The first things I remembered learning about Richard III were 1) he was evil 2) he killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. I also remember being of an age – still a child – when one generally accepts what they’re told and doesn’t question it, so I knew that he was bad but I didn’t really comprehend at the time. I remember when my parents rented a VHS of Richard III with Ian McKellen and being told that it was scary, I wasn’t allowed to see it./p>
It wasn’t until in February of this year, in fact, that I began to learn more and understand Richard III when his grave was discovered in Leicester, in a parking lot (or car park, in British English). Either by coincidence or not, about a week before the news broke out, I had intended to watch Richard III, the very same movie my parents had watched years before. I borrowed it from the library and, well, for one reason or another, I kept putting it off until I had to return it, so ultimately didn’t end up seeing it. I still haven’t. (For sake of this post, I did consider watching it but I decided not to, except for the few clips I found and watched on YouTube.)
It was with much interest that I followed the Richard III story, as news broke out and pieces began to be put together, ultimately revealing how much his image was a product of Tudor propaganda – aided, with no thanks, by Shakespeare’s play. It was like a mystery. There is no concrete evidence that he did kill his nephews, which for some means that it isn’t out of the question – there’s just no evidence to prove it. There is just as much, or little, evidence to support either; however, the scales tip forward in his favour that he didn’t when we learn more about him as a person and how, during his brief reign, he helped the common people.
Some months ago I became interested The Sunne In Spendour by Sharon Kay Penman, after learning of it in an interview with Richard Armitage (he is named after Richard III and also has been attached, for a long time, to a project about the king). This is a historical novel that is, at heart, a biography of Richard III, beginning with him as a young boy to his death on the battlefield of Bosworth but it is also about the Wars of the Roses, especially his brother Edward IV. Sharon Kay Penman has that remarkable ability to create dimensional characters, men and women and children, that come alive and make you care about them. It was also through reading this book that I became better able to understand this particular period in time and history. The title derives from Edward IV’s (Richard’s older brother) badge of three suns or a phenomenon known as “parhelion“. He convinced his troops that the suns represented the Holy Trinity, although another version (perhaps in the book – it’s all a blur) states that he said the suns represented himself and his brothers Richard and George.
I borrowed it from the library, but for some reason did not start reading it immediately. (The length and thickness of the book – over 900 pages – didn’t unnerve me, I’ve read books longer than that, such as The Count of Monte Cristo.) I finally resolved to read it when I needed to return it to the library and I was pulled into the story, enthralled, from the beginning. I’ve not read a book in so long that has tugged at my emotions, moved me so deeply. I was involved with all the characters, and especially Richard as a boy – I felt so deeply for him and sympathized, to the point of tenderness. So wrapped up in my emotions was I that, sometimes, I was reading the words but scarcely comprehending what was happening and then–! This last sentence I refer specifically to the death of Edmund, one of Richard’s brothers. It is history, so it is bound to happen, but I invested in the characters from such an early start and so deeply that I grieved with the rest of them.
Starting with Richard’s formative years, it balances several characters’ point-of-views: notably Richard’s, his mother Cecily, and his two older brothers Edward and Edmund. His two brothers go to battle with their father Richard of York early in the story, against the Lancastrians led by Henry VI’s ruthless wife Margaret of Anjou who wants the throne for her son Eduoard, who is still a child. (The kingdom is left in Margaret’s hands, after Henry went insane.) Richard of York and Edmund are killed and it is Edward who takes it upon himself to raise an army to defeat the Lancastrians and he is crowned King of England, the first Yorkist king.
Fiction is sometimes more interesting than real life – though life can be stranger – and it’s easier to understand history through a historical fiction perspective. As I read, more characters are gradually introduced and I found myself often flipping back to the family tree in the front, to figure out who’s who. No fault of the writing, but simply the complexity of history (specifically, the family members) and I would then go research more about the real people to learn what their roles were and how they were connected and all related to each other. (Blesséd Internet!) It also had me think more deeply about Shakespeare’s history plays, specifically the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, and Henry V) and that is a topic I will be discussing in my next post. [Update: Sad Stories of the Death of Kings]
Richard is characterized as having a sensitive nature as a boy and who worships his older brother Edward and the ground he walks upon, yet this is with the unfortunate consequence that he is blind to and generally uncritical of Edward’s misdemeanours and political tactics. He also displays, again and again, unquestioning loyalty, including to those who would deceive him. It’s his sensitive nature, amidst a turbulent, violent time, that shapes him into who he is: a complicated man, a loving son, brother, and husband but who must also be decisive in war and politics, sometimes despite his feelings.
Richard’s supposed deformity is handled as a wounded arm that did not set and heal properly, causing one of his shoulders to be slightly higher than the other. The most sensitive issue, the Princes in the Tower, is handled delicately yet resolutely, with the Duke of Buckingham charged responsible for their murder. (In the author’s note, she explains her reasoning for this.)
In a recent blog post I found, after Googling the author, I learned that The Sunne in Splendour is set for a reissued hardcover to be released in September with a new afterword by the author, taking into account the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton.
Below is the first part of an interview with Sharon Kay Penman, in which she talks about writing The Sunne In Splendour, including when she had to start over again from scratch after her manuscript was stolen from her car. The rest of the interview is interesting to watch as well.
Whether you are pro-Richard III or interested in the War of the Roses, I heartily recommend it. It’s a great read and had me engaged the whole time. It’s a page-turner!
I can only hope that should a Richard III production be made, whether film or TV, and if an adaptation or based on The Sunne In Splendour, that justice is done to the writing and characters. I would want to be moved in the same way as I was when I read it.