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Shakespeare’s Last Catholic Dynasty

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Was Richard III, who took the crown of England in 1483, a usurper and a tyrant who murdered his nephews, or a true and just king innocent of that crime? After reading a controversial contribution pleading the innocence of King Richard III of England, I decided to read the popular play written by Shakespeare which bears the monarch’s name.

The play follows the somewhat ingenious plots and enterprises of the Duke of Gloucester as he aspires to be the next ruling king after his brother’s failing health brings his life to an end. The Duke proves that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants, being guilty of a total of eleven murders by the end of the play. One by one, he picks off all in the line before him, including his other brother, his nephews, and eventually his loyal friend and accomplice. Gloucester, who is later crowned King Richard III, proves that he has no human attachment or love for relatives and no remorse for his actions. Throughout the play, there is a sense that the living envy the dead during his reign. A group of the royal surviving women address the audience with their tears and distress as they mourn husbands and sons. In the end of the play, Henry Tudor is the hero who saves England from her plight and righteously destroys the usurper Richard.

For the most part, this is the story that we know of King Richard III. Of course we dismiss some of the drama as ridiculous, but we have a general feeling that “Richard = bad.” Some may find it surprising that coming to defend his innocence is none other than the late Dr. Warren Carroll. With all due respect to the Bard of Avon, Carroll relates that what we know of Richard is in line with a play that was made to celebrate the downfall of the Catholic Plantagenets to please the current ruling Protestant monarch of England – Elizabeth Tudor, whose reign of terror produced many Catholic martyrs. Perhaps Shakespeare underestimated the power of storytelling through the stage and of course the play could go no other way, but we are left with an unclear idea of the real Richard III because of it.

The poet and the historian tell two very different tales and here you will find the comparisons.

Shakespeare’s Richard opens the play with a long line containing the verses:

I am determined to prove the villain…
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous…
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous
This day should see Clarence closely mew’d up
About a prophecy, which says that “G”
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.

After this monologue, Richard’s closer brother, the Duke of Clarence passes on his way to the Tower. Clarence explains that since his first name is George, the king has arrested him and ordered an execution to take place in a little while because it is clear, according to the prophecy mentioned by Richard, that he will be the murderer of the king’s sons.

Carroll’s Richard is a character with principles and morals. He harbors natural feelings for kith and kin. The historian relates that Richard had stood unswervingly at his brother’s, the king’s, side and even lived by the motto “Loyalty binds me.”[1]

Both stories move rapidly to the king’s death, though Dr. Carroll records Richard’s absence from the scene and Shakespeare places Richard there. Carroll tells us that the declining King Edward IV “called his wife’s principal relatives, his close friend Will Hastings, and his other ministers together around his bed, urging them to love one another and to work together in the future.”

Shakespeare gives us the king’s moving last requests:

I every day expect an embassage
From my Redeemer to redeem me hence;
And now in peace my soul shall part to heaven
Since I have set my friends at peace in earth
Rivers and Hastings, take each other’s hand;
Dissemble not your hatred, swear your love.

The king entreats all around present to vow peace and love to each other in similar fashion. Carroll says that Richard was in Scotland at this time and so missed this event. He did not return until it was too late and the king was already dead. But Shakespeare places him  in the room, and the self-proclaimed villain makes false peace with those present as he swears:

I do not know that Englishman alive
With whom my soul is any jot at odds.

The queen then implores the king to remember his brother Clarence who is in the Tower and to extend peace to him as well. The king sends for him but it is too late, for Shakespeare’s Richard has already made sure that the execution order was carried out. The king is then heart-broken and unsuspectingly takes all the blame. Before dying, King Edward IV makes Richard Lord Protector over his teenage son, Edward V, until the latter is old enough to rule on his own. Carroll says that “there is no reason to believe that Richard would not be true to his brother’s memory and charge as he had always been true to him during his life and reign.”

