Thursday, December 30, 2010

More’s Code

dit dah dah dah / dah dit dah

Oops, not Morse Code—More’s Code, that sainted friend of Henry VIII who wrote the “History of King Richard the Third” that ultimately accused Richard of murdering his nephews. But this so-called history is rife with errors and contradictions--points that are easily verified, that an educated man such as More would have known to be incorrect and points that state one position in the first sentence, only to be contradicted in the next. But it has been used as proof of Richard’s guilt among many traditionalists who hold the view that Richard III would have murdered his nephews.

Although true that Thomas More was beatified in 1886 and then canonized in 1935, does that mean he could not have written a piece that was meant to be satire? He began the “History” around 1512 and stopped before completing it by 1518. He did not have it published. His nephew, William Rastell was the first to publish it in 1557, well after More had been executed in 1535. The quoted text below is taken from this publication available on the Richard III Society, American Branch website.

The first glaring error is found in the opening line of the history: “[K]Yng Edwarde of that name the fowrth, after that hee hadde lyued fiftie and three yeares, seven monethes, and five dayes,..., dyed at Westmynster the nynth daye of Aprill,...” Edward IV was born on 28 April 1442, which means that he was about three weeks shy of his forty-first birthday, not fifty-three and change. While the common medieval citizen might not have known how old Edward IV was when he died, it was in the records and those people with whom More might have shared this text would almost certainly have known the age More gave was incorrect.

Although there are no extant contemporary reports that Richard III was physically deformed (Richard was in fact a soldier who fought in battles in full armor) More described him as: “...little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right....” This is a very clever combination of using what is verifiable—contemporary chroniclers described Richard as slight of stature—with elements that are made up. Certainly, the physical deformities that More attributed would have been noted by contemporary chroniclers, especially in light of Richard’s military prowess.

Then, why should we believe that two men who More claimed Richard had ordered to murder the princes had been able to bury them undiscovered under a stone staircase in one night in a place bustling with people, and then to later remove them and rebury them in consecrated ground. That people believe the skeletons found in 1674 during the tower renovation are those of the princes based on More’s work stretches credulity to the breaking point. Because if More had been factual instead of just spinning a tale, the bones would not have been found there and both Henry VIII and his father Henry VII would have known where the princes remains were. If More had been correct, they were not under the White Tower stairs.

I think the opening salvo of giving an incorrect age at time of death for Edward IV leaps out as a warning to the readers that this work should not be taken seriously. Could it be that it was his code for j/k (just kidding)? Or as Morse would have telegraphed it: dit dah dah dah / dah dit dah.

Encyclopædia Britannica article on William Rastell.

More, Thomas. The History of King Richard III.


  1. Has anyone ever worked out what Edward IV's date of birth would be if one follows More's calculations? I wonder if it might have some astrological significance.

    As More never finished his manuscript, I think it's difficult if not impossible to say what his intentions were. Had he finished it, perhaps in the final version he might have corrected some of the factual errors, like Edward IV's age and some of the proper names.

  2. My god! Talk about coincidences, at this present moment I am writing an article for my blog on Truth the Tudors and Thomas More. In that I point out that More was the archetypal Tudor period propagandist, not one single piece of his writing was untainted by overt political consideration. If it was expedient for him to bend the truth of an event or distort the character of an individual, then it was done. It was so for Utopia and all his tracts against Luther, not to mention his refutation of the ‘murder’ of Richard Hunne. It is not possible for any serious historian to use his writings or those of Harpsfield and Rastell as unbiased eyewitness fact. Which, unfortunately has frequently been the case. Sorry about getting all het up, but I've had to spend too many hours sifting suppossed historical wheat which turns out to be chaff.

  3. Unfortunately, many people still take More's book as the literal truth. So much for logic.

    I suspect the discovered bones are actually much older than the 15th century. Though I have no idea what happened to the older prince, the younger may easily have been Perkin Warbeck.

  4. Thomas More was a clever writer. Clever enough to write Utopia and get it past both Henry Viii and Cardinal Morton without losing his head for his rather treasonous notions.

    His History of Richard might easily have been intended as satire. It's certainly a darkly humorous parable of the abuses of power...and does anyone else notice the evil King issues some pretty egregious orders, ex privy? (The conscientious reburial of the Little Princes sounds like the punch line to a jibe about "Old Dick," "...and he was so detail minded that...").

    And perhaps More stopped writing because he couldn't think of many nice, compensatory things to say about Henry VII, the conquering Hero?

    In truth, More would have found the real Richard's justice greatly to his liking. And if we can believe Utopia, he would have applauded Richard's regard of Commons; kings, if they must exist, ought always be enlightened, benevolent princes who looked to the People for good counsel....