Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Richard III: "Might I very politely request a fresh horse?"

Shakespeare’s dramatic version of Richard III's story was not the only one produced at the end of the Sixteenth Century. Nor was it the first. However, it is the one that has lasted, while the existence of others has been forgotten. Why?
                         Richard losing his crown at Bosworth Field, from Southwark Cathedral.

Richard III’s reputation and appearance have dominated the press since the discovery of his remains was confirmed by Leicester University on 4 February this year.  The world had been eagerly anticipating the DNA results, which would prove his identity, but the skeleton yielded some further unexpected and dramatic evidence. It seems that Richard may not have been too far removed from the “hunchback” that centuries of his supporters had been trying to deny. His spine displayed clear signs of idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis, which would have reduced his height and possibly given him protruding ribs on one side, while the comparison drawn between each end of his clavicle indicated that the right was more worn than the left. It is probable that one of his shoulders was, in fact, higher, although this would not necessarily have been visible under clothing. This is precisely the sort of detail that loyal subjects would have ignored during life and enemies exaggerated after his death. With sixteenth century accounts using the politically incorrect terms “hunch-back” “cripple” and “deformed” interchangeably, before the recognition of scoliosis as a condition, the age-old literary stereotype of Richard’s appearance was confirmed by the discovery of his bones.

                              Steve Weingarter as Richard III in 2009 at A Noise Within

Shakespeare’s vision of Richard was drawn from a number of sources. The earliest and most extreme descriptions are to be found in the second Rous Roll, (1491) by the Neville family chronicler, John Rous. These included the legend of the King's supposed two year gestation, a physical impossibility, and his arrival with a full set of teeth. However, Rous’s first version of the history, presented to Richard’s wife, Queen Anne, in 1484, contained nothing but fulsome praise. Later, he was unable to access it after the advent of the Tudors, so produced a second, condemnatory work in the possible belief that Richard had poisoned his wife, Rous' patroness, Anne Neville. Thomas More further exaggerated the legends of deformity, when writing between 1512 and 1519, adding in details of Richard's “breech-birth” and “hard-faced” appearance. More may have been a mere child when Richard was King, being born in 1478, but he did spend the years 1490 to 1492 as a page in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had known Richard throughout his life and was a supporter of Margaret of Anjou. More’s version of events formed the basis of later histories by Vergil, Hall and Holinshed, which Shakespeare used as his sources. The majority of seventeenth century depictions of Richard conform to this presentation of the King as a villain whose moral turpitude was correlative with his misshapen body. It was not until the eighteenth century, when writers and historians began their reassessment of Richard’s reputation and appearance, with Prime Minister, Horace Walpole, Jane Austen and poet laureate Colley Cibber presenting him in a more favourable light.

                                            David Garrick as Richard III, 1745, by Hogarth

However, the existence of two pre-Shakespearean plays depicting Richard’s story have hitherto been overlooked outside academic circles. The nineteenth century editors of the anonymous “The True Tragedie of Richard III” suggested that Shakespeare must have seen this earlier version and possibly also, the Latin “Richardus Tertius” by Thomas Legge (1535-1607). Legge’s play was composed while he was master of Caius College, Cambridge, and performed at St John’s in 1579 and 1583. It is quite possible that the young Christopher Marlowe, who was awarded his BA degree in 1584, also saw these productions or subsequent ones, along with fellow dramatist Thomas Nashe, who is thought to have been in the audience. It is unclear though, whether this play was enacted outside university circles and was actually seen by Shakespeare, or if their overlap is explained by their mutual sources. “Richardus Tertius” was written over a decade before Shakespeare’s play and prepared for publication in 1582/3 but never printed.  It portrays Richard as a complex man, although he is still “evil” but interestingly, features no physical deformities. The account is very close to More and Hall’s versions of events with little new material; there are rumours of his wife Anne’s death before her demise and like Shakespeare, the playwright intimates that she was poisoned. Richard goes on to woo his niece Elizabeth of York but she refuses him.
  St John's College, Cambridge, where Legge's Richardus Tertius was performed in 1579 and 1583

