Richard III Society

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(HOST) Commentator Peter Gilbert will be reading the “In Memoriam” notices in The New York Times carefully tomorrow – to see if a notice honoring a man who died 521 years ago will be printed again this year.

(GILBERT) You know those notices of loving remembrance published in newspapers, usually near the obituaries? Well, last year I saw one in the August 22nd edition of The New York Times. It read, “PLANTAGENET – Richard. Remember before God, Richard III, King of England, and those who fell in Bosworth Field, having kept the faith, 22 August 1485.” And then it gave the website of the Richard III Society, which I learned is dedicated to a re-assessment of Richard III’s reputation.

Members of the society, whose royal patron, by the way, is the current Duke of Gloucester, believe that Richard III is victim of one of the earliest character assassinations in English history.

Richard’s bad reputation today stems largely from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. Relying on Tudor historians, including Thomas More, Shakespeare portrayed Richard as the wicked, hunch-backed uncle who murdered the two princes in the Tower of London. We know him from the stage and the printed page, from movies with Laurence Olivier, and also Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl. The Richard III Society acknowledges that the play’s beautifully written and that Shakespeare’s smiling villain proves fascinatingly compelling. But, they argue, a compelling yarn is not necessarily accurate history.

They believe that “many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable.” Most medieval historians agree at least that Richard’s guilt in the murder of the young princes in the Tower, as well as other crimes, is unclear. And it’s unlikely that he was physically deformed.

Whatever the truth, why did Richard get such a bad rap? The short answer is that Shakespeare was writing plays during the reign of Elizabeth I, granddaughter to the exiled Henry Tudor, whose army invaded England, and defeated and killed Richard. Henry Tudor became Henry VII. His son was Henry VIII – who was Elizabeth’s father. Obviously, if you write plays about the Queen’s ancestors, you’d better be complimentary and certainly not cast any doubts on her right to the throne.

But what are we to think of this memorial ad and the efforts of the Richard III Society? Is it admirable work in pursuit of accurate historical understanding or an example of charming English eccentricity?

Its Royal Patron writes that the purpose of the Society “derives from the belief that the truth is more powerful than lies – a faith that even after all these centuries the truth is important. It is proof of our sense of civilized values that something as esoteric and as fragile as reputation is worth campaigning for.”

And I ask myself how I’d feel if I knew that 500 years from now history would remember a decent leader in the twentieth or twenty-first century as a murdering scoundrel, or, conversely, if a scoundrel of a leader would be remembered as honorable.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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