The Wicked Uncle

3D front cover of Richard III His Life and Character Reviewed in the Light of Recent Research by Clements R. Markham… otherwise known as the King in the Car Park. The extraordinary discovery and identifying of the bones of King Richard III in a Leicester car park has been much (and deservedly) in the news since 2012, and an on-going dispute about where the king should be re-interred is proceeding in a stately way through the courts.

I very much doubt if I was the only teenager who was driven to a sense of burning injustice on behalf of the last Plantagenet king by reading Josephine Tey’s excellent detective novel, The Daughter of Time. Various of its arguments have since been undermined by contemporary evidence coming to light which was not available when Miss Tey was writing. In particular, one of the supposed clinchers – the record showing that Sir James Tyrrell, Richard’s alleged chosen assassin, was given absolute pardons by Henry VII in two successive months (the assumption having been that ‘a deed without a name’ had been committed between the two) – is at least as likely to have arisen from a scribal copying error as from a cover-up. But it still produces plenty of arguments for a ‘not proven’ verdict, were such a thing possible in English law. (And I believe that two mock-trials in the 1980–90s acquitted the king, because he couldn’t be proved guilty on the available evidence.)

I haven’t read The Daughter of Time for years, but I especially remember Brent Carradine, the research side-kick (an American student who hopes to write the whole thing up as a scholarly but sensational book) discovering that hundreds have people have known for ages that the Princes in the Tower were NOT murdered by their ‘wicked uncle’.

One of these hundreds of people was Sir Clements Markham (1830–1916). We know him as an explorer, historian and geographer, especially of South America and of the Arctic, and as the energetic force behind the Royal Geographical Society and the Hakluyt Society for many years. In particular, he was instrumental in preparing the way for Scott’s expedition to the Arctic of 1901–4 (coming soon!).

It appears that Markham had always been interested in the life of Richard III, and was particularly exercised by James Gairdner’s 1878 biography of the king (revised in 1898). He first circulated some of his own research among fellow historians, and was sufficiently encouraged by their guarded approval to offer the book to the world. (This is how he puts it in the preface, though the forceful character observed by others would probably have needed little such encouragement.)

The book is divided into two parts, of which the first is a straightforward biography of the king; the second examines the various accusations against him. Chapter 6 of Part II is an attempted hatchet job on Gairdner: how can this scholar, ‘beyond comparison, the best informed author that has ever treated of this part of history’, claim to be fair and just in his assessment of the king while at the same time using ‘tradition’ (which Markham regularly describes as ‘the Tudor caricature’, a carefully crafted and remarkably successful piece of propaganda) as part of his evidential base?

Indeed, he asks, when Gairdner is at pains to demonstrate King Richard’s good points – ‘the excellence of his government and the generosity of his character’ – how can he then, without explanation, also refer to him as ‘usurper’, ‘tyrant’, and ‘inhuman King’? I came across this character reference for Richard the other day in the ODNB: ‘God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all’. This is from Thomas Langton, whose election as archbishop of Canterbury had just been secured by Henry VII when he died of the plague in 1501.

Even better known is the record of the City of York, about the battle of Bosworth: ‘on this day was our good king Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of the city’. What the good folk of Leicester thought about it all has not been recorded. It will be interesting to see how the arguments develop about the king’s final resting place, but sentiment is surely on the side of York.


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3 Responses to The Wicked Uncle

  1. Mike O'Shea says:

    Niice article. I especially liked the title as that is the name of our company. I too have read the Daughter of Time and a few besides. Handy man with a battle axe and of fine moral character no doubt, but reasons of state and 40 years of civil war so far, might have persuaded him to immoral action re the princes. Of course this is probably the one thing on which both Richard and Henry would agree. I doubt they would have survivied Henry Tudor’s early reign either. Mike

  2. Hi Mike, thanks for your comment: I don’t think this argument will ever be resolved, but you’re absolutely right about Henry VII’s method of dealing with perceived threats, real or imaginary. I love your website – I shall have to find some children to buy presents for!

    Best, Caroline

  3. Pingback: ‘The First and Greatest of English Geographers’ | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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