omnipotence and direction that allows men to do anything they want so long as they win, for they are but tools of God’s plan for the world.
Here is a doctrine that More later condemned with all his might when Luther and Tyndale offered it in the guise of predestination and presented it not as an explanation for the rise and fall of kings but as a means of comforting the common folk in their daily life.
We should recall that Morton in this scene is trying to gull Buckingham and More reports Morton’s speech without making a judgment on its underlying supposition. One school of criticism holds that we must never assume that characters in a drama express the beliefs of the author. Yet passion and conviction throb through this passage, and it is striking that the dialogue meets with no rebuttal by More, the author, who throughout has commented on the words and deeds of his characters, making sure that the readers get the moral lessons to be learned in the events he records. Morton’s speech to Buckingham and its circumstances offer an ambiguity suitable to the elusive nature of the subject under discussion–God’s role in the apparent chaos that reigns in creation. It is a fitting place for More’s History of King Richard III to end.
The general paradox of the work–the possibility that kings who should be shepherds of their flock could become devouring wolves–became one of the great paradoxes of More’s life. He lived in a disorderly, violent world, and in such a world, kings were looked upon as the only sure bulwark against chaos. God had ordained kingship, and He ordained kings to rule, an ordination symbolized by the anointment by a bishop at the king’s coronation. Shakespeare had his Richard II declare:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of wordly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
And More would always hold the common medieval view that rebellion against the Lord’s anointed was mortal sin. Yet what did Christians do when they found themselves ruled by one like Richard, almost the incarnation of wickedness? The traditional answer was to submit to the point where conscience demanded resistance and then to resist passively unto death. Such was More’s belief; and such became his life to martyrdom. But it was a hard paradox nevertheless, and it is easy enough to trace More’s thoughts from the tyranny of Richard III to the ideal of the republic of virtue, existing without kings, in Utopia. Men had to live under the authority given to them by the Providence of God for whatever mysterious purpose God chose. But clearly More thought that in an ideal world this authority would be vested in the community of citizens and not in a single man who might so easily use it to deprive citizens of life, of liberty, and of property.
Why did More not finish the book and publish it? The late A.F. Pollard’s suggestion is undoubtedly the right one: When More wrote, too many important people were still around who had been compromised by their relations with Richard. We have already mentioned the Howards. Pollard noted that More wrote as if the Howard family scarcely existed–perhaps because he got much of his information from them and certainly because nothing he could have written about their equivocal role during Richard’s reign would have been flattering.
In 1514 and 1515, while More was writing, the third Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, was still powerful, a violent and impetuous man, much like his father, and immensely popular in London. The blood royal ran in his veins because he was descended from Edwrd III, and in 1521 Henry VIII would bring him to the block on a trumped-up charge of treason. His sudden fall would be a morality play to the age–one that More himself would comment upon. Had his father’s rebellion against Richard III succeeded, he would not have been mere Buckingham, but Prince of Wales, perhaps king already. The notion ate at him, and he died in part because he made some kingly remarks that were reported to Henry VIII. In 1515, he would most certainly have objected to the publication of a book that resurrected the treachery and folly of his father.
The widow of the second Duke of Buckingham was Catherine Woodville, sister to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen. After the triumph of Henry VII, she married Jasper Tudor, the king’s uncle, who became Duke of Bedford. And after Jasper Tudor died in 1495, she married Richard Wingfield, a diplomat at the height of his power and influence when More was writing his History. The younger Thomas Howard, who would become the third Duke of Norfolk, Thomas More’s friend and later a judge at More’s trial, was married to a daughter of the third Duke of Buckingham, and although he tired of her and treated her abominably after her father’s execution left her friendless in 1521, the alliance of the Howards and the Staffords was strong when More wrote. Altogether the Buckingham connection represented a powerful constituency in England, not one to be affronted by a man with a career to make and in need of influential friends.
More makes fun of Elizabeth Lucy, gullible enough to admit Edward IV to her bed in the hope that he might marry her. The child born of that illicit union was Arthur Plantagenet, later Viscount Lisle, born in 1462, a hale fellow, good friend and sporting companion to Henry VIII, brave soldier in the French campaign of 1513, a man strongly fixed in the world with the aid of his powerful connections, not one to insult and anger with a public recollection of his mother’s passion and absurdity.
Any publication of More’s History of King Richard III would have damaged beyond repair his prospects for royal service, and he knew it. He did not finish the work, and he had no thought of printing it, although it did circulate in manuscript. Edward Hall incorporated much of it into his Chronicle long after most of the principals in the story were safely dead. Then Rastell printed More’s original English version in 1557. The Latin text appeared much later.
One final judgment remains to be made on More’s History of King Richard III. It is the first work in Western literature with a dissembling hypocrite as the major protagonist. Other hypocrites had made their appearance, especially in classical histories like those of Tacitus and Seutonius, whose works More had absorbed before he wrote his own. But no one before More dwelled with such concentration and with such quiet horror on hypocrisy itself. To Thomas More, Richard III was the sort of king Judas Iscariot might have become had he had the chance.
