Britishness, Culture, History, Medieval, Quote of the Day

“My Kingdom for a Horse!”

File:Richard III earliest surviving portrait.jpgThose are the last words spoken by Shakespeare’s villainous King Richard III, as he desperately dashed about Bosworth Field, just before being hacked to smithereens by by the opposition–the soldiers of Henry Tudor–after which (IRL, now) Richard’s naked body was thrown across a horse (presumably not his own) and taken to Leicester, where he was summarily buried and–at the hands of his successors and their court press–vilified forever as the evil hunchback king who’d murdered his heir-apparent nephews in the Tower.

Poor guy.


I’ve always had rather a soft spot for Richard and for the White Rose of York, vice Henry and the Red Rose of Lancaster. Henry’s claim to the throne was –as a favorite college professor of mine (not the one I married) was wont to say, “hardly all wool and a yard wide.”  The grandchild of Catherine of Valois (Henry V’s Queen Consort) via her affair with Owen Tudor, Henry was–as the child of an illegitimate father, not a legitimate heir.  Perhaps he earned his birthright a little more honestly on his mother’s side (she being Lady Margaret Beaufort who–at the age of 13 was seven months pregnant with Henry when her husband died–was descended from Edward III’s son John of Gaunt (although there was a bit of wrong-side-of-the-blanket/barred-from-inheriting-the-throne shenanigans there, too.

So really, color of the Roses aside, Richard (actual brother of King Edward IV) had by far the better claim.  “Not a joke” (as Joe Biden might say).

I think I come by my opinions about Richard and Henry honestly, most likely from my Dad who, when I was quite young, gave me The Daughter of Time to read.  It’s sort of the anti-Shakespeare story of Richard III, framed in the guise of a 20th century detective novel.  Highly recommended, if you’re a fan of that period of English history.

Later on, during the efflorescence of my adolescence, I became interested in historical novels, some of them of the sort that I call “tasteful bodice-rippers.”  What I mean by that is that–romance and the occasional heaving bosom aside–pride of place must be given to excellence in writing and attention to historical detail.  So I’m happy to recommend a couple of books that some of you may find too “girly” for your taste, but which I assure you are worth a read:

First, We Speak No Treason, by Rosemary Hawley Jarman.  This was the first book of this sort that I read, and finding it in its original form today is a bit problematic, as somewhere along the way it went out of print, and then came back in two volumes, perhaps abridged.  The one I first read is this one, somewhere between 650 and 700 pages, and just one volume.  It’s a sympathetic portrait of Richard and tells the story of a thwarted romance.

Next, Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, her novel about the life and last days of Richard III.

Both of these books are sympathetic portraits told from a fictional perspective.  Both are excellent.  There are tons of others, expressing points of view from all sides.  You’re welcome to weigh in with favorites or most-loathed.  Have at it.

Additionally, Matthew Lewis’s biography of Richard, Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me, appeals to me for two reasons.  First, Lewis grew up in the West Midlands (as did Rosemary Hawley Jarman), my neck of the English woods.  Second, the phrase “Loyalty Binds Me” (Loyauté M’Oblige) was Dad’s regimental motto. (It was that of the North Lancashire–not York–regiment.  Go figure.)  And it was a commandment that Dad lived every day of his life.  Lewis’s book is also a very good read.

I guess my first exposure to Richard III came–as so much of English history did to generations of English children, via the nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
For want of a kingdom, the King lost his head.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

A little research on this topic leads one down all sorts of rabbit holes, including the fact that the poem may pre-date the Battle of Bosworth Field in all sorts of interesting ways by one or two centuries.  And yet, Shakespeare seems to have so closely associated the loss of the horse with the loss of the kingdom that it’s been associated with Richard for hundreds more.

Simultaneously (and perhaps even at the same time), I was enjoying the poems of Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon in Kings and Queens (clearly, E&HF had not absorbed the RWKJ perspective on the Plantagenet/Tudor scrum):

Crookback Dick
Had Nephews two,
Younger than me,
Older than you

. . .

Crookback Dick,
He longed for power,
So he smothered his nephews
In the Tower.

Over five-hundred years later, we’re still looking for the evidence that actually happened.

Meanwhile, poor Richard.  Hacked to bits on the battlefield and buried in ignominy.


Ten years ago, an archeological excavation led by the University of Leicester discovered the skeleton of a man under a parking lot which–centuries ago–had been the graveyard of Leicester’s Greyfriars Church.  The man showed clear signs of scoliosis, a spinal malformation that some might refer to as “hunchback.”  Additonally, the man had been severely beaten, especially about the head and neck, with substantial weapons of the medieval “halberd” sort.  Other injuries appeared to be post-mortem, of the “humiliation” sort.

Got it.

Subsequent genetic testing confirmed that these were indeed the bones of Richard III, a feat of scientific exploration encompassing 20 generations and resulting in the oldest-known DNA identification case on record.

On March 26, 2015, not quite 530 years after his death, what was left of Richard III was interred in Leicester Cathedral in front of 200 members of the public who’d put their names into a drawing.  The Queen (who didn’t attend) sent a message saying that she recognized the “great national and international significance” of Richard’s reburial, and that “today, we recognise a king who lived through turbulent times and whose Christian faith sustained him in life and death.”

Count me among those who wish he could have come home to burial in York.

Richard III, one of the most consequential monarchs in British monarchical history, died 537 years ago, on August 22, 1485.

He was just 32 years old.

4 thoughts on ““My Kingdom for a Horse!””

  1. I too have long thought Richard had the raw deal. But then I’ve never been terribly fond of the Tudors for a variety of reasons.

    1. Well, there certainly are (is?) a variety of reasons not to be terribly fond of the Tudors! The absolutely unforgivable hell and destruction rained by Henry VIII on monasteries and religious buildings of any sort is just one of them. A visit to Worcester Cathedral is most worthwhile, not only because it’s big enough to have all the “cathedral-y” features while still being human enough of scale that its design can be comprehended end-to-end, but also because it houses “Prince Arthur’s Chantry,” the tomb of Henry’s older brother. Because of this, Worcester Cathedral was spared many of the depredations of other religious sites, and thus contains many features that have survived almost nowhere else in England.

      Worcester Cathedral also has an excellent library of Medieval manuscripts if that’s a thing of interest, and tours can be arranged.

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