The Trouble with Richard III… and the ‘Mornington Crescent’ Syndrome

I’ve been studying the Yorkist kings off and on for several decades. It’s a subject which has always interested me but I have to say that it’s gradually wearing me down, slowly grinding away at my historical patience.

I started life believing that Richard III was pretty much a black-hearted villain who rubbed out most of his rivals and murdered his nephews. Then, in my formative years, I discovered that both I, and Richard, had been the victims of a dastardly plot. It turned out that Richard was innocent of all crimes – and even those he was guilty of, were completely justified. Richard was only defending himself against his vicious, power-hungry rivals. Then I actually studied the evidence…


Over the years, I’ve looked at all the evidence and read through some texts more often than I care to recall. I still sometimes enjoy discussing it all too. So what’s my problem?

Well, it’s the on-going, often pointless and invariably emotional arguments about Richard III that criss-cross the internet almost every day. It’s not that I want to stifle debate, because it is a very interesting topic full of lots of intriguing possibilities. But, please, let’s eliminate from sensible discussion some of the more ludicrous statements which are now said so often that they seem to be taken as fact.

So, I’m going into the lion’s den, without a whip or a chair, indeed armed only with common sense and with an uneasy feeling that it won’t be enough.

I have proven several times – and once or twice recently – that an argument about Richard III can be triggered out of nothing. There’s no need even to drop a hat. You can post a comment that has nothing to do with Richard III, or Henry Tudor, or royal princes but it won’t make much difference. Sooner or later Richard will crop up in the thread and, once he’s there, you’ll need a missile strike to shift him. And even if the furore should die down for a moment, it will restart quicker than a self-lighting candle because the combatants are still there in their bunkers ready to join battle again.

My usual response when that point is reached is to use the retort: ‘Mornington Crescent’. Now I realise that the game ‘Mornington Crescent’ will be meaningless to most people except devotees of Radio 4’s panel game, “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”. So here is a brief explanation from Wikipedia:

Each panellist in turn announces a landmark or street, most often a tube station on the London Underground system. The apparent aim is to be the first to announce “Mornington Crescent”, a station on the Northern Line. Interspersed with the turns is humorous discussion amongst the panellists and host regarding the rules and legality of each move, as well as the strategy the panellists are using. Despite appearances, however, there are no rules to the game, and both the naming of stations and the specification of “rules” are based on stream-of-consciousness association and improvisation. Thus the game is intentionally incomprehensible.

The last two sentences of this definition are especially appropriate in the case of discussion about Richard III and explain why I use the words ‘Mornington Crescent’ as a handy non sequitur. Points are made, sometimes based on sound historical evidence, sometimes based on dodgy historical evidence, sometimes based on no evidence at all and remarkably often, I feel, based only on blind faith. Such points must surely be arrived at by some form of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ or improvisation. All of these points of argument are lumped together as if they carry equal weight – they don’t.

Posts follow a meandering course where the same points crop up time after infuriating time and where the same half-truths are peddled as fact. The result is that most – well, let’s be generous, some – of these discussions become incomprehensible slanging matches. They are often, I’m afraid, a travesty of historical debate because we are playing our own version of “Mornington Crescent’.

But what are these half-truths? They are too numerous to deal with here in fine detail but let’s break down some of them a little more.

I have no problem at all with someone arguing that Richard III was a good man, or a brave soldier, or even that he did not kill his nephews, but I do have a problem with the ‘evidence’ all too often used to do so.

Much is made of Richard the man, rather than Richard the king. I have never believed that Richard was an evil monster or any of that nonsense but, however he acted before April 1483, he will be forever judged by what he did in the years 1483-85. There is a fundamental and inevitable difference between how someone acts in a supporting role and how they act when they have full control themselves. When you have power, you must make the hard decisions yourself and the consequences of those decisions are on your head. The pressure is greater and the fear of making a wrong decision looms large.

There is some contemporary evidence to suggest that Richard, as a man, had his good points and perhaps that could stretch to his lordship also. However, the fact that a man has some admirable qualities does not necessarily mean that he will make the right decisions as king nor, of course, does it mean he is the rightful king. So, whatever Richard was like before April 1483, though relevant to the discussion, is not that helpful in understanding why he acted as he did after April 1483.

Now what about those charges levelled at Richard: notably the murder of his nephews, the usurpation of the throne and the summary execution of leading opponents – I’ll leave aside some of the other more fanciful ones.

