Richard III: Reputation

I’ve just read John Ashdown-Hills The Mythology of Richard III, who was once of the instigators of digging up of a council car park in Leicester in order to retrieve the dead king’s body. King Richard has always been one of those bogeymen of English history: Shakespeare and the Tudors loved to portray him as scheming and murderous hunchback, from whom Englishmen were safely delivered. Stealing the crown from his young nephew, whom he had murdered in the Tower, Richard of Gloucester has been one of those figures we have loved to hate, a fifteenth-century Emmanuel Goldstein. By Skipton's Black Horse pub, there is a sign commeorating the occasion when Richard's horses were allegedly stabled there. Why they were not successfully accomodated at the castle where he was preumably staying, I cannot tell. Perhaps the pub wished to cash in on Richard's reputation, as Ashdown-Hill notes many in Leicester have been doing since the royal exhumation. Perhaps bloody kings sell many pints, just as highwayman Dick Turpin and hangman Albert Pierrepoint have done elsewhere.

Ashdown-Hill successfully rehabilitates his character, disputing what evidence is used to paint him a usurper, a sorcerer, a serial killer, as well as casting doubt on his scoliosis’ (curvature of the spine) ability to seriously hinder or even define him. It suited Henry Tudor to blacken his name and magnify his ‘deformity’; for Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier, casting a monster proved to be an enjoyable theatrical flourish. So Richard was actually quite a good king, and his death might be something to regret. 

Similarly, many more historical figures are portrayed positively when their lives and decisions were often ill-judged or wicked. Mother Teresa, often wheeled out as the great paragon of virtue, ran her establishments in an appalling manner, denying proper pain-killers to the terminally ill and displaying ignorance of basic hygiene. Another example might be Winston Churchill, a man of whom I am very fond. Yet he appeared to harbour some social-darwinstic views on race which were not exactly opposite of Herr Hitler’s, across the Channel. And what of the great Oliver Cromwell, whose praises this blog has so often sung? Admire him as I do, his treatment of Irish Catholics was horrendous. Of course, it is foolish to judge people of past centuries by the standards of today’s morality. Yet my point is valid: those we consider good are often less than good; those we are brought up to assume bad are not quite as bad as we might have thought.

In Solomon’s Song (5:16), Christ is described to the daughters of Jerusalem:

Yea, he is altogether lovely.

The puritan Joseph Alleine remarks that from whatever angle one views Him, He is immensely beautiful. Furthermore,

This is my beloved, and this is my friend.

His character is utterly beyond reproach. He is the only historical figure whose closet contains to skeletons, His past no dirty secrets, His reputation no blushes. He is the source of all goodness, kindness, hope and healing. Our earthly heroes and heroines only disappoint or require us to offer excuses for their words and conduct. Even the maligned and disparaged, like Richard of Gloucester, are no incarnations of virtue. He might not be the devilish usurper of Tudor imagining, but neither is altogether lovely.

Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. Is 45:22

The Black Horse

Top image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay