Monday, May 22, 2023

The Lost King

I watched the movie, The Lost King, about how amateur Philippa Langley nudged the archaeological establishment into looking for the centuries-lost burial of Richard III in Leicester, and finding it. I didn't read Langley's own account, which was titled The King's Grave before it was retitled after the movie; my more detailed knowledge of the search comes from Digging for Richard III by Mike Pitts.

Pitts doesn't hide, but doesn't place much emphasis on, the fact that Langley is a Ricardian, a member of the Richard III Society, but this is prominent in the movie. The Ricardians are determined, not just to cleanse Richard of the Tudor propaganda which painted him as the unspeakable monster immortalized by Shakespeare, but to continue scrubbing until they've unveiled him as a perfect saint of heroic virtue.

And it's at that second stage that they lose me. The 15th century was a bloody, nasty century (so were all the medieval centuries, actually), and you didn't rise to the top without a capacity for being ruthless. Ricardians claim that Richard wanted to become king to do good, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to their Richard that making so many enemies along the way that they gang up and depose and kill you in two years is not a very effective do-gooder strategy.

Ricardians don't want to admit that the real Richard did some nasty things, and while they can claim that some of the wicked deeds he's charged with didn't really happen (and often enough they're right about that), their method can be seen in the one, or one plus, wicked thing you can't wipe off his escutcheon: he did depose his young nephew Edward V from the throne, and while it can't be proved that he had them killed, he did lock the boy and his brother up (they're the famous "Princes in the Tower") and they were never seen alive again.

The Langley character in the movie makes two arguments for the defense here. Both come straight from The Daughter of Time, a tendentious 1951 novel by Josephine Tey about a laid-up cop who occupies his convalescence by vigorously whitewashing Richard. It's very popular among Ricardians as you might expect.

First is that neither prince was eligible for the throne because they were both illegitimate. A cleric popped up who claimed that he'd witnessed their father, Edward IV, troth-plighted to another woman before he married the boys' mother, and by canon law this would have been enough to invalidate his later marriage.

When Langley says this in the movie, the credentialed scholar she's addressing can only sputter, but a real scholar would have pointed out that there's every reason not to believe this troth-plighting ever happened. The circumstances alone are enough reason to be skeptical. Edward V had been formally declared the legitimate heir during his father's lifetime. If you're going to overturn a formally documented claim, you need documents of your own, and no documents for this were ever produced. It sounds very much like something that was cobbled together as a hasty excuse.

The accusation was quickly followed up by another accusation that Edward IV was himself a bastard and that Richard was his father's only real son. Nobody believed that one, so it was quickly dropped. That one accusation was false doesn't prove the other one was, but it makes you wonder. Then, over a year later when Richard's wife died (no, he didn't kill her), he may have suggested that he'd like to marry Edward IV's eldest daughter, which wouldn't make sense if she were illegitimate. Ricardians point out that the only evidence of this idea is proclamations declaring he had no such intent, but he wouldn't have had to issue such proclamations unless there were at least rumors going around.

Anyway, it's all murky at best. Langley describes it as established, but it's nothing of the sort.

Then there's the death of the princes. Years later a man already under sentence to death confessed to having killed them at Richard's behest, but it's not certain how reliable this is. Langley's "proof" that they weren't killed is that when Henry VII - the Earl of Richmond who defeated Richard at Bosworth - issued a catalog of Richard's crimes, it did not include the murder of the princes. Therefore, Langley and Tey before her say, they must still have been alive.

This is a silly argument. The princes had a better claim to the throne than Henry did (he didn't accept the illegitimacy claim, and in any case he had some sketchy legitimacy issues in his own background), so it was not in his interest to intimate that they were still alive. Furthermore, everybody agrees that Henry was ruthless enough that, if the princes had still been alive when he took over, he would have had them killed. (He did just that to Richard's other brother's son.) Would he have suggested they were still alive only because he hadn't gotten around to executing them yet?

There has to be some other reason Henry didn't charge Richard with the murders, and the answer is easy. He would have been expected to demonstrate it by displaying the bodies. He couldn't find them. They must have been buried somewhere in the Tower, but nobody knew where. It wasn't until two centuries later that a major reconstruction job unearthed the remains of two boys of the right age, and it's been assumed ever since that they are the Princes.

Notice that all the discussion here is about the legitimacy of claims to the throne. Modern ideas of a strict line of succession had developed by the 15th century, but there were still hints of an older dispensation whereby the throne went to the most powerful and effective royal, and depositions of a weak king were allowed. The dispute at Bosworth was not just over whether Richard was evil, it was the last act in a civil war over whether the deposition of a weak king 86 years earlier had been legitimate or not. Richard was the heir of the deposed king, Richmond of the usurper.

In an age when many people consider it peculiar, at best, that Charles should get to be king just because he's Elizabeth's eldest son, it seems quaint to defend Richard, or even to denounce him, on narrow grounds of legitimacy of succession. My interest in Richard's bones isn't to evaluate his reign but simply to solve the historical mystery of what happened to his body.

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