The first one is easy to answer: we don’t know, and we probably never will know, who killed the princes. But of course it isn’t really that easy because we all like to solve a mystery, or just ask what-if, don’t we? I agree that it’s possible to establish a motive for other killers of the princes. Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, are the usual suspects and I get that. They may have motive but what is harder to prove is the opportunity. Yes, I know that Buckingham was Constable of England and would have had some access to the Tower but I can’t see how he had the wit or ability to mastermind such a daring and complicated assignment – after all, he wasn’t very effective at much else. He wasn’t exactly a ‘people person’ and who would have taken such risks to help him? He would have needed a lot of help in a place that was run by someone else, Sir Robert Brackenbury, who was unquestionably Richard’s man.

Nevertheless, I have no problem with such alternative ideas; my problem once more is with the wild assertions which accompany them. Here’s a cracker, for example: Richard had no reason to kill the princes since they were already declared illegitimate and were therefore absolutely no threat to him. Really? Can I point out that legitimacy is a legal matter and the boys could be declared legitimate again in parliament later if it suited someone to do so? Make no mistake: whilst they breathed, the boys remained a threat to whoever held the throne.

Did Richard seize the throne unlawfully? This charge brings me to one of my all-time favourite spurious arguments: the idea that his rule must have been legitimate because parliament said so. No, I’m afraid not, though it’s touching that such faith exists. Parliament was not an independent institution in the fifteenth century and it rarely had a mind of its own. Rather, it reflected the climate of the time and, whilst it could sometimes make some noise about issues such as taxation, the state of the roads, or law and order, its most important political and constitutional activities – even in the House of Commons – were almost always orchestrated by the king or the leading nobles of the day.

Thus the use of Titulus Regulus as ‘evidence’ that the two princes were illegitimate and that Richard was the rightful king, is rather missing the point. By the time it was passed by parliament in 1484, Richard had already been crowned king and had ruled as king for months. It was necessary for him to enshrine his position in law and he used parliament to do so – no harm in that, but does anyone seriously believe that the parliament of 1484 was going to turn around to King Richard and say, “I’m terribly sorry, your grace, but I’m afraid we don’t think you are the rightful king.” I don’t think so…

I’m going to finish with the declaration of the illegitimacy of the princes – and others… It begins with what I would suggest is the pivotal event in the whole crisis of the summer of 1483, the death in June of William, Lord Hastings – one of the few relatively undisputed facts in this whole sorry tale. Since this is clearly down to Richard, the only thing to discuss is his motive in killing a man who seemed likely to be his most ardent supporter against the Woodville faction.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain it, including an allergic reaction to strawberries, but what I find difficult to accept is the vague assertion that Hastings ‘must have done something’ or was ‘about to do something’ otherwise Richard would not have executed him in such a hurry. This is a rather general explanation of motive I would have thought and I can’t see it helps Ricardians much, because, if you are a Ricardian, you have to believe that Edward IV and his heirs were illegitimate, otherwise Richard was clearly a usurper.

Common sense tells us that Hastings, a natural supporter of Richard, would not have considered any action against him except in extremis. This is inconvenient for Ricardians because the most likely reason for Hastings to do so would have been if he learned that Richard intended to disinherit Edward V and rule in his stead. That, it is clear, would have been unacceptable to Hastings and the timing tells us that Richard was, at the very least, considering it before Hastings was dragged to his death from the council meeting on 20th June. The council meeting was still supposed to be discussing the coronation of Edward V but already, by 12th June, Richard had sent his close adherent, Ratcliffe, north to mobilise a northern army and to ensure that the leading Woodvilles he already held were executed.

The conclusion some might draw from all this is that Richard was considering a coup in mid-June 1483 and Hastings’ death was a line in the sand. The message was clear: if a man such as Hastings could be summarily executed for opposing Richard then no-one else was safe. Then, almost at once after all this, came the flurry of activity in London which proclaimed the illegitimacy of not only Edward IV’s sons but of Edward IV himself. I’m happy for Ricardians to believe in this happy coincidence, but the evidence is mighty thin.

In the Richard debates this is the perfect moment for the phrase “Tudor propaganda” to pop up, so let’s deal with that one. In the end, Richard lost and history tends to judge the loser harshly. There was certainly Tudor propaganda. To justify, in part, Henry Tudor’s seizure of the throne, Richard’s name had to be blackened. The propaganda had to exonerate Edward IV since Henry was married to his daughter, so the brunt of it was aimed at Richard. Henry’s skilful use of badges and the Tudor rose revealed him as the ‘national unity’ candidate, uniting the warring Houses of York and Lancaster.

