Day 740: Richard III: England’s Black Legend

Cover for Richard IIIHistorian Desmond Seward explains in the introduction of Richard III that there are two views of Richard. He calls them the black legend—the traditional view—and the white legend—the notion that Richard’s reputation was blackened by the Tudors after Bosworth Field. This theory was first put forward by Horace Walpole in the 18th century and is famously supported by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. The Richard III Society has even claimed that Richard was not a hunchback, which claim was proved false by the recent discovery of his bones.

Seward’s view is that of the black legend, that Richard was a ruthless man who committed many dark deeds, including killing the princes in the Tower. Richard III is an interesting biography of Richard, based on what is known of his life. There are few of his own writings to base it on, unfortunately, because Richard was not much of a writer, a situation common to nobility of his time.

Of course, Richard’s entire life was lived during the turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses. England experienced little peace during this period, and what little there was occurred during the reign of Edward IV, Richard’s older brother. This peace was marred mostly by the rapacious behavior of the Woodvilles, Edward’s in-laws, and that of the Duke of Clarence, his erratic brother. However, that peace was destroyed by Edward’s early death, which plunged the country into another succession crisis because the prince was only 12 or 13 years old. The last time a young prince had become king, Henry VI, was disastrous for the country.

My own impression from reading this book is that Seward invariably looks at the darkest interpretation of events. I guess you could call me of the dark gray school. Certainly, the murders of the princes in the Tower was a shocking event, viewed with horror during its time and since, and there seems little doubt that Richard ordered the murders. Still, the situation for Richard was difficult. In doing his duty by his nephew, he faced the prospect of at least six years of an unstable regime with continual battles for power with the Woodvilles. This is not to excuse his actions, but it is possible to view them as an attempt to maintain stability in the realm, and that’s probably how he explained them to himself. Instead, the result was to almost completely exterminate the Plantagenet family.

Related Posts

The Wars of the Roses

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A Folly of Princes

8 thoughts on “Day 740: Richard III: England’s Black Legend

  1. Emily J. July 21, 2015 / 1:05 pm

    I was fascinated that they had recently discovered his bones when I heard that a few months ago. This would be a good read because of how interesting that was to me!

    • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 1:07 pm

      Yes, that’s pretty interesting, isn’t it. In a parking lot, I think!

  2. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock July 21, 2015 / 1:34 pm

    I lean to the white view – though more of a pearl grey, because nothing in life is completely black and white – but it’s good to know that an author can acknowledge that there are different schools of thought before setting out his own case.

    • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 1:59 pm

      Yes, I think he was very clear about it at the beginning of the book. I guess I don’t really know enough about it to have a clear opinion. When I read The Daughter of Time I thought Tey was correct, but everything I’ve read since then has made me believe he killed the princes in the tower. If you believe that, you have to start thinking at least a little gray. But all the time I was reading I could see reasons why he did the things he did. He favored the men from the north because he knew them and trusted them, unfortunately, and he didn’t consider that he was putting the others’ noses out of joint, for example.

      • Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock July 21, 2015 / 4:51 pm

        I tend to think that the order was in Richard’s name but not necessarily by him though I haven’t really read enough around the subject to argue the thing through properly, and I may be a little too influenced by fiction. In y case the book was The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman.

      • whatmeread July 22, 2015 / 7:21 am

        Hmm, seems like I read that a long time ago, but I don’t remember anything about it.

  3. Helen July 21, 2015 / 2:37 pm

    This is one of my favourite periods of history and I have read quite a lot of books about Richard III over the last few years (both fiction and non-fiction). My own view is definitely much closer to the white legend than the black, but I have read convincing arguments for both viewpoints. I suppose we’re never going to know the whole truth. This book does sound interesting, though!

    • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 2:45 pm

      I think it is. I know more about the Tudors, but right now I’m taking a course in the history of England up to the Tudors, and I have always been interested in the Plantagenets. I’m only up to Alfred the Great in my course so far, though.

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