The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.026 Monday, 1 February 2016
Date: January 30, 2016 at 9:59:05 AM EST
Subject: From TLS - 'Uniter of his enemies'
Richard III, uniter of his enemies
Reviewed by David Abulafia
A ruler and his reputation
336pp. Bloomsbury. £20.
978 1 4729 0299 3
Published: 27 January 2016
The century before the Battle of Bosworth was a bad time for the dynasties of Europe. From Poland to Portugal and from Sweden to Sicily kings and queens faced armed challenges to their authority from the greater nobility, generally led by their own close relatives. Usurpers abounded and often triumphed, with the result that we write the political history of the period as a series of success stories for rulers who might easily have failed to gain power – Henry VII at Bosworth, in 1485, Ferdinand and Isabella at Toro in 1476, Ferrante of Naples at Troia in 1462. Worse still, many of the major dynasties failed to maintain the line of succession; this was a disease-ridden period in which one royal prince after another died prematurely, while in several kingdoms, such as Naples under the vacillating Joanna II, the ruler remained childless.
Even when children were born, rivals for the crown flung accusations of illegitimacy at those best placed to succeed to the throne, most famously in the case of Queen Isabella of Castile, who ruthlessly exploited the accusation that her half-brother King Henry IV could not have fathered a daughter because he was apparently homosexual and therefore, supposedly, impotent. In Italy, if one could win the approval of Vatican City, illegitimacy was no bar to succession, as the troubled career of King Ferrante of Naples shows, though the shadow of French challenges lay over him and his successors, culminating in the French invasion of Naples in 1494–5. One of the major actors in those events was the ambitious and cultured duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, whose hold on power was consolidated by the untimely – or should one say timely? – death of his nephew and predecessor Giangaleazzo Sforza; and the accusation that Ludovico poisoned his way to the ducal throne still hangs in the air.
Ludovico has often been compared to his near contemporary, Richard III of England, and has been portrayed as a wicked uncle who, like Richard, developed to a high level the art of losing political friends when he needed them most. Over all these figures, Ferrante of Naples, Ludovico il Moro and Richard III, there hangs the question of how they justified in their own mind the killings that they reputedly fostered. There is a temptation to label the late fifteenth-century European rulers, in particular, as Machiavellians before Machiavelli.
David Horspool’s account of the life of Richard III, from his childhood (about which we know very little) to his death in battle (about which we now know a great deal, following the excavation of his skeleton by Dr Jo Appleby) raises these issues sensitively and thoughtfully. Even though the figure he describes is decidedly unattractive, Horspool shows appreciation for the attempts of the Richard III Society to steer away from the staunchly negative view of the king fostered by Thomas More and the Crowland chronicle. He stresses how, even more than Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier has fixed in the mind the image of a scheming devil, intent on clearing the way to the throne. This is true even when the blame lay elsewhere, as in the case of his endlessly rebellious brother the duke of Clarence. King Edward IV had suffered more than enough from Clarence’s disloyalty; but Clarence was condemned to death in the High Court of Parliament. By contrast, Shakespeare’s Richard is found muttering: “Simple plain Clarence, I do love thee so that I will shortly send thy soul to heaven”.
As for the Princes in the Tower, it is hard to see how Richard can be excused from their murder; as Horspool points out, Richard had the chance to parade the princes, if alive, or to show their bodies, if dead, and did neither; he could not afford to display a living Edward V, whose presence would undermine his own claim to the throne, despite his accusation that Edward was a bastard; and he could not admit to the scandalous murder of two children, his own nephews. One only has to look at Richard’s appalling record in executing rivals to see that he was addicted to purges: Earl Rivers, a member of the Woodville family into which Edward IV had married, was executed even before Richard seized the crown; Lord Hastings too was beheaded without trial; the long list of victims makes plain Richard’s determination to purge the English nobility of those who contested his claim to power. The evidence is silent on how his conscience dealt with this carnage.
This attempt to clear away all opposition was in reality his undoing. His most bizarre achievement was that he managed to bring together supporters of the house of Lancaster, loyal to the memory of King Henry VI, and of the house of York, loyal to the memory of King Edward IV. The death in childhood of his heir, Prince Edward, shattered Richard’s hope of establishing a line of succession, though he may well have planned to take as his second wife Elizabeth of York, his niece, a story brilliantly enhanced by Shakespeare. However, York and Lancaster were not the opposing sides at Bosworth Field; Henry Tudor had already brought together the white and the red rose before he became king and married Elizabeth of York. Dynastic exhaustion had set in, and precisely because he was a relatively minor figure Henry could be seen as a fresh beginning.
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