August 22 is one of those dates that sticks in my head while other, worthier days (family birthdays, say) are consigned to the heap of “Late March, I think – anyway, we should send the card around then.” It’s the day that, 522 years ago, Richard III of England died in battle and was replaced by Henry VII, simultaneously ending Plantagenet rule (and the Wars of the Roses) and beginning a truly monumental historians’ fight over virtually every aspect of his life and works, to wit, that he:
– Killed his nephews (or didn’t) to usurp (or not) his brother Edward IV’s throne
– Killed his wife (or didn’t)
– Helped (or didn’t) to have his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, killed
– Abetted in killing Edward IV’s predecessor, Henry VI
– Planned to marry his niece (or maybe not) who was incidentally the sister of the nephews he may have murdered (or not)
– Miscellaneous other bits of estate theft and legal chicanery.
What makes the whole business so headache-inducing is both the fact that his reputation was deliberately savaged after his death (the usual fate of kings who are the last of their particular house) and the fact that true primary sources for his reign are so scarce, albeit the ones that do exist don’t paint a wildly flattering picture either. It’s probably fair to say that the real Richard, whoever he was and whatever remains of him in the scraps and bits of truly primary material, is gone forever. There are numerous wildly differing versions all fighting for shelf space at bookstores and libraries, trying to say once and for all which of many crimes he did (or didn’t) commit. Societies do more than their bit to keep him and his era alive.
All this is interesting but ultimately infuriating; spend enough (or too much) time reading the arguments back and forth – many of them fantastic towers of speculation – and it begins to seem as if none of the possible answers could be correct. For the record, for those of you who have also waded through this historical swamp, I think he probably did kill his nephews (ultimately self-injurious and stupid? Yes – but the trouble with the jigsaw-puzzle “it doesn’t fit” approach to history is that often people do do things which are incredibly stupid and not to their advantage) and probably didn’t do most of the rest, barring the estate grabs, for which he seems to have had a knack.
But this whole sideshow is by the by. The truly fascinating part, in the “turning points in history” sense, is that at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard, in one of the few actions of his life which isn’t subject to dispute, apparently came within an ace of killing Henry VII; he made a last-ditch charge and managed to kill Henry’s standard-bearer, which meant he must have been within a few yards of the man himself. (Henry himself wasn’t fighting – he wasn’t precisely the stuff of which ballads are made. On the other hand, he lived into his fifties and died in his bed, and it’s hard to argue with results like those). It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Richard had managed to stagger forward about six feet or so further than he did and put an end to Henry.
Henry VII was, of course, father to Henry VIII, who in his quest to beget a son also begat the English Reformation and helped considerably in making the map of the world what it is today. It’s doubtful whether many of us would exist if the religious climate of Europe had been even slightly altered by an English Reformation which did not happen, or happened in a much-altered form; the historical winds that blew our ancestors together (and apart) would have been changed. Even apart from religion, the colonization and subsequent history of the North American continent would likely have gone very differently.
This might be to overspeculate – the “course of history” is changed pretty much every moment, and a lot of apparently minor actions turn out to have major repercussions. However, it’s seldom that you can pinpoint a time and place so exactly and say that if something had gone just a little a differently right there – if Richard III had managed to run a few yards further – the world map would be unrecognizable now.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Richard III really did intend to marry his niece – in which case, he might have had a falling-out with the Pope over whether he could get a dispensation and the English Reformation would have happened, only fifty years earlier. That’s the problem with historical speculation, though – once you’ve started, it’s hard to stop at a reasonable point. Real history is rarely reasonable, so why should the speculative version be?