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Ripe (adj.):


— Having arrived at the highest or a high point of development or excellence; mature

— Of mature judgement or knowledge

— Characterized by full development of body or mind

Richard the Third up to Shakespeare by George Bosworth Churchill has been described as “a classic study of a subject of great interest.”  Originally published in 1900, it was more recently made available in 1976.  Churchill, “an associate professor in Amherst College,” attempts to trace the early literary development of Richard III through the contemporary sources.

My own feelings about William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” were expressed in the essay “On Hating Shakespeare’s Richard III,” and I am more than a little weary of the drama of Richard’s usurpation and two-year reign upstaging the achievements of his brother Edward IV’s successful 20-year reign.  That notwithstanding, Churchill’s study is worthy of attention for several reasons.

Looking at early literary works such as “A Mirror for Magistrates” and two other plays that preceded Shakespeare’s, Churchill sheds light on how popular culture reconstructed the characters of the historical personae who rose to legendary status just years after their demise.  It is important to note that Churchill did not have access to Dominic Mancini’s “Usurpation of Richard III,” which only came to light in the 1930s.  This is a primary source that Churchill could not have possibly reviewed.

Edward V’s age and its influence on the events that took place after his father’s death is a well-debated issue.  As I wrote in “The Manly Gown,” there are those who try to convince us that a 12-year-old was considered almost an adult by 15th century standards and so there is no need for the sentiment that many naturally feel when a child is wronged.  Some commentators have noted that Edward should have had more exposure to his relatives of the old nobility.  I marvel at this.  How much experience did they expect Edward to have?  How can you fit the lifetime of a man into the brief months of a boy?  Edward cannot be blamed for being a 12-year-old boy, and Edward IV cannot be blamed for treating him like one.

Still, Edward was not an average boy, and Churchill must grapple with literary works that present him as extraordinary.   In Thomas Legge’s Latin play “Ricardus Tertius,” (circa 1580), Catesby tries to convince Buckingham that the King will never forgive him for his part in the coup against his household officers at Northampton and Stony Stratford.  Churchill paraphrases:

The scene is skillfully managed.  Catesby reveals in solemn and impressive words the anger of the young king and his purpose to have vengeance.   Buckingham at first treats the matter lightly: a boy’s brief anger, he replies, is soon extinguished.

A boy’s wrath it is, replies the tempter, but the rasher because it is a boy’s.

Time will diminish it.  Nay, for his mother will urge it on.

But Gloucester shared the crime.  True, yet vengeance will be satisfied with the punishment of one.

Gloucester’s authority will restrain the boy’s wrath.  Yes, so long as he is a boy.

But he will always fear his uncle.  Nay, a king fears no one.

Buckingham begins to waver.  What plan will save him?

Buckingham complains of the danger from the young king and demands that he be imprisoned.  Richard professes horror and agrees that the king’s terrible plans must be averted.

In Legge’s play, Edward is presented as a more active player than the sources would suggest.

In his review of “The True Tragedy of Richard the Third” (circa 1590), Churchill strangely declares:

“The figure of Richard is always before the actual or the mental eye.  Everything…is subservient to the purpose of portraying this one character.”

I find this curious, since this seems to me a much better description of Shakespeare’s play, in which Richard is motivated “to prove a villain,” a ludicrous suggestion that flies in the face of human nature.  I find Richard’s motivation, as indicated in “The True Tragedy,” much more realistic:

“Have I removed such logs out of my sight…to suffer a child to overshadow me?  Nay more, my nephew to disinherit me?  Yet most of all, to be released from the yoke of my brother, As I term it, to become subject to his son?”

Churchill further paraphrases:

And now, conscious of all his long service to the winning of that crown, he must stand and see it fall to a child, who knows nothing of the past, and has made no sacrifices for that which is put in his hands by fortune.  Even now the child cannot rule.  Richard must rule, but for another.  The child shall reign.  Shall he not make one last easy blow at fate, at this cruel chance which is depriving him of that which he feels he should rightly inherit, of that which he himself has won?

Interestingly, in “The True Tragedy,” Edward plays a part in the decision to limit his escort to London on grounds that Northhampton won’t be large enough to receive the King’s party and that a large escort might be interpreted as malice by his uncle Richard of Gloucester.  As Churchill relates, there was no historical source at the time that gave Edward a role in this decision.  Churchill writes:

The young King in this discussion gives evidence of a maturity for which the chronicle offers no hint… The same ripeness is still more extensively shown by the Prince in Shakespeare’s play.

Churchill was apparently unaware that John Rous had stated in his chronicle that the Prince “was brought up virtuously by virtuous men — remarkably gifted and very well advanced in learning.”  He likewise didn’t consider the speech that John Russell had written for the opening of Edward V’s Parliament, which pronounced: “…the most toward and virtuous disposition of our Sovereign Lord that now is, his gentle wit and ripe understanding far surpassing the nature of his youth.”

Further, Churchill didn’t have access to Dominic Mancini’s work in which, as Michael Hicks writes, Mancini is either motivated by personal experience or by his informants “who felt obliged to testify to his (Edward’s) promise” to write the following description:

“This context seems to require that I should not pass over in silence the talent of the youth.  In word and deed, he gave so many proofs of his liberal education, of polite, nay rather scholarly attainments far beyond his age; all of these should be recounted, but require so such labor, that I shall lawfully excuse myself the effort.  There is one thing I shall not omit, and that is, his special knowledge of literature, which enabled him to discourse elegantly, to understand fully and to disclaim most excellently from any work whether in verse or prose which came into his hands, unless it were from among the more abstruse authors.”

Regarding Edward’s role in the events prior to the coup at Northampton and Stony Stratford, Mancini writes that the King assented to meet his uncles Gloucester and Buckingham along the way.  He stopped at a village and sent his attendants ahead closer to the city “so that the village might be more convenient to receive his uncle.  The King awaited with a few of his household and…even sent his maternal uncle…to meet him.”

Churchill did have at his disposal another important primary source:  the Continuation of the History of Croyland.  Written in April 1486 (according to its author), the Continuation states that Rivers and others had been sent to Northampton “by the King, his nephew, to submit the conduct of everything to the will and discretion of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester.”

It is interesting that both of the most important primary sources of the time give Edward a more active role than later sources do.  Perhaps it is because we cannot discern between what Edward actually did and what was done in his name by his household officers.  All sources agree that Edward argued and protested with Gloucester and Buckingham over the arrest of his household officers.  As far as I know, no one before Thomas More mentions that Edward wept.  This might have been a detail that More discovered from his interviews with those who lived through those times.  Only Mancini, however, states that Gloucester and Buckingham took turns guarding Edward on the journey to London because they were afraid he might escape.  There is little that we have been told about Edward’s thoughts as the events of 1483 played out, but this detail seems to have come from Edward himself, as related to one of Mancini’s sources, Dr. John Argentine, Edward’s physician and, apparently, the last of his friends to see him alive.

Perhaps the “ripeness” that Churchill marvels about was kept in the popular imagination because there was truth to it.  Perhaps the reason why the sources don’t say much about it is because, in spite of his “ripeness,” what the chroniclers chiefly remembered about Edward V was his youth.

In Churchill’s review of early sources and the early literary works, including Shakespeare’s play, it is important to note that not one source, not one early literary work, supports the Ricardian notion that a 12-year old was considered someone who had almost achieved adult status.

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