It happened today - August 22, 2015

Richard IIIAugust 22 was a very bad day for Richard III. He died. That was at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485. And I’m still steamed about it.

It might seem eccentric to be angry about something over 500 years in the past. But when I teach university history I tell my students that my goal is to get them passionate about past controversies too. I generally say we’ll start with things 50 or 60 years old, so they don’t remember them and the specific issues are no longer current, and take it from there. But my general point is that if events in the past no longer matter, if the things people thought worth standing up for and possibly dying for are now merely antiquarian, then nothing we care about today is really important either.

Disregard of the past is just another form of moral relativism, of saying that what was “true” and “right” in 1485 has no connection with what is “true” or “right” today, that values are not eternal and transcendent. Either Richard III deserved to keep his crown in 1485 or he did not, in 1485 and today.

Now I grant that the prospects of restoring the House of York are poor at this point regardless of how you end up feeling on this question. There was some revival of interest in poor Richard a few years back when they found his bones in an unmarked grave under a car park and gave them a proper burial. But most of it was fairly generic, though there was spirited debate about where to put his remains given that he was a king which argued for Westminster Cathedral, Catholic which argued for a Catholic Cathedral, and from the House of York and had personally wanted to be interred in York Cathedral. But ultimately he was put in Leicester Cathedral and given a Christian but non-sectarian service of remembrance on the theory that he’d have had a funeral service when first buried. Bland, but prudent, I think.

I know some people who are fierce partisans of Richard III because it was his defeat by the upstart usurper Henry VII that led, under Henry’s six-wived son Henry VIII, to England’s break with Rome. It is disconcerting to realize, given the strong association of the Anglosphere with Protestantism from the 16th century on, that Robin Hood would have been Catholic. But so it was.

It might seem that the break with Rome was highly desirable, leading to the characteristically moderate and pragmatic British conclusion that despite having a state religion, men and women should be free to worship as they see fit. But it is worth noting that it took centuries for English Protestantism to develop into a genuinely tolerant faith that shortly collapsed into indifference, whereas English Catholicism always had this curious feature of being openly defiant of the secular power of the Pope, from before King John down to Henry VIII. Who was, I might add, a singularly obnoxious and scary monarch not given to religious toleration.

On the other hand, as far as I can tell, Richard was a pretty good king who did not murder his nephews (on this I strongly recommend Josephine Tay’s historical novel The Daughter of Time), while the Tudors were scary and lawless people only the last of whom, Elizabeth, was any good. She was in fact great, which goes some way to redeem the whole dynasty. But even the half-Tudor Stuarts who succeeded when Elizabeth died without heirs were a lot more trouble than they were worth.

I feel that it would have been better for England had Richard retained his throne. What’s more, I don’t see that Henry Tudor had any legitimate dynastic or constitutional claim to it, and I just can’t support a bloody, illegitimate seizure of power.

Even five centuries later.