The other play, “The True Tragedie of Richard III” was performed “often” even though its later editors considered it to be a “humble work” which uses some “corrupt Latin” and a “bad,” ie. poorly crafted, play. It does seem from several references, particularly the scene prior to the deaths of the two Princes in 1483, that the unknown author had read More’s history and perhaps others. The King in this early play calls for “a horse, a fresh horse,” in comparison with the more famous “a horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse!” The surviving manuscript of “The True Tragedie of Richard III” dates from 1594 but the play was written and produced several years before. It reputes the deaths of Henry VI and George, Duke of Clarence to Richard, who is depicted according to More’s tradition, as ill-shaped, crook backed and lame-armed. Interestingly, this play makes frequent use of the voices of witnesses and citizens, giving a sense of public feeling. One citizen speaks up for Richard, saying that before he was King, there were “no men, no laws, no Princes, no orders” and recalling “what fraies had we in the streets” before Richard’s peace with England and Scotland. A key narrative role is taken by the King’s page, who tells Richard that there is “murmur” in the streets among the people of the “baser” sort, one of whom, an innkeeper calls the King “the worst guest” who ever came to his house. A serving man, Morton, informs us that Richard has named John, Earl of Lincoln, his nephew, his heir and relates that Richard and Buckingham have fallen out. Much of the story is put into the mouths of witnesses, which perhaps reflects the author’s awareness of the nature of oral history and his own use of common beliefs and myths.  However, this lessens the dramatic impact, as important action takes place off stage. Richard’s wife Anne is not mentioned, nor is his son; we only see Richard pressing his suit to Elizabeth of York, in a similar way to a 1614 poem "The Ghost of Richard III". At the end, after Henry Tudor has been victorious on Bosworth Field, Richard’s body is drawn stark naked through the streets of Leicester on a collier’s horse, reminiscent of the findings of Leicester University regarding the opportunistic, humiliation wounds inflicted on his body after death.

                      William Shakespeare, who wrote his version of Richard's story in 1591/2

 When Shakespeare came to write his version of Richard’s story, he had a variety of sources to draw on. Apart from the expected More, Hall and Holinshed though, his play was written within what appears to have been a surge of interest in the King’s reign in the late 1580s and early 90s. This period also saw the composition of other plays dealing with the usurpation of power, like Marlowe’s Edward II, the anonymous Edmund Ironside and Peele’s Edward I. The publication of Holinshed’s 1587 chronicle provided them with a wealth of historical narratives to choose from. Shakespeare may have seen, or even acted in, one of the extant versions of Richard’s tragedy and decided that he could improve on the story. Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II was believed to have been influenced by it and must have been a fairly immediate response, as Marlowe died in 1593. However, the timing would not necessarily be so tight if Marlowe had witnessed the performance of Legge’s play at Cambridge in 1579 or 1583. The diary of Philip Henslowe for December 1593 and January 1594 records the performance of a popular play called “Buckingham” which may have been an early version of Shakespeare’s "Richard III". The depictions of Richard in popular culture, a century after his death, did continue the negative portrayal of the King that had begun soon after Bosworth. What does seem surprising though, is the sheer amount of interest, even then, given the existence of these additional plays. Shakespeare was not being original when he wrote his version of the story. Yet, originality was not his intention, entertainment was. He saw a good story, which he could make his own, and improved on the attempts of existing dramatists, less skilled than himself. It is because of his superior abilities as a dramatist, rather than any historical insight, that his version has shaped modern popular concepts of the King, while others have been forgotten.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Elizabeth of York, the Forthcoming Biography: Interview with Amy Licence

To coincide with the publication of “Elizabeth of York; The Forgotten Tudor Queen,” later this month, I invited questions about my biography, my views and anything else relating to my work. Thank you for all the replies on the blog and facebook page; the responses show just how much interest and knowledge there already is out there about this fascinating lady. I think if I were to try and answer all of them in as much detail as they deserve, I would end up rewriting my book here on the blog. So, I’m not giving everything away but here is a taster of what to expect in the biography- I hope it whets your appetite. If you don’t see your question exactly as you wrote it, it’s because I’ve combined questions whenever I’ve had several that are similar.

                                       Elizabeth, by Victorian Artist Edward Corbould 

Why Elizabeth of York?

I’ve always been interested in Elizabeth; I think it stemmed from my initial fascination with her children. If you’ve read about the lives of Henry, Margaret and Mary Tudor, it seems logical to want to explore their childhoods and the relationships they had with their parents. The children, particularly Henry, were so colourful and charismatic; they had such a vitality and majesty in everything they did, yet tradition had often presented their parents as quieter, cautious and understated figures. I thought this was, in part, due to their overshadowing by the next generation in modern popular works and perhaps due to the infancy of their dynasty. Both were survivors and throughout Henry VII’s reign, there was no guarantee that the turbulent decades of their own youth were over. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Often, I see authors drawing an imaginary line in the sand in 1485 (or 1487) and almost breathing a sigh of relief but this was by no means a given at the time and I wonder how much their descendants’ inimitable style and self-fashioning was borne out of this early insecurity. Also, when I read the primary sources about Elizabeth’s life and death, I was struck by just how popular she was and by the hints of scandal associated with her name, so I wanted to find out more. I was keen to move slightly away from the traditional biography style; on one level, this is a narrative of the events of her life, but I’ve also taken a thematic approach. I wanted to use Elizabeth to explore fifteenth century ideals of queenship and judge what model she chose.

