Editor’s Note: The following article was first published in the March 2015 issue of Tudor Life, a magazine of The Tudor Society. To learn more about the fantastic benefits of membership in the phenominal online community at The Tudor Society, click HERE.
The Dropped Quill of Saint Thomas More
by Beth von Staats
He was little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage … he came into the worlde with the feete forwarde … and also not untothed.
~ Saint Thomas More, The History of Richard III ~
Although no authority from the 16th century or today affirms Saint Thomas More’s The History of Richard III to be an accurate accounting of the life of world history’s last Plantagenet king, the Roman Catholic patron saint of politicians and public servants did get at least a few things right. King Richard III was not a large man, and he had a crooked back resultant from scoliosis. Though which shoulder was higher is reversed in Thomas More’s exaggerated description of the king from the reality found of the skeleton dug up from under a Leicester parking lot, he was not that far off the mark. This should not be as surprising as it is to many people. After all, King Richard III reigned in Thomas More’s lifetime. The history was a fresh one, the king’s appearance easily reported by those who knew him.
Unfinished works in progress, The History of Richard III was composed as separate and distinct accountings in both English and Latin between the years of 1513 to 1518. Historians and religious scholars have debated for over 400 years why More chose to put down the quill. Did it become politically too dangerous to continue the biography and promulgate it? Did More simply begin a draft of a biography that he lost interest in? Was it actually even a project he ever intended to finish? Or instead was it some kind of hobby writing, practice or intellectual exercise? All we know in fact is this. For reasons unknown, Saint Thomas More never finished his historical biographies when he clearly had the time before his tragic 1535 execution to do so. In fact, no original manuscripts in his handwriting survive.
Alternately described by scholars as drama, biography, political satire, a myth or Tudor propaganda, when reading The History of Richard III, you might find More’s words ring all too familiar, the story harkening back to an English Literature class from youth. Why? Well, although More never finished the work or promulgated it, by the time of Queen Elizabeth, Regina’s reign, the written portrait More composed of the Plantagenet king made the rounds. William Shakespeare obviously got a hold of and thoroughly digested a copy. In doing so, England’s famous bard borrowed significant plotline and even word choice from More’s accounting in composing his screenplay, Richard III. Henceforward, Saint Thomas More and King Richard III, the man he scathingly portrayed in a work he never intended others to see, became irrevocably joined – one man saint, the other Satan.
Video Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
(Forever painting the view for many of world history’s last Plantagenet king, Shakespeare’s Richard III includes significant plotline and dialogue from Thomas More’s History of Richard III.)
A brilliant lawyer, humanist and religious scholar, Saint Thomas More is regarded by many to be one of the Tudor Era’s most remarkable intellects. Whether one believes him to be a courageous and morally grounded Roman Catholic martyr of his faith or a religious zealot fond of flagellation and evangelical martyr burning, two things are absolutely clear. Saint Thomas More was an intellectual genius who fell woefully short of the mark as a “historical biographer”, assuming that was actually his intention. Though More himself was an avid reader of historical works, his own attempt is laden with factual errors, starting with the very first sentence that aged King Edward IV by 13 years. The History of Richard III is also laden with long speeches composed by More rather than the actual historical figures who reportedly spoke them. Was Saint Thomas More’s unfinished work actually intended as biographical fiction instead of historical fact? No one can be certain, but the fact the question can be legitimately raised leaves no doubt that this man was no historian even among his contemporaries.
Yes, The History of Richard III is an unfinished work. Yes, The History of King Richard III is laden with historical inaccuracies and fictional accountings. Still, Saint Thomas More’s incomplete story of the tragic last Plantagenet king is an acutely important piece of Tudor Era literature. Simply stated, whether considered pure fiction, historical fact, or something in between, The History of Richard III shaped our understanding of who this monarch was, perhaps unfairly painting him as a child murderer, tyrant and usurper of the very crown of England. Or was he? With an unintended nudge from Saint Thomas More, the debate among historians, Tudorphiles and Ricardians continues to this day and may spiritedly carry forward for time eternal.
Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Saint Thomas More, Vintage, 1999.
Monti, James, The King’s Good Servant But God’s First: The Life and Writings of St. Thomas More, Ignatius Press, 1997.