Friday, May 4, 2018

Common Myths of the Wars of the Roses: Richard III: Victim of Tudor Propaganda? Part 2

I have come to loathe the phrase ‘Tudor propaganda’ which is trotted out so regularly – especially online – that it has become a joke. It is used to stop argument and debate rather than to further it.

So, this is how I see it.

Propaganda has to be a deliberate and concerted attempt to mislead by repeatedly using information which you know or suspect to be false. So, is that what Henry Tudor – and his successors – were doing?

There is no question that Henry VII was determined to promote his own image by presenting himself as the king who brought unity to a divided land.

Young Henry VII
[Public domain via wikipedia]
It is often said that history is written by the victors, so it would be very surprising if the supporters of the victorious Henry Tudor started his reign by congratulating the late Richard III on his excellent reputation and achievements. Naturally, the very reverse was the case: King Henry was keen to emphasise the faults of his predecessor because his own claim to the throne was about as solid as the proverbial chocolate teapot. Compared to Richard, Henry was a novice for he had not even managed an estate let alone governed a country!

Thus, by painting a dark image of Richard, Henry could distract from his own major shortcomings: a weak dynastic claim and complete inexperience of government.

Inevitably, this involved blackening Richard’s name but Henry had to be careful what he said because he was pledged to marry Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York, and thus he could not blacken the name of York entirely.

Sometimes when a country seeks unity after conflict they choose to forgive – though not forget - past acts in order to move forward.  Henry did do that to some extent and by presenting the short reign of Richard III as an aberration, he found a means of unifying the majority of political interests behind him.  Since he had pretty much appeared from nowhere, having held no high office and with no large retinue of supporters, he needed to justify his kingship. 

So, after 1485, there was indeed a concerted attempt to present Richard’s reign as a disastrous interlude which only the timely arrival of young Henry Tudor had resolved. This was where the weight of emphasis was and the early Tudor pageantry and badges – most obviously the Tudor Rose – hammered home the message of unity, made flesh by the symbolic union of Henry and Elizabeth.

Let us not forget though that most of those who inhabited the Tudor Court in Henry VII’s reign would have supported this approach because that was how they viewed the immediate past too. Many – perhaps the majority - of his supporters were men who had loyally served Edward IV, but presumably most had little love for the dead king because they had abandoned him in favour of Henry. As I indicated in the first part of this discussion, ‘the strength of their opinion is shown by their willingness to support an exile about whom they knew nothing and whose claim to the throne could not have been weaker.’

All the same, there was no guarantee that Henry Tudor could keep the throne. Many had supported Henry only because he had formally committed to marrying the Yorkist heiress, Elizabeth. However much Henry disliked this fact, it remained true. Therefore, it made sense for him to focus the heat on Richard as an individual - the usurper - not Richard, of the House of York. 

After his victory in 1485, Henry was merely making as much capital as he could out of a legacy that many folk regarded as genuine. In this approach then, Henry was pushing at an open door.

It is a very long stretch to move from the clear intention on the first Tudor king’s part to promote his own image at the expense of his predecessor, to the suggestion that throughout the entire period of the Tudor monarchy, lasting about 120 years, there was some sort of orchestrated attempt to blacken Richard’s name. Such an idea is quite simply nonsense.  So what were the contemporary writers saying?
Edward Hall's Chronicle
[Public domain]

Those who wrote about the past in the Tudor period such as Polydore Vergil, Thomas More and Edward Hall would have grown up accepting the version of events, as presented in 1485 and 1486, as fact.

Edward Hall’s Chronicle is the best example of a contemporary history because, unlike More, he was at least trying to tell the history of what we know as the Wars of the Roses in his Chronicle: The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Houses of Lancaster and York.  

