Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third - Horace Walpole - ebook

Historic justice is due to all characters. Who would not vindicate Henry the Eighth or Charles the Second, if found to be falsely traduced? Why then not Richard the Third? Of what importance is it to any man living whether or not he was as bad as he is represented? No one noble family is sprung from him.

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Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole

Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third

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New Edition

Published by Urban Romantics


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First published in 2014

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ISBN: 99781910343845 (ebk)






So incompetent has the generality of historians been for the province they have undertaken, that it is almost a question, whether, if the dead of past ages could revive, they would be able to reconnoitre the events of their own times, as transmitted to us by ignorance and misrepresentation. All very ancient history, except that of the illuminated Jews, is a perfect fable. It was written by priests, or collected from their reports; and calculated solely to raise lofty ideas of the origin of each nation. Gods and demi-gods were the principal actors; and truth is seldom to be expected where the personages are supernatural. The Greek historians have no advantage over the Peruvian, but in the beauty of their language, or from that language being more familiar to us. Mango Capac, the son of the sun, is as authentic a founder of a royal race, as the progenitor of the Heraclidae. What truth indeed could be expected, when even the identity of person is uncertain? The actions of one were ascribed to many, and of many to one. It is not known whether there was a single Hercules or twenty.

As nations grew polished. History became better authenticated. Greece itself learned to speak a little truth. Rome, at the hour of its fall, had the consolation of seeing the crimes of its usurpers published. The vanquished inflicted eternal wounds on their conquerors—but who knows, if Pompey had succeeded, whether Julius Caesar would not have been decorated as a martyr to publick liberty? At some periods the suffering criminal captivates all hearts; at others, the triumphant tyrant. Augustus, drenched in the blood of his fellow-citizens, and Charles Stuart, falling in his own blood, are held up to admiration. Truth is left out of the discussion; and odes and anniversary sermons give the law to history and credulity.

But if the crimes of Rome are authenticated, the case is not the same with its virtues. An able critic has shown that nothing is more problematic than the history of the three or four first ages of that city. As the confusions of the state increased, so do the confusions in its story. The empire had masters, whose names are only known from medals. It is uncertain of what princes several empresses were the wives. If the jealousy of two antiquaries intervenes, the point becomes inexplicable. Oriuna, on the medals of Carausius, used to pass for the moon: of late years it is become a doubt whether she was not his consort. It is of little importance whether she was moon or empress: but ‘how little must we know of those times, when those land-marks to certainty, royal names, do not serve even that purpose! In the cabinet of the king of France are several coins of sovereigns, whose country cannot now be guessed at.

The want of records, of letters, of printing, of critics; wars, revolutions, factions, and other causes, occasioned these defects in ancient history. Chronology and astronomy are forced to tinker up and reconcile, as well as they can, those uncertainties. This satisfies the learned—but what should we think of the reign of George the Second, to be calculated two thousand years hence by eclipses, lest the conquest of Canada should be ascribed to James the First.

At the very moment that the Roman empire was resettled, nay, when a new metropolis was erected, in an age of science and arts, while letters still held up their heads in Greece; consequently, when the great outlines of truth, I mean events, might be expected to be established; at that very period a new deluge of error burst upon the world. Cristian monks and saints laid truth waste; and a mock sun rose at Rome, when the Roman sun sunk at Constantinople. Virtues and vices were rated by the standard of bigotry; and the militia of the church became the only historians. The best princes were represented as monsters; the worst, at least the most useless, were deified, according as they depressed or exalted turbulent and enthusiastic prelates and friars. Nay, these men were so destitute of temper and common sense, that they dared to suppose that common sense would never revisit the earth: and accordingly wrote with so little judgment, and committed such palpable forgeries, that if we cannot discover what really happened in those ages, we can at least he very sure what did not. How many general persecutions does the church record, of which there is not the smallest trace? What donations and charters were forged, for which those holy persons would lose their ears, if they were in this age to present them in the most common court of judicature? Yet how long were these impostors the only persons who attempted to write history!

But let us lay aside their interested lies, and consider how far they were qualified in other respects to transmit faithful memoirs to posterity. In the ages I speak of, the barbarous monkish ages, the shadow of learning that existed was confined to the clergy: they generally wrote in Latin, or in verse, and their compositions in both were truly barbarous. The difficulties of rhime, and the want of correspondent terms in Latin, were no small impediments to the severe nvarch of truth. But there were worse obstacles to encounter. Europe was in a continual state of warfare. Little princes and great lords were constantly skirmishing and struggling for trifling additions of territory, or wasting each others borders. Geography was very imperfect; no police existed; roads, such as they were, were dangerous; and posts were not established. Events were only known by rumour, from pilgrims, or by letters carried In couriers to the parties interested: the public did not enjoy even those fallible vehicles of intelligence, newspapers. In this situation did monks, at twenty, fifty, an hundred, nay, a thousand miles distance (and under the circumstances I have mentioned even twenty miles were considerable) undertake to write history—and they wrote it accordingly.

