“richard + richard armitage”: Or, why I am not that kind of Ricardian
[At left: photo manip of Richard Armitage as Richard III]
This impetus for this post came from a paragraph I discarded while writing during FanstRAvaganza 3 about how Richard III invaded my lecture on the development of national monarchies. That was an attempt to be funny; what follows is reasonably serious — for a change — but probably less interesting.
I’ve been trying to plead the fifth on a Richard III project for a long time. If I hadn’t wanted to answer questions on this topic, I probably shouldn’t have admitted my profession or specialization. But I did that before I realized fully how central Richard Armitage’s desire to realize a Richard III project was in his public statements — it’s the project he always mentions when he’s asked about what he’d do if he could do anything.
What I think: Armitage should do Richard according to his vision if he wants to and can arrange it, and I support 100 percent his ambitions toward whatever project he wants to do. Even so, my desire to see him achieve it has absolutely nothing to do with my professional commitments. I am a historian, not a Ricardian; a historian, definitely not a dramatist.
Let me (try to) explain.
It’s way too late to “save” Richard III from Thomas More, Polydore Vergil et al., or William Shakespeare. I have no desire to “save” anyone at all from “what history has done to him.” In fact, it’s impossible. History — especially the popular notion(s) of it that we find in schoolbooks, monuments, and the media — is inherently an act of making meaning for the people who do it. Tudor historians used the past for their own political purposes; we do that, too, in our own times. Think about what’s happening to Ronald Reagan’s reputation right now in the U.S. media. In that sense, the only way that Richard III can be “saved” or his reputation “rescued” is if something about his life or reign becomes centrally important to our own tasks of making meaning about the present in relationship to the past. While it’s unusual for this to happen with regard to medieval events, it’s not impossible. Witness the sudden interest in the meaning of the Battle of Kossovo Polje after 1991, when a reference to it made by Slobodan Milošević in 1989 became a topos for justifying what was happening in the disintegrating Yugoslavia — I actually heard this in a medieval history lecture course offered by an uninformed professor in the fall of 1994: “We should stay out of it because those people have been fighting with each other nonstop since 1389!” –, or the revival of popular interest in the meaning of the Crusades after 9/11. The point here is that history writing in the ambit of the nation-state is an act of “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson called it, and the Tudors were early nation-builders. They had to have their bad guy Richard III; Henry VII was just as much a usurper of the throne as Richard and his brother Edward IV had been before him, and he needed to show how he was different. The later Tudors especially built their dynastic monarchy and their own English nation against the things they made Richard III represent, and the fear of the things they made Richard III represent in their minds in turn justified their own governmental developments. This relationship means that true or false, Richard’s early villainy was essential to them. Now that the cause of the English national monarchy has been won, we’re free to debate whether any of the calumnies he was accused of were true — chief among them, from our perspective, the murder of his nephews — but our debates are without consequence. They won’t undermine the legitimacy of the Tudors (themselves long gone) or change the meaning of the grand narrative of the period.
So, no. Servetus is no Don Quixote, tilting against the slowly moving windmills of a nation-state that sooner or later grinds all its competitors into dust. If she were, she’d be writing the history of the struggle for decolonization, or the U.S. civil rights movement, or Nazism, or something. Authors of contemporary history are on the front lines of meaning making for our society, and while I respect what they do, that’s never motivated me personally.
Some people assume that in contrast to popular historians, who tell neat stories about history that make everyone love it, professional historians are mostly boring writers because they spend all their time figuring out detailed descriptions of “what actually happened.” On this score, it is to be assumed that I would be interested in at least potentially exonerating Richard of the murders because professionally speaking, I’d want to know what really happened to his nephews. (OK, I’m not a historian of England — the continent has a different historiography — and I work on a different century — but you take the basic philosophical point.) But — and I know this may come as a shock to some readers — most working historians today aren’t universally interested in finding out “what actually happened.” Historians have questions, and in order for a question to be asked, we need a sense of why its answer might be important. Not every historical detail is important in absolute terms; facts are only important as they inform arguments that are themselves made in response to questions. For that reason, the facts we use need to be correct if our arguments are to be credible, but at the same time, some facts are simply irrelevant to the arguments we develop from questions we are asking.