Hall wrote in Henry VIII’s reign though his chronicle was published after his death – and Henry’s! Though Hall had many original sources to refer to and took pride in listing them, he relied heavily on Thomas More’s account of Richard’s reign. More was not especially concerned with the veracity of his work. He accepted the “received history” and used it to present moral arguments. From a twenty-first century perspective this makes More unusual but for writers of the period – all God-fearing men – separating moral judgements from history would be an alien concept. Frequently Hall made judgements on events by use of spectacular adjectives. Thus, men’s actions were “glorious” or “detestable” or “odious” but then Hall did want his work to be interesting to read!

Was Hall writing propaganda?

Not really, no.  His was the earliest attempt at a comprehensive history of the struggle between Lancaster and York. Like an awful lot of historians since his time, Hall assumed that what had been said by folk in authority was probably true.  As far as he was concerned, it was a great story with a happy ending – King Henry VIII - though we might judge Henry rather differently.

Hall was attempting to explain what had happened to cause division in the state and he traced it back to the demise of Richard II in 1399. In doing so, he laid down the traditional view of the origins of the Wars of the Roses. Reading Hall, one is astonished how little that view changed over the next four centuries. Since the second half of the twentieth century, though historians have analysed more rigorously and critically the sources available, yet in some respects Hall’s account remains largely unchallenged.

Although Hall had access to sources long since lost to us, he lacked the one thing we do have: perspective. Surely though, we cannot blame him for that.

It does make his work biased and flawed, but it does not make it propaganda. He saw Richard III through a Tudor lens, but that does not mean it was a Tudor plot – nor, crucially, does it mean that what he wrote is actually incorrect.

Hall was not attempting to deliberately twist the truth.  Although the Privy Council did make some changes to Hall’s Chronicle before publication in 1548 and again when it was republished in Elizabeth’s reign, that was normal enough and there is no suggestion that the Tudor state significantly adulterated his account.

Hall’s Chronicle is evidence enough that the line taken by Henry VII in 1485 had been successful if, fifty or more years later, it was accepted as fact. So Hall was certainly furthering the Tudor image, but that does not mean that everything he wrote about Richard III was wrong.

If the ‘Tudor propaganda’ tag is applied to one man more than any other, it is William Shakespeare. His tragedy, Richard III, is regarded as the ultimate Tudor propaganda.

William Shakespeare
[Public domain via wikipedia]
Indeed, if you Google Richard III, you’ll find a lot about the play before you discover anything much about the king! It’s certain that the play has coloured opinion over the centuries but that does not make it propaganda.

Shakespeare drew inspiration for his plays from two chronicles in particular: Hall’s and the more contemporary, Raphael Holinshed – who also drew heavily from More and Hall.

Hall would have provided him with the entire historical backdrop not just for Richard III but for all his other history plays from Richard II onwards.

Shakespeare was thus making use of the best possible source of historical information available to him at the time.

It is ludicrous to suggest that Shakespeare set out to destroy Richard III’s name – but I have seen it written many times online. The playwright was creating an interesting character – as is shown by our fascination with him ever since.

Some will say that he was ‘under pressure’ from Queen Elizabeth to blacken Richard’s reputation. No, he was not. He was under pressure not to write plays that annoyed the queen, or other prominent courtiers, because he relied on their patronage to make a living. The queen, however, was far more interested in what he wrote in Richard II than Richard III because in the former he concentrated on the theme of kingship and sovereignty. He raised the spectre of an anointed monarch being overthrown, eloquently presenting the victim’s views as well as the usurping Henry IV. For Elizabeth, who several times faced the threat of being removed, that was a far more important issue.

So, in conclusion, the writers of Tudor England reflected not simply the line taken by the victor in 1485, but the accepted ‘world view’ of Richard III. 

Are there aspects of that which we would now question? Yes, of course there are – and rightly so, but please let us banish the old red herring of ‘Tudor propaganda’.

Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.

For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa. Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction Now the violent events of 1483 are played out in the sequel, The Blood of Princes.

Connect with Derek through his Website, Twitter (@Feud_writer), and his author sites through Amazon UK and Amazon US.


  1. And let us not forget that Richard III did a very good job of blackening his brother's name and disparaging his reign. Also, the R3 Society has done a superb job of promoting that narrative.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.