Comment: The tragedy of Richard III and Chris Huhne

By Nigel Saul

Monday was one of those days when big news stories came crowding in on all sides.  In the morning there was the eagerly awaited announcement from Leicester about Richard III's bones.  After lunch, that headline was quickly displaced by the sensational conclusion to Chris Huhne's driving case.  Centrica's announcement that it is abandoning plans to build nuclear power plants, which might otherwise have dominated, barely registered.

Cartoonists were quickly competing with one another in forging connections between the two main stories, drawing shamelessly on their reserves of puns and corny jokes.  I must say they did pretty well.  My own favourite was the Peter Brookes cartoon in The Times showing a fallen, battle-scarred Chris Huhne crying: "Three points, three points, my kingdom for three points."

In fact, the gentlemen of the press needn't have strained so hard.  There is one mighty and very obvious connection between Huhne and Richard III which stands out, and which any student of history would recognise.  It's the classic Greek story of hubris and nemesis, ambition and comeuppance, of pride coming before the fall.  Both men were men in a hurry, eager for power, willing to cut corners, ruthless in elbowing others aside, happy to trample on those in their way – and both, in the end, were brought down by weaknesses that were mirror images of the strengths that had helped them up.

I do not subscribe to the modern revisionist view espoused by members of the Richard III Society that their hero was a misunderstood do-gooder, maligned after his death by the appalling Tudors.  If Richard had been that popular with his subjects, he would have had little difficulty in mustering the manpower that he needed to see off the implausible French-backed pretender Henry Tudor.  It is an appalling indictment of his kingship that he should have been defeated on his own soil by a penniless exile with a barely passable claim to the English crown.  Richard III was unconvincing in the office of king for the simple reason that his usurpation had alienated so many important people and left him with an inadequate base of support.  Reliant on hacks and sidekicks who owed all they had got to him, he never attained the broader acceptance which alone could have assured him long-term survival.  Defeat at Bosworth was the price that he paid for seizing the crown from the 13-year-old Edward V and consigning him and his brother to an oblivion from which they never emerged.
Nor, in the light of the excavations, are we entitled any longer to go along with the view, so long peddled, that the hunchback story was dreamed up by the Tudors.  The fascinating thing about the bones unearthed at Leicester was the discovery that Richard was deformed after all.  The scoliosis which caused him curvature of the spine left one of his shoulders markedly higher than the other. The face of Philippa Langley, from the Richard III Society, on the TV when the archaeologist pointed this out was a picture.   No one denies that at Bosworth Richard put up a good fight.  The injuries that he sustained in battle, to which his mutilated skeleton bear witness, place his personal bravery beyond doubt.  Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that the Tudors did not have to cook up the story of Richard the hunchback out of nothing.  They had something to build on – just as they did with the story of the missing princes.   In dismissing Tudor criticisms of Richard III as propaganda and lies, we are in danger of throwing the historical baby out with the bathwater.

Richard III was a fatally flawed individual.  His story is one of personal tragedy – of hopes disappointed, potential not realised – just as Chris Huhne's is.  In each case, we behold a man of great energy and ability, great promise and hope, brought low by an inability to face truth and a refusal to recognise the difference between between right and wrong.  Huhne is in the fortunate position, not given to Richard III 500-years-ago, of having the opportunity to work his way back to favour through redemption.  Will the next comparison we'll be making perhaps be with John Profumo?

Nigel Saul is a Professor of Medieval History in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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