31. Jan, 2016

Thomas More, John Morton and Richard III

On the matter of sources that are usually cited for the origin of Richard III’s blackened reputation, it occurs to me that I’ve done quite a lot of reading lately around Thomas More’s influential Richard III, which means I have been delving more deeply into the analyses published in the Appendix to my book Richard III: The Maligned King.

Many scholars of 16th-century literature subscribe to the view that More was writing satirical drama to pillory his exemplum of 'The Tyrant', personified (regrettably) by Richard III in his unfinished book. Dr Arthur Kincaid led the vanguard in 1972 with his assessment that its dramatic structure is paramount to its proper appreciation, which was accepted by R.S. Sylvester in the 1976 Yale edition of Richard III which I think is still considered the gold standard (see page xvi). Other analyses have been content to follow Kincaid’s lead, e.g. a paper dated 1982 by Elizabeth S. Donno in Renaissance Quarterly. Alison Hanham continued in the same vein in Richard III and his Early Historians (1975), although Hanham fell into a common error by categorizing More as an historian. As early as 1963 Sylvester’s commentary in Vol. 2 of the Yale ‘Complete Works of Thomas More’ had made it clear that already the literary world rejected it as constituting what we (or historiographers) would call history, and indeed the title ‘History’ of Richard III was almost certainly attached to it posthumously. In support of Kincaid et al. are the contemporary reports that More was fascinated by the theatre, had already tried his hand at writing plays, and was known to leap up on to the stage during performances and interpolate an off-the-cuff role for himself.

Thomas More had spent a number of his young years in the household of Cardinal John Morton, under the cardinal’s tutelage, and in the early 1600s the idea that Cardinal John Morton authored More's book was current among members of the antiquary movement. They knew of a certain tract hostile to Richard III written by Morton which was in the library of More's son-in-law – some had read it, others knew of its contents, so there clearly were close similarities between the two works. Since then, scholarly assessments of More's English and Latin have decided against Morton’s authorship (which wasn't very likely anyway, especially when you consider that Morton died in 1500). 

Nevertheless, knowledgeable 17th-century antiquaries like Sir George Buck and Sir William Cornwallis were so vehement and outspoken about the authorship of More's book by Morton that I believe they should not be ignored. My proposition is as follows ... (1) That More DID have access to Morton's tract, and (2) that its contents DID prompt More's embarking on his Richard III project, to the extent that that's where he got his entire premise of Richard as tyrannous, hypocritical, murderous, etc. Thomas More was thus fully equipped with the ready-made central villain for his polemic against tyranny, fleshed out with Morton’s anecdotal reports of his various crimes. I then propose that (3) working from this basis, More added all the embellishments that transformed it into a piece of dramatic craftsmanship – the condemnatory language, the dialogue, the moments of high theatre like the confrontation with Hastings – until he had something that satisfied his muse. In other words Morton loaded the gun and More discharged it with results that Morton could only have dreamed of.

At this point a number of questions arise. Undoubtedly the several extant versions (in English and Latin) are brilliantly conceived and executed. So why did More set his bravura piece aside and never seek to publish it? He couldn’t wait to see Utopia in print, yet he never even finished his Richard III – and, significantly, never mentioned a word of it in all the copious writings of his that are known to us. As you might expect, I have a proposition for this, too: (4) eventually, I submit, he started questioning the veracity of the information provided by Cardinal Morton’s tract. This was a private project to which he returned on and off over the span of several years, and he had probably written many thousands of words of his drama before he thought to speak of it to anyone. If he initially found some of it rested on shaky ground, this would not have bothered him: More was entirely happy with the rhetorical practice of arguing persuasively both for AND against a proposition, and in this period of time ‘historical truth’ was not a matter of great concern. My suggestion is that there came a time, however, when he simply couldn’t suppress the nagging suspicion that the basis of his Richard III story as told by Morton was unreliable. This was not merely a matter of questioning the accuracy of the events in his story, it was much more important than that: if what I suggest is the case, Thomas More’s belief in the mentor of his youth would have been shaken. Nothing less than this, I believe, would have disillusioned him deeply enough to have stopped him in his tracks.