Sunday, 17 February 2013

Why Should Long Dead Kings like Richard III be Rehabilitated?

History if always written by the victors and those who are defeated (usually in battles) are vilified and depicted for posterity as embodiments of all the qualities, which should be loathed. This seems to be a general rule ranging from Egyptian Pharaohs of the old kingdom (3rd millennium BC) to the Republican and Democrat presidents who take turns occupying the White House in Washington, USA even in our iHistory age.

Occasionally, by a twist of fortune, some hapless ruler, much maligned by the derisive and venomous propaganda of their successors are indeed rehabilitated. 

The latest one with such luck is Richard III, the last English king of the House of York (1483-1485). Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as an ugly hunchback, “rudely stamp’d”, “deformed, unfinish’d” and who cannot “strut before a wanton ambling nymph”. It is so easy to imagine Richard III, like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings contorted in self-loathing and hissing out "I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days." It is also Shakespeare’s genius, which has made Richard III utter some memorable quotes like:
  •  Now is the winter of our discontent" (a phrase later used to refer to James Callahan’s 1978-1979 prime ministership in England)
  • "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"

The Crimes of King Richard III

  • Coming to power by employing questionable means (having Edward IV’s marriage declared invalid as he was still legally married thus making Edward V illegitimate and thus not eligible to become a king)
  • Getting rid of two young princes by having them murdered
  • Beheading people like the Duke of Buckingham who rebelled against him

All these were pretty standard stuff in those days, anywhere in the world except rather often among some tribes for whom we contemptuously use names like aboriginals or primitives.

Coming to power by questionable means – Well, that’s pretty common in ‘civilized’ democracies also today. Countless voters then lying in their graves secured the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, George Bush Jr. also came to power using ‘questionable means’ not to talk of Silvio Berlusconi.

Getting rid of people who challenge our ideologies and ‘way of life’ – nowadays we use names like war on terror, ethnic conflict, regime change or finding weapons of mass destruction to justify similar actions.

Politicians turning things upside down to serve regime interests as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya is also pretty common nowadays.

Achievements of King Richard III

They are rather impressive, especially considering his short reign of 2 years 1483-1485. In fact, some of his ideas were centuries ahead of their times.

  • Council of the North did begin to improve conditions for Northern England as before that most economic activity centred on the capital alone. 
  • Court of requests, an institution that enabled poor people who could not afford the expensive lawyers in the formal courts could have their cases heard officially (Kleineke, 2007)
  • Judicial bail system, to secure the rights of the accused and protect them from imprisonment before trial and not have their property seized. 
  • Rescinded the ban of printing and selling books.
  • Ordered the translation of the written laws into English from traditional French

Compare fairly and without bias the achievements of Richard III to 10 years of Tony Blair’s (1997-2007) or 8 years of George Bush Jr.’s (2001-2009) ‘reign’ and their ‘body count’ and both of them may have to hang their heads in shame sitting in jail. You may like to place your bets on the likelihood, but that is most unlikely to happen even in 2014!

Rehabilitation of Rulers Maligned by Subsequent History

The recent rehabilitation of the last Plantagenet king of England, Richard III after his remains were discovered under a car park in Leicester, UK may start a boom of making maligned ‘villains’ appear transformed as heroes from under the veils of infamy. Now there is a campaign in Scotland to rehabilitate the blood-tarnished image of the 11th century king Macbeth.

Cleopatra VII, who ruled Egypt for 21 years, lost her kingdom, regained it, lost it again and was good at ruling an empire has been painted as a wanton and lusty temptress. That she probably was, but she was infinitely more. Speaking nine languages, having great political acumen and charm, she seems to have been totally devoted to her country. This would be a not so common trait among contemporary politicians. Is it time to rehabilitate Cleopatra?

Stalin, the big daddy of baddies, with a killing toll of about 20 million (Robert Conquest: The Great Terror, 2007) is fast being rehabilitated in certain quarters. Though other may not like it, neo-Stalinism is here to stay. Neo-Stalinism is, according to Frederick Copleston, S. J., 
"..not exclusively an expression of a desire to control, dominate, repress and dragoon; it is also the expression of a desire that Russia, while making use of western science and technology, should avoid contamination by western 'degenerate' attitudes and pursue her own path."

Mao Zedong, the burly moonfaced demigod of China has been re-elevated to his demi-god status in modern China. Anyone who even went near him and can dictate, write or afford ghostwriters has written eulogies like his last concubine (Zhang Yufeng) and his bodyguard (Li Yinqiao) did.

Pol Pot, a heavyweight baddie, who killed 1-3 million people (out of a population of 8.4 million), is fairly advanced on the way to rehabilitation. Wasn’t it so that the British and Americans voted in the UN to legitimise the defeated regime of Pol Pot (Pilger, 2005)?

When is the biggest of the baddies, a certain Austrian postcard painter, who killed 30-50 million people, although using other methods than badly painted postcards, going to be rehabilitated? Or is he going to perpetually anchored in a repository of history's worst baddies along with Nero, Chengiz Khan etc.

Small disclaimer here: This last item was just out of academic interest. I am not even remotely interested in Austrian postcard painters and their politics.

Adolf Hitler is actually getting rather popular in India, for very different reasons though. The brand just arouses people and they buy. Anti-semitism or the hate messages of his don't have any place there, but he is seen as a cool and tough guy who can make trains run on time, a kind of Marlboro man among leaders. Of course the fact that he opposed and fought Britain, and this hastened Indian independence is also an argument though very few Indians nowadays even think of this aspect.

Photo source:

Should History be Rewritten?

The commercial angle and the attraction of theme parks á la Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad as has been suggested by DavidMitchell of the Observer is one approach, good for the local economy.

Seriously speaking, yes, history should be continuously re-examined and re-evaluated in the light of new findings. Consider, for example the debunking of the Aryan Invasion Theory (Metspalu, 2011). 

This debunking of the Aryan invasion theory allows us:
  • To see matters in an entirely different perspective without the burdens of racial and ethnic propaganda
  • We can appreciate the achievements of other peoples and nations
  • The agendas of hate or maligning others may give way to genuine appreciation and universal brotherhood.

  • Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs, Edited by John Pilger. Vintage Paperback, 2005, £8.99
  • Hannes Kleineke, ‘Richard III and the Origins of the Court of Requests’. The Ricardian, Vol. XVII, 2007, pp. 22–32
  • Metspalu, Mait. Shared and unique components of human population structure and genome-wide signals of positive selection in South Asia. American journal of human genetics. 09.12.2011. Volume: 89 Issue: 6 Page: 731

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I don't think all kings should be rehabilitated, no, not dictators like Hitler and Stalin.