Herodotus, the father of the study of history, once said that the study of history was used “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples.”(Herodotus, 41). As we study the past, we tend to make our own opinions about what we study and the people who made these “achievements” possible. Unfortunately, there is a trend within the study of history of making historical figures look either perfect (whitewashing) or pure evil (what I will refer to as blackening). So since these are trends in history, are they good or bad?
There are those in Tudor history who have been either whitewashed or blackened throughout time; Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I, Elizabeth I, and the most famous example of this is Richard III. We will use Richard III as an example on how “white washing” and “blackening” works.
A lot of people nowadays, specifically the Richard III Society, believe that Richard III had his name tarnished by men like Thomas More and Edward Hall. Thomas More is labeled as the man who ruined Richard’s reputation by stating that Richard was “malicious, wrathful, envious, and from afore his birth, ever forward”( Sylvester, 8). However, More was not the only one who blackened Richard’s name as we see with a quote from Hall:
Behold yonder Richard, tyrant worse than Nero, for he has not only murdered his nephew, bastardized his noble brothers and defamed the womb of his virtuous mother, but also employed all the means he could invent to carnally know his own niece under the pretence of a cloaked matrimony….(Dockray, 139).
If you read both of these accounts, you can see where the Richard III Society is coming from, yet they argue for a more whitewashed version of Richard III, that he was a victim of propaganda against him. They acknowledge the virtues and ignore the faults; the Tudor historians, it can be argued, do the exact opposite. So where’s the truth? I believe that a contemporary of Horace Walpole named William Hutton, an English poet and historian puts this discussion of Richard’s character into perspective:
Richard the Third, of all the English monarchs, bears the greatest contrariety of character….Some few have conferred on him almost angelic excellence, have clouded his errors and blazoned every virtue that could adorn a man. Others, as if only extremes could prevail, present him in the blackest dye; his thoughts were evil, and that continually, and his actions diabolical; the most degraded mind inhabited the most deformed body… (Dockray, 149).
Hutton is pointing out that Richard is either all good or all bad, according historians. This seems to be a common theme with historians about any historical figure. Henry VII is either described by Polydore Vergil in his book “Angelica Historia” as “shrewd and prudent”(Ellis, 226) or as Jack Lander writes, “an inexperienced political adventurer; an almost pathetic, rootless exile, in whom the powerful and rich could repose little, if any, confidence.”(Dockray, 176).
And it’s not just these two figures in Tudor history that are seen as being either “white washed” or “blackened”. Henry VIII is viewed as the king who had six wives and the king who split from the Catholic Church, but we don’t see his intellectual side. Mary I is known as “Bloody Mary” for burning Protestants, but we never really understand why she was so strong in her faith. We think of Elizabeth I as a glorious virgin ruler but we forget about how cruel she could be towards those who were around her. Thomas “The Admiral” Seymour is viewed as a villain who only wanted power, but is there more to his story?
These were complex people and yet we see them through either a “white washed” or “blackened” lense. This is the danger of this movement. We don’t see these people as “human” but rather almost like fictional heroes or villains. That’s just the thing. We have to realize that these people were humans and that they were flawed. They have elements of both good and evil inside of them. No one is perfect, yet we tend to think of historical figures at perfect.
As historians, amateur or professional, we have a responsibility to show both sides of a historical figure, the good and the bad. Sure we all have our favorite people to study in history and we want to think the best about them but we also have to tell the truth about them. What’s the point about studying the past if we only report about one side of the story? We read about our favorite people from multiple historians and multiple sources to find out what they were really like.
We don’t want others to label us so why do we label historical figures? We are humans, just like the kings and queens of the past, so why can’t we see their vices and virtues? Why do we “whitewash” or “blacken” human beings who lived hundreds of years ago?
If we “whitewash” or “blacken” a historical figure, we don’t get to see what made them who they are. We don’t see both the mistakes and the triumphs; we only see one or the other. “Whitewashing” and “blackening” history are ideas that should be avoided because we don’t see the full story of the people who came before us. If we let these ideas continue, we lose part of history. We have to tell both sides, the good and the bad because that is what makes us human. We are not perfect and neither were those who came before us.
Dockray, Keith. William Shakespeare, the Wars of the Roses and the Historians. Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing INC, 2002.
Ellis, Sir Henry. Three Books of Polydre Vergil’s English History, Compromising the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. London: Camden Society, 1844.
Herodotus. Herodotus: The Histories. New York: Penguin, 1954.
Sylvester, Richard S. St. Thomas More: The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems. London: Yale University Press, 1976.