Why does the book’s subtitle refer to her as a “forgotten” Queen?

Elizabeth is one of the least well known Tudor Queens. Henry VIII’s wives and daughters have received a lot of attention, of the popular and academic kind and, in comparison, Elizabeth is less well known. Even in studies that explore the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, she is something of a two-dimensional figure, a foot note or appendage in the story of Henry VII. I have read a lot of books that simply repeat the same old “facts” about her lineage and marriage but I still struggled to form a rounded picture of her in my mind. Elizabeth’s problem is that she is such a convenient foil for other people; she’s always presented as someone else’s daughter, wife or mother, rarely just herself. Her image also obscures her; the long-standing mask of her demure beauty and goodness has reduced her to something of a stereotype and it is only recently that writers have started to challenge this. After all, this was a real woman, with real emotions, who lived a passionate and turbulent life. I wanted to try and dig her out of history’s margins and put her back in the centre of the stage.

                          Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth's devout and formidable mother-in-law 

 What was her relationship with her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort like? Were they generally close? Did Margaret Beaufort resent her for having so much royal blood or being from the House of York?
 This is a tricky one, because I think that today, we might judge relationships to be successful according to different criteria than the Tudors. I do feel that Margaret’s character has been massaged over the centuries into something of a harridan. A few assumptions made by distant observers, like foreign ambassadors, have been taken as gospel, like that Elizabeth was overshadowed by Margaret, but these are only assumptions. Likewise, records of Margaret walking just a pace behind the Queen and supposedly jostling with her for precedence only reinforce what would have been the correct courtly protocol. Margaret’s claim to the throne was as good as Elizabeth’s and they did often appear in tandem to reflect this. Only one person knew how Elizabeth really felt about Margaret and she did not commit it to paper. If we look at what we can deduce about the King’s mother, she was clearly a dynamic, formidable, determined and energetic lady; just the sort of woman you would want to have on your side. If Elizabeth did find her at all “overbearing”- and this is a modern reaction- she may well have accepted that, as it was balanced by the assistance Margaret was able to offer. Having an experienced older woman at her side, particularly when she pregnant or in Henry’s absence, may well have been reassuring. As for being “close,” again, this is subjective and perhaps, a bit of a misnomer; in terms of the late medieval impulse for survival and the need to forge alliances, Elizabeth and Margaret found a sort of equilibrium that allowed them to be allies. I think their mutual interest bound them together. Elizabeth was married to Margaret’s son. She would have been pragmatic and wise enough to overcome any “dislike” she felt for her daughter-in-law’s Yorkist roots. After all, Margaret’s marital history had necessitated a good deal of diplomacy and “getting into bed with” the enemy. It does seem that particularly for the women of the era, personal alliances could overcome family loyalty, such as with Elizabeth Wydeville, who married a Lancastrian, then a Yorkist King.

 What was the relationship between her Elizabeth and her mother? How did she cope with being separated from her?
From what I can deduce, Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville appear to have been loving parents and their children were close, having been raised together at Greenwich. They eldest three girls shared their mother’s sanctuary in 1470, when she gave birth in conditions of comparative deprivation and fear, which may have united them through shared sufferings. Later, in 1483, their flight again brought them together through a difficult time and I suspect, Elizabeth as the eldest had been her mother’s support at this time. The Princesses leaving their mother behind in sanctuary in March 1484 certainly constituted a significant separation but it was politically and personally expedient to all concerned. They coped with this because they had to, there wasn’t a lot of choice so I can only guess that they just tried to put it out of their minds and carry on.

