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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 10. The history of King Richard the thirde

The most of the writers hitherto discussed have been intent either to amuse or to inform. They have composed their works, for the most part, in sound and living English, because they spoke and wrote a language that had not yet been attenuated by the formality of pedants and grammarians. Few, if any, of them were sensible of an artistic impulse. They began at the beginning and pursued their task patiently unto the end, unconscious of what the next page would bring forth. But there are three writers, the author of The history of King Richard the thirde, George Cavendish and Sir John Hayward, who are separated from the chroniclers, even from Camden himself, both by ambition and by talent. Each of them set before him a consistent and harmonious design; each of them produced, in his own fashion, a deliberately artistic effect. The history of Richard the thirde has been generally ascribed to Sir Thomas More, on hazardous authority. An incomplete manuscript of the book was found among his papers, and printed as his both in Hall’s Chronicle and in Grafton’s edition of Hardyng. Some have attributed to More no more than the translation, giving to cardinal Morton the credit of a Latin original. Sir George Buck, in his History of the Life and Reigne of Richard III, printed in 1646, but written many years earlier, declares that “Doctor Morton (acting the part of Histiaeus) made the Booke, and Master Moore like Aristagoras set it forth, amplifying and glossing it.” Where the evidence is thus scanty, dogmatism is inapposite, and no more can be said than that the book itself does not chime with the character and temper of More. It is marked throughout by an asperity of tone, an eager partisanship, which belong more obviously to Morton than to the humane author of Utopia.

From beginning to end, Richard III is painted in the blackest colours. No gossip is overlooked which may throw a sinister light upon the actions of the prince. It is hinted, not only that he slew Henry VI, but that he was privy to Clarence’s death. The most is made of his deformed body and cunning mind, the least of his policy. If accuracy be sacrificed, the artistic effect is enhanced. The oneness of Richard’s character gives a unity and concentration to the portrait which cannot be overpraised. For the first time in English literature, we come upon a history which is not a mere collection of facts, but a deliberately designed and carefully finished whole. The author has followed the ancient models. He knows how fine an effect is produced by the putting of appropriate speeches in the mouths of his characters. The value of such maxims as sum up a situation and point a moral does not escape him. “Slipper youth must be underpropped with elder counsayle,” says he. And, again: “The desire of a kingdome knoweth no kinred. The brother hath bene the brother’s bane.” Here we have the brevity and the wise commonplace of the Greek chorus. Above all, he proves the finest economy in preparing his effects. The great scene in which Richard arrests lord Hastings opens in a spirit of gentle courtesy. “My Lord,” says the protector to the bishop of Ely,

  • you have very good strawberries at your gardayne in Holberne, I request you let us have a messe of them. Gladly my lord, quod he, woulde God I had some better thing as redy to your pleasure as that.
  • And then the storm breaks. In brief, the author’s sense of what is picturesque never slumbers. The sketches of the queen and Shore’s wife are drawn by a master. The persistence with which Richard tightens his grasp upon the throne is rendered with the utmost skill. Nor is the sense of proportion ever at fault. You are given the very essence of the tragedy, and so subtle is the design that, at the first reading, it may escape you. The style is marked by a strict economy of words and a constant preference of English before Latin. From beginning to end, there is no trace of flamboyancy or repetition, and, while we applaud the wisdom of the chroniclers who made this history of Richard their own, we cannot but wonder that one and all failed to profit by so fine an example of artistry and restraint.