Richard III’s death, because it paved the way for Henry VIII, was a pivotal moment in British and world history *UPDATED*

Richard III

My sister and I got to talking yesterday about Richard III.  He was, she said, a decent king during his two years and his administration was terribly maligned by subsequent Tudor historians and, especially, Shakespeare.  She’s right.  Contemporaneous records show that he was a good leader up in his home base, the north of England, and that he was an effective, pragmatic king.  In addition, he almost certainly committed regicide against the two princes in the Tower.  The only reason this mattered was because it gave Henry VII the opening to be righteous in his bid for the throne.

Henry VII

Looked at objectively, Richard III and Henry VII were two peas in a pod:  both were able administrators, both had a tenuous claim to the British throne, and both were willing to kill to get that throne.  It’s likely that, had Richard III retained his throne, England during his reign would have looked remarkably similar to England during Henry VII’s reign.

It’s equally likely that Richard III, even if he’d handed the throne to a son, would not have had a son like Henry VIII.  For all his faults (and they were many, considering that he had sociopathic or even psychopathic tendencies), Henry VIII was arguably the most important monarch to sit on England’s throne.  It was his overwhelmingly personality — his inability to beget sons; his overwhelming ego; and his mad passion for Anne Boleyn, who promised him a male heir — that saw him remove Britain from Rome’s orbit at a pivotal time in both British and European history.

Henry VIII

Some argue that Henry would have left Rome in any event, since Spain and France were his enemies and leaving Rome strengthened his alliance with Protestant lowland Europe.  This overlooks the fact that Henry’s break with Spain also came about because of his inability to have sons, his ego, and his passion.  During the good years with Katherine of Aragon, Catholic Spain was an ally, and helped Catholic England in the balance of power against Catholic France.

It was only after Henry abandoned Rome (and he did so administratively, not doctrinally) that the shift in the balance of powers that we associate with Henry’s, and the Elizabeth’s, reign came about.  By then, of course, religious wars were starting to rip Europe apart anyway.  And indeed, one can wonder whether, if Henry (or an imaginary son of Richard III) had stayed with Rome, the Protestant schism would have been as powerful as it was, or if it would simply have exhausted itself in small, German and lowland municipalities.  (In France, of course, the Catholic monarchs quashed Protestantism with brutality creating a Huguenot diaspora.)

Oliver Cromwell

Henry’s decision to break with Rome set the stage, a little over a century later, for the English Civil War.  That War opened the door to Cromwell, who allowed the Jews to return to England, which arguably helped jump start England’s phenomenal mercantile rise.  From that came a British colossus that, for almost two centuries, controlled vast swaths of the world — North America, the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa, the Caribbean, etc.  Significantly, and without exceptions, Niall Ferguson demonstrates convincingly that every former British colony went on to become prosperous, whether that prosperity is measured on a worldwide scale (as is the case with America) or on a smaller, geographic neighborhood scale (comparing Kenya to the Congo, for example).

Short of dropping into a science fiction show that allows us to see alternate realities, we can only assume how history would have progressed if certain events hadn’t happened.  England might still have hewed Protestant without Henry’s decision to break away.  Had that happened, though, it might well have been a more gradual, organic transition that didn’t result in a Civil War.  Under the same line of reasoning, England, once Protestant might have invited the Jews back, although perhaps not at such a pivotal time, one that coincided with the geographic expansion of European power.  And even without the Jews, Britain might have become an imperial giant.

All we do know is that things played out as they did.  And to the extent one believes that it was a good thing for the world that Britain, which was historically a more freedom-oriented country than its contemporaneous peers, then one must also believe that Richard III’s death, by paving the way for Henry VIII, was more important than his life.

Richard III's face

UPDATE: Andrew Roberts has more on the fact that Richard III was an effective, indeed good, monarch, while Henry VII had the sweaty sheen of a liar and opportunist.  Be that as it may — whether Richard was a murderer or a victim — the fact remains that his death paved the way for Henry VIII, and all the consequential changes that flowed from his passions.  (Additionally, one cannot avoid the fact that, while Henry VII is as likely a murderer of the princes as was Richard III, they did vanish on Richard’s watch….

Richard III’s remains positively identified

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York,” says the malevolent Richard III in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.  Generations of Shakespearean actors have portrayed him is a sinister hunchback, greedily eying his brother’s throne and eventually murdering two young boys in order to obtain it.  The play was a perfect example of the victor’s ability to write history.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

For centuries, people accepted Shakespeare’s portrayal at face value.  Starting in the late 19th century, though, contrarion historians started challenging this view.  They claimed that Richard III was a reasonable, temperate monarch, and that Henry VII was an overreaching usurper who needed to blacken Richard’s name in order to hold onto the throne that he had won by war, not by right.  The problem for these revisionists always remained those missing boys in the Tower of London.  Did they die?  Did Richard murder them?  Did Henry VII murder them?  Who knows.

What we do know is that Shakespeare was right about one thing:  Richard was indeed a hunchback.  Thanks to a stunning example of historic investigation, coupled with modern forensic science, we can look at Richard’s skeleton — and he had significant scoliosis:

Richard III's skeleton

We also know now that he fought ferociously in the Battle of Bosworth, for his skeleton reveals ten significant cuts, three of which were on his skull, with each of those three having the right to be called a death blow. There are also indications that Henry’s soldiers engaged in a little body mutilation after he did. Richard did not go gently into the night.

What struck me about the skeleton, in addition to the scoliosis and cuts, was Richard’s teeth.  They’re beautiful.  I didn’t expect the late-medieval corpse of a 32-year-old man to have such straight, white teeth:

Richard III's teeth

Whenever I think of medieval smiles, I think of a mouth opening to reveal gaping holes and blackened stubs. Richard’s smile, though, must have been lovely: big and white.

The media claims that this skeleton will allow a wholesale reevaluation of Richard’s reign. My imagination is failing me, though, because I don’t know how a skeleton can reveal whether he usurped the throne, whether he was a good administrator for the two years he held it, or whether he murdered his nephews. It can tell us about diet and health, certainly, but the only historic fact it seems to prove is that he was a hunchback. Whether he was a good or a bad hunchback is something to discern from the documentary record, not the bones.