–––––––– THE INK ON COTTON BLOG ––––––––

Now is the winter of our discontent…

Made glorious summer by this sun of York….

So begins the most famous portrait of a monster in British history. King Richard III was many things to many people. He united the warring North, played a large part in winning the Wars of The Roses and by all accounts was a just and well-liked figure in his role of arbiter of disputes of common men in his native York. History records that in conflicts between so-called nobles and commons Richard showed neither grace nor favour according to social status. His judgements were made in deference to the law and basic fairness. He was a strong and courageous leader and warrior and remains the last English king to die in battle, cut down as he was by the Tudor army in Bosworth field in 1485.

For all of this, however, there was another side to him. He was ruthless in pursuit and defence of power, allegedly to the extent of ordering the kidnapping, imprisonment and execution of his nephews, the famous ‘princes in the Tower’. Shakespeare paints him as a scheming manipulator whose hunched posture and withered arm served as physical manifestations of his inner malignancy.

There’s just one problem with Shakespeare’s analysis, it isn’t true. At least, major parts of it aren’t. The recent discovery of R3’s skeletal remains buried beneath a car park in Leicester revealed no withered limbs and only a limited scoliosis of the spine, the severity of which is unclear but which certainly did not prevent him from wearing armour and fighting in many battles. No-one knows to what extent the legends of Richard’s evil are true. But the question is, why has the narrative of a monster taken hold in the public perception of him?

Certainly there’s an argument that ‘evil’ is just more interesting than ‘human’ and we must judge Richard against the moral norms of his time. Henry Tudor (later King Henry VII) won the battle of Bosworth and history is written by the victors. Shakespeare would have been canny enough to realise that a hatchet job on R3 would be a very popular option in Tudor England.

There is one more very major development which I think had huge influence not only on this story but on the whole of the world since. That is the introduction of the printing press. Whilst William Caxton introduced it to England in 1475, the Tudors were the first dynasty to see it widely used. For the first time it was easy and relatively inexpensive to make multiple copies of work. So not only were the Tudors able to write their own version of history, they had the means of distribution in a form that would last in perpetuity. Proof if it were needed that art has the power to change the world. Ink stains. But it also colours the blanks and lights up the darkness. The most popular colour shouldn’t be black or blue, but infinite shades of grey. As Richard III, the last warrior king of England, is reinterred, maybe he was the psychopathic embodiment of evil of the Tudor stage, or maybe he was as sane as anyone.

At least, until he sees his parking bill.