Saturday, 22 August 2015

Commemorating Bosworth: Judith Arnopp

Avoiding the question of Richard on the anniversary of Bosworth Field.

I am often asked if I have ever thought of writing a book about Richard III. I have, of course, but I don’t think I ever will. I am fascinated by the period, the transitional events of 1485 but it is something I’ve avoided although I am a Ricardian at heart and have  been a member of the Richard III Society for … erm, well forever.
I first came across Richard when I was about sixteen and he was still widely largely regarded as a ‘crook-backed monster.’ He was brought to my attention by a television programme, a spin-off from the show, Softly Softly, starring Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor; I think it was called Second Verdict: Who Killed the Princes in the Tower? But my memory is vague now.
It was a police investigation, one of the first instances of a new perspective of Richard being aired to the general public. After watching it I wanted to know more. My imagination piqued, I read Josephine Tey’s,  A Daughter of Time, and became completely hooked on Richard. His portrait has hung on my wall for forty years now – gosh, I am getting old. I read everything I could lay hands on, fiction and non-fiction, and took my history teacher completely by surprise when I centred my GCSE project on Richard III and the mystery of the princes. I found that project a few months ago chewed by mice and the ink faded away to nothing –it was sad to find all that teenage passion turned to dust.
The ‘Richard’ of my teens was a romantic, maligned, tragic hero-figure, and necessarily very handsome but, these days my objective, adult mind acknowledges I was way off the truth. So much more research has been done and new light thrown upon the matter but I am afraid that, if I made him the protagonist of one of my novels, the childhood ideal might reassert itself. There are, in my humble opinion, a few too many novels that take a romanticised view. I am not sure he’d be flattered.
Since the discovery and reinternment of his body at Leicester interest in Richard has become a bit of a three ring circus – it seems that anyone who can hold a pen has been inspired to write about him. I wouldn’t want to join those ranks.
Richard was certainly not the monstrous figure that Shakespeare depicted but he was no saint either, and it is more than likely that he was guilty of at least some of the crimes assigned to him. He lived in harsh times, from the earliest age he was embroiled in violence. At the Battle of Wakefield, he suffered the death and posthumous humiliation of his father and elder brother. The struggle for the throne saw him exiled and, on his brother’s behalf, he entered the perils of battle when he was (to modern eyes) little more than a child. He was very religious; family orientated and, up until a certain point in time, seems to have been completely honourable. Even before he took the throne he was an immensely powerful, influential lord, the king’s right hand, a soldier, and an ambitious man. But because he was battle-hardened and politically ruthless doesn’t mean he would resort to murdering small children. Perhaps Henry VI was fair game, and the swift unauthorised execution of Hastings has, to me, an act carried out in haste, regretted at leisure.
This month marks the 530th anniversary of The Battle of Bosworth. There will be celebrations, re-enactments, and, hundreds of articles and blogs written on the subject. Richard will be dug up again, his character put through the paces once more, endless speculation and immense fun. The fascination of the struggle between York and Lancaster, the mystery of the fate of the princes and the enigmatic figure of their uncle never palls. Thanks to the furore surrounding his reinternment, (barring perhaps Henry VIII) love him or hate him, Richard III is now probably the most famous of our English kings.
These things should make him irresistible to any writer but not me. Many novelists portray him as a cruel, calculating usurper, murdering small children and kings, and making martyrs of his brother’s friends and poisoning his wife. Equally, from the other point of view, he is often a saintly, romantic, sweeter than sweet victim of capricious fate. Rarely does an author find middle ground and, until I am convinced I can write the definitive Richard, a convincing, multi-faceted human character, I will concentrate on other men.

Having said that, Richard III is not absent from my novels. I cannot resist the pull of the transition between York and Tudor and all the conflicting personalities of the period. A Song of Sixpence is narrated by Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York, and (for the sake of the story) his nephew, Richard of York (Perkin Warbeck). The novel opens just after Bosworth. Both characters remember King Richard kindly, and (since Richard of York has not been murdered) neither regard him as a cruel man, but he clearly isn’t a saint either. After Richard III is slain in battle Elizabeth is faced with marriage to a man she has been raised to mistrust, and York/Perkin is exiled, battling to raise an army to regain his rightful throne. When the two finally meet again … well, you will have to read the book to find out.

Judith’s novels include:
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers

Coming soon: The Beaufort Chronicle, a trilogy tracing the life of Margaret Beaufort.


  1. Great article, Judith. I, too, kept away from writing about Richard for a very long time; in fact I kept away from 'straight' historical writing for ages, as I was so scared of 'really getting it wrong.' I crumbled last August and made my first tentative steps into Ricardian fiction with a historical fantasy set in the days before and then AFTER Bosworth, with Richard in the Otherworld reaching out through time to restore his reputation, and then be found! I have always written fantasy but I will be honest--I thought the fantasy elements might cover my back if I made any huge gaffs in the history!
    Now I am not all that far from finishing a FIRST PERSON novel from Richard's point of view; don't think it's been attempted before (gulp.) I have tried very much to make him neither saint nor sinner but someone human and fallible, with all the various intricacies of human nature...and also to give the story a lighter touch, with a hint of humour where possible (so many Ricardian novels are unrelentingly gloomy, even if excellent!)

  2. I shall look out for your work Janet. My first attempt at a novel was about Richard, it was very very bad :D I am writing about Margaret Beaufort at the moment, so once more Richard is there but I am skirting around him.