If we take a survey of our own history, and examine it with any attention, what an unsatisfactory picture does it present to us! How dry, how superficial, how void of information! How little is recorded besides battles, plagues, and religious foundations! That this should be the case, before the Conquest, is not surprizing. Our empire was but forming itself, or re-collecting its divided members into one mass, which, from the desertion of the Romans, had split into petty kingdoms. The invasions of nations as barbarous as ourselves, interfered with every plan of policy and order that might have been formed to settle the emerging state; and swarms of foreign monks were turned loose upon us with their new faith and mysteries, to bewilder and confound the plain good sense of our ancestors. It was too much to have Danes, Saxons, and Popes, to combat at once! Our language suffered as much as our government; and not having acquired much from our Roman masters, was miserably disfigured by the subsequent invaders. The unconquered parts of the island retained some purity and some precision. The Welsh and Erse tongues wanted not harmony: but never did exist a more barbarous jargon than the dialect, still venerated by antiquaries, and called Saxon. It was so uncouth, so inflexible to all composition, that the monks, retaining the idiom, were reduced to write in what they took or meant for Latin.

The Norman tyranny succeeded, and gave this Babel of savage sounds a wrench towards their own language. Such a mixture necessarily required ages to bring it to some standard: and, consequently, whatever compositions were formed during its progress, were sure of growing obsolete. However, the authors of those days were not likely to make these obvious reflections; and indeed seem to have aimed at no one perfection. From the Conquest to the reign of Henry the Eighth it is difficult to discover any one beauty in our writers, but their simplicity. They told their tale, like story-tellers; that is, they related without art or ornament; and they related whatever they heard. No councils of princes, no motives of conduct, no remoter springs of action, did they investigate or learn. We have even little light into the characters of the actors. A king or an archbishop of Canterbury are the only persons with whom we are made much acquainted. The barons are all represented as brave patriots; but we have not the satisfaction of knowing which, of them were really so; nor whether they were not all turbulent and ambitious. The probability is, that both kings and nobles wished to encroach on each other, and if any sparks of liberty were struck out in all likelihood it was contrary to the intention of either the flint or the steel.

Hence it has been thought necessary to give a new dress to English history. Recourse has been had to records, and they are far from corroborating the testimonies of our historians. Want of authentic memorials has obliged our later writers to leave the mass pretty much as they found it. Perhaps all the requisite attention that might have been bestowed, has not been bestowed. It demands great industry and patience to wade into such abstruse stores as records and charters: and they being jejune and narrow in themselves, very acute criticism is necessary to strike light from their assistance. If they solemnly contradict historians in material facts, we may lose our history; but it is impossible to adhere to our historians. Partiality man cannot intirely divest himself of; it is so natural, that the bent of a writer to one side or the other of a question is almost always discoverable. But there is a wide difference between favouring and lying and yet I doubt whether the whole stream of our historians, misled by their originals, have not falsified one reign in our annals in the grossest manner. The moderns are only guilty of taking-on trust what they ought to have examined more scrupulously, as the authors whom they copied were all ranked on one side in a flagrant season of party. But no excuse can be made for the original authors, who, I doubt, have violated all rules of truth.

The confusions which attended the civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster, threw an obscurity over that part of our annals, which it is almost impossible to dispel. We have scarce any authentic monuments of the reign of Edward the Fourth; and ought to read his history with much distrust, from the boundless partiality of the succeeding writers to the opposite cause. That diffidence should increase as we proceed to the reign of his brother.

It occurred to me some years ago, that the picture of Richard the Third, as drawn by historians, was a character formed by prejudice and invention. I did not take Shakespeare’s tragedy for a genuine representation, but I did take the story of that reign for a tragedy of imagination. Many of the crimes imputed to Richard seemed improbable; and, what was stronger, contrary to his interest. A few incidental circumstances corroborated my opinion; an original and important instrument was pointed out to me last winter, which gave rise to the following’ sheets; and as it was easy to perceive, under all the glare of encomiums which historians have heaped on the wisdom of Henry the Seventh, that he was a mean and unfeeling tyrant, I suspected that they had blackened his rival, till Henry, by the contrast, should appear in a kind of amiable light. The more I examined their story, the more I was confirmed in my opinion: and with regard to Henry, one consequence I could not help drawing; that we have either no authentic memorials of Richard’s crimes, or, at most, no account of them but from Lancastrian historians; whereas the vices and injustice of Henry are, though palliated, avowed by the concurrent testimony of his panegyrists. Suspicions and calumny were fastened on Richard as so many assassinations. The murders committed by Henry were indeed executions and executions pass for prudence with prudent historians; for when a successful king is chief justice, historians become a voluntary jury.