In Carroll’s history, the Duke of Buckingham now takes the stage. “He immediately attached himself to Richard, and told him that the Woodvilles (the queen’s family) would never accept him as Protector.” In both Shakespeare’s and Carroll’s narrative, Richard’s next move is to arrest the Queen’s relatives, Rivers, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan. Carroll affirms that “everyone in England was aware of the inordinate ambition of the Woodvilles; historians writing five-hundred years later cannot credibly portray them as innocent victims.” In Shakespeare’s play, these three Woodvilles are speedily and unjustly executed and Shakespeare does his part in attempting to portray them as innocent victims:

Be satisfied dear God, with our true blood,
Which, as thou know’st, unjustly must be spilt.

Richard now possessed control of the young king-to-be Edward and had two loyal supporters: Buckingham and Hastings; and these he commanded to swear loyalty to the prince. In Carroll’s narrative, Hastings is eager to not be outdone by Buckingham. But in Shakespeare’s telling, Hastings is shaken by the recent proceedings and moves forward with caution.

It is Carroll’s opinion that if Richard “was then planning to usurp the throne… he would have made such a point of requiring these oaths of loyalty to a boy king he was about to remove.” Within a five day period, Carroll’s Richard is faced with a small uprising from the Woodvilles and he hastily begs for military aid against them. In this confusion, many things develop. Here’s Carroll’s treatment:

Something new, unexpected and alarming had obviously happened between the 5th and the 10th. Richard’s critics say that what had happened was simply his own decision to usurp the throne from his young nephew; his defenders say that he had discovered the conspiracy which he signally punished … by the summary execution of Hastings, his former friend, without trial, on a charge of treason concerted with the Bishop of Ely and the Woodvilles, possibly due to Hastings’ jealousy of the ascendant influence of the Duke of Buckingham with Richard – and possibly a startling report that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate.

Of course, Shakespeare’s Richard is the author of several “illegitimate” stories, the first of which was that Edward always had a lustful eye, and the final of which is:

Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of the unsatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France…
Found that the issue was not his begot…
Being nothing like the noble duke my father:
But touch this sparingly, as ‘twere far off;
Because you know, my lord, my mother lives.

The illegitimacy of the princes is portrayed a little differently by Dr. Carroll. At the time, a Friar Shaw delivered a sermon in which he announced that the children were illegitimate because Edward IV and Elizabeth’s marriage was invalid due to the fact that Edward was previously betrothed. In a matter of days, it was accepted by Parliament that Edward’s son was illegitimate and that Richard was now the rightful heir.

Carroll defends the Lord Protector by recording that

Richard had been known as a man of high moral principle and a devout Catholic. His conscience would not have permitted him to keep silent about such a fact if it were true… however much he might have wished to save his brother’s reputation. That proclaiming it served his personal interest so well will always cast some doubt on the reality of the betrothal; but Richard’s reputation up to this point makes it harder to imagine him inventing so despicable a betrayal of his brother’s memory, if it were false, then accepting that he genuinely discovered a truth which happened to make him King.

Only five days after Edward V was supposed to be crowned, Richard was declared king of England with a coronation ceremony to follow shortly.

With Hastings’s head now brought before him, Shakespeare’s Richard pressures Buckingham to agree that Edward’s sons must be removed from the picture. Buckingham hesitates now to agree. The ever-ready accomplice who carried out every foul deed for his friend now the king, has lost his high place,

The deep-revolving witty Buckingham
No-more shall be the neighbor to my counsel:
Hath he so long held out with me untired,
And stops he now for breath?

Buckingham makes his escape, knowing what is in store for him if he tarries. In Shakespeare’s play, he sides with Henry Tudor.

The disappearance of Edward IV’s sons is “the most impenetrable mystery in English history.” In the play, Richard hires a man named James Tyrell to carry out their murders. Carroll says that the confession of the said Tyrell “has now been rejected by almost all historians, even those most hostile to Richard.” Carroll continues that “ever since Richard III died fighting for his crown at Bosworth Field in 1485, the dominant viewpoint among historians and English tradition is that he had them killed. But no one knows when or how.” The deed was done very quickly and without reason. The timing was horrible because it happened within the week of Richard’s coronation. As he was touring England immediately after the coronation, Richard was away and could not provide the necessary coverup. Carroll gives countless reasons why Richard might not have been responsible and instead focuses on the actions of another individual. Again the “hesitating” Buckingham comes to perform, but this time, with a possibly larger role in history’s play.