                        A copy of the 1538 Whitehall Mural, commissioned by Henry VIII,
                                          featuring himself, Jane Seymour and his parents

Was there any kind of rift between mother and daughter when Elizabeth was married to Henry Tudor and crowned Queen? From what I've read, Elizabeth kept in close contact with the rest of her family, but not a lot of contact with her mother is recorded. Do you think Elizabeth Woodville was involved in any of the Yorkists plots after Bosworth and as a result her daughter stayed away from her?
 From looking at the evidence I don’t think there was a rift. Also, the processes by which such material is recorded and its survival over 500 years means that absence of evidence can’t be taken as evidence itself. Elizabeth Wydeville had worked for the match with Henry; she had no reason to fall out with her daughter about it. Even if she believed one of her sons had survived, I’m not sure she would have taken the risk to plot against the new regime. Henry VII may have privately distrusted her but he referred to her as his “beloved” mother-in-law and wanted her and Elizabeth with him before the Battle of Stoke. I remain to be convinced that Elizabeth would have schemed against her daughter and grandchildren. The York-Tudor marriage was the best possible outcome for her and to jeopardise this would have been foolish. Her stay in Bermondsey Abbey, between 1487-1492, and the reduction of her income, has been interpreted as a form of imprisonment but what if it was done voluntarily, even willingly? At fifty, Elizabeth Wydeville had lived a turbulent life; been widowed twice, outlived many of her children, feared for her life, fled into sanctuary and seen the wheel of fortune turn through many cycles. She had been a devout Catholic all her life and may have been ill in her final years. Perhaps she chose to retire and spend her years in contemplation, as many widows of the era did, recognising that she had achieved all she could and happy that her daughter was now on the throne. Not a lot of contact with her daughter is recorded, yet Bermondsey Abbey stood just over the Thames from the Tower, hardly any great distance away. I’ve not yet seen any evidence to support an estrangement but I am always open to new material. I have a lot more to say in the book about Elizabeth Wydeville’s reputation and the judgements made by historians about her character.

                                      The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III c1520,
                                                         a copy of a lost original

What do you think about the supposed relationship between Elizabeth of York and Richard III?
Without giving too much away here, I will just say that there are two sources that I think need to be re-evaluated. Quite a lot of theories have been built on very slender evidence, which is fine for historical fiction and helps bring the characters and the times to life. And, after all, when evidence is lacking, imagination and empathy have to fill the gap. When aiming at strict factual accuracy, though, I think the historian can only look at what is known rather than trying to interpret sources according to how these individuals “may have felt.”  Equally, this can’t be ruled out automatically just because it is offensive or incomprehensible to the “modern mind”, if such a universal concept exists! It does appear that some of Richard and Elizabeth’s contemporaries believed in his intention to marry his niece and weren’t happy about it: twelve doctors of divinity were summoned by Parliament in order to put forward their objections and Richard later issued a complete public denial that this had ever been his intention. However, as with all these figures, the gulf between the public persona and the private sentiment can only be guessed at.

                                       Henry Tudor, whom Elizabeth married in January 1486

Was she ever really in love with Richard III or Henry Tudor?
I don’t know if Elizabeth’s position allowed her the luxury of love. While there are many notable exceptions, particularly her own parents and son, the companionate marriage was a later phenomenon and duty often had to override personal inclination. I’m not denying Elizabeth’s humanity or capacity for love but maybe she approached these men in a different way. What constitutes love? It may be as different for individuals then as it is today. Perhaps part of these men’s attraction lay in the role and status they could offer: they had the whole package, including the crown. This doesn’t mean Elizabeth was mercenary but that she made shrewd alliances which were appropriate to her own status. From what I’ve read, I believe her marriage with Henry was a successful one, with them working in a partnership and being united at time of danger and grief. Her pulse may not have raced when he came into the room but their mutual goals kept them close; what was good for one was good for the other. Henry’s reaction to Elizabeth’s death also suggests genuine grief.

Do you think Elizabeth was forbidden from seeing Perkin Warbeck, as is often claimed, or whether she chose not to see him?
I have often pictured Elizabeth taking a sneaky peek out of a window at Sheen Palace in 1497 to get a glimpse of Perkin! I think the answer to this depends upon what she knew about the fates of her brothers. If she had incontrovertible evidence of their deaths, she may have chosen not to see him. If there was any doubt in her mind about their survival, I think she would have tried to have a look at this young man who claimed to be her close relation. His activities may have stirred up past grief but with so many deaths and losses in her life, I don’t think it would have necearily destabilized her to see him. The notion of Henry forbidding Elizabeth to see Perkin doesn’t sit comfortably with the impression I have formed of their marriage. Do we know for certain that she never saw him, at any time? He seems to have been quite publicly paraded about.

