One thing I find interesting about the Richard III Society is that (in their collective worldview at least) they seem to fundamentally agree with Shakespeare’s model of the medieval state. They might inveigh against his propagandising, but they still accept what his play asserts, that medieval politics is about characters. Personalities and relationships is what creates the history. Policy, governance, the institutions of parliament and monarchy are props to this process.
I guess this is why their missions are important. If you believe that an accurate picture of late fifteenth century politics relies on being bang on about personal qualities, then you will think it’s vital to do things like “rehabilitate” someone, defend them against defamatory propaganda and accusations of political murder. This personality-based approach is probably reinforced by Starkey et al, Tudorists who spend quite a lot of time on personalities for reasons of their own. It’s often Tudor historians who give us any glimpse we get of medieval history in the media. I don’t know why this should be, although if Monday night’s Richard documentary is anything to go by, we sure are suffering for the absence of proper medievalists.
Some people are opposed to the idea of history as a narrative of kings. I’m not, but just as there is cock-eyed posturing and sober analysis in modern political writing, so there are better and worse ways of writing political history. A sober political account of the fifteenth century is likely to deal with things like relations between the king and parliament, the role of counsel in executive decisions, the reaction of localities to political change at the top – as well as the will of the king. The questions Rosemary Horrox asks, as far as I remember, are how the hell Richard reconciled the nobility to his usurpation, who were his supporters, how did he pursue his legislative agenda, and how did he see the whole exercise panning out for the house of York (given that he obviously didn’t intend to get killed)? It is, in short, possible to discuss much of Richard’s reign and legislative agenda without giving a damn whether he was responsible for one particular political murder or not. It’s certainly possible – for goodness’ sake – to discuss all these things without giving a damn whether he had a spinal deformity or not (touchingly written about here, by the way). I found the resistance of some Ricardians on the programme to this notion frankly chilling.
Yet the Richard III Society is neither wrong nor controversial about a lot of things, and it’s slightly straw mannish of them to affect otherwise. For instance, the idea that medieval and post-medieval kings used propaganda – against their predecessors, their nobles, their rivals, enemy states, literally their own mothers – is widely acknowledged. So we have a combination of totally uncontroversial assertions with an elusive underlying wrongness in approach. And what may be presented as a battle between orthodoxy and revisionism actually seems to be a conversation at cross-purposes. I wonder if the same is basically true of all (for want of a more accurate term) conspiracy history?