Whilst one can reasonably play the ‘propaganda’ card, it does not in itself dismiss some of the more serious charges laid at Richard’s door. Also, whilst it is perhaps inevitable that contemporary writers might favour Henry, who was ruling, rather that Richard, who was dead, it does not mean that every writer did so. These writers had more access to living witnesses than anyone who came after them and it is facile to dismiss their work out of hand as ‘Tudor propagandists’ yet this happens regularly in Richard debates. Eye witness accounts are often flawed but they can still give us an insight which is not available anywhere else.

As for bringing Shakespeare into it because he wrote a play about Richard III, I’m afraid that’s just ludicrous. The play may be engrained in our psyche, but it was an effect of propaganda, not part of it. Shakespeare was writing his play in 1592-3, over a hundred years after Richard III died. The Armada had just been defeated but England was still under dire threat and Queen Elizabeth had no heir. Does anyone really believe that Shakespeare set out with the purpose of blackening the name of Richard III? His theme was the peril of disunity and he simply used – as he invariably did – the stories and histories available to him. He created a character in a play which served to demonstrate his theme. I could go on here, but for brevity’s sake I won’t.

So, having said all this, what do I want? I want us to continue to enjoy discussing Richard and the crisis of 1483. There are lots of mysteries that remain and I want us to continue to be inventive in examining possibilities but I’d prefer it if we are also rigorous in rejecting the use of misleading and wrong-headed ‘evidence’.

And where do I stand on Richard III… the princes…etc? Ah well, this post is long enough already – that’s for another time…

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30 Responses to The Trouble with Richard III… and the ‘Mornington Crescent’ Syndrome

  1. Kalina says:

    My proposal is: to end the ridiculous debate about the morality of Richard and his lawfull or lawless way to the throne. Please, do not forget that he lived in Middle Ages, specially very cruel English ones, when kings were murdered and nobody asked their successors for their claims to the throne. Richard was the first who – even dead – was so dangerous and so hated by his really illegitimate successor -usurper – Henry Tudor. Nothing strange that he was so maligned by Tudor propaganda. Richard had all: he belonged to the famous family, was the legitimate King of England, he was the brave knight beloved by women, between them by personal bride of Henry Tudor:))) Henry was only the worthless straggler who took the throne by force. And all his life he was shaking with fear and murdered his potential rivals belonged to Plantagenet family like Edward Warwick and John of Pontefract. I am not any Ricardian. I simply cannot calmly hear and look in historical injustice. Richard was neither better nor worse than his predecessors and successors. Specially succesors – the cruel and criminal family of Tudor.

    • Derek Birks says:

      Thanks, Kalina, though I think you rather miss my point.

    • K says:

      “I am not any Ricardian”? I think you are, and with all due respect you’ve just tried to shut down a discussion by bringing in Henry VII and then using emotive terms to characterize both sides (“Richard had it all”, “Henry was only the worthless straggler”).

      This response sounds like you’ve read some strongly-Ricardian books and thought their blanket technique of finding fault with Henry answered everything in Richard’s favour. However, a listing of Henry’s faults doesn’t settle the problems with Richard, as this excellent article makes clear.

      To reiterate one major problem: Richard was capable of dragging Lord Hastings from the chamber and dealing out summary execution to him. No trial, no evidence heard, just a sentence of death the same day as the arrest. That’s not “Tudor propaganda” invented after Richard’s death to smear Richard, this event is supported by disinterested contemporary evidence. It really happened.

      Is Richard’s action of dragging Hastings out and killing him really the kind of behaviour you want to defend?

      I suspect you wouldn’t find that action defensible (I wouldn’t!!) but it’s up to you – if you could please answer that last question clearly (“yes I would defend that action” or “no I wouldn’t”) that would be great. Thanks.

      • Derek Birks says:

        Karen, I see your point about Hastings, but I think it’s probably impossible to defend or condemn these individual acts from our modern perspective. I prefer to regard Hastings’ execution as one of a number of key factors that, taken as a whole, lead us either to believe in Richard’s innocence or guilt. As I indicated in the post, it’s a topic that fires everyone up!

      • Kalina says:

        I agree absolutely that the execution of lord Hastings was too fast and illegal after Magna Charta Libertatum. But I never told that Richard was the Saint:)) He had guilty conscience in example towards to his wife. However I am a historian my speciality is far from English history. I repead: I simply suffer when I read injustice historical opinions. They are as well wrong as not professional. It does not concern Derek,s article of course!

      • Alice Gower says:

        What evidence do you have to prove that Hastings was dragged out and summarily executed? Evidence being the operative word and More and Shakespeare are not relevant.

