Students of English history have to be thrilled by the news that a skeleton found at an archeological dig in the city of Leicester may be the last remains of one of the greatest villains in literature as well as a great enigma: Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. Richard III was immortalized in Shakespeare’s play of the same name as the hunchback evildoer who plots and murders his way to the throne only to be struck down by the forces of the righteous Henry Tudor. We know that although Shakespeare’s history plays are brilliant theater, they are far from being objective about their subjects. Shakespeare was, after all, determined to ingratiate himself with Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the man who deposed Richard.
The revisionists have been busy for the past two hundred years seeking to rehabilitate Richard and portraying him as a modern, even liberal monarch who promoted justice and the welfare of his subjects. But whether you believe him to have been a 15th century version of Bobby Kennedy or not, the discovery of what may well be his bones will open up what should be an entertaining debate about the rights and wrongs of the last battles of England’s War of the Roses as well as about the role of historical myths in shaping a country’s national identity. Though Richard may have been nothing like Shakespeare’s portrait, it must be understood that the play’s contribution to the English — and by extension, American — belief that evil rulers should be overthrown played a part in the formation of a mindset that paved the way for modern democracy.
Non-Tudor sponsored histories of Richard’s life have always noted that although he may have had what we now understand to be a form of scoliosis, he was not the malevolent hunchback of Shakespeare’s plays. His short reign is notable for the creation of courts that were accessible to the poor as well as to institution of bail for those accused of crimes. He was also a valiant soldier, something that even Shakespeare acknowledges, and died while seeking during the course of the Battle of Bosworth Field to find and kill his rival in single combat, a gesture of Medieval chivalry that Henry VII wanted no part of.
However, even his contemporary supporters must still explain the disappearance and presumed murder of his nephews, the princes in the Tower, whose deposition allowed him to ascend to the throne. They were never heard from after they were locked up after his coronation. Most people have always assumed they were killed at their uncle’s behest. But Richard’s defenders assert there is no proof he killed them and that if they were still alive after Bosworth Field, it was Henry VII who had them executed just as he wiped out every other living male member of the defunct Plantagenet dynasty.
Does any of this matter to us today other than as a purely intellectual diversion? Perhaps not. The Tudors are as dead as the Plantagenets and other than the editors of People Magazine and similar publications, it’s not clear to me if anyone actually cares who sits on the throne of the United Kingdom, though most Brits would be upset if someone weren’t sitting on it.
But what does matter is the role that Shakespeare’s play had in shaping the Western intellectual tradition. The earlier history plays center on what was considered to be the great sin of the deposition of a legitimate if unpopular king. They end with the overthrow of an evil king and his replacement by one we are supposed to think was good. When Shakespeare wrote Richard III in 1591, the assumption that kings ruled by divine right was nearly universal. But a generation or two later, the principle would be challenged in a Puritan Revolution that ended with a king having, as Oliver Cromwell put it, his “head cut off with the crown upon it.”
Though it cannot be said that Shakespeare was much of an influence on the Parliamentary armies during the Civil War that ended the reign of Charles I, his plays were rapidly becoming part of the country’s intellectual foundation. Though we can point to many others sources of the mindset that led to Britain’s evolution to constitutional monarchy, Richard III is one of the mileposts along the way that posited a social compact between the ruler and his realm that redefined divine right as being dependent on good behavior.
The point is not whether Richard III was good or bad. We may all now shrug our shoulders at the rather thin distinctions between the heads of the rival factions of England at the time and declare that Richard is deserving of a reburial in a place of honor. Richard’s white rose of York was no better or worse than his opponent’s Lancastrian red one. But the concept that evil kings must inevitably fall and be replaced by good ones is one that helped pave the way for the Western tradition of government by the consent of the governed. Sometimes myth is just as important as history. In that sense we can all hope that the image of evil Richard is never quite extinguished, even if the anti-Shakespeare revisionists are right.