Sources Sunday: Thomas More’s History of King Richard III


See series introduction, here.


Today, I’d like to introduce briefly one of the earlier secondary sources about Richard III, a text written by Thomas More called The History of King Richard III. No matter how you feel about Richard, it’s a cracking read, and the late historian Richard Marius called it “the finest thing he ever wrote.” Even Ricardian biographer Paul Murray Kendall called the work an expression of More’s “stunning vitality.” Here are some things to keep in mind when reading this work.


This got really long, so I’ll limit myself to these introductory remarks this week and start talking about specific citations next time.


The source itself

  • More worked on this text between 1513 and 1518 in Latin and English simultaneously, and never finished it. His English narrative stops at the beginning of Buckingham’s rebellion; his Latin narrative, somewhat earlier, at Richard’s coronation.
  • Modern textual scholars believe that More composed the Latin and English versions of the text separately, transferring bits and pieces between them, so that neither text by itself is considered fully authoritative.
  • No original of More’s text in his own handwriting (any so-called holograph) survives either in Latin or in English.
  • The text was not published in More’s lifetime, possibly because he became too busy to finish it; or because he realized that the matters treated in the text involved too many people who were still alive, so that the appearance of the work would create political problems for him.
  • No English manuscript sources survive; several Latin manuscript sources survive, but these are reworkings of the original holograph based on copies that themselves have disappeared in the meantime. The most well-known of the surviving Latin manuscripts — all of which differ — are held at Paris in the Bibliothèque nationale (MS fr. 4996 [Ancien fonds]), and at London in the College of Arms (MS Arundel 43) and the British Library (MS Harley 902). Here’s an excellent technical summary of the transmission of the texts with diagrams. Now considered to provide most authoritative Latin version, the Paris manuscript was rediscovered, entirely by accident, only in the twentieth century, by More scholar Daniel Kinney.
  • The “critical edition” of the texts — the definitive version scholars consider closest to the original, which should be used by all researchers — is The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 15 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963-97).
  • Most modern versions of the text produced for general readers or students are emended on the basis of the 1557 London edition: William Rastell, ed., The workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght […]. This was not the first English printing of the text, but it has long been considered the most authoritative as it seems to have been typeset from a no-longer-extant holograph. (Rastell was More’s nephew.)



[Right: Titlepage of the 1566 Louvain edition of Thomas More’s works; picture taken from the copy owned by Ben Jonson, the English playwright Ben Jonson. Source.]

Screen shot 2013-03-24 at 9.20.51 PM[Left: detail of above, with inscription: “Sum Ben: Jonsonij Liber.”; literally, “I am Ben Johnson’s book.” Further inscriptions on the title page reveal that Johnson gave the book to William Dakins, one of the men who translated the King James Bible, whom Jonson probably met at Westminster School. Dakins, in turn, gave it with an inscription to John Blumfeilde.]


On More

  • More was an extraordinarily talented, intelligent, and complex individual.
  • His most prominent intellectual friendship was with Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote a hilarious persiflage on the folly of life in general and the abuses of the Catholic Church in particular known as Encomium Moriae, or “In Praise of Folly,” which punned on More’s name (the Greek word for “folly” sounded similar to More’s name).
  • Although he became an influential politician and lawyer, and remained a layman, he seriously contemplated a career in the Church.
  • In his own age, he was notable for the attention he paid to his daughters’ education.
  • The most definitive intellectual influence on More’s writing was that of Renaissance humanism; yet, after he joined the service of King Henry VIII in 1518, he ceased almost completely to write humanist texts and turned to religious polemics.
  • Modern readers may know him best for his 1516 work, Utopia (he coined the term).
  • More enjoys a reputation as a staunch man of principle, but not always a pleasant one. On the one hand, as Chancellor of England, he vigorously persecuted and prosecuted Protestant heretics. Six were burned on his watch. His polemics against William Tyndale were influential in the latter’s eventual burning for heresy; and George Foxe, who cataloged the sufferings of Protestant martyrs in England, was convinced that More had personally tortured prisoners on trial for heresy. On the other, More has long been respected for his conviction that authority over Church matters should not be ceded to the secular government, as a consequence of which he was executed in 1535 for his refusal to take the 1534 Oath of Supremacy. Was he moral, or a moralist? The twentieth century tended to see him as moral (as in the much celebrated stage and screen drama, The Man for All Seasons), while more recently, in Wolf Hall (2009), for which she won the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel has portrayed him as a petty, cruel tyrant.


paul-schofield[Right: Paul Scofield as Thomas More, insisting to Parliament that he has not committed treason, in the film version of A Man for All Seasons. Scofield won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1966 for this performance and a BAFTA as well. Source.]




