Search This Blog

Thursday, April 23, 2015

King Richard III and Sir Thomas More...

are both famous Englishmen who have been in the news as of late, and are worthy interlocking subjects to discuss on St. George’s Day! Hopefully we'll be able to do a bit of historical detective work to unmask the "real" individuals beneath the re-imaginings of friend and foe alike. While there may never be only one version of history, we can certainly make assertions of reality based on the records and a balanced mind-set, and thus is our duty and pleasure!

    Anyway, our tour-d-force must begin with the ever-controversial chap from the wild and wooly War of the Roses: King Richard III (1452-1485)! To be honest, I’m not quite sure how Richard managed to become to center of so much attention within the historical community, above and beyond many other much-maligned historical characters in need of a reputation overhaul. But his supporters are a redoubtable bunch. The Richard III Society is one of most famous historical societies dedicated to a single figure, and is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. The House of York marches on with gusto, all the more so since the 2012 discovery of the king’s unmarked grave that he was unceremoniously dumped in after losing the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Suddenly, the historically-minded world refocused its attentions on Shakespeare’s ultra-villain who many a hearty soul desired to rescue from his sub-parking-lot resting place and rehabilitate in the minds of British royal buffs.

    So…what’s the back-story on Sovereign liege Richard, the third of that name? His brother Edward VI had claimed the throne for the House of York after the deposition of the unfortunate Lancastrian Henry VI, and Richard does seem to have been an intelligent and ambitious man who may well have had his eyes on the throne as his brother's reign progressed and felt reasonably excited by the prospect of exercising power. He got a notch closer to it when his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was convicted of treason and executed…although unlike the Shakespeare story, there is no evidence Richard was involved in any underhanded way. After his King Edward’s death, a controversy erupted over the legitimacy of Edwards two young sons, and Richard backed the move to disqualify them from the throne in favor of himself.

    Richard’s nephews were incarcerated in the Tower of London and thereupon disappeared. Gossip started up that the new king had murdered them to prevent any insurrection in his favor. While this is certainly possible, my opinion leans more towards the theory that they just died from some illness or neglect in the Tower. Richard’s reign was short, and filled with intrigues. However, it also demonstrated his flair for leadership and did win over supporters both within his country and abroad. Visitors to his court were won over by his hospitality and personality. He was an excellent conversationalist with a variety of interests, and very learned and well-read. He also showed himself to be a conscientious ruler, and implemented reforms in the law courts of England. He also gave generously to the church and seemed to have been sincere in his religious devotions.
     But in the end, Richard  was betrayed by many of his loyal friends, including the Duke of Buckingham, whom he had executed (yes, brutal, but not without reason...the guy was legitimately condemned for high treason). Ultimately, Richard lost his throne and his life gallantly leading his troops at the Battle of Bosworth Field, when Henry Tudor, the last hope for the Lancastrian cause, returned to England upon the invitation of Richard's internal enemies, mustered his supporters, and turned the tables. By doing so, the newly-crowned Henry VII initiated the House of Tudor which would change the world for both good and ill. Many Catholics have speculated that if Richard had won and the Tudors never come to the throne, Henry VIII would never have been king and England would still be Catholic. I think this is a hard judgment to make, considering that the Catholic Henry VII certainly would never have thought his son would go as bats as he did, and who knows what a hypothetical son of Richard III may have done anyway?      

     But in the aftermath of his defeat, Richard’s reputation was dragged through mud, just like his desecrated corpse. Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare, and a fist-waving army of their pro-Tudor contemporaries all painted him as the darkest monster to emerge from the struggles for the throne between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. They had been raised on propaganda from the Civil War days, which they dreaded ever returning, and thus were eager to portray Richard as a hunched figure with a warped mind, obsessed with obtaining the throne and willing to wipe out whoever stood in his path. Perhaps some of this is true, but there is no doubt that the pro-Tudor faction went over the top in making him their boogie man. Not only did they accuse him of murdering his nephews, but also his wife Anne (actually she died of an illness), Henry VI (the original story was that he "died" in prison, although later investigation indicates he may well have been beheaded by the Yorkists...although Richard was certainly not the sole perpetrator), the son of Henry VI (he was killed in battle), his brother George and friend Buckingham (we've covered their stories already).

    But now, upon the discovery of his body, the king has finally been given a proper funeral and internment at Leicester Cathedral, with ecumenical cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, including a message from the Queen and a poetic recitation by Benedict Cumberbatch. The fact is that Richard III will always stir up controversy, and Shakespeare's play will always be hailed as a triumph because of his brilliant portrayal of ambition gone mad and the glorious reality that tyranny often turns in on itself (by the way, I highly recommend watching the superb film adaptation of the play by Sir Laurence Olivier...its a must for Classic Literary Enlightenment!). But I think it is admirable that there are those who care so much about bringing into balance another man's reputation, even though he lived some six centuries ago, and pay homage to him through a Christian ceremony for the dead. Indeed, it seems that the true message is that a little love goes a long way, and before God, time is an open book.

    It’s an irony that in the same year that Richard III’s reputation gets a boost, his old detractor Thomas More’s reputation gets assaulted in a certain popular TV Series running on PBS (Is Dick teasing Tom about this in Heaven, I wonder...?)! Wolf Hall is an historical fiction drama set in Tudor England which portrays Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) in some of the episodes as a bigoted religious fanatic, masochist, prig, male chauvinist, and generally miserable person, refusing to let go of the old ways. In contrast, Thomas Cromwell, his arch-enemy, is made to look like a hero of enlightened modernity, who scoffs at More for being such a backward medieval maniac. Needless to say, this is a far cry from the depiction of the two men in A Man for All Seasons, and many in the next generation are probably going to take it for granted as the updated authentic one. This goes way beyond the artistic license of historical fiction; in the case of More, it's character assassination.

