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King Richard III

Richard, as both duke and king, still stirs emotion in many people, for good or for ill. A piece written by our own research officer, AJ Hibbard MD, explores why this may be so, even after over 530 years after his passing.


Why does Richard III still matter?

Initially I thought it was to remind us to the point that we know it in our very bones that history is written by the victors. Richard's story has to be one of the most extreme examples of that phenomenon known. It began with the obscuring, if not quite complete obliteration, of his reign by that master propagandist Henry Tudor; by backdating his own reign to the day before the Battle of Bosworth, Henry transformed into traitors an anointed king whose right to the throne had been affirmed by parliament, as well as his sworn followers. It continued through chronicle writers eager to stay on the good side of the "Winter King," through Thomas More's humanistic writing never published in his lifetime but taken up by Hall & Hollinshed; it culminated in Shakespeare's cartoon Richard. And continues since most actors who play Richard III seem to compete to see how grotesque they can make him.

But lately I've been thinking that there's something else going on here, more profound than reminding us to be wary of what we think history tells us. All over the internet are signs that Richard still stirs strong passions in the hearts of some modern people. For some it's as if "Richard liveth yet," to quote one correspondent's signature. Richard represents something fundamental to which it is easy to give allegiance. And this has been going on for a very long time. After Bosworth, the York city council registered in their official records "that King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us, was, through great treason… piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this City." Francis Bacon wrote in 1622 that "... the memory of King Richard was so strong, that it lay like lees in the bottom of men's hearts; and if the vessel was but stirred it would come up." Why should a young man dead for more than 500 years and who had one of the shortest reigns on record still stir the sort of emotion to be seen in the Perry Miniatures model? This shows King Richard on his white horse, like a latter-day King Arthur summoned from his legendary sleep, bursting through the car park tarmac next to a handicapped parking sign.

In the opposing corner, why do some people feel compelled to continue to vilify Richard, painting anyone who regards him in a positive light as hagiographers? Historian A Pollard's comment in the course of the video "The King in the Car Park" that he believed the "princes" were dead by the end of the summer of 1483, gives us a clue - he said "that's what I would have done." This is reminiscent of a comment of Jeremy Potter's in his Good King Richard? "...Tell me what you think of Richard III and I will tell you what you are." We see Richard through the lenses of our own personalities. Prof H G Hanbury would recognize the Richard I see - a man he described as “a singularly thoughtful and enlightened legislator, who brought to his task a profound knowledge of the nature of contemporary problems, and an enthusiastic determination to solve them in the best possible way, in the interests of every class of his subjects.”

As painful as it is for me personally to contemplate the betrayal that led to Richard's death at Bosworth, with the discovery of his skeleton, I can now accept it as perhaps the lesser evil for him, because scoliosis, although it seems had not yet had a significant impact on his life, very well might have led to increasing pain and disability as Richard aged. No doubt, however, if he had survived, Richard would have continued to press for the rule of law and its equal application to all, even in the face of those who, like Henry Tudor, and Thomas, Lord Stanley, believed, it seems, that they were entitled to whatever they could seize by whatever means. Indeed, we face this same struggle today, perhaps more pervasively than ever. At least Richard left us a vision of what may be done, in his record as Lord of the North, and in his single parliament which has been characterized as the most liberal on record. This I think is the true meaning of Richard's resurrection at this time.

AJ Hibbard MD

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