Richard III has been getting much-needed attention these past few days – his Bones, it seems, have been languishing beneath a parking lot …
About 22 years ago on a trip to Scotland with the Appalachian Mountain Club, we stayed in Beauly not far from Inverness in a Castle called Aigas (now the Aigas Field Centre), hosted by Sir John Lister-Kaye and his Lady Lucy. We spent our days studying the flora, fauna, and geology of the surrounding area, a glorious adventure, as you can imagine – but one of the most memorable parts of the trip was meeting another guest staying at the Castle – he was not part of our group, but came there every year to go birding, an elderly gentleman blessed with a brilliant mind and great charm – his one great obsession other than birds was Richard III, and from him I learned about the Richard III Society. He went off into spasms of ecstasy telling of his also annual treks to Bosworth where he could hear the “swish, swish” of the swords on the field where Richard was slain in 1485.
Illustration depicting the Battle of Bosworth Field, with King Richard III on the white horse.
I came home with my own obsession with the long-dead Richard – read everything I could find on him, beginning with Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, her tribute to Richard [she was a staunch member of the Society] and the clear statement of her belief in his innocence. Shakespeare had done the young King a dirty deed it seems, maligned forever in History as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower and various other souls including his Wife, and perpetrator of all manner of other nefarious politically-induced deeds…
I confess to having forgotten more than I ever actually knew about RIII, and now other than Shakespeare and Tey, he has largely fallen off my radar, or at least I no longer need to get into discussions with everyone I meet in a rabid defense of his innocence… but I am excited about his Bones being found and restored to a rightful burial place at Leicester Cathedral; this discovery shall certainly bring on a re-assessment of who he might really have been…
Which brings us to Jane Austen:
Austen, as avid readers know, had an aversion to the name of “Richard”: let’s recall her first paragraph in Northanger Abbey, where she denigrates Catherine’s father so:
Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard …
And later in a 1796 letter to her sister, she remarks on Mr. Richard Harvey’s match being put off, “till he has got a better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes.” [Letters, p. 10]
And famously in Persuasion, and one of the nastiest comments in all her novels, on poor Dick Musgrove:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. [Persuasion v. I, ch. VI]
No one has ever satisfactorily explained this aversion of Austen’s to the name ‘Richard’ – one could certainly explain it as her disliking Richard III with such a passion that anyone named Richard should suffer her admonition; but here is what she says about Richard in her History of England, with such a contradictory tone, one does not quite know what she really thought [forever the illusive Jane] – but on the whole I think she believes him to be mistreated by History – perhaps she would have been a reigning member of the Richard III Society!
Richard the 3d
The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.
You can read Austen’s complete History of England here at the British Library, and here at Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts , both in the original edition and facsimile.
So what do you think? Should Richard III be exonerated of his dastardly deeds? Should we do as Jane did and be “rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man”? I will just say that may Richard at least from henceforth Rest in Peace…
[Richard III Memorial in Leicester Cathedral]
And I must add this final image sent just this morning from a friend – only the English can get away with this sort of thing, but I laughed ‘til tears came… somehow I think Jane Austen would be laughing too…
- Christopher Sandrawich wrote a post on this blog last year on viewing Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Swan Theatre
- The Telegraph.uk with video of the findings
- Beautiful Beauly, Scotland at wikipedia
- Bosworth Battlefield website
- Battle of Bosworth Field at Wikipedia
- Jospehine Tey and The Daughter of Time at the RIII Society
[like Jane Austen, Tey wrote just over a handful of novels – read them!]