Richard Marius, Thomas More
Alfred A. Knopf, 1984
© 1984, Richard Marius; used with permission
Part One of Two
Although More was absorbed with his public career in these years, a hankering for the life of letters evidently burned within. It found its first major expression in his History of King Richard III, perhaps the finest thing he ever wrote. It is his only historical work, and it is so different from other works of his that some scholars still doubt that he wrote it, although the general consensus is that he did. Its influence and the controversies it has engendered have been vast.
More would have been surprised. Although he wrote versions in both Latin and English, he never finished either, and the book remained unpublished in his lifetime. Yet it is the first long piece of his prose left to us other than the translation of Pico’s life, and in it we find the mature man, a genius at setting a scene, a wizard at depicting character, a believer in a fundamental order of things that gave events meaning and provided a moral context that allowed reasonable men to recognize virtue when they saw it and to condemn vice on the intuitive perception of the vicious act.
It is a dark tale, the history of a villainous king who let nothing stand before his headlong rush to power. More lived through the days he describes, although he was only a child, no older than seven, on the August morning when Richard galloped to his death at Bosworth Field. He may have recalled Richard parading through the streets of London, and he must have heard stories from his loquacious father about the brief, violent reign of the usurper. Perhaps his fascination with Richard was partly a means of dealing with memory, of reaching into the dimness of his own recollections to find something hard and enduring in the way a middle aged man will sometimes visit the distant house where he was born, trying to bring the haunting phantoms of childhood back to reality.
More’s History was later incorporated into Edward Hall’s great Chronicle of 1543, and Hall’s work was copied over by Holinshed in 1577. More’s book was first independently published from a holograph in the Rastell edition of More’s English works in 1557. (Rastell’s headnote telling us of the holograph is the strongest external evidence we have of More’s authorship.) Shakespeare took the story up from these sources and added some details, and his monstrous villain, slinking and grinning about the stage, is the King Richard III Thomas More gave to the world.
Reaction to such a persistent tradition was inevitable. Richard III has become an abused saint, crucified by hearsay. No one saw him kill the little princes in the Tower. His coronation, attended by the greatest lords and ladies in the realm, was splendid. Laws passed in his brief reign were good. The portrait done of him by an unknown artist and preserved in the National Portrait Gallery, shows a sensitive face. (It is a sixteenth-century copy of a vanished original, perhaps taken from life.) So for some it is an article of faith that the real villain in this story is Thomas More, who slandered Richard and made him a caricature of tyranny. More is seen as just another Tudor propagandist, grossly inaccurate, deluded, malicious, and deluding.
But More’s account is only one of several written about Richard III by Richard’s contemporaries and none of them is flattering to the usurper king. Some of these histories were– like More’s own–left in manuscript and published long after the writers had died. They can hardly be interpreted as self-conscious efforts to flatter the Tudors. There are many contradictory details in the several accounts, and we will never pierce the veil to know exactly what happened in that confused and darksome time or read clearly all the motives of all the actors in a drama now dead for centuries. All we can do is build a plausible reconstruction, leaving it to readers to decide whether what is plausible to at least one observer is plausible to others.
Like all historians in the Renaissance, More wrote to teach a moral lesson–here, the nature of tyranny, the wicked conduct and self-seeking that kings should avoid if they are to be good. He was also preoccupied with one of the great dilemmas of the day: How did one preserve and respect a good office, necessary for the rule of a dangerously unstable society, while condemning the bad officer? His story errs in some names, and he makes other obvious mistakes. He left some names blank in the version of his history that his nephew William Rastell faithfully reproduced in 1557, intending no doubt to go back and fill them in. But on the whole the history stands up remarkably well, and there is every reason to assume its basic reliability. He had, as we know, lived in the house of Bishop Morton, a major character in The History of King Richard III. John Morton was a prejudiced witness, having worked for Richard’s doom and ending as the chief counselor to Henry VII. But More knew many others as well, including his father, who had lived through the same days: Christopher Urswick, who had been in exile with Morton, and very probably the elder Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk and victor of Flodden, one of Richard’s most valiant supporters. Since More did not publish his work or even finish it, it is hard to make the charge of “Tudor propagandist” stick, and he seems throughout his tale to sift evidence in a geniune effort to find the truth. The work is polemical of course–a polemic both against Richard and against tyranny. But it is the most dispassionate of all the polemical works More ever wrote.
