3 The History of King Richard III

The History of King Richard III

   As the basis for most sixteenth-century chronicle accounts of RICHARD III, and, through them, the source for William Shakespeare’s powerful depiction of the king, Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III has become the most influential and controversial source for the deeds and personality of the last Yorkist monarch.
   Sir Thomas More, the famous Tudor statesman who was executed in 1535 for his opposition to the religious proceedings of Henry VIII, wrote the History in about 1513, almost thirty years after Richard III’s death. More wrote two separate versions of the History, one in English and the other (the Historia Richardi Tertius) in Latin for a learned international audience. Neither version was completed, and neither was published in More’s lifetime. Although manuscript copies of the work were in circulation in the 1530s, it did not appear in print until its incorporation into the 1543 edition of Richard Grafton’s The Chronicle of John Harding (see Hardyng’s Chronicle). However, Grafton’s version and the versions that appeared in other chronicles in the 1540s and 1550s were severely garbled in many details. In 1557, More’s nephew, William Rastell, corrected these errors by publishing an English version drawn from one of More’s manuscripts. Rastell’s text became the basis for most Elizabethan printings of the History, including the version published in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the source most likely used by William Shakespeare to write his play RICHARD III.
   Although less dramatically presented, all the deceit, ambition, and crimes, as well as the physical deformity, imputed to Richard by Shakespeare are found in More’s History. The History also contains a detailed account of the murder of EDWARD V and his brother Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, the most damning crime attributed to Richard. Modern historians have thrown doubt on Richard’s commission of many of the crimes ascribed to him by More, such as the murder of HENRY VI, and on the severity or even existence of the physical defects alleged by More, but no historian believes that More simply invented these tales. Most of these stories were current in the COURT of HENRY VII and came to More from men who had lived through Richard’s reign. Cardinal John MORTON, who witnessed many key events and in whose household the young More served, is the most likely source for many of More’s details.
   More’s reasons for writing the History and for leaving it unfinished have been much debated. It has been suggested that the History is a satire, and not meant to be an accurate account of events. The work certainly has a moral purpose, intending to illustrate the evil that could befall a kingdom when wise government was replaced by tyranny. Nonetheless, the work is not a piece of anti-Yorkist PROPAGANDA designed to reinforce the legitimacy of the house of TUDOR. Richard is not condemned for being a Yorkist but for being a tyrant. As his later opposition to Henry VIII made clear, More did not believe that tyranny was solely confined to the house of YORK. Rather than allow the History to be read as a pro-Tudor propaganda tract, More may have chosen to abandon it, or, and probably more likely, More may simply have lost interest in the work (he left many projects unfinished) or may have grown too busy with government service and other writings to complete such a closely detailed account of a two-year period. In any event, the conventional view of Richard III as it came down to the twentieth century was largely More’s creation.
   Further Reading: Hanham, Alison, Richard III and His Early Historians 1483-1555 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); More, Sir Thomas, The History of King Richard III, edited by Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1976); the text of More’s History of King Richard III is also available on the Richard III Society Web site at http://www.r3.org/bookcase/more/moretext.html.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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