      • Derek Birks says:

        Well, I wouldn’t agree that More is not relevant, as I think I indicated, but I’m not sure that Hastings’summary execution is disputed, is it – only the reason?

  2. Kalina says:

    Of course, Derek:))) I only needed to present my point. Best regards!

  3. a great read – very clearly expressed.

  4. Kalina says:

    This is the interesting article about illegitimacy of the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydville

  5. kbinldo says:

    Bet this was the first time the game started & ended in one move.

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I am sympathetic to Richard, but it seems a bit silly to idolize him to such excess. After all, he had the means, motive and opportunity to assassinate his nephews to consolidate his position; he’s the most likely suspect. Of course, on the other hand, when I read, say, earlier books like RL Stevenson’s tiresome “The Black Arrow,” I cringe at how obviously EBIL R3 is. Okay, he wasn’t Pollyanna, but I’m sure he figured he did what he had to do. Nuance is a wonderful thing; the world is all shades of grey; the Middle Ages weren’t fought by chaotic good paladins against legions of orcs. In fact, I imagine R3 would make a fantastic character in Westeros.

  7. Nancy says:

    Funnily enough, when I rode English public transport with my friends, we would get men to leave us alone by starting off a conversation…”Of course he had no reason to kill them. They had already been declared bastards.” Then we would continue the pro-Richard debate. It worked every single time. My romantical self always thought that Richard locked them up in the Tower and they were still alive when Henry Tudor took over. I thought your article was quite articulate and enjoyable.

  8. Derek Birks says:

    What a clever plan, Nancy! But wherever there’s a mystery, there’ll be lots of different theories. It’s just a great topic for discussion.

  9. Andrea Willers says:

    Common sense about Richard and the truth had been left at Bosworth field, plain and simple. I am glad to see Hastings is part of the debate, nobody has questioned why he was executed.

    • Derek Birks says:

      I agree Andrea, though it has been examined by historians over the years. For me, it is the most interesting death in a summer of many deaths.

  10. Wonderful! 10 out of 10 for sheer common sense.

  11. wlinden says:

    Perhaps we should have “Birks’ Law” to follow Godwin’s Law.

  12. unawicca says:

    As a costumer, I’ve always been fascinated by an item in Henry VII’s rolls of account: (x amount) …”to buy X ells cloth for to make mourning clothes for the two in the Tower”… Who in the Tower, other than the Princes, would the skinflint Henry VII have had mourning clothes made for in the hectic early days of his reign? I’m sure there could have been other potential recipients; but it is interesting…

  13. joan9221 says:

    I found this article interesting and well written. However, I think I see two little dents in your arguments regarding the princes. For one, there is no extant evidence that the princes died before Richard. There is some circumstantial evidence that at least one survived Richard and some weaker circumstantial evidence that both did.
    The illegitimacy argument has some merit because we do know what Richard did with George’s son, Edward, who could have inherited the crown before Richard if Parliament reversed his being attainted via his dad. Not only did Richard keep him alive, but he housed him at Sheriff Hutton with other children (including Edward’s daughters). Henry wasn’t so kind to him. He kept him in the tower, only parading him around when it suited his purpose. Henry waited until he was and adult and set a trap whereby he could have him executed.

    • Derek Birks says:

      Thanks for commenting, Joan. I’m not sure I’ve put forward any arguments about the fate of the princes rather tried to show that some oft quoted ideas about Richard are invalid. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with what you’ve said.

      • joan9221 says:

        “…I’m not sure I’ve put forward any arguments about the fate of the princes rather tried to show that some oft quoted ideas about Richard are invalid….” Ah, I guess I read more into the article than was there. I had the idea that you were contrasting emotional vs factual/logical based arguments.

  14. Patricia Armstrong says:

    Very disappointed – from the start with your Morington Crescent game i thought your blog showed some promise and having been assured of your credentials as a historian who has been studying the Yorkists for several decades i expected better. you know nothing. Very well written, very eloquent but obviously know only what you have learned from other historians of your ilk. You go from the premise that Richard killed the princes, of which there is no evidence, and say Richard killed Hastings as a warning to anyone thinking of crossing him! Is that the best you people can come up with. Very simplistic and as nobody knows the truth and we’re playing guessing games you have descended into your Mornington Crescent rubbish. You are as bad as the people you are sneering at.

    • Derek Birks says:

      Well, Patricia, I don’t know quite what to make of all that. As I said, I fully accept we don’t know about the princes and I don’t start from the premise that Richard killed them. I’m not sneering at anyone because it is everyone’s right to debate, but I can see that we probably aren’t going to agree. Thank you though for your contribution to the discussion.

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