What we now know is that Shakespeare’s characterisation of him as ‘hunch-backed’, not ‘shaped for sportive tricks’, and ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up’ is grossly exaggerated yet correct in essence: Richard III was disabled. His skeletal remains have shown that he suffered from curvature of the spine such as to reduce his height (which would otherwise have been 5ft 8in) and put strain on his heart and lungs, perhaps causing permanent pain.
Richard III and the House of York
Disability was, of course, a metaphor for evil and illegitimacy, and earlier Tudor propaganda had played on and exaggerated the affliction of the fallen Yorkist king. We rightly condemn such prejudice now (though it is persistent and pernicious). That it mattered in the past, however, we cannot doubt, partly because kingship was so much bound up with notions of physical manliness and chivalric valour and achievement: thus, the obsession of the Tudor propagandists, Shakespeare above all. But the matter has no bearing on any proper evaluation of Richard III’s career. Rather, it is a stern warning regarding the bias in our sources.
The Yorkists and the English people
The Yorkist ascendancy of 1461-1485 needs to be placed in a wider context. English society changed rapidly between the mid to late 14th century and the accession of the Tudor dynasty. The Black Death (1348) created labour shortages that had the effect of shifting the balance of advantage in social relations from the old feudal lords to the common people, especially ‘the middling sort’ of minor gentry, yeomen farmers, artisans, and small traders. Labour was in demand, land was up for grabs, and men of skill and enterprise had the opportunity to thrive.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, though defeated, showed how difficult it would be to re-impose the shackles of exploitation. The influence of Lollardy, before, during, and after the Revolt, was another measure of the growing assertiveness of the English commons at this time. The Lollards challenged traditional authority in church and society, representing a sort of proto-Reformation, and they remained highly resistant to the brutal repression to which they were subject.
The monarchy, indeed, was increasingly dependent on the middling sort, seeing in them a counterweight to the centrifugalism and anarchy of the feudal lords, and, specifically, relying on them to provide the contingents of longbowmen on which English military success had come to depend. Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415) were essentially victories of the English middling sort over French chivalry.
The Rebellion of Jack Cade in Kent in 1450 illustrated the degree to which the common people had entered upon the stage of English politics. The rebels aimed to overthrow the court party, and end the corruption of and oppression by royal officials. They were defeated, as their predecessors had been in 1381, but rebellion creates a new reality, whatever its outcome: in this case, a growing sense of the need for reform at the highest levels of the English social hierarchy.
Cade’s Rebellion gave encouragement to Richard of York’s opposition; it may even have been decisive in giving the Yorkist faction the confidence to drive matters to the ultimate test of war. Certainly, throughout the 30-year conflict which followed, the House of York became the standard-bearer of the more progressive social forces developing in the depths of English society – forces whose voices were beginning to find an echo in Parliament.
The Yorkist cry on the battlefield was sometimes ‘Kill the lords, spare the commons!’ The enemy was the reactionary feudal lords in the opposing ranks, not the ordinary men who happened to belong to a Lancastrian lord’s affinity or territorial domain.
The Yorkist monarchy
Edward IV aimed to put royal finances on a sound footing by appointing salaried officials to manage Crown lands, instead of doling them out to court favourites, as his predecessor had done. His household expenses were also put under professional management. ‘I promise to live of mine own,’ the King told Parliament in 1467, ‘and not to charge my subjects but in great and urgent cases.’ The King also took a keen interest in promoting trade.
Equally important to men of enterprise was the King’s commitment to suppressing brigandage on the roads, and preventing local magnates taking the law into their own hands. These were the policies of a centralising, proto-absolutist monarchy that sought support not from the old feudal nobility, but from the increasingly important commercial classes.
The policies of the Yorkist monarchy anticipated the great reforms of the Tudors: Henry VII’s subjugation of the old feudal nobility; Thomas Cromwell’s creation of a centralised monarchy; the enrichment of a new nobility of service, rewarded with confiscated church estates; the unleashing of the Elizabethan sea-dogs to begin building a maritime colonial empire, and then to humble the might of Spain, the global superpower of the age, in the epic confrontation of 1588.
Richard of Gloucester
Richard of Gloucester was denied the opportunity to prove himself a fit successor to his brother: through his brief reign, he was wholly preoccupied with shoring up the Yorkist state against the threat of faction and rebellion. In the event, it hardly mattered: the changes wrought proved irreversible.
The Battle of Bosworth was perhaps among the least consequential of the many battles of the Wars of the Roses. The Earl of Northumberland, who had commanded Richard’s rearguard and yet chose to remain a mere spectator at the battle, commented that it mattered little who won, for it was a purely dynastic affair.
Henry Tudor was a self-interested usurper. His followers were adventurers content to plunge England into civil war yet again to advance their private interests. That they were victorious was largely accident. And it made no difference, in that the Tudors, though they could never admit as much, followed a wholly Yorkist programme – they were, indeed, more Yorkist than the Yorkists in their style of government.
It is one of history’s many ironies that the man more responsible than any other for the blackening of Richard III’s name – William Shakespeare – belonged to precisely the class whose long-term interest was inextricably bound up with the success of the House of York. Indeed, had England remained mired in the feudal reaction represented by the House of Lancaster, the plays of Shakespeare could never have been written: for they are, above all, a monument to the new world made possible by Edward IV’s victories at Towton and Barnet.
ALL images: WIPL