History of King Richard III Critical Essays

Thomas More


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

About 1518, at the age of forty, Sir Thomas More stopped work on his HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III. This was the time when he was about to become a valuable member of the Council of Henry VIII, the beginning of a political career that would lead to his death and martyrdom in 1535. The work itself bears the mark of Thomas More the humanist scholar, rather than Sir Thomas the courtier or St. Thomas the martyr. Written in both English and Latin versions, presumably concurrently, the HISTORY was broken off at the speech of the Duke of Buckingham and Morton, Bishop of Ely, one week after Richard’s coronation. The English version was then completed by Richard Grafton and published in the Hardyng and Halle chronicles, before being published in 1557 as a separate work edited by More’s nephew, William Rastell. More had planned at first to extend the HISTORY to include the record of his own times, up to Henry’s VII’s death, but for reasons of his own he put the work aside.

These reasons may have had their roots in the polemical nature of the work. It is very much a treatise against tyranny and nonmoral statecraft, a refutation of Machiavelli some years before THE PRINCE was even completed. Far from being a Tudor apologist, as he is sometimes thought to be, More is nonpartisan. He is against tyranny in any king, whether it be Richard III or Henry VII. A sense of his own well-being, perhaps, is what leads him to draw his moral lesson from Richard alone and not risk extending his criticism to the kingship under Henry VII. This is the reason why one should remember that it is the Thomas More of the UTOPIA and not the Thomas More of the years of Tudor courtiership who is writing at this time.

The HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III is not only significant as an example of the humanistic education of princes, but it is also important as the model for other histories to follow. Historians tell us it was not equaled in excellence until the appearance of Sir Francis Bacon’s HISTORY OF THE REIGN OF KING HENRY VII, written more than a hundred years later. His historical methodology is not always exemplary, for much of what he says is based on conversations with others and much is used for the polemical thesis he is trying to develop. Though not objective, nor completely accurate, the facts he presents are probably closer to the truth than many scholars in past centuries, notably Horace Walpole, have been willing to admit. Nevertheless, what strikes the reader immediately is the vivid character of the writing and the ability to make the historical characters really seem to have once been alive. The fact that over a third of the work is in the form of speeches and dialogue indicates the book’s dramatic character.

The characters are wonderfully alive. Edward IV is not only a model prince who was politic in counsel and who treasured wisdom, thus fitting in well with More’s thesis about kingship, but also a lustful king whose youthful excesses are duly recorded yet pardoned by More because they did not interfere with the ruling of the kingdom. Jane Shore, moralized if not immortalized by Thomas Churchyard in A MIRROR FOR MAGISTRATES, is sympathetically drawn and her illustrious past contrasted with her harsh old age, for she was still living at the time of the writing. Henry, Duke of Buckingham, is treated as a surprisingly naive conspirator, and the gap between his supposed guile and his actual naivete gives More a chance to exploit fully the irony he sees present throughout the chronicle of the times.

The characters who are drawn in most depth are Queen Elizabeth and King...

(The entire section is 1499 words.)