This is the time of year that every teacher, at every level, is in a back-to-school mentality. I don’t feel like I’ve been out of school this particular summer, but nevertheless I am preparing for my fall classes with that usual sense of expectation–thank goodness. I haven’t taught a graduate course for a while, and this semester I’ll be teaching one of my favorites, a readings course on early modern England. I see some great students on my roster, I’ve chosen some of my favorite books old and new, and I expect that the entire experience will be a welcome weekly escape from my daily chair duties. For those of you who are not familiar with European historiography and chronology (which generally, with some variations and accommodations, incorporates English historiography and chronology), the early modern era begins around the turn of the sixteenth century, which means that early modern England begins with the Tudor Dynasty. And the Tudor Dynasty began today, 530 years ago, when Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and last Lancastrian standing, defeated King Richard III and his force at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard was killed in the battle (the last English king killed in action) and Henry was crowned shortly thereafter, right on the field.
I don’t like to consign history to big battles but this was a big battle, a definite turning point. And even though Richard’s reputation has been somewhat restored by the recovery of his body from under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 (revealing 10 wounds to his head sustained during the battle) and its ceremonial re-internment this past spring, I doubt that he can ever rise above the characterization bequeathed to him by Shakespeare in his Tragedy of King Richard the Third, written in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I and the Tudor dynasty. While watching the dignified re-internment ceremony (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch–apparently a distant relation), I couldn’t help but think: all this for a ruthless child murder? On the other hand, the physical deformity which represented the rot within for Shakespeare only made him seem more human–and therefore vulnerable–when his skeleton was revealed. In any case, one Bosworth anecdotal episode that’s never going to go away, even though it is Shakespeare History rather than History, are his last moments and words, when, unhorsed, his character cries out in frustration: A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a Horse! These words are enduring because they are so Shakespearean universal: I’ve got ALL this but I really need THIS. Even the very biased Bard was willing to give the last medieval English king a bit of humanity/vulnerability at his/the very end.
The fame garnered by David Garrick (1717-1779–buried right next to Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey) in the role inspired many representations of Richard giving his “horse” speech: here are late 18th and early 19th century prints from the collections of the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum; the prominent American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest in the role as depicted in an 1855 print, Library of Congress; obviously such drama inspired satire, as seen in the Lincoln Campaign Dial for November 1864 (available here) portraying Jefferson Davis as Richard III and in George Yost Coffin’s political cartoon from the 1890s, Library of Congress; a neat photomanipulation by George Goodnight, aptly titled “My Kingdom for a Horse”.