The story as More tells it can be briefly summarized. When Edward IV died in 1483, he left two little sons, Edward, Prince of Wales, age twelve, and Richard, Duke of York, age nine. The dead king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, conspired with the Duke of Buckingham, Henry Stafford, and William Lord Hastings (More calls Buckingham “Edward” and Hastings “Richard”) to seize Prince Edward, who had been residing at Ludlow Castle, the traditional station of the Prince of Wales. Young Edward had been under the tutelage of Anthony Earl Rivers, the brother of Elizabeth Woodville–Edward IV’s queen–and her son by her first marriage, Richard Grey, Marquis of Dorset. Richard exploited the fears of his cohorts that the queen’s family might use the child king to destroy enemies that included themselves. Richard and Buckingham intercepted Rivers and Grey at Northampton, and put them under arrest. Richard had them beheaded later without trial. The child king was brought by Richard and his fellow conspirators to London, where, they discovered, Queen Elizabeth had gone into sanctuary in St. Peter’s Church at Westminster Abbey with the little Duke of York. As long as she could keep him safe, she knew, she protected her other son as well. But Richard, Buckingham, and Hastings persuaded the council of regency that the right of sanctuary should not be granted to a child who had committed no crime. Confronted with the prospect of seeing her child forcibly removed, Elizabeth gave him up, and the two boys were locked away in the Tower.
Meanwhile Richard moved relentlessly toward usurpation. He decided that Hastings, devoted to the children of Edward IV, would not follow him to usurpation and murder. So he trumped up a charge of treason against this loyal lord and had him summarily beheaded. He then alleged that his dead brother, Edward IV, was a bastard, thereby impugning the good name of his own mother, who was still alive. Richard also argued that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid because Edward had previously been vowed to marry another woman. Consequently, the little princes in the Tower were bastards, and young Edward V had no right to the thone of England.
Buckingham became Richard’s chief agent in getting London to accept him as king, and so it was done. To assure his own security, Richard saw to it that the little princes in the Tower were smothered to death in their sleep. But now the colleagues in the conspriacy began to fall apart. Buckingham felt mistreated. He had become keeper of John Morton after the judicial murder of Hastings, and he was incited by the wily bishop to rebel against the new king. Right here More’s History breaks off.
This is history in the classical mode of Thucydides or Tacitus; it is the first true work of Renaissance historiography done by an Englishman, a lean, fast-moving narrative intended not only to teach the major lessons More has in mind about tyranny and public office but also to instruct his readers in the vagaries of fortune and the evils of presumption. Here is Lord Hastings on his way to the Friday-morning council meeting where Richard has resolved to kill him before lunch. Not dreaming of his fate, he runs into an old acquaintance whom he had seen in the same place at a time when, deeply out of favor with Edward IV, Hastings had feared for his life. Now he says:
In faith man I was never so sorry, nor never stood in so great dread in my life as I did when thou and I met here. And lo how the world is turned. Now stand mine enemies in the danger…and I never in my life so merry, nor never in so great surety.
To make sure we don’t miss the point, More shouts at us: “O good God, the blindness of our mortal nature! When he most feared, he was in good surety; when he reckoned himself surest, he lost his life, and that within two hours after.”
Sometimes a single incident provokes More to teach several lessons. Edward IV had a beautful mistress, Jane Shore, beloved by Hastings and taken over by him after Edward’s death. More, calling her “Shore’s wife,” finds her example both proof of how earthly beauty dissolves into corruption and sure evidence for the ingratitude of human nature. She was beautiful and generous, he says, but now she is forgotten because, at the time More writes, she is “old, lean, withered, and dried up, nothing left but wrinkled skin and hard bone.” His description has many affinities to the funerary monuments of the time that showed female bodies in hideous decay. The original motive, and one surely shared by More, was to point out how quickly bodily grace passes away so that onlookers might think more soberly of the eternal soul and its destiny. But by More’s time, artists and writers alike seemed to depict corruption for corruption’s sake and take a melancholy delight in recounting the details of physical disintegration.
