Artist Emma Vieceli
This book is a little gem. Written by the late Vivien Beatrix Lamb and first published in 1959 it’s no surprise that it’s still in print and a new edition available from The Richard III Society online shop with an introduction and notes by Peter Hammond. I first bought my copy over 45 years ago when I was happy to discover it as there was then rather a dearth of Ricardian books. Some very good books have been written since then but this little book, 127 pages, remains among my favourites. Jogging along nicely with the most pertinent points of Richard’s reign succinctly and vividly covered, it could also be a useful aide-mémoire for those seeking to refresh their memories on certain points.
The author dedicated her book to Sir Francis Bacon, which contains several quotes from Bacon’s eloquent pen. The foreward tells the reader the purpose of the book is ‘to examine very briefly the foundations on which one of the most famous legends in English history has been written’ and it’s refreshing to read, in a time when the consensus of opinion seems to have been that Richard was a bad man, that ‘the evidence is so flimsy and of a suspect nature that a modern jury, would, I think rightly consider that there is no case to answer to’
Making a beginning with Henry VI, who after a ‘long and disturbed minority had grown in a saintly but feeble witted man quite unfitted to rule a turbulent kingdom’ and who remarked upon the birth of his son Edward, ‘that this must have been through the agency of the Holy Ghost’ Mrs Lamb opines that however pleasing such divine intervention might have been to the saintly king, it was ‘hardly calculated to inspire confidence in his subjects’.
The author then moves on to Edward IV. Edward took the throne, aged just 19, after his father’s death at Wakefield when it ‘seemed the White Rose of York had withered past revival’ and is described as ‘a leader of men and a lover of women’ who was also when he ‘chose to exert himself, a brilliant commander and a shrewd man of business’.
Edward’s calamitous Woodville ‘marriage’ is described as ‘a rather furtive little May-day ceremony which doomed his dynasty and his whole family to extinction’ and ‘an act of supreme folly that cast a shadow over the bright future of York which was never to lift until it swallowed up the glory on an August day at Bosworth twenty one years later. Edward’s reign with its ups and downs is well covered until his sudden death in 1483 culminated in ‘an outbreak of feverish activity by the Queen and her family’. The results of all this are skilfully described, including the dramatic climax in the council chamber at the Tower of London on the 13th June. The Talbot pre-contract, i.e. marriage, is covered and mention of the letter written by Cicely Neville to her son, Edward, imploring him not to commit ‘the sin of bigamy’(More). The author observes with regard to the sudden and unexpected revelation of pre-contract : ‘Richard’s behaviour up to the middle of June is inconsistent with his having any knowledge of the story true or false. His actions are those of a man who has been committed to a certain course of action and his plans are suddenly and violently upset’.
Richard’s accession to the throne appeared to have been met by the common people with ‘equanimity’, while ‘his actions showed that he was determined to justify his acceptance of the crown by the exercise of mercy and justice. Unfortunately he had to deal with too many who did not know the meaning of either word.’ However whispers that the lives of Edward’s sons were in danger begun swirling around encouraged by the Woodville bloc and those who still secretly favoured the house of Lancaster ‘reviving the hopes so precariously based on the slender claim of Henry Tudor’.
The book now moves on to the crux of the matter: Richard leaving London too soon before consolidating his position there, his joyous welcome from the people of York, and then Buckingham’s ‘astounding’ and ‘still unexplained change of allegiance’. Buckingham’s incompetence plus the flooding of the River Severn proved his undoing, a fleeting respite in the betrayal of Richard. Personal tragedy was soon to follow with the deaths of his son and wife followed by the appalling betrayal of Bosworth.
The author does not mince her words with who was to blame for that betrayal and the reader will need no reminding of the duplicity of the Stanleys and Margaret Beaufort. Mrs Lamb wrote ‘Entirely faithful himself he was unable to recognise treachery in others or to deal with it with sufficient ruthlessness when it became obvious. His leniency towards traitors was both remarkable and fatal. It cost him his crown, his life and his reputation’
The book continues with the aftermath of Richard’s death and the problems besetting Henry VII such Titulus Regius, and various Pretenders to the throne. Thus a new legend had to be born out of necessity. Mrs Lamb has devoted several chapters to this legend and ultimate betrayal of the dead king, including the story of Perkin Warbeck claiming to be Richard, the youngest son of Edward, whose arrival was greeted with ‘…intense excitement. In Bacon’s vivid words the news that the real Duke of York was about to claim his inheritance come ‘blazing and thundering over into England’. The supposed murders in the Tower went by the board showing that they had never been seriously believed and that the people were too ready to discard a story which had never been proved…’
However the Pretenders were seen off and in 1541 with the execution of the aged Countess of Salisbury the last of the Plantagenets had been annihilated. Part of the summary of the book reads: For all practical purposes the Tudors had now succeeded in their aim to exterminate the family whose throne they had usurped. Compared to their record Richard’s supposed crimes pale into insignificance. Richard has gone down to history as a monster while the Tudors, father and son, are looked on, the one as dull and miserly but respectable and the other as Bluff King Hal, uncomfortable as a husband certainly but otherwise not a bad sort’. This especially applies to Henry VII who even today is perceived by some as ‘the gallant young hero destined by divine Providence to save England from the grip of the bloody tyrant Richard whose every action is attributed to basic motives’.
However the author points out ‘Security was something which neither Henry nor any of his immediate descendants ever enjoyed in their hearts. They all suffered in some degree from the inferiority complex of the parvenu who knows that someone else is the rightful possessor of the position which he enjoys and this sense of insecurity lies behind all the horrifying cruelties of the Tudor rule and also explains the unrelenting hatred with which successive Tudors continued to pursue the memory of the last king of the house which they had supplanted till the monstrous distortion of a man which Henry had invented and fostered become generally accepted.’
The enigma of the missing princes is discussed in depth. It’s uplifting to hear that the author believed they were quite likely moved to a place of safety which would have been in keeping with Richard’s honourable reputation – for had not Edward IV felt no hesitation in ‘committing the safety of his wife and children and the welfare of his country’ to his brother? This makes a refreshing change from the old and boring chestnut of who was responsible for their ‘murders’ when there is no evidence they were actually murdered. To this end Tyrell’s role in the story is analysed as is his ‘confession’.
Since this book was written in the 1950s it’s now happily commonplace for more balanced and enlightened views of Richard although sadly the tragic ending doesn’t change. Although its dispiriting that some historians and authors still give credence to the hearsay of Sir Thomas More and others of his ilk I’m sure the author of The Betrayal of Richard III would be enormously pleased with the great progress that has been made in clearing Richard’s name. Bravo Mrs V B Lamb!
19th century etching of the Battle of Bosworth. Artist unknown.