Before Richard could return to London, rebellion had broken out… in the name of Henry Tudor and the Duke of Buckingham, who both had a claim to the throne… if Richard were eliminated and the princes were truly illegitimate… Richard had trusted Buckingham completely and had made him Constable of England, but the young Duke did not hesitate to betray him.

Though he had a claim to the throne, he did not voice this at the time but chose instead to support Henry Tudor.

It is hard to believe that, given his genealogy and character, he was not biding his time until he could remove and supplant Henry after, with his indispensable help, Henry removed and supplanted Richard III. By murdering the princes Buckingham could throw the odium for their disappearance upon Richard. As Constable of England, Buckingham could as easily have entered the Tower of London and done what he wished there, as Richard himself.

The case against the Duke of Buckingham as the murderer of the princes is at least as plausible as the case against Richard… The manner in which he gained great favor with Richard then betrayed him, all in less than six months, reveals a man with no moral restraints on his ambition. Richard’s record… displays a much higher moral standard.

In both Shakespeare’s and Carroll’s stories, Buckingham is caught and executed. He begs to speak to the king but is refused. Shakespeare’s Richard is still angry with Buckingham’s hesitancy to co-operate but Carroll gives a different reason. “From the moment of his capture… to his execution… he begged and pleaded for permission to speak with Richard… Richard refused to see him. Buckingham may have hoped to gain his life in return for information about the fate of the two princes that he alone could provide.”

Now we arrive at the play’s last horror, Richard’s final murder, that of his wife. In the play Richard must get rid of her in order to strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying his brother’s daughter, the “illegitimate” sister to the princes which he murdered. First he clears himself by spreading that his wife is ill before he kills her:

Rumor it abroad,
That Anne, my wife, is sick and like to die.

Carroll’s Anne has a different fate. The Queen died most likely of tuberculosis shortly after their own son died.

There is much evidence that Richard had a profound love for Anne… These two intense personal tragedies (the loss of his wife and his son) and the suffering Richard must have undergone if he were innocent of the murder of his nephews… may help explain the apparent fatalism which Richard approached the decisive battle with Henry Tudor.

Carroll’s Richard turns to the battle field with a heavy, broken heart while Shakespeare’s enters the fray as a mad tyrant. Although a proven military genius, Carroll’s Richard charges Henry with a small force and is betrayed once again by one of his men. Shakespeare’s Henry is the hero in the tale as he frees England from her murderous tyrant king and promises prosperity and peace.

O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smoothed-faced peace
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!

Henry Tudor does marry Richard’s niece Elizabeth and suppressed all mention of her being illegitimate. I will let Carroll answer his own question which was asked at the opening of this essay:

Historians are left with the mystery of the two vanished princes and the choice of whether to see Richard III, corrupted by ambition, usurping the throne of England, killing them, and consequently suffering his just deserts by being overthrown and slain by Henry Tudor, or to see him as the innocent victim of as searing a cumulative tragedy as may be found in all the annals of the kings of Christendom. The mystery will never be conclusively resolved. Each student weighing the evidence can only make his best judgment. The writer of this history judges that Richard III is innocent.

The reign of Richard III has enduring significance in that it brought a completely new and very different dynasty to the throne of England, whose second generation was to breach the millennial English tradition of loyalty to the Catholic Church and whose third generation was to destroy that tradition forever – the worst single loss the Catholic Church has suffered in its entire history.

Richard’s innocence deserves to be defended. His short rule and fast fall was not simply the fall of a king, but it was the fall of a Catholic king whose ancestry ruled England from the Middle Ages. His successors’ descendants were to sever the bond of England from the Roman Catholic Church, maybe forever. If he was a tyrant and usurper, what came after was far worse. For Queen Elizabeth Tudor was illegitimate and guilty of more than eleven deaths.

[1] All quotes of and references to Dr. Warren Carroll are taken from his historical work, The Glory of Christendom.

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