Shore’s wife never used her favor with the king to harm any man, More says, but “where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favor, she would bring them in his grace; for many that highly offended, she obtained pardon.” Now she is utterly neglected, in “beggarly condition, unfriended and worn out of acquaintance.” “For men are accustomed,” More says,” if they have an evil turn, to write it in marble, and whoso doth us a good turn, we write it in the dust; which is not worst proved by her, for at this day she beggeth of many at this day living, that at this day had begged if she had not been.”
Despite his occasional digressions, More’s narrative always returns to his major character, Richard himself. Richard’s depravity lies in his fierce ambition that has long since corrupted all his natural human feelings, making him a monster. More has no sympathy for the dilemma that Richard’s modern defenders have, with some truth, put strongly forward: Had the young princes escaped his power, Richard’s property, position, and life would have been endangered by the queen mother and the ambitious and ruthless men around her. For More, Richard’s danger is only smoke, and he gives us a villain much like Shakespeare’s Iago, doing evil continually only because evil is his nature.
Richard was born, More says, by cesarean section and came into this world feet first. The point is made that Richard arrived in this world in the same posture that men are carried out to their graves, implying that the usurper’s life was a kind of death. He and many of his educated readers would have recalled that Nero had been born of cesarean section and that eventually Nero had murdered his own mother. A graver crime against nature could scarcely be imagined, and it was in keeping with the unnatural birth with which he had perversely entered the world.
More readily admits that Richard was brave and that he never lost a battle through lack of courage. But, says More, giving us the key to Richard’s nature, “he was close and secret, a deep dissembler,” humble in expression and arrogant in his heart, outwardly friendly, “where he inwardly hated,” not hesitating “to kiss whom he meant to kill. He spared no man’s death whose life withstood his purpose.” The physical ugliness of the man was in perfect keeping with the spiritual ugliness of his hideous heart.
Although More has been criticized for inventing these details to prove Richard’s ugliness, they did not in fact originate with him. What is surprising is to find More, who later vehemently attacked Luther’s doctrine of predestination, seemingly here at least making Richard’s character a matter of fate, destined from birth and sealed by appearance. He was influenced in part by the rhetorical mode that held good kings to be handsome and bad kings to be hideous–a style prevailing in the fairy tales most of us recall from our youth. More, devoted as he was to his own family, probably found the most horrifying perversity in Richard’s bloodthirstiness against his close kin. And it was easy for More the moralist and lesson-giver to suppose that a villain of such unnatural lusts would have had an unnatural appearance.
More’s favorite literary device was alway irony, and his History of King Richard III abounds with it. He develops Richard’s hypocritical character through a collection of ironies that illustrate the contradictions bewteen Richard’s professions and his deeds.
For example, there is Richard’s public behavior with its effusive and hypocritical meekness. More puts in Buckingham’s mouth a stirring speech delivered in the Guildhall, trumpeting the wickedness of Edward IV, the bastardy of his children, and the perverted claim of Richard to the throne. After a few hirelings toss their hats in the air and shout “King Richard! King Richard!” the conspirators take this shoddy performance as sufficient acclamation for granting Richard the crown. The next day the mayor, the aldermen, and the chief citizens “in their best manner apparelled” are led by Buckingham to Baynard’s Castle, where Richard is staying. Richard pretends that he has no idea why they are coming to him in such numbers and affects to fear that they may mean him harm (this from the most fearsome man in England!). He will not descend to them but stands on a gallery overhead while Buckingham shouts up their wishes.
Richard, in a great show of humility, rejects their offer of the throne. Then, as he and Buckingham had carefully devised, Buckingham whispers among the crowd and calls back that if Richard will not take the throne, they must seek someone else since they are all resolved that the heirs of Edwrd IV will no longer reign over them. Thereupon Richard makes an abject speech accepting the crown.
