The case was notorious, although it never came to trial. Not that it mattered—the facts alleged by the Crown were so inflammatory and so widely believed that it would have been impossible to find a fair jury.
Even so, the alleged perpetrator was as good as convicted—thought by all to be guilty. Unfairly, many now believe. But there is no point in petitioning the Minister of Justice on this case. The court of public opinion is outside his jurisdiction and some sort of statute of limitations must be in force. After all, it’s been more than 500 years.
August 22nd marks the 526th anniversary of the death at Bosworth Field of Richard III, a man vilified thoroughly and successfully by his enemies. Shakespeare administered the coup de grâce, dramatizing a memorable but over-the-top villain. Who else but a villain could have murdered his own nephews—two small boys, albeit princes royal?
Odd you should ask. Richard was deposed by Henry VII, founder of the Tudor line, and it was under Henry that allegations of Richard’s crime surfaced. Since Elizabeth I died in 1603, ending the Tudor line, historians not under their collective thumb have presented other theories of the crime, and other views of Richard—progressive king, courageous soldier, able administrator, family man. Richard III societies in England, America and Canada have tried to rehabilitate the man’s memory—long overdue, if they’re right.
The case for Richard is interesting—even compelling. There is good evidence that he was loved in his day. This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of the city, grieved the town of York in its official records—a gutsy move, considering the slayers were now in power.
You could look it up. You could read why many historians believe that Henry Tudor killed the princes, while most of us believe Richard was a murderer most foul. But why should you care what really happened in 1485, when it’s hard enough to keep today straight?
I can only tell you why I care.
Although his case never came to trial, Richard reminds me to distinguish between allegations and proof. It’s a critical distinction in a court of law, essential to the presumption of innocence, and a useful discipline of thought in my own day to day.
Found guilty in the court of public opinion, Richard reminds me that there is a difference between verdicts and truth. In our day, with lifers and death row inmates cleared by advances in DNA technology, this should be obvious enough, but somehow it’s easy to forget.
Richard reminds me that what ‘everyone’ knows to be true, may not be. Stories have their own momentum. Physicists call it inertia—the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest, and a body in motion to stay in motion. Richard’s story was set in motion by his enemies 526 years ago this week, and it’s still rolling along today.
Physicists don’t really understand inertia, they’ve just named it, or so says another Richard, Richard Feynman, one of the great physicists of the last century. I know how they feel. I don’t understand why it’s easier to start rumours than to squelch them, why it’s easier to destroy a man’s reputation than to rehabilitate it, but it is so.
And so I care about Richard III, so long after the fact, because he is the poster boy for all those who are unjustly convicted, unjustly accused, or even unfairly maligned in public or in private. His case reminds me to be careful about what I accept as true, even when it comes from an authority. The inertia affecting his reputation reminds me that there is a difference between what happened and what I read in the paper or saw on CNN, between what I know and what I think I know—and that it is damnably difficult to tell which is which, sometimes.
It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, Will Rogers said, it is what we know that ain’t so. I think Richard III might have agreed.