A Fresh Look at Sources

   Posted by: Annette Carson   in

As a Ricardian, if you decided to embark on a project evaluating what really happened during the reign of Richard III, which narrative sources would you use?

Leaving aside the scattering of letters and official documents dating from the period, I suggest you are left with only two written accounts that have any claim to be taken seriously: those of Dominic Mancini and the Crowland chronicler. Both writers, although harbouring strongly-held opinions, were at least present in London during the times they purport to describe.

To achieve a rounded picture, I would add Polydore Vergil. Admittedly Vergil had no first-hand knowledge of the what-where-when of those events he set down a generation after they happened. But his value lies in one distinct advantage: access to Tudor circles. His overall intention was to recount events for posterity, which I believe he attempted with as much accuracy as he could muster, given the paucity of fifteenth-century material available to him, and the plethora of Tudor-inspired myth-making with which he was bombarded.

I doubt that Polydore saw Tudor spin for what it was, and indeed it seems he was fully committed to the credo that Henry Tudor saved England from the monster Richard III. The importance of Vergil lies in his counterpoint to Mancini and Crowland: the very detailed account he is able to provide of the machinations that were going on in the Tudor camps – Henry/Jasper in Brittany, and Margaret Beaufort/John Morton in England.

Highly coloured though they are by partisanship, these three are the principal narrative sources. Therefore, ignoring evidence of bias and unreliability, the diligent researcher must be prepared to sift their words carefully – in the original Latin if necessary – seeking tiny clues: subtle changes in narrative style that reveal their underlying thought-processes; inadvertent hints as to who was actually supplying information and/or instigating events; and hidden nuggets of fact that allow timelines to be reconstructed (chronology, I find, is always a critical factor).

When I came to write my latest book, Richard III: The Maligned King,* I approached these sources from the standpoint of a writer rather than a historian. Their originators were erudite clerics whose business was words, and they exemplify a fine understanding of the weight and impact of carefully-judged phrases.

Take, for example, their different approaches to the accusation that Richard killed his nephews. Mancini, with his Italianate sense of drama, twice introduces a deliberate aura of impending doom around the princes; but when he comes to report the intelligence his masters want to hear, he frankly admits he has uncovered nothing.

The Crowland writer, an avowed partisan of those who oppose Richard, is transparent in his quest to find ways of portraying him in a bad light. Had he known any facts about the case he would certainly have put them in writing. But, knowing nothing and desperate to cast odium, instead he dredges up a piece of condemnatory verse so that Richard will be seen – through another’s eyes – as causing his nephews’ downfall. Like Mancini, however, he is too much a man of conscience to accuse the king of an outright crime for which no evidence exists.

Vergil, the moralistic scholar, was given chapter and verse on the whole fictitious murder. He would never invent lies himself and thus saw no reason to doubt his high-born informants. Accordingly it is asserted as true and awful fact – yet there is not a word of any Tyrell confession.

Other interesting phenomena abound. The cleric Mancini, with little first-hand knowledge of English (or England), claimed to know, miraculously, that the wagon-loads of arms brought from Stony Stratford were really war stores for the Scottish campaigns. And that the proclamation of Hastings’s treachery at the Tower was phoney. This tells us that Mancini was getting his information from sources hostile to Richard’s party. Apart from some general observations about London, there is actually very little in his entire report that Mancini observed and understood at first-hand.

The reverse is true of the Crowland chronicler. His animosity to Richard is personal – as it is to anything that emanates from the north of England – while a quick trawl through his comments on Queen Elizabeth Woodville reveals that in his eyes she can do no wrong.

There are interesting clues to be found in the Crowland narrative by contrasting those topics the writer chooses to describe fully, and those he encapsulates in a few short lines. Why, for example, is his summary of the October rebellion so terse? Compared to his lengthy fulminations against Richard’s extravagance, he tells us remarkably little about who was involved and how it was organised. Anonymous persons are described as desiring redress for unnamed grievances. The Duke of Buckingham places himself at their head. Then a rumour arises that Edward V and his brother are dead. Then the rebels replace Buckingham with Henry Tudor. Voilà tout.

We may deduce that the writer’s laconic report is intended to distance himself from association with either side, given that the chronicle he is writing is supposed to recount events at Crowland Abbey, not the politics of the secular world. However, at the end of this very passage he lets slip that in the run-up to the uprising, Buckingham sent a message to Tudor on the advice of John Morton, Bishop of Ely.

Now, how did our chronicler discover that little titbit? Either he was involved in the rebellion itself, or he was close enough to the victorious Tudor party to learn this information within a few months of their takeover. Whatever the answer, it seems that by the time he wrote his celebrated continuation, the Crowland chronicler was in bed not only with the Woodvilles but also with the Tudor régime.

When we look at Polydore Vergil, writing for the court and with his sources limited to Tudor supporters, the gloss of the ruling party is everywhere. However, some of his informants are less canny than others and have forgotten some details of the authorized version. Thus we get occasional non sequiturs and conflicting accounts, e.g. whether it was really Buckingham’s idea or Margaret Beaufort’s for Henry Tudor to marry Elizabeth of York.

To introduce a wild card in this brief discussion of sources I would also include Sir George Buck. His History of Richard III has been too often dismissed – with good reason, admittedly, in the bowdlerized version published by his nephew – but with far less excuse now that we have to hand the scholarly edition of Arthur Kincaid which comprehensively restores Sir George’s original text. For a glimpse of what was being said by informed persons after the Tudors were safely dead and buried, and after enlightening documents had been unearthed by the industrious antiquaries of the day, Buck’s work is a breath of fresh air. In particular, no one seeking to write about Henry VII can lay claim to credibility without consulting Buck.

To conclude, I trust it will be noticed that the name of Thomas More does not feature among my sources. It never ceases to surprise me that More’s fanciful tales are still allowed to muddy the waters of serious research, and I hope any readers interested enough to buy or borrow my book will remark how differently the events of 1483 to 1485 unfold without More’s baleful influence.

In this respect there is again a treasure-trove of information in Sir George Buck, who like Horace Walpole spares no pains in branding More as unbelievable. Of even greater interest is the fact, well known to Buck and his antiquarian friends, that a self-serving tract written by Cardinal Archbishop John Morton gave rise to Thomas More’s History. This tract, hostile to Richard, was in circulation among the antiquarian brotherhood and was denounced in writing by Sir William Cornwallis as well as by Buck. It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots . . . yet how many historians slavishly quote More without acknowledging whence his scurrilous stories emanated?

This is why I strongly recommend returning to the original sources and reading them afresh. There’s a lot to be found by an enquiring researcher even today.

© Annette Carson

* Richard III: The Maligned King is an analysis of events during the reign of Richard III and is published by The History Press (formerly Sutton Publishing).