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What's To Learn From King Richard III


Last week, archeologists positively identified the remains of a skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester as the earthly remains of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings. Richard is best remembered as the hunchback, Shakespearean villain whose two-year reign ends when he's left stranded to face the enemy at the battle of Bosworth Field.


CONAN: Thanks to Shakespeare, Richard gets to be portrayed by the likes of Laurence Olivier, but the Bard also reminds us that he murdered the two little princes in the tower and drowned the Duke of Clarence in a butt of wine. A recent article in Foreign Policy argues we also have much to learn from Richard III's 15th century power politics. So tell us, what did you learn from Richard III? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. John Watkins, professor of English, affiliate faculty in history at the University of Minnesota and the author of that piece in Foreign Policy joins us now from MAR in St. Paul. And welcome, I hope they have provided you with a glass of mumsy.

JOHN WATKINS: Thanks, Neal. I'm quaffing it down right now.

CONAN: I wonder as you heard about the positive identification. The bones have been suspected for some time of being those of Richard III but a final positive idea last week.

WATKINS: It's nice to have something, and the story of Richard III finally resolved. This is the story that includes probably the greatest murder mystery in all of English history. There are questions all over the biography of Richard. And at least we know one thing, we now know where the body was.

CONAN: And it's going to be then re-interred there in Leicester, at the cathedral.

WATKINS: Possibly.

CONAN: And so...

WATKINS: This is now - this is now currently being debated. The City of York is putting in a petition and would like for him to be buried there.

CONAN: You pointed out in your piece in Foreign Policy that the play, for which Richard is best remembered, is largely over domestic arguments, but in fact, this is all a footnote in the war of the Hundred Years' War

WATKINS: Well, the Hundred Years' War is basically resolved but the Hundred Years' War bleeds into the English War of the Roses. They final English disaster in the Hundred Years' War leads to all kinds of internal strife within England, aristocratic factions battling it out. And then, at the very end, I think one of the reasons Richard falls is the French are afraid that he is has the position to revive the Hundred Years' War

CONAN: And revive the English claim of the - claim of the Kings of England, of course, the Duke of Normandy, as well, their claims on the French throne.

WATKINS: Right. And the great achievement of Richard's predecessor, his brother, Edward IV, was finally resolving something of that conflict in the 1475 treaty of Picquigny.

CONAN: He, in fact, sold out his allies, the Duke of Burgundy.

WATKINS: At various points, yes.

CONAN: And got, in fact, of a handsome reward from the French king for his efforts.

WATKINS: An excellent reward, an excellent reward.

CONAN: And this, you argue, is something - a policy that Richard would've been wise to pursue.

WATKINS: Well, the mistake that Richard made was he knew that his - the one true rival for his crown. Henry - the future Henry VII, was currently in residence with the Duke of Brittany. Because of that, Richard started to cut a deal with the Duke of Brittany. What he had not calculated on was that Henry also had contacts at the French court. Henry immediately ran over the Briton border to France, and France is willing to support him.

CONAN: And so this is - though we think of it as an English struggle, there are outside powers with great interest in the Battle of Bosworth Field.

WATKINS: Always. And for me, this is one of the great significances of the story of Richard III. We tend to imbed what happens to the distant English past in a story that leads triumphantly to British Empire. And Britain is a modern constitutional democracy today.

An actual fact, if you look at anything happening in the course of the Hundred Years' War certainly - but even at the Wars of the Roses, English politics are very much intertwined with continental politics. And it is really impossible to isolate that single story of a nation.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you draw an analogy that we might recognize to this day and describing England in the 15the century as, well, a kind of a failed state. There was no centralized organization which had a monopoly on the use of force.

WATKINS: That's what happens when you have something like the Wars of the Roses. This war is raging for three decades. And, well, that - I want to retract that a bit. It's not raging. It has moments of calm. But at various moments, there were genuine confusions about where judicial lines of power go, who finally is the right king, who is the right source of justice of the realm? If I get a judgment in a Yorkist court, will it be overturned a few years later in a Lancastrian court after another round of coups?