More likens the performance to a stage play and makes a telling pun on the word “scaffold,” which meant a raised platform where plays could be performed before the age of theaters as well as where executioners might practice their bloody art:
And in a stage play all the people know right well that he that playeth the sultan is perhaps a shoemaker. Yet if one should be so foolish in an inopportune way to show what acquaintance he hath with him and call him by his own name while he standeth in his majesty, one of his tormentors might chance to break his head, and worthily so, for marring of the play. And so they said that these matters be king’s games, as it were, stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds, in which poor men be but the lookers-on. And they that be wise will meddle no farther.
More puts special ironic stress on this fawning and hypocritically humble mask that Richard presents to the public, a mask that momentarily hides Richard’s single-minded and ruthless appetite for power. Since Richard’s story is, in some sense, one we already know when we begin our reading of More, just as we know the story of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona before we see the play, our impulse is to cry warning the moment we come on these expressions of obsequious humility. And when Richard adopts the title of “Protector” over the little boys whom he will slaughter, we are brought to the tragic. Yet More never allows us to rise far from scorn for Richard’s wallowing servility in public. He mentions the way Richard saluted everyone he saw in the streets on his way home from the Court of the King’s Bench, where he had granted amnesty for any offense against him. (We are reminded of how Louis Philippe, the last king in France, got down out of his carriage to shake hands–his own protected by gloves, of course–with commoners he encountered in the streets of Paris.) More’s comment is sharp: “For a mind that knoweth itself guilty is in a manner humbled to a servile flattery.”
Then there is Richard’s war against sexual offenders, a war waged by the perpetrator of usurpation, mendacity, and murder. A charge against Hastings is that on the night before his murder he slept with Jane Shore and that he had been guilty of vicious living and the inordinate perversion of his body with many others. And when Hastings is dead, Richard forces Jane Shore to walk through London in public penance for her adulteries, “going before the cross in procession upon a Sunday, with a taper in her hand,” dressed only in her outer petticoat. Richard impugns the sexual purity of his own mother. He claims that Edward’s children are bastards. And in Buckingham’s speech in the Guildhall, we find a furious litany of attack on Edward IV for his many sexual sins:
For no woman was there anywhere, young or old, rich or poor, whom he set his eye upon, in whom he anything liked, either person or appearance, speech, pace, or countenance, but without any fear of God or respect for his honor, murmur or grudge of the world, he would importunely pursue his appetite and have her, to the great destruction of many a good woman and great dolor of their husband and their other friends, which being honest people of themself so much regard the cleanness of their house, the chastity of their wives and their children that they would prefer to lose all that they have rather than have such a villainy done them.
Buckingham’s speech was obviously coached by Richard, and the usurper is, ironically enough for one sodden with wickedness, claiming the throne by reason of his purity!
These ironies make Richard’s tale exactly the kind of story that would be thoroughly appealing to More’s devout temperment. More could never resist teaching the lesson that things are seldom what they seem to be, that the most careful plans of human beings often come to nothing because a profound current of irony pours across the uncharted ocean of wordly life and casts all of us where we do not dream of going.
Other characters become almost as vivid in More’s offering. Buckingham is splendidly drawn–a hearty, witty, garrulous, impetuous figure, ruthless in his ambition, magnificent in his duplicity, yet somehow fatally lacking in substance, so that he is led by others like some great bull coaxed to the slaughterhouse with a handful of straw. More thinks that when the usurpation began, Buckingham did not know where it would end, but that once the princes were in custody, Richard revealed the rest of his purpose to the duke, without whom he could not hope to succeed, and drew him into the conspiracy.
Buckingham, for all his outward bluster, is in More’s account a fearful man, and he is convinced by Richard that the two of them have already offended young Edward V to the point that they cannot turn back. If Edward should now assume power on his own, Buckingham would be in lethal danger, for, according to Richard, the king would never forget what had been done to him when he was powerless. But Richard also makes it clear to Buckingham that the duke would be in equally grave danger should he oppose Richard, whose present power and ruthlessness–as well as his spies–pose a mortal threat to anyone Richard sees as an enemy. “These things and such like, being beaten into the Duke’s mind, brought him to that point where he had repented the way he had entered, yet would he go forth in the same, and since he had once begun, he would stoutly go through. And therefore to this wicked enterprise which he believed could not be undone, he bent himself and went through, and determined that since the common mischief could not be amended, he would turn it as much as he might to his own commodity.”