More obviously believed what he wrote. But it is tempting to see in More’s loathing and fascination for Richard’s hypocracy an almost subconscious tableau of how some Renaissance men regarded their own experience in the world. If the well-known melancholia of the age had any major source, it was the uncertainty of things and the way appearances gave the lie to reality. Martin Luther was to raise this sentiment to become the apex and binding knot of his theology, making paradox rule the universe. What seemed to be God’s blessing was really curse, for the man comfortably at ease in Zion is in fact doomed to hell. The torments of conscience were the Christian’s first sign that he was predestined by God to salvation. Men are most free when they seem most bound; the supposed Vicar of Christ is in fact an Antichrist; apparent miracles of God at the shrines of saints are really delusions of Satan.
Luther’s doctrines had such wide appeal because they seemed to correspond to something in the common experience of humankind at the time. It is not so very far from them to the reasoning of Niccolò Machiavelli that the successful prince must study to give an appearance that belies reality, and that beneath the appearance, the ruler must work with another world–the world of naked power. Nor is it so very remote from Luther’s paradoxes to consider the worried banter about those who would be courtiers in Balthasar Castiglione’s famous Book of the Courtier. This book, translated into every major European language during the sixteenth century and issued in edition after edition, taught men to keep up appearances in the world where appearances were everything, and it includes the advice that courtiers should never wrestle with peasants since the peasants might beat them, thus destroying a fine and necessary illusion that allowed those of noble blood to claim that they were justly installed in their superior places. The Neoplatonic effusions of Pietro Bembo in that same book suppose that this world with all its material beauties is only a symbol, fleeting and unreal, of the true beauty. That beauty is the unity of God in the transcendent and eternal realm where the material has no place. A true kiss, says Bembo, is not a bodily act of passion but rather the pouring of one soul into another through the mouth which grants the soul its expression.
So here is a current of the Renaissance running against the artistic realism that we have noted earlier, a realism in literature and in the visual arts that conveyed a world closer to common experience than the abstractions and elevations of medieval thought and art.
The Aristotelian Scholastics believed in a reason inherent in the nature of things. They pursued that reason with words that became more difficult of definition as the problems they considered became more abstract and as thinkers tried to patch over the inadequacy of their systems with ever more subtle arguments. Yet always the desire of the Scholastics was to show that ordinary reason had a place in systemizing Christian doctrine and in leading the mind to respect it.
Aristotelianism begins with a reliance on the truth of sense experience, a faith in feeling, tasting, touching, hearing, and–above all–seeing. This confidence in the senses offers the comforting assurance that the world we experience is truly real and that it exists, as Thomas Aquinas saw it, in full harmony with the eternal world existing above the senses and above the knowldege we can gain from them. Aquinas believed that we ascend through reason and pass on to faith in a harmonious and unbroken journey, a journey we can embark upon only because God gives us grace in our human nature. Part of that grace is that God allows our intellects to absorb true information through the senses.
With the Renaissance, the common sense at the heart of Aristotelianism was sometimes lost in the abstractions generated by the philsophical and theological debates about the relations between reason and faith. But the underlying conviction, fostered by centuries of Aristotelianism in the Christian Middle Ages, that the physical world was valuable in itself and open to human understanding remained a permanent part of Western civilization. Paradoxically enough, this cultural heritage of Aristotelianism contributed to the public acceptance of the realism of artists in paint and stone as well as the related down-to-earth stance of writers like Erasmus. There is a world that is what it seems to be; we would do well to understand it better and appreciate it more. That proclamation might have been spoken by many an artist and many a humanist in the period.
Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly provides a humorous attack on the supposed rationality of the world. More’s preoccupation with the dissembling hypocrite Richard III goes much further and reveals a terror not found in the playful mockery of Erasmus. In Richard’s awful world, things were not what they seemed; they were exactly the opposite. Seeming good was really wickedness; safety was destruction; benevolence was malice. If the human intellect should be prey to an essential irony in nature that prevents any natural preception of truth, where could people go for meaning and certainty? As that question ate through the sensibilities of the age, many souls turned with all the greater passion to a quest for certainty, for some infallible authority that would make up for the lack in human nature.
So More’s horror with Richard III represents a side of the general terror of the times toward the illusions of what seemed to be. Luther’s devotion to an infallible and sufficient scripture and More’s equal devotion to an infallible and sufficient church represent another. The determined realism of artists and humanists may have been an effort to tame the wildness of nature with the certainties of art.
But in The History of King Richard III More gives us a record of human experience that by the overwhelming power of its details flattens the reasonable expectation that we can depend on what we perceive. Events destroy theory; history defies abstraction. And his History questions by its blunt, demanding factuality the supposition that human events cohere and that the wise may discover merely by observing a divine purpose and rationality in the world. God has His purposes; Morton and More would stake their lives on that belief. But no one can tell merely by looking what those purposes are. The only certainty lies in the trust that the God we submit ourselves to will ultimately bring the world and His people to a good end.