                                                        Bust of Henry VIII as a child

I've watched the BBC miniseries, "The Shadows of the Tower" which covers the reign of Henry VII. In the episode when Elizabeth gives birth to Prince Arthur, Margaret Tudor and Henry repeatedly fret about Elizabeth being "delicate". Alternatively, I've heard about her becoming increasingly sick after increasingly difficult pregnancies. Is there any truth to this? I consider this quite interesting in light of the fact that Henry VIII supposedly inherited his height and athleticism from her side of the family.
 Elizabeth bore seven (possibly eight) children over a period of eighteen years and died as a result of her last live birth. There does not seem to be much evidence to suggest she was “delicate” before her marriage and her first pregnancy and delivery in 1486 appear to have been straightforward. However, she did suffer from an “ague” or fever, afterwards, which delayed her churching. She did not conceive again, so far as we know, for two and a half years. Perhaps this was the couple being cautious regarding her health or complications that arose as a result.
Concern emerged again in 1500, when she was pregnant with Edmund, although the nature of this is unknown and may have related to her advancing age. The more children a woman bore, the greater the risk of experiencing some sort of complication and the more severe the toll on her body, which was not getting any younger. At least two of her babies were born close together, with Elizabeth conceived only 3 months after she had borne Henry in 1491, so her body can hardly have had much chance to recover before the process began all over again. While the demands of childbirth clearly left their mark, with one foreign ambassador remarking that by 1501 she had become a little stout, I would be inclined to place her experiences within the “normal” bracket for women of the time. It would be more unusual if she had seen through seven confirmed pregnancies through to term and not had some sort of difficulties.
 Something clearly went wrong with her last birth, though. Her death in 1503, over a week after bearing Katherine, suggests a postpartum infection, but her labour started early, catching her by surprise while she was at the Tower, where she had not intended to deliver. When something went badly wrong, as it clearly did in 1503, the midwives did not have the skill or knowledge to save her.

Yes, Henry VIII was reputed to look like Edward IV but of course these things can skip a generation and the transference of genes is notoriously complex. We do know that, later in life, Henry referred to his mother’s death as a tragedy and her influence was undoubtedly missed.
                               The tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth, in Westminster by Torrigiano

Do you think Elizabeth was forced or chose to be "apolitical" Queen Consort?
Elizabeth would have been aware of three models of queenship before her own succession. Margaret of Anjou was generally distrusted as being “warlike” and aggressive, Elizabeth Wydeville for haughtiness and nepotism, while Anne Neville’s lack of fecundity could have led to problems. (These are summaries of “common fame” rather than my view of them.) Henry was very keen to stress that his claim to the throne was independent of his marriage and did not require Elizabeth’s validation, so I don’t think he would have welcomed her taking a public role in politics. I think Elizabeth very wisely followed the model of Queenship put forward in some fifteenth century texts that we know she had access to, like Christine de Pisan and Caxton’s A Game of Chess. These advocated an ideal queen whose sphere of influence was more domestic or behind the scenes. Elizabeth’s influence over Henry was of a personal nature, as a helpmeet and confidant, and through the charitable and religious offices of her household. She was a softer, more accessible side of queenship, a maternal figure who was sympathetic to supplicants and balanced the “war-like” masculine component of government. I think this was a very sensible decision that suited them both.
                                Elizabeth's wooden funeral effigy which topped her coffin in 1503

How do you cope with motherhood and writing, do you have a routine?
It's a wonderful achievement to have three books published within one year! How many months/years have you worked on each and how many hours a week?

Thank you. I can’t say it has been easy! When I wrote In Bed with the Tudors, I was pregnant, had a toddler running round me and hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep in almost three years! Then, I gave birth in the middle of writing Elizabeth of York, the Forgotten Tudor Queen. The funny thing is though, this actually helped focus me. Before I had my children, when I had more time to write and research, I was less disciplined about it. Now that I had my sons’ needs to see to and impending deadlines, I had to extract every minute I could and make the most of it. I often stay up to write after they are in bed and my husband is very supportive, looking after our eldest son, so it is easier for me to get some work done. It’s hard sometimes to balance it all but we do make sure we got quality family time together whenever we can. I don’t follow a pattern or set hours of work, I just do whatever I can whenever I can. I do believe in the notion that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and have treated each day as a single step, completing one paragraph here and another there, whenever and wherever! I have produced three books in a relatively short space of time but they are the culmination of years of reading and research. I did my MA in 1995-6 and have carried on reading and studying independently since then. I consider myself to be a continuing student of history and try to approach the past with an open mind and no particular agenda beyond my own interest. I am always open to persuasion and new sources or interpretations.

I have also received a number of questions relating to Anne Neville, but as this has turned into a bit of an epic post, I will hold on to them and do a separate question and answer session prior to the release of my biography on her, this April.

Thank you to Susan Abernethy, Susan Higginbotham, Suzanne Israel Tufts, Geoff Licence, Sylwia S Zupanec, Debra Al-Bayani and Anonymous for your interesting and well informed questions.