Sir Thomas More and His Controversial History

When we think of Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, most of us will first think of Sir Thomas More and his “The History of King Richard III”. It is probably one of the most controversial sources about the Wars of the Roses out there and yet historians still use it. The question is why is there such an attraction to this book and why did Thomas More write it? It is my hope with this article to shed some light on this book, on More and what his possible intentions were when he wrote this book. I will be breaking this article into two parts; who Sir Thomas More was and what the book says. It is important to understand More’s background if we are to have any hope in understanding “The History of  King Richard III”. I will only be writing about More’s life up until the time he wrote this book because his later life under Henry VIII and his execution really do not explain the purpose of why More wrote this book.

Sir Thomas More: The Man

So who was Sir Thomas More and why should he matter? Robert Whittington in 1520 says:

More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? As time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of  as sad gravity; a man for all season. (Murphy, 1)

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478 (Ackroyd, 6) to John More and Agnes Graunger. More’s childhood saw the transition from Edward IV as king  to Richard III and finally to Henry VII. He attended school for a while at St. Anthony’s and then went on to become a page for John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, a man that More deeply admired and who would appear in his History as a wise man. ( Ackroyd, 35)

After working for John Morton, More studied for a little bit at Oxford University. It was at Oxford where he was able to engage in humanism which is studying classic literature through the study of  the languages of antiquity and once that was mastered, using rhetoric to debate certain topics. (Johnson, 34-35) Humanism would come to shape the writings of More and his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, who’s translation of the New Testament would go against the Vulgate, questioning the authority of the papacy, and influence those like Luther, even those Erasmus was a devout Catholic. ( Elton, 113). To put it another way, “Humanists were concerned with integrating, not separating, the human and the Christian.” (Murphy, 7)

More left Oxford without obtaining a degree and went to New Inn and later he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in London in 1496. Inns were not what we considered inns today; they were where men who interested in law went to study. ( Ackroyd, 53). He was sixteen at the time. Peter Ackroyd explains how More was able to balance both his religious studies with his study of law:

Religion and law were not to be considered separately; they implied one another. That is why law was considered to be perfect in itself, undamaged by the bad judgments of individual practitioners; the same argument, on the merits of the Mass as opposed to the virtue of the priest who offered it, was at the heart of Catholic eucharistic belief. That is why the law was also considered to permanent; it was what was known to be true, withstanding change or decay. (Ackroyd, 63).

This must be understood in order to understand More. To him, using religious terms to describe political events was just another part of daily life. Another part of his daily life was his family; in 1505, he married Jane Colt and they had four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily, and John.(Murphy, vii). Four years later, in 1509, Henry VIII became king of England and in 1510, More was made Under- Sheriff of London and was elected into Parliament. (Murphy, vii). Three years later, More wrote his “The History of King Richard III”, but he never finished it. (More, 3).  

More’s “The History of King Richard III”

Many argue that More wrote his “ The History of King Richard III” for propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, especially for Henry VII, however Ackroyd points out something very interesting about their relationship:

It has often been suggested that, at a later date, More professed hostility towards the financial exactions which Henry VII tried to levy upon London. There is no evidence of any open dispute but certainly, at the time of the accession of his so, More composed a sharp attack upon the dead king. (Ackroyd, 84)

If this is the case then what was More’s intentions in writing this book? Before we try to  answer that question, we have to explore the text itself.

“The History of King Richard III” by Sir Thomas More is roughly less than a hundred pages in length. Relatively short for such a controversial text. It should be noted that this text is considered a “history” in the loosest possible sense. In fact, More wasn’t using recent histories from his time to formulate his own history, but being the humanist that he was,  he used histories from Sallust and Tacitus as examples. ( Ackroyd, 161). Another difference from a typical history is that More relies on oral sources for his history. ( Ackroyd, 161). Anyone who studies history knows that oral sources are not always the most reliable source because words can be misconstrued.

More doesn’t start his history of Richard III with say his birth; instead he starts his book with the death of Edward IV. He describes Edward as  “a goodly personage, and very princely to be hold: of heart courageous…” (More, 4). More then goes on to describe the protector of Edward’s children, Richard III, obviously starting with his physical appearances first (More, 8) and then describes who he was as:

…Close and secret, a deep dissimuler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of the heart, outwardly coumpinable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill; dispiteous and cruel, not for evil will alway, but often for ambition…. Friend and foe was ,such what indifferent….(More, 9)

Not the most courteous way to describe the brother of a king who would be a king himself, but as Sylvester notes, it is not because Richard was a Yorkist king but because he was a “dissimulating tyrant”(More, xv). Now Richard was not Edward’s choice as protector, in fact it was the Queen’s brother Sir Anthony Woodville, “a right honorable man, as valiant of hand as politic in counsel”(More, 15). However, Richard did not like this suggestion and so he had Lord Rivers and his men sent to prison and then later beheaded for “treason”. (More, 21).

