February 10, 2013
He then announced that his nephews were illegitimate and arranged for a public sermon on the theme “Bastard slips shall not take deep root” while simultaneously canvassing the king-making class. One of his most eloquent canvassers was the Duke of Buckingham; one witness of a Buckingham speech was impressed that His Grace did not even pause to spit between sentences. Richard feigned surprise when Parliament petitioned him to take the throne but accepted graciously”and he was crowned in July in a coronation which set a new precedent in splendor.
His reign started auspiciously. He introduced laws to ensure juries were qualified and free from intimidation, to grant bail for those arrested on felony charges, and for ending fraudulent property deals. He pleased Parliament by not demanding a subsidy”the euphemistically named “benevolences” enthusiastically levied by most monarchs. A celebrated soldier, he also made peace with Scotland. He was a noted patron of music and gave generously to buildings such as Windsor Castle, Westminster Palace, and King’s College in Cambridge. He had a reputation for abstemiousness in contrast to that of his voluptuary predecessor”and for honesty and loyalty. Crucially to a country that had been fighting over succession since 1455, he also had a legitimate heir.
But there were enemies everywhere, and Richard had little aptitude for politicking or propaganda. His heir and then his wife died in rapid succession, and allies fell away as he fell apart. Rumors began that the “Princes in the Tower” had been murdered on his orders. Written long after and reliant on partisan sources, Thomas More’s account still chills:
Sir James Tyrell [an ambitious courtier] devised that they should be murdered in their beds. To the execution whereof, he appointed Miles Forest, one of the four that kept them, a fellow fleshed in murder beforetime. To him he joined one John Dighton, his own horsekeeper, a big broad, square, strong knave. Then, all the others being removed from them, this Miles Forest and John Dighton, about midnight (the silly children lying in their beds) came into the chamber and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes, so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the feather bed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to the tormentors their bodies dead in the bed.
There is no evidence to connect Richard, but he was the likeliest culprit. An atrocious crime indeed, but as Anthony Cheetham commented drily in The Life and Times of Richard III, “Family loyalty is hardly the dominant motif of the Wars of the Roses.”
More’s was only one of many Tudor-endorsed traducements, culminating in Shakespeare’s celebrated character assassination of 1592. From the 17th century on there have been revisionists, and there is a dedicated Society, but they are all outweighed by one piece of superb melodrama.
York is contending for Richard’s remains, but Leicester may have more need of such symbols. Near the altar of Leicester’s tiny cathedral, there is even a large stone incised with his name which is regularly decorated with flowers. Leicester is already a city of ghosts, a place that belongs to the past rather than the future. It even has a medieval precinct still called Holy Bones. This is a city that was a ford for Celts”a fortress for Romans”a religious center for Saxons”and the legendary burial place of King Lear. It housed the first elected English Parliament. Chaucer was married in Leicester, and here Cardinal Wolsey came one night in 1530 to the Abbey of St. Mary of the Meadows (now under another car park) predicting “I am come to leave my bones among you” and promptly did.
The city whose ironic motto is Semper Eadem (“always the same”) is furthermore passing out of the English orbit altogether, as immigration has tipped the balance of power away from the descendants of those Celts, Romans, and Saxons in favor of everyone else. What better place could there be to park the endangered English identity?