At the end, Bishop Morton, left with Buckingham for safekeeping, uses Buckingham’s flawed charactger to provoke the duke to rebellion. In More’s closing scene, just before breaking his history off, he has Morton and Buckingham discussing Richard, now king. Buckingham has praised Richard; Morton relates some of his own history, recalling his loyal service to Henry VI and afterwards to Edward IV, but stops in midsentence when he begins to discuss Richard, as if he would not say something for fear of being misunderstood. Buckingham genially insists that Morton continue. And in the last passage in More’s book, the bishop says, “In good faith, my lord, as for the late protector, since he is now king in possession, I purpose not to dispute his title. But for the weal of this realm whereof his grace hath now the governance and whereof I am myself one poor member, I was about to wish that those good abilities, whereof he hath already right many little needing my praise, it might yet have pleased God for the better store to have given him some of such other excellent virtues meet for the rule of a realm, as our Lord hath planted in the person of your grace.”
Buckingham did rebel in the autumn of 1483, for reasons that have always been obscure. His uprising collapsed. The duke was taken and summarily beheaded at Salisbury, pleading for one last interview with Richard–which was denied. It appeared that More read his impetuous and unstable character well.
The women in More’s story are well done. We have mentioned Jane Shore; there are two others, the queen mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth Lucy, a foolish deceived woman with whom Edward IV was said to have contracted marriage before he wed Elizabeth Woodville.
In the queen, More gives us a mother driven to desperation by events she cannot control, a powerless creature bent on protecting her own children from the wickedness she alone discerns in the Protector. (More can fairly be accused of distortion here; in her own days as England’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville was cruel, arrogant, greedy, and deadly even to the little children of those she considered her foes.)
When Richard and his council demand the release of the little Duke of York from sanctuary, Queen Elizabeth appeals to the quality of mercy in her tormentors and finds none. But in the fervor of her appeals and in the depths of her grief, she attains, in our eyes, a heroic and tragic stature. “The law of nature,” she protests, “wills the mother to keep her child.” We know all along that Richard’s iron heart is not to be melted by such a plea, so we see in her sad figure almost the archetypal mother who can only weep while war, famine, pestilence, and death consume her sons.
In the end, when she realizes that her cause is hopeless and that she must give up her youngest son, she utters a long monologue filled with resigned grief. Since she cannot protect him herself, she can only call on the lords who have come to fetch him away, lords blind to the Protector’s evil, and she begs them to pledge their honor to keep the boy safe: No matter what anyone says, she could keep him safe in sanctuary. She knows that there are some people out there who hate her blood so much that if they thought any of it ran through their own veins, they would cut themselves to let it out. Ambition for a kingdom knows no kindred. One brother has killed another for such a prize. And may nephews trust an uncle? As long as they are apart, each of her children is defense for the other “and each of their lives lieth in the other’s body. Keep one safe and both be sure, and nothing for them both more perilous than to be both in one place. For what wise merchant adventureth all his good in one ship? All this notwithstanding, here I deliver him, and his brother in him, to keep into your hands, of whom I shall ask them both afore God and the world.” If these lords cannot vow to protect this child, they should leave him with her, she says. They say she fears too much; she thinks they do not fear enough. “And therewithall she said unto the child: ‘farewell my own sweet son; God send you good keeping. Let me kiss you once yet ere you go, for God knoweth when we shall kiss together again.’ And therewith she kissed him and blessed him, turned her back and wept and went her way, leaving the child weeping as fast.”
As we have already noted, women exist in More’s works either to show how good and sensible some of them are in comparison to wicked men, or else to play a comic role. More often used to the full the literary convention of the times that made women signal that the audience should be prepared to laugh, much as black actors (and whites in blackface) were once used in American plays. So we have Elizabeth Lucy in the History, a pole away from the tragic figure of Elizabeth Woodville.
