The Future of History

Friday, 30 May 2014

Dem Bones

I now have a copy of The Last Days of Richard III by my History Press stable-mate, John Ashdown-Hill.  This was the book which led archaeologists to the car park in Leicester where Richard's remains were buried.  I'm looking forward to reading it, when I take a break from my research into Sir William Davenant.

Today, I came across this: A Bone to Pick with the Bard - Richard III was NOT a Hunchback.  It's a piece in the Independent which indicates that Richard "Crookback" did not have a crookback after all!

William Shakespeare appears to get the blame for the fact that we all thought he did.

Well, that's not entirely fair.  Shakespeare was a poet-playwright, not a historian.  And he had to make do with the information that was available to him.

The Tudor kings and queens were always slightly aware that their claim to the English throne was rather shaky.  Henry VII became king when he defeated Richard III in battle.  So, in typical Tudor style, they made up a pack of lies about Richard.  And because many historians are lazy and credulous, we all believed the lies.

The question, then, is this: did Shakespeare really believe the Tudor propaganda?  Or was he actually up to something much more subtle and clever when he portrayed Richard III with a hunchback and a club foot?

After all, Richard III wasn't the only king he seemingly maligned.  Historically speaking, Macbeth was one of the most successful and popular kings in medieval Scotland.  Macbeth's predecessor, King Duncan, was useless; Macbeth defeated him in battle and then ruled for 17 years, during which time he made a pilgrimage to Rome (only a king who knew that his country was safe would disappear overseas for two years).  So, once again, Shakespeare drew a portrait of a king that was wildly inaccurate.

Unless ...

Unless we accept that Shakespeare wasn't really writing about Macbeth but about a different Scottish king.  The one who, at that moment in time, occupied the English throne.  James I.

In Shakespeare's tragedy, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Macbeth is a brave and steadfast lord who turns to the dark side - ambitious and greedy, he commits murders and goes paranoid.

There are very good reasons - some of them outlined in my book, Who Killed William Shakespeare? - to suspect that Shakespeare thought of James I in just these terms.  He was a promising monarch who broke his promises, choosing to become a veritable "Son of" [Gaelic - mac] Elizabeth, hence "Mac-beth".  King James had dropped heavy hints that England's Catholics would be allowed a degree of tolerance.  He then fell into the traps laid for him by his egregious secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (photo above), and colluded in the government fiction that was the Gunpowder Plot.  The treacherous slaying of King Duncan in the play was really Shakespeare's horrified reaction to the barbarous execution of Father Henry Garnet, SJ, the real target of the Cecil-masterminded "powder treason".

Which brings us back to Richard III.  So King Richard didn't have a hunchback after all.  But Sir Robert Cecil did.  A rhyme of the time described him thus:

Backed like a lute case
Bellied like a drum -
Like Jackanapes on horseback
Sits little Robin Thumb.

He was also known as the "Toad", and Robertus Diabolus - Robert the Devil.

The Cecil family claimed that Sir Robert (the second son of Elizabeth's chief minister, Lord Burghley) had been dropped on his head at birth.  He was certainly stunted and deformed, with a "crookback" and a splayed foot.  Queen Elizabeth called him her "elf", and so in Shakespeare's Richard III he became the "elvish, abortive, rooting hog", the evil "toad" who plots against and kills anybody who threatens to frustrate his ambitions.

It is, in all fairness, extremely simpleminded to imagine that Shakespeare was writing specifically about King Richard.  In reality, he was turning the Tudor propaganda into a weapon against the Court of Elizabeth I.  It was not Richard who was hunchbacked and splay-footed - it was her dangerous "elf", that inveterate and industrious plotter, Robert Cecil.

King James inherited the English throne on Elizabeth's death in 1603.  He also inherited the loathsome Robert Cecil, whom he repeatedly promoted.  And just as Shakespeare had transformed Robert Cecil, for his sins, into the diabolical Richard III, so he turned James I into the tyrannical butcher, Macbeth.

Of course, Shakespeare was so good at what he did that we all made the mistake of taking his words at face value.  But then, historians have been so inclined to swallow Protestant propaganda whole that nobody seems to have questioned Shakespeare's portrayals.  Perish the thought that our greatest wordsmith might have exposed the brutal corruption at the heart of the governments of Elizabeth I and James I! 

No, no, no - far better to assume that Shakespeare really was describing the historical Richard and Macbeth than to acknowledge who the real targets of his quill might have been.  Because that would require us to admit that dreadful people did dreadful things, ostensibly to turn England into a Protestant country, but really to make themselves incredibly rich.  And we really don't want to admit that, do we?


  1. Richard may not have been a hunchback but from the bones found and analyzed he had severe spinal problems in later life that would have forced him to lean over some.