William Shakespeare usually wrote his History plays with careful regard for the facts. He read Polydore Virgil, Edmund Hall, Holinshed and other historians before putting historical events into theatrical plays written to attract a large public to his theatre. In one play, however, Shakespeare appears to have taken the written words of saints like Thomas More into his scheme of things without investigation or doubt. More wrote history to suit King Henry VII’s pleasure. After all, the first Tudor (q.v.) had usurped a usurper’s throne, but the less said about that the better.
Shakespeare was writing during the early reign of Elizabeth II (a Tudor), grand-daughter of Henry VII. It would not do to antagonize that lady, so England’s greatest playwright and poet demonized the last of the Plantagenets in order to make Henry appear honourable, worthy, a scourge of assassins and child murderers, progenitor of a noble dynasty (imagine! Henry VIII!), and a Good Thing. The result was Shakespeare’s only pantomime, Richard III, and it is one of the most watchable and entertaining of his 38 plays. But it is based on a pack of lies.
Despite youthful bones being ‘found’ buried beneath stairs in the Tower during the reign of a Stuart king, despite Thomas More being a saint and telling us Richard was born with black hair down to his shoulders, teeth, one shoulder lower than the other and a withered arm, despite there not being a millimetre of evidence to back up Richard’s apparent complicity in the deaths of his nephews and his own brother Clarence in the Tower, or Henry VI (poor idiot), or Henry VI’s young son Edward at Tewkesbury, or the ‘poisoning’ of his own wife Anne of Warwick etc. etc., the playgoer thoroughly enjoys this marvellous play and to hell with the truth. Even Richard’s indomitable enemy the Oxford historian Rouse, near death, admitted that there is considerable doubt whether Richard was really responsible for most of the deaths Shakespeare attributes to him.
To a great extent it was the stage and film actor Laurence Olivier whose 1956 film of the play helped history teachers such as mine at school to present Richard as an historical figure who spoke directly (or aside) to the camera, a dwarfish hunchback wearing a black Veronica Lake wig; his evil eyes flashed and sparkled. He limped, and his arm was withered (strange that a man with a withered arm and weak shoulders could ride a warhorse magnificently and wield a huge sword with such devastating effect in battle). As a schoolboy I was told in class that Richard was a power-hungry devil who embarked on a path of manipulation, Machievelian murder and deceit in order to steal the throne of England. But it was Richard’s brother Edward IV who sat on that throne, so stealing it was unnecessary, especially when Edward died comparatively young (41), leaving two underage boys as heirs. It was perfectly correct for Richard to assume the Regency while the teenage Edward V grew up. And dissolute Edward IV had made a bigamous marriage to his queen, Elizabeth, secretly marrying a commoner. Those princes in the Tower were illegitimate, as the chroniclers and clerks and contemporary writers of the Paston family’s letters knew.
Shakespeare creates a new character for cunning, shifty, mean, money-grabbing Henry Tudor in his first appearance as Earl of Richmond. In this play he is a shining knight (superbly played by Stanley Baker in the Olivier film), come from bastardy in Wales to rescue poor England from the wicked uncle the King. The first royal move Henry VII made after the defeat of Richard at Bosworth Field was officially to start his reign from the day before the battle. This masterly (and thoroughly typical) machination thus made traitors of all those who had supported the annointed King, though what they were actually doing at Bosworth was fighting for their monarch and their country against an usurper.
The ‘crowning’ moment at the end of the play comes when Richard is supposedly hacked to pieces by the shining knight Richmond (the real Henry VII was so weak and ill he could hardly hold a sword), and the Lord Stanley finds his fallen circlet beneath a hedge and places it on Richmond’s wonderful blond curls, reaching up to do so because Richmond is so nobly tall! The facts are different. During the battle of Bosworth, Richard led a small group of knights straight across the battlefield towards a hill on which, mounted, were thin, tiny Richmond and his cohorts. Seeing the King tearing towards him on a huge horse, Richmond turned tail and fled. It was at this moment that Lord Stanley and the Earl of Northumberland, who should have fought for their King but had waited quietly with their armies to see which way the wind blew, entered the fray and with overwhelming numbers cut down Richard. Henry Tudor’s reward to Stanley within a short few years was a falling axe on his neck. Northumberland was later murdered in revenge for what he had done, by estate workers in the North.
So, according to Shakespeare, the Wars of the Roses come to a thankful end, Richmond could marry the Yorkist heiress as King Henry VII, England could fall on its knees to give thanks to the Tudors (!), the saintly Thomas More and others can cringe away at their desks re-writing History, and everyone lives happily ever after. Incidentally, Thomas More later discovered what it meant to cross a Tudor. History teachers ever since have been happy to impress upon their eager pupils a pack of lies concerning Richard III. And “Ring-a-Ring of Roses . . .”