Elizabeth Lucy had a child by Edward IV. Edward’s mother, the dowager Duchess of York, was furious with him for marrying Elizabeth Woodville and claimed, so More says, that the marriage was invalid because Edward had promised to marry Elizabeth Lucy. Elizabeth Lucy was thereupon interrogated by a panel of judges and asked if the charge was true. Under oath she said that the king had never made such a promise explicitly. “Howbeit, she said his grace spoke so loving words unto her that she verily hoped he would have married her, and if it had not been for such kind words she would never have have showed such kindness to him to let him so kindly get her with child.” More’s point was not mere comedy; it was to show that the charge had been made and refuted long before Richard and his cohorts brought it up. Yet the story does let him mock a foolish woman.
More’s eye for detail is one of the most compelling literary qualities of his History. At Northampton, where Richard, Buckingham, and their henchmen intercept Earl Rivers, they feast merrily with him in the evening, but after he has happily and without suspicion gone off to bed, they conspire against him until nearly dawn. Early the next day, says More’s Latin text, they move against the earl while his servants are still snoring. When Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and others friendly and familiar to the child king are snatched away, the boy weeps–an unkingly gesture but one fitting for the child the king is. More says it made no difference. It is a small detail that prepares us to be outraged when this weeping and helpless child is smothered to death in the Tower at Richard’s command.
When the queen mother goes into sanctuary, we find a brilliant description of the turmoil of servants hurrying in with chests, coffers, packs, and bundles while the queen mother sits apart on the rushes that cover the floor, “all desolate and dismayed,” and while outside the Thames fills with boats manned by Richard’s servants. Richard at the Friday-morning council that will end in the murder of Hastings looks cheerfully over at Bishop Morton and says,” My lord, you have very good strawberries at your garden in Holborn; I require you, let us have a mess of them.” Since it is Friday, a good Catholic can eat no meat, and the detail of Richard’s request for strawberries underscores his hypocrisy.
Jane Shore blushes as she carries her taper through the street in penance for adultery. She is far more virtuous than Richard, who is beyond any sense of shame. At the Guildhall, Bukingham makes his infamous speech, claiming the bastardy of the children of Edward IV and of Edward himself, demanding an answer from the assembly as to whether Richard should be king. More ays, “At these words the people began to whisper among themselves secretly [so] that the voice was neither loud nor distinct, but as it were the sound of a swarm of bees.” In nearly every scene More combines details like these with pithy lessons to be learned from the story, so that, together, details and lessons give us a morality play. To us the most compelling function of these sharp and memorable details is the Proustian one of making us aware of the striking power of small things to elicit whole scenes.
The greatest public interest in More’s History of King Richard III has been the one least interesting to a biographer. It is this: How accurate is the work? Richard’s modern defenders have assaulted More as a slanderer and a simple liar, believing it necessary to impugn More’s character to extol that of Richard III. These people have leaped on the obvious inaccuracies of parts of the tale to argue that the whole is in error. It is true that More gets things wrong–the Christian names of Hastings and Buckingham, for example. He errs as well in dates and in some other things. Richard and Buckingham in some accounts accused Edward IV of making a marriage contract with one Eleanor Butler. More does not mention her but gives instead the humorous tale of Elizabeth Lucy, who hoped that the king might wed her if she permitted him to bed with her.
Obviously, too, the long speeches in the work were composed by More for rhetorical effect. He was following a tradition as old as Thucydides, allowing historians to put words to fit the occasion into the mouths of leading characters. The line between history and literature was not as sharply drawn then as it is now, and More fell into the habit of centuries. We should recall that he had had occasion to talk to a great many eyewitnesses of the events he reports and that the underlying substance of the long speeches may be accurate. This is especially true of Buckingham’s speech in the Guildhall.
Of greatest interest is More’s portrayal of Richard’s character. Here the modern literature is immense, though much of it is trivial. Some things that Richard’s defenders can hardly deny speak powerfully against him. He had Hastings summarily executed. Paul Murray Kendall, Richard’s ablest modern champion, does his best to mitigate Richard’s crime even in this calculated bloodiness. “The speed with which Hastings was hustled to the headsman was perphaps prompted by Richard’s fear that if he paused to reflect, he would be unable to commit the deed.” But the Great Chronicle of London, written a few years after Richard’s reign, expressed a more realistic appraisal and the conviction that informs the work of Thomas More: Hastings’s execution was “done without process of any law or lawful examination.”