This is a short story I wrote for the first booksigning of my debut novel, The Rose of York: Love & War, born of my belief at the time that Richard’s bones had been thrown into the River Soar and also my deep sense that Richard III cared what we here on earth thought of him. I’ve kept it close to me for many years, but perhaps the time has come to let it go. Thanks to Philippa Langley and the successful archeological team that unearthed King Richard’s body, he will soon have a proper resting place and lay his head on silk.
Requiescat in Pace, Richard III.
So reads novelist Sandra Worth’s introduction to her wonderfully expressive and heart-rending short story, “I, Richard.” Told from the perspective of King Richard III, brutally slain in battle on August 22, 1485, it conveys the deep wounds suffered not only in life, but also those Richard carries after his death. He seeks truth where there seems to be none, and contemplates what a finality may bring.
My examination of the story’s deeper layers began as a review, and slowly united with exploration of its reflection of events and their implications in the lives of the countless people Richard has touched, before and after his death. Many know of his alleged misdeeds; what seems lacking is awareness of how his reign influenced the freedoms we know today.
Recent events have unearthed a new beginning for Richard Plantagenet, known to some only as Richard III, the king who for 500 years has been accused, amongst other crimes, of murdering his two nephews in order to claim the throne of England. His case has been most actively and openly researched since the end of the Tudor dynasty, when it was once more safe to speak other than ill of this dreadfully maligned monarch.
His detractors have upheld the charges against him, many determined also to maintain for him a grotesqueness equal, as the medieval mind would perceive, to the monstrous blackness of his inner being. While these modern-day accusers stand before us claiming to discount this antiquated notion of the physical body as reflection of the soul inside, they have yet to throw off the shackles of this belief themselves. For they repeat the hunchback and other memes as if they were important elements of the indictment to murder.
But what of Richard himself? What would he make of these and the numerous other charges against him that today remain the subject of heated debate not only between scientists and scholars but also writers, professors, students, readers, even bloggers and those participating in social media? Being late, does he simply not care any more? Or does he somehow maintain a presence here amongst the living? And does he simply observe, unable or unwilling to interact? What if he did care?
Sandra Worth, award-winning author of six novels of the Wars of the Roses, explores this territory in “I, Richard.” Opening with a nod toward the inevitable, the hour of death, Richard’s voice speaks of the crumbling of worlds with the passage of time, and disintegration of beings, both the self and those others who might remember him. Devoid of kindred comfort, why, then, is he here?
It is said, of course, that spirits who roam the realm of the living do because they are bound to something in their previous lives that keeps them from advancing to the next. Well known are Richard’s reasons for his unsettlement; perhaps the surprise is he has been at it this long. When one seeks release, however, from an unspeakable mystery and “from which I will not be free until it is revealed[,]” 500 years is a grim reminder that what comes after the end may be much worse than anything one might experience here on earth.
Richard’s end was indeed horrific; following it he must have been shattered to see his body—never mind that of an anointed king, but even simply as a human being—handled in so degrading a manner. We knew already of the awful head trauma and unseemly transport, then lately of the humiliation injuries, perhaps being bound at the wrists and no evidence of a coffin to at least have a last rest in. In our pain and grief over this new and terrible information, we must remind ourselves that Richard knew and had to endure this sight of himself since the day it happened, so achingly long ago.
Who wouldn’t go in search of something different?
[s]ince my death I have traveled many haunts of the living in search of those who sense my grief, and have been heartened not to find myself friendless. When night deepens, I sometimes see a face that regards me with kindness. Hope is born in my breast. I follow them into their dreams. . . .
Richard has not been friendless indeed, and the accounts for how many came to advocate for him might be fascinating reading, not least because some, this writer included, fell into the Ricardian camp somewhat accidentally—that is to say they weren’t looking to take sides, but the sheer injustice, or simply the weight of the absurd made them sit up straight and take greater notice. Truth has a way of alerting people in this manner, and finding those who regard him other than how he last saw people treating him when on earth, must be encouraging, to say the least.
The king is portrayed in a number of studies as having been a kind and considerate individual. This is not to say he was not a product of his time, rather that kindness as we define it in our own era is quite different from what it was acknowledged to be in his. Now we take it for granted that someone accused of a crime, for example, maintains the right to make his defense and ought not to rot inside or have his worldly goods seized without a conviction in place. Surely some citizens of 15th century England approved of this consideration; largely, however, it was a foreign ideal.
This regal man having in life been so concerned with the lot of others, including those far beneath his own station, it then comes as little surprise that he may choose to follow some into their dreams, being aware of the myriad perspectives and limitations of others. Not all respond well to outright apparition. Perhaps still others could withstand watching Richard’s memories because he takes them through the experience, riding whispers on the wind.
Richard tells us, though, of two he has followed that few in his or our own era would find so savory. Remarkably this passage, given its fright factor, seems almost more poetic than any other in the story. Worth brings us to it succinctly utilizing a method that mirrors the deception of fiends, what with her elegant language depicting a revolting seizure, and we leap straight away into a pair of Richard’s after-life memories. We learn of two people who know the answers the king seeks, but their refusal to divulge what they know, even upon seeing him at their bedsides as death waits to escort them home, contributes to the hideousness of their respective ends. As the woman breathes her last, Richard sees the physical manifestation of power that had overtaken her, something that
resembled the incantation of a fiend. An eddy of darkness swirled from her, and in my mind arose the confusing impressions of a vast mental power, of avarice, coldness and malice, and of joy, of triumphant moments—and supreme despair.
A power so terrifyingly vast that it persuades the woman to believe its evil is her joy, and though she is penitent at her end, she steadfastly seals her heart from the truth that would free her from the grips of this darkness. She knows this, makes her choice, and despairs.
Heartbroken, Richard finds this reality discouraging and wonders at the apparent fruitlessness of his sojourns amongst the living. If a woman faced with the blackest of afterlife terrors chooses them rather than confess her knowledge, what hope is there? Some things are best left unsaid, and our king contemplates the imprisonment of eternal wandering, to forcibly witness the ongoing disparagement of his unsettled soul.
It has been aptly noted, however, that there are two sides to every coin, and recent events bring this notion into the fore. We tend to think of spirits as those who do the haunting, yet Richard speaks of “the haunts of the living.” Potentially embracing a number of connotations, the phrase seems to bring special significance to bear also on the results of our own contemplations. This explains the perceived wisdom of letting some issues lie, while they never truly do.
Rescuing Richard’s reputation is not a post-modern invention; people have been questioning the party line—even if in extreme secrecy—since his battered body first fell. These persons, our ancestors, had to endure life with knowledge passed to us that remains in shadows, frightening us with its power and secrecy, much of our fear residing in the realm of the unknown. At least in part it has been a willful haunting, because even after it became safe to speak of the dead king favorably, information is still withheld, defamation continually spread, academics infected with the partisan teaching of successive generations instructed to repeat rather than question.
In the end it may be King Richard himself who restores his own reputation, or at least becomes the significant stimulus that shifts enormous barriers. It was, after all, his own remains that yielded substantial clues, not least the absence of any withered arm. Other indications, noted above, also speak to the self-haunting of Henry Tudor, who required a degradation so extreme it had to commence with a bound corpse tossed into an unremarkable grave. We may never know all the answers, but there seems great hope that Richard’s truth shall set him free.
Update: The author has since removed the short story from her website and until further notice it is no longer available.
Photos of Bosworth Field plaque and Richard III to be replaced.