CONAN: And we have to remember, Shakespeare's story - well, he was writing in the time of, I guess, Henry Tudor's granddaughter, Elizabeth.

WATKINS: You got it, and...

CONAN: So he's writing to please the powers that be in those days.

WATKINS: Right. And the problem, of course, is compounded to the fact that about 100 years go between Bosworth Field and Shakespeare's writing of the play. And in that 100-year period, a Tudor-myth of history had come into being which had amplified all of the misdeeds of Richard III and added crimes to what was already a pretty hefty roster.

CONAN: As a student of Shakespeare, there are plenty of Shakespeare plays, Henry V, for one and IV part one and two, that celebrate the Plantagenets. Did he need to write Richard III to set things write with the Tudors?

WATKINS: Oh, he wrote Richard III much earlier in his career than some of the later play - history plays. And it wasn't so that setting it right with the Tudors. It was responding to England entering, clearly, yet another round of wars, reflection on the relationship between war and peace and so forth.

CONAN: So if Richard's elder brother had settled things out pretty well in terms of the foreign powers and the bigger powers on the continent, like France, it was the Tudors' - well, not so much Henry himself, but then Henry VIII and, of course, the problems with Spain devolved upon Elizabeth.

WATKINS: Right. And there are several different conflicts that are imbedded there. But the reign that I think it's occulted in a lot of conversation about Shakespeare and the Wars of the Roses is really what happens during the reign of Henry VII. We may actually learn more about history and, ultimately, about Shakespeare's imagination if we look at the kings that Shakespeare finally did not bring to the center of the play titled after that king.

CONAN: That's in...

WATKINS: We don't have a play on Edward IV. We don't have a play on Henry VII. Those were, in fact, two successful reigns, more or less.

CONAN: Not enough drama.

WATKINS: Not enough drama, that's the problem. And, unfortunately, Shakespeare has stilted our perception of the English past so much that even historians first get into these questions by reading Shakespeare's plays. And it's hard to get some of that skewing out of our heads when we start actually looking at what was going on in Western European relations in the 15th century.

CONAN: So we'd like to speak with you if you're a student of Shakespeare or a student of English history. What do we learn from the reign of Richard III? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with - if we can go to Benjamin, and Benjamin with us from Washington, North Carolina.

BENJAMIN: Hello. I learned that good people do not make good kings. I have to confess that's not my line. I borrowed it from another historian. And what I mean by that is in Richard's time, force and power are what mattered. And if you substitute names like Richard and Plantagenet for blood and grip, they have a very similar dynamic where, you know, if you want something body else has and you think you have enough power, you go after it. I'd offer one quick point on Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's day, he could not write a political commentary using his own people's names, the rulers of his day. And quite often, he commented on current politics of his day using ancient kings so that he didn't get himself killed for insulting the monarchy.

WATKINS: Mm-hmm. Well, there's absolutely no question, Shakespeare wrote in an environment of state censorship.

CONAN: And...

WATKINS: And it is certainly true that plays about what we now think of as the medieval English past are constantly making oblique comments on the Tudor present.

CONAN: And what comment can we derive from Richard III about Elizabethan England?

BENJAMIN: Oh, I would put that to your host, I have to confess that I'm not exactly an expert on that part.

CONAN: John Watkins?

WATKINS: OK. At the simplest level, rebellion is wrong. At the very simplest level, we learned that rebellion is wrong. This is the - end of what will evolve into a sequence of plays beginning with the deposition of Richard II. Now, what I think makes Shakespeare interesting is that you take that simple moral message but then you complicate it. What happens if you have a king who is so weak, so ineffective in the administration of justice that the realm longs to get rid of him? Is rebellion still wrong? And it's all of those different levels of political questioning, of ethical questioning that come together in the creation of these plays.

CONAN: In fact, you argue Richard such a weak king, that he resorts to the age-old tactic of summoning a foreign enemy to try resolve his domestic problems.

WATKINS: Well, you're thinking of Richard III at this point?

