History of Richard III by Thomas More

Thomas More (1478-1535)

Thomas MoreI am seriously not going to attempt a proper biography of Thomas More – books have been written on the subject. But a very quick summary maybe.

The Oxford DNB summarises thus – ‘lord chancellor, humanist, and martyr’. Thomas came from wealthy families, from trade (his father was a wealthy baker) and the law. He studied at St Anthony’s school in London, and England’s second oldest university, Oxford (joke, sorry).  In 1496, More was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn to prepare for admission to the bar, and in 1501 became a full member of the legal profession.

More interests though were of course much wider than the law; he became close friends with Erasmus, and read extensively from Holy Scriptures and the classics. He was a deeply religious man, and in 1503 started to train to become a Carthusian monk, but instead chose public service and in 1504 became a member of parliament.

More published ‘Utopia’ in 1516; and went on to become serve under Henry VIII, helping Henry respond to Luther, also becoming treasurer of England’s exchequer, and, in 1523, was elected speaker of the House of Commons. Famously of course he fell out with Henry over his break with Rome, and was beheaded in 1535, leaving the final words: “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

In his youth, More was a member of Dr John Morton’s household, and they appear to have had a close relationship. The relationship is important with reference to More’s unfinished work, Richard III; Morton had a chequered career between support for the Lancastrians, service under Yorkist kings; but famously he was imprisoned  by Richard III after the Council meeting of 13th June in Wales. He became Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VII – and is the source of the expression ‘Morton’s Fork’. The point of all this is that he is likely to have been very much part of the Tudor line on interpreting events.

The History of Richard III

More is supposed to have written his History of Richard III between 1513 and 1518; it was to be deeply influential with later Title Page historians, and with Shakespeare. It was unfinished; and not published until after his death in 1557.

More had a reputation for rigor and honesty. However, since he was but 7 when Richard died, it’s very likely that he drew on Morton’s knowledge and experience; he also drew on sources such as Vergil’s Historia Anglia and John Rous, both deeply hostile to Richard III, but More adds detail of events. He depicts Richard as an ambitious usurper, but also acknowledges that saintly Edward IV also shared responsibility for the outcome.

Like Vergil, More’s history needs to be viewed with suspicion and some skepticism. Clearly it drew on sources themselves biased and heavily influenced by the Tudor story of events. He is wildly hostile to Richard; he not only accuses him of planning to usurp the throne from Edward’s death, he has him working towards it much earlier – for example, manufacturing Clarence’s death at Edward’s hands.

The history is available through the estimable Internet archives, but fortunately there’s a really easy to read version in modernized English by the Centre for Thomas More Studies; the link is below to the PDF. It’s handily annotated in the margins, so you can scroll easily through to find the bits you want to read about. And I was just too idle to try to do what someone else has done so well.

Unreliable it might be, but it is a great read…

The History of Richard III by the Centre for Thomas More Studies, edited by Gerard B. Wegemer and Travis Curtright

14 thoughts on “History of Richard III by Thomas More

  1. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that More’s chronicle of Richard III was, simply, found among More’s paperwork. Unfinished and unsigned – and therefore the attribution of it to More is not cast iron. Haven’t I heard that it might have been the work of Morton, in whose household More spent his youth? This is an ask, not a statement – I might have misunderstood, or remembered wrongly.
    Great site though, really interesting.

  2. Hi Lesley – I had not heard that actually, very interesting; all of the books I have read have not recorded any doubt on its authorship; though many of them note that Thomas More was writing the book to have an opportunity to draw out learning about tyranny; a bit like Gildas having a rant at the British kings and warning of the wrath of God, or Machiavelli demonstrating his political theories. And therefore, as a historical document, it is not safe.

  3. Hi, when describing Thomas More, what did you mean by: “He studied at St Anthony’s school in London, and England’s second oldest university, Oxford (joke, sorry).” ??
    As a lowly Yankee, I missed the joke, sorry.

    1. Well, Oxford and Cambridge always have a bit of a barney about which one is best, which one was first; Oxford fiercely claiming precedence. It probably was actually. Sorry, something of an in-joke.

  4. In one of the last paragraphs that begins “Like Vergil… I question the last line: He is wildly hostile to Richard; he not only accuses him of planning to usurp the throne from Edward’s death, he has him working towards it much earlier – for example, manufacturing Clarence’s death at Edward’s hands.”
    I read elsewhere that R3 simply did not defend the Duke of Clarence and let him go down, not that he was an initiator the investigation and charges of treason.
    I really wish the truth was available but it is unlikely to be when the historians/chroniclers have a biased viewpoint. Something very hard to find at any time, much less over 500 years ago.
    I was wondering if you have an opinion on the surge of support for R3 as a good king maligned by Shakespeare esp., who is probably the least malignant teller of R3’s last few years. The discovery of R3’s remains have intensified the fervor. What gives with all that?

    1. Hi Paige, and thanks for your comment. I do not know why there is such sympathy for Richard. I am guessing – but there has always been a deal of support for York as sort of ‘rebels’ and maybe Richard gets part of that support. Do we like losers much more these days generally speaking? Having said that, until I got into the detail, I also felt sympathetic to Richard, so I was part of that general trend!

  5. Love your podcast it saves even a rotten day at work! I would echo the sympathy for Richard III against the hated tutors, except for deaths of the two princes. He never accepted any responsibility even if he was ill advised. If only I could believe he shipped them off to a safe haven.

    1. Thanks Jon! Sadly, I have forever realised RIII was a bad ‘un. Took me a while to get there but….

  6. I have actually heard while doing research about Thomas More, that he never actually intended for his account to be published. I don’t know if this is true? I might have misunderstood though?

    1. I think you are quite right – not 100% myself, or at least it was unfinished. Also, don’t know if I said this, but he had quite a xpecifivc purpose for writing it – as an exercise in tyranny. The attitude to history then was different to now – so it was considered perfect;y acceptable to make up speeches and put them in characters’ mouths; history was considered useful as a ‘lesson’ rather than necessarily a search for verifiable facts. So what he wrote needs to be seen in that context.

  7. This may be old news to some, but Josephine Tey’s mystery The Daughter of Time has a very compelling argument for why Richard III may not have been what he has been portrayed to be. While Tey may not have been a scholarly writer, I find it insightful that she references several historical works, and has a useful word “Tonypandy” stories held to be truth that are complete fabrications. My following up on Tey’s sources for her novel brought me to this blog, and I found it interesting that what she wrote to disprove in her book may still be going on. Tonypandy is alive and well!

  8. I have just read Josephone Tey’s The Daughter of Time and it is ironically riddled with historical errors. She also misinterprets facts owing to her lack of historical understanding of the fifteenth century. For example, she is clearly unaware that only the Church could decide whether a marriage was valid or not rather than Parliament. Richard’s claim that the Princes were bastards should have been dealt with in the ecclesiastical courts with right of appeal to the Pope! The book is historically unreliable.

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