In this sense, a historian working on the later Plantagenets would not ask first, “Who ‘disappeared’ Edward and Richard?” but rather, “Why were Edward and Richard ‘disappeared’?” From this perspective, the important piece of the story of the princes’ disappearance is the fact that Richard III was able to take the English throne despite their existence. His “usurpation” of the throne points not only to the intensity of his own ambitions — a matter that raised suspicions among his own contemporaries during his own lifetime, and not among historians writing after the fact — but also to the fact that, although this case was particularly egregious, the princes lived in an age when noble children often succumbed as helpless pawns in the political stratagems of their ambitious adult relatives. In this atmosphere, as C.D. Ross noted in Edward IV (1974), the princes’ disappearances indict the factionalist politics that bolstered the rule of Edward IV as much as they do the actions taken by the future Richard III, for in the summer of 1483, Edward IV’s clients had either defected, or were simply unable to make Edward V’s claim to the throne stick, in the face of challenges to it by the soon-to-be Richard III. Or, if it is correct, as Rosemary Horrox argued in Richard III (1989), that no visible faction of Woodvilles stood behind Edward V, then the soon-to-be King Richard capitalized on larger fears of instability in the atmosphere of the conflicts over the throne that we now anachronistically term “The Wars of the Roses,” and the forces that stood behind the legitimacy of Edward V were unable to change this impression. In any case, the fact that the princes’ fate was unknown after the summer of 1483 means that from the perspective of contemporaries, “what actually happened” to them was either obvious, or irrelevant to continuing events, or both. The fact that they were gone, and apparently at the hand of Richard, was enough to spur on further events, including the first noble revolt against the last Plantagenet, which was underway by October 1483.
As a working historian, even with an admittedly cursory knowledge of the literature on this question, it’s hard for me to construct a scenario that counters the probability that the deaths of Richard’s minor nephews were simply overdetermined once Richard III was acknowledged king, no matter who was ultimately responsible for them — Richard, or an agent acting on his behalf, or someone else entirely. Who did it doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as that it happened, who contemporaries thought culpable, and the actions they took as a result. What interests me about Richard most (admittedly tangentially: again, remember, different century, different country) is an entirely different question: Whether the last Plantagenets can, or (if they aren’t) should be, integrated into the genealogy of the “modernizing” English monarchy. I have to lecture on this theme every semester as an aspect of the question of how Europe “became modern” (in key elements of this transformation, the development of the state is a vital explanatory element) and for me, the demise of the last Plantagenets mostly demonstrates the futility of their system of building noble allegiance as a means of bolstering the state. They couldn’t keep their supporters loyal enough to support an effective dynastic rule in the face of high infant mortality and the constant threat of minor monarchs and the associated regencies / protectorates, which inevitably attracted political opportunists and adventurers. If Edward IV’s clients switched their allegiances away from his son at a very decisive point, Richard III’s reign was plagued very quickly by the same disloyalty. Horrox concludes that Richard’s inability to keep his own clients on side — despite what contemporaries saw as profligate generosity — is damning. Seen from the perspective of the sixteenth century, when the Tudors managed to survive both the royal minority of Edward VI and whatever you want to call the attempt to put Jane Grey on the throne, it’s hard to disagree. The Tudors managed to create loyalty to a state via noble and popular support for their dynasty, a mechanism which the final Plantagenets had not, for whatever reason, not been capable of maintaining among the nobles upon whom they were depending in ruling.
I hope I haven’t just written something totally unqualified about the whole episode; one thing you learn when you get a Ph.D. is how little you really know about the structures of histories other than the one you study. The view expressed above is taken from the level of political history and the assumption that the most important aspect of any late medieval king’s reign is political stability. There’s a lot more to modernizing monarchs than political stabilization, though, and this is the sort of thing that a historian interested in the trajectory of national monarchies and the state would also be interested in: developing systems of tax collection and state finance, administrative centralization, complexifying bureaucratic development, changes in the structure of political representation, ecclesiastical relations, legal and constitutional arrangements, and so on. Richard III’s reign has material to offer here as well, and it is certainly plausible that some elements of it feed into the story of modernization — the textbook my students read certainly asserts this to be the case, although in a very few sentences. The man only ruled for a little over a year, so it’s hard to say much about this stuff. Somehow, though, pointing out that Richard took important legal or bureaucratic steps (some of which may have been modernizing, but also destabilizing to the nobility that supported his reign — see how complex this can be?) seems much less important in reviving his reputation than the sexier question about the princes — which is, however, one that will never be answered.
This all may read like I’m saying that Ricardians are interested in the wrong question. I want to stress that I am emphatically not doing that. First of all, I absolutely respect the right of people to enjoy sociability around whatever topic interests them — and insofar as the different Ricardian groups raise awareness of the fifteenth century and provide a way for the like-minded to enjoy each other’s company and keep scholars asking questions about the fifteenth century, more power to them. They’ve also done a great job of keeping this question before the public eye, especially during the twentieth century. I think, however, that while they enlist the aid of historians for excavating information and providing arguments in support of their views, Ricardians are not ultimately interested in history as I understand that subject. Rather, they are interested in biography. This distinction is important, not least because Richard III’s biography is what I understand Richard Armitage to be interested in as well. It’s also, in my opinion, a much better source of drama than things like the modernizing state.
That’s a bit of a weak ending, but I’m getting tired and I’m about to lose my internet connection. This also got ridiculously long; if you made it this far, thanks for reading. I’ll try to write about Richard Armitage, the Ricardians, biography, and drama as soon as I can, though, to finish this up. To give you a cliffhanger, though: In the end, I think my allegiances to history as opposed to biography serve both Armitage’s project and the cause (if not necessarily the goal) of the Ricardians.