If I do not flatter myself, I have unravelled a considerable part of that dark period. Whether satisfactory or not, my readers must decide. Nor is it of any importance whether I have or not. The attempt was mere matter of curiosity and speculation. If any man, as idle as myself, should take the trouble to review and canvass my arguments I am ready to yield so indifferent a point to better reasons. Should declamation alone be used to contradict me, I shall not think I am less in the right.

Nov. 28th, 1767.


There is a kind of literary superstition, which men are apt to contract from habit, and which-makes them look On any attempt towards shaking their belief in any established characters, no matter whether good or bad, as a sort of prophanation. They are determined to adhere to their first impressions, and are equally offended at any innovation, whether the person, whose character is to be raised or depressed, were patriot or tyrant, saint or sinner. No indulgence is granted to those who would ascertain the truth. The more the testimonies on either side have been multiplied, the stronger is the conviction; though it generally happens that the original evidence is wonderous slender, and that the number of writers have but copied one another; or, what is worse, have only added to the original, without any new authority. Attachment so groundless is not to be regarded; and in mere matters of curiosity, it were ridiculous to pay any deference to it. If time brings new materials to light, if facts and dates confute historians, what does it signify that we have been for two or three hundred years under an error? Does antiquity consecrate darkness? Does a lie become venerable from its age?

Historic justice is due to all characters. Who would not vindicate Henry the Eighth or Charles the Second, if found to be falsely traduced? Why then not Richard the Third? Of what importance is it to any man living whether or not he was as bad as he is represented? No one noble family is sprung from him.

However, not to disturb too much the erudition of those who have read the dismal story of his cruelties, and settled their ideas of his tyranny and usurpation, I declare I am not going to write a vindication of him. All I mean to show, is, that though he may have been as execrable as we are told he was, we have little or no reason to believe so. If the propensity of habit should still incline a single man to suppose that all he has read of Richard is true, I beg no more, than that that person would be so impartial as to own that he has little or no foundation for supposing so.

I will state the list of the crimes charged on Richard; I will specify the authorities on which he was accused; I will give a faithful account of the historians by whom he was accused; and will then examine the circumstances of each crime and each evidence; and lastly, show that some of the crimes were contrary to Richard’s interest, and almost all inconsistent with probability or with dates, and some of them involved in material contradictions.

Supposed crimes of Richard the Third.

1st. His murder of Edward prince of Wales, son of Henry the Sixth.

2d. His murder of Henry the Sixth.

3d. The murder of his brother George duke of Clarence.

4th. The execution of Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan.

5th, The execution of Lord Hastings.

6th. The murder of Edward the Fifth and his brother.

7th. The murder of his own queen.

To which may be added, as they are thrown into the list to blacken him, his intended match with his own niece Elizabeth, the penance of Jane Shore, and his own personal deformities.

I. Of the murder of Edward prince of Wales, son of Henry the Sixth.

Edward the Fourth had indubitably the hereditary right to the crown; which he pursued with singular bravery and address, and with all the arts of a politician and the cruelty of a conqueror. Indeed on neither side do there seem to have been any scruples: Yorkists and Lancastrians, Edward and Margaret of Anjou, entered into any engagements, took any oaths, violated them, and indulged their revenge, as often as they were depressed or victorious. After the battle of Tewksbury, in which Margaret and her son were made prisoners, young Edward was brought to the presence of Edward the Fourth; “but after the king,” says Fabian, the oldest historian of those times, “had questioned with the said Sir Edwarde, and he had answered unto hym contrary his pleasure, he then strake him with his gauntlet upon the face; after which stroke, so by him received, he was by the kynges servants incontinently slaine.” The chronicle of Croyland of the same date says, “the prince was slain ‘ultricibus quorundam manibus’;” but names nobody.

Hall, who closes his word with the reign of Henry the Eighth, says, that “the prince beyinge bold of stomache and of a good courag, answered the king’s question (of how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realme with banner displayed) sayinge, to recover my fater’s kingdome and enheritage, &c. at which wordes kyng Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or, as some say, stroke him with his gauntlet, whome incontinent, they that stode about, which were George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas marques Dorset (son of queen Elizabeth Widville) and William lord Hastinges, sodainly murthered and pitiously manquelled.” Thus much had the story gained from the time of Fabian to that of Hall.

Hollingshed repeats these very words, consequently is a transcriber, and no new authority.

John Stowe reverts to Fabian’s account, as the only one not grounded on hear-say, and affirms no more, than that the king cruelly smote the young prince on the face with his gauntlet, and after his servants slew him.