     First of all, it is a horrendous mischaracterization of the historical Thomas More who was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church for his heroic refusal to abandon his faith, even though it cost him his life. He was the last person to indulge pompous pretensions, as was his friend the Dutch monk and humanist author Erasmus. Hypocritical displays of religiosity were anathema to them both, and they often made sport of it in their writings. More has left behind a vibrant legacy as a Renaissance man and all around lover of life. He was witty and warm, always ready to crack a joke even in the darkest of circumstances (British humor at its best!). His interests were broad and varied, including literature, science, astronomy, theology, philosophy, languages, politics, etc., and he threw himself into all of it with enthusiasm.

    Sir Thomas loved people and being able to make merry with them at his home at Chelsea. Indeed, “making merry” was one of his favorite pastimes, and he heartily hoped that heaven would be a place where he could “meet merrily again” with even those who sentenced him to death. He loved giving his guests a tour of his home, showing off his many collections of odds and ends (including a zillion books and a giant hunk of amber with a bug stuck inside) and his menagerie of pets (he was an animal lover who held blood-sports in disdain). Does this guy sound like a prig or bloody-minded weirdo to you? I certainly hope not! Just to put the nail in the coffin of this claim of his being a straight-laced, better-than-thou snob, the fact was he could even be a bit raunchy in his humor at times, and was not above “swearing like a Briton” with the best of them in his fired-up moments.

     As for the claim that he was a male chauvinist, the fact is that for his time period he was quite enlightened in his treatment of women. His favorite person in the world was his beloved daughter Margaret, affectionately called “Meg”, and he made a point of educating both his son and his daughters. He also educated his first wife, Jane, and would have done so with his second wife, Alice, but she resisted tooth and nail. He was by all accounts a loving family man, caring for his biological children, adopted child, and step-child alike. Of course, he was a man of his age in many ways, and did not believe it was the place of women to publish books. But for his era, that certainly doesn’t make him a fanatical women-hater. These modern feminists need to get a life!

     As for being a masochist…well, he did wear a hair shirt, if that’s what they’re alluding to, in order to prevent himself from letting all the outward finery of the royal court go to his head. Basically, he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t become a fop, and determined that the scratchiness should always remind him to stay humble. Is that really so criminal? It was a private practice which he kept strictly confidential, and Wolf Hall is completely off-mark by indicating Cromwell knew about it during his lifetime. Only his daughter Margaret was privy to the practice, and revealed it only after her father’s death. As mentioned before, More hated hypocrisy in all forms, and the day before his execution, he sent the hair shirt to Meg so it would not be discovered when he took off his outer clothes on the scaffold.

    Sir Thomas was certainly no fanatic, religious or otherwise, and praised Aristotle’s Middle Way, which Meg is shown pointing to in an open book in the famous Holbein portrait. Of course, this doesn’t mean he was a liberal, and he could be quite harsh in his opinions about those condemned and executed for heresy. As chancellor, he was involved in bringing some of them before the appropriate courts for trial, and verbally chewed them out as “the devil’s stinking martyrs.” But there is no evidence whatsoever that he was personally involved in torturing them and took some perverse pleasure in the activity, as indicated in Wolf Hall. More held to the commonly-held belief of the era that these "heretics" were a danger to the cohesion of Christendom, and were therefore a very real political threat. Obviously, Cromwell held the same belief, only in reverse after he had unscrupulously helped Henry break with the Church, dissolve and pillage the monasteries, and launch a reign of terror against Catholics who refused to comply with the new state-of-affairs.

     So to conclude this "tale of two reputations”, I will say that my attraction to history is very people-oriented, and as such character analysis is one of my favorite parts of the study. Political intricacies and military maneuvers are important as background information to set the stage. And yet the stage is ultimately meant for people, and not the other way around. I think some historical authors forget this, and get so involved in the great and grand events that they forget the ever-present human element. In the entertainment industry, it seems that historical characters are often hijacked manipulated to transfer a message from the creators to the audience. At least Shakespeare did so with true artistic flare and a good message, whereas many modern productions are just plain absurd, toting about the wonders of the modern age in past time periods.

    In my writings, I try to bring historical characters to life in all their complexity, as real human beings with warmth and color, depth and dimension, comfortable in their own skin and their own age. Those who keep up with my blog know that I strive for balance in portraying characters sometimes vilified or misrepresented, such as Major John Pitcairn, General James Wolfe, and General Edward Braddock, to name a few. With the aid eye-witness accounts and the meticulous research of fellow historians, I want my readers to be able see these individuals as their contemporaries saw them, not as empty words in a dead book. As Catholics, we can say with conviction that they are just as real as we are, and as St. Thomas More was wont to say, it is our hope that we all may "meet merrily in Heaven." That is truly drawing back the veil time, or penetrating it through the ultimate Divine Grace.

Richard III: Richard III performances
Sir Laurence Olivier as "Bad Guy" Richard III in Shakespeare's play

Anton Lesser Thomas More

Anton Lesser as "Bad Guy" Thomas More in Wolf Hall