Of course in Sir Thomas More’s book, there are no dates, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when these events exactly happened or if they happened at all, including the speeches that More included such as those of the Duke of Buckingham who is trying to convince the former Queen Elizabeth Woodville to hand over her other son to Richard.( More, 29-33). Likewise when Elizabeth refuses to give up her son (More, 35-39) and then later when she reluctantly agrees to do so (More, 41-42). These are very iconic speeches in this book that are full of passion and heartbreak.

So why would More included these either factual or fictitious speeches? Peter Ackroyd gives us an interesting insight into that question:

It is significant, too, that the most elaborate passages of More’s narrative are conceived as speeches; the merits of sanctuary for the royal children are the subject of long debate, for example, while the right of Richard to be king is explained in a number of orations. ‘The History of Richard III’ can be understood, then, as a lesson in the arts of disputation and rhetorical debate similar to those in which More engaged as a schoolboy and a scholar….In his grammatical work More was instructing those who might well be chosen to administer the government of the state: grammar was part of rhetoric, and rhetoric was part of public duty. (Ackroyd, 162-163).

This book is not just a “history” but it is also a lesson in rhetoric for those in government. More may have been a fan of reading history, but his true love was humanism and government, in which rhetoric and grammar were immensely important. It is that love of humanism and government that we see throughout the entire book.

More goes on with Richard’s case on why he should be king. After Richard gets rid of his traitorous former friend Lord Hastings (More, 49-54), he moves on to the important part of his argument; that his brother Edward was already married to a Mistress Shore before he married Elizabeth Woodville.(More, 55-58). Since his brother was already married, that meant that any children that he had with Elizabeth Woodville would be considered bastards, including the young king Edward V. This was damning enough but Richard wanted to make sure that it had legal backing he made a document, that declared the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville bastards. (More, 60-61). Richard also asks for Dr. Shaa to preach a sermon against Edward’s children with Elizabeth and the Duke of Buckingham giving his speech on how great Richard is (More, 70-76). This leads to the epic conclusion where Richard “reluctantly” takes the throne since he is the obvious choice to take crown since his brother’s heirs were declared bastards. Richard III has become King of England.

But there is one more piece to the puzzle. What happened to the young king and his brother? More leaves us questioning what happened to them because he speaks of rumors of  John Green, Sir Robert Brackenbury, the Constable of the Tower, Sir James Tyrell and John Dighton being ordered by Richard III to kill the brothers.(More, 85-90). One has to wonder if this is a credible theory or just rhetoric since More only heard this theory and the fact that there is no written evidence. More does not go into any more detail about this and “ends” the book with Bishop Morton trying to convince Richard III to lead the country with wisdom. (Ackroyd, 35). This is a very unusual ending for someone who is supposed to be writing the book as propaganda for the Tudor dynasty.

Conclusion

So knowing that More was writing this as more of an exercise on humanism and did not finish this book, how should we approach “The History of King Richard III”? I don’t believe that we should merely toss it out. It was not propaganda for the Tudor dynasty since it was written in 1513, before More’s political career really took off. The speeches can be seen as examples of rhetoric. There are some historical facts like the death of Lord Hastings and Lord Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville handing over her son to Richard, and legal document as well as Dr. Shaa’s sermon. Those match up with other sources. As for Mistress Shore and the murder of the princes of the tower, it’s a bit harder to prove since we do not have actual paper evidence to support either theory.

Overall I think More’s history should be understood as a take on history from a humanistic lens. It’s an important piece to read because some of the facts in this piece are in fact true and it gives us an interesting view into what a Tudor scholar thought about those who came immediately before the Tudors. “The History of King Richard III” by Sir Thomas More is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in the Wars of the Roses, a darker view on Richard III, or on how humanism could be applied in a written sense. I  highly recommend that you read this book.

Want to Learn More about More? (Sources)

Ackroyd, Peter, and Diarmaid MacCulloch. The Life of Thomas More. London: Folio Society, 2017.

Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors. London: Methuen, 1956.

Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. Bridgewater, NJ: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2008.

More, Thomas. The History of King Richard III. Edited by Richard S. Sylvester. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Murphy, Anne. Thomas More. Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1997.

 

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