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

WATKINS: Right. In the case of Richard III, not so much summoning but he's ready basically to pay off the Duke of Brittany to deliver Henry Tudor.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Benjamin.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with John Watkins, professor of English and affiliate faculty in history at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of a piece a called "What Richard III Can Teach Us Today" that appeared in Foreign Policy magazine. You could find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go - is this Linda?

LINDIS: Lindis(ph).

CONAN: Go ahead - in Prescott, Arizona.

LINDIS: Yeah. I'm - no, I'm not a historian and I certainly don't read lot of heavy history books, but I've felt very strongly about Richard III for years. There were two novels. The one - it's - I mean, she went into extraordinary stuff about finding out her facts. It's called "The Sunne in Splendour" by Sharon Kay Penman. It's about Edward IV and then, of course, Richard III takes over.

According to her book, Richard III was really wonderful. He was compassionate, understanding, kind, very strong, a powerful king and he ruled England wonderfully. He had - it was proven he had nothing to do with the Princes in the Tower. He wasn't a hunchback. He did, of course, have scoliosis, which made one shoulder slightly higher than the other. I too have scoliosis in my lower back. I stand very straight. No one will know it. I didn't even know.

The other book is called "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey. Extraordinary, I mean, what they found out, it's just amazing and I hate to hear. I mean, of course, I saw Richard III with Olivier. And, of course, I was horrified and everything. But, you know, that was Shakespearean Elizabethan time. He was just protecting his own backside, as you might say.

And the two books are just incredible. There was - by the way, you know, York is apparently wanting to bury him. If - will you hold on just a sec? The book is right here. I want to get something. Will you hold on?

CONAN: Sure. But in the meantime, John Watkins, those authors and there is a faction in England that says Richard III has been slandered all these years.

WATKINS: Absolutely. Hands down, Richard III has been slandered. The Tudor legend is very much a black legend. It takes certain facts of Richard's biography and certain lacunae and Richard's biography and builds into this myth of absolute evil. Shakespeare's play is very much within that tradition. That having been said, the answer to a black legend is not necessarily complete exoneration.

CONAN: Lindis, did you find what you are looking for?

LINDIS: I got in - I'm turning the damn pages over...

WATKINS: Oh, dear.

LINDIS: ...of course I've got - anyway, they said, York - oh, OK, OK. The city of York dared to do when they learned of Dickens' death - that was, you know, Richard III - they had every reason for caution, knew their city's prosperity and well-being now depended upon the whims of Henry Tudor and yet read what they inscribed into the city records for Tudor to see for all to remember. It was shown by John Sponer, S-P-O-N-E-R, that King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was through great treason piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.

CONAN: Ha. And which book is that from?

LINDIS: This is from "The Sunne in Splendour," S-U-N-N-E.


LINDIS: It's an extraordinary book.

WATKINS: The Yorkist sunne, an absolutely lovely prose. But again, I want to reiterate: One, I think you can make a strong case that many aspects of Richard III's domestic policy, a domestic policy which he effectively inherited from his Yorkist brother Edward IV, were rock solid. There is clear evidence that Richard did have a genuine sense of justice within the realm. He wanted the king's justice to work well. That having been said, he is a late medieval pre-modern dynast who inevitable stooped to measures we would not approve of today in securing his claim to the throne. The real question always will be the question of the little princes, right?

LINDIS: Yeah. Right, right, right.

WATKINS: These children who are ground between a rivalry between the paternal uncle, maternal family. When the Edward IV died, the will allowed his brother Richard to become protector over the realm and little Edward's minority, but entrusted little himself to the guardianship of Lord Rivers, his wife's brother, so little Edward's maternal uncle. The two uncles did not like each other. The Yorkist family in general did not like the Woodville family and the princes are caught in this. Do we have hard proof that Richard murdered them? No. But virtually no other suspect looks plausible.

CONAN: And the suspect, of course, found himself buried under a parking lot in Leicester. He's going to be reinterred. Thank you very much, both of you. We appreciate your time today. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.