Follow by Email

Sunday, 22 March 2015

What We Can Learn From Richard III Today

The reconstructed head of Richard III, showing the DNA analysis discovery that he most likely had blond hair.
"Queen to Pay Tribute To 'Evil' King" screams today's Sunday Express front page headline. Thankfully they had the sense to put the word evil in speech marks, however it is still the case that the image created by Shakespeare of an evil hunchbacked murderer lingers. Put simply, this image, created as propaganda for the Tudor dynasty, is that Richard plotted his way to the throne long term, battered Henry VI to death, murdered his brother George, had his young nephews (the 'Princes in the Tower') smothered with pillows, carried out random executions on a whim and poisoned his wife.
I don't intend to go into into the complex historical arguments as to why it is unlikely that any of the above 'crimes' were committed by Richard. My aim here is to outline the positive lessons that Richard III's reign can teach us today and which echo down the centuries from the 15th to the 21st. Although for those interested in the supposed crimes, here is my video on the Princes in the Tower:


I grew up in Stapleton in Leicestershire, only a few miles from the site of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard died. Richard III is a local hero who has fascinated me since I was very young. I never accepted the view that a man who died such a brave death could have been a conniving, cowardly villain racked by guilt at his umpteen murders (ie the Shakespeare version of events). Later I discovered the classic biography by Paul Murray Kendall which challenged this negative view and the rest, as they say, is history.....


Richard III as King was progressive and years, if not centuries, ahead of his time. The main Ricardian principles which we can celebrate today are:

1) Richard as a legal reformer who championed the poor and disadvantaged.

During his brief reign, Richard III enacted the following legal reforms: reintroduction of bail; access to the law for poor people via a system of legal aid; measures to reduce corruption in jury trials; translation of the law from French and Latin into English and posting of the law in public places.
Before Richard, anyone accused of a crime, particularly poor people, could be locked up for long periods of time before trial. The poor would seldom receive justice as there was no system of legal aid. Richard tackled both of these problems and championed the disadvantaged in the face of the wealthy vested interests. We could learn much from this considering that the current coalition government has slashed legal aid provision. In addition, since 1066 legal documents were written in French or Latin which ordinary English people could not understand. It was an elitist way of denying them legal knowledge. Richard had the law translated into English and posted in public places to increase access to it.

2) Richard as an inclusive King who fought the North/South divide.

Richard was a popular ruler of the north of England during Edward IV's reign, despite not being a 'northerner' himself. During his reign he did much to try to end the imbalance of power in England and tackle the attitude of the southern gentry that northerners were inferior or foreign. He attainted 113 disloyal southerners and introduced the policy of plantations which was the progressive planting of northerners in the southern shires in order to achieve a more inclusive rule. Given the nature of the current House of Commons, which is dominated by white middle-aged, middle-class males we still have some way to go in terms of political inclusiveness.

3) Richard the opponent of sleaze in government.

Edward IV's court was racked by sleaze and scandal, much of it involving Lord Hastings and Mistress Shore.  The law by which Richard III was made king, Titulus Regis, condemns this sleaze and reaffirms the point that those in power have a duty to serve rather than just to amass wealth.

4) Richard the brave who fought on the front line.

Richard did not send people to war while remaining safe himself, letting others pay the price for his decisions. Unlike Henry Tudor, who tended to hide behind his army and do nothing, Richard fought on the front line and led the last great chivalric cavalry charge in an English battle.

Here is my video on what we can learn from Richard today:

Two essential books about Richard which present a positive view of him:

No comments:

Post a Comment