General features of More’s history of Richard

  • More probably chose Richard as a topic because of his interest in politics and good government. The book is a foil to Utopia (1516), which discusses perfect government and decries amorality in politics; More saw Richard as the epitome of bad, because amoral, government.
  • Humanists saw the point of history as teaching life lessons (historia magistra vitae); despite his many dastardly individual features, Richard in More’s eyes was much more a negative example or pattern rather than a fully formed individual. While More clearly believed what he wrote of Richard to be true, the goal was neither a smear job nor the presentation of evidence about Richard’s reign, but rather the crafting of a tale that criticized amorality, hypocrisy, and vaulting ambition.
  • According to scholar George M. Logan, the most important influences on More’s structuring of his history are the Greek author Lucian and the Roman historians Sallust (who wrote histories of the Roman traitors Catiline and Jugurtha) and Tacitus (who wrote a history of the Roman emperor, Tiberius). So great is More’s admiration of Tacitus that he alters facts in his portrayal of Edward IV in order to make his reign seem more like that of Augustus.
  • We cannot see More as a straightforward Tudor propagandist; he despised Henry VII.
  • More’s history counts as a secondary source in that he did not witness the events he describes. He did draw on primary sources: oral information and reminiscences of people he knew who had lived through events. These included his father (the only source he explicitly names), but more importantly gossip in the household of Bishop John Morton, one of Edward IV’s officials implicated in Hastings’ conspiracy, who survived Richard’s reign. More served in Morton’s household he served as a page from 1490-2.
  • While as a public official, More could have consulted extant public records in London, textual comparison suggests that he seems to have done so only once (for Buckingham’s speech of June 26, 1483).
  • Though it is extremely unlikely that More knew the work of the second Croyland Continuator, which was unknown outside of its abbey until the later sixteenth century, his account squares with it in important details, another reason to discount the charge that More (or Croyland) were mere Tudor propagandists.
  • The only written historical works that More can be proven to have consulted are Fabyan’s New Chronicles of England and France (1516/7) and Great Chronicle of London (ms., 1512).
  • No textual evidence suggests that the work on Richard most typically cited as Tudor propaganda, Polydore Vergil’s Anglica historia (ms. 1513), was influential on More.
  • The conventions of Renaissance humanist historiography required More to concoct all of the speeches; readers at the time would have known this.
  • More’s most prominent literary and linguistic device throughout the work is irony; readers must thus be very careful to discern his meaning, since his words are frequently pointed in specific ways.
  • Although the text was one of the most popular works of history in later-sixteenth-century England, it had little influence on history-writing. It made its deepest impact, of course, on Shakespeare, which is the main reason a reader might care about it these days.
  • Richard Marius makes the interesting assertion that Richard III is one of the first hypocritical protagonists in the history of western literature.

Screen shot 2013-03-24 at 10.56.39 PMFurther reading

  • Read More’s History of King Richard III on the web, transcribed from the original English edition of 1557 (with original spelling, but modern typography) here.
  • If you like books and ready-to-use scholarship, a fantastic update with extensive notes and sixteenth-century usage retained, but modified to reflect modern spelling, has recently been produced: George M. Logan, ed., The History of Richard III: A Reading Edition (Bloomington: Indianapolis University Press, 2005). This is the one my students will be reading.
  • Read More’s history in Latin, in the edition that English playwright Ben Jonson used with his notes visible in the margin, at The Center for Thomas More Studies, in digital facsimile.
  • Read More’s others works at Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas as well.
  • Richard III Society resources on More’s history, including excerpts from relevant pieces of Marius’ biography, Thomas More: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1984). (Marius’ biography of More is excellent — a much better work than his disappointingly partisan biography of Martin Luther.)


If that’s not too much — I’ll be back next week to discuss some of the fascinating points in More’s retelling of Richard’s story.

9 Responses to Sources Sunday: Thomas More’s History of King Richard III

  • CDoart says:

    Already registered my seat for next week’s session, Prof. Servetus, and am very curious about your further analysis of More’s writing.
    The introduction already shows a very ambivalent and use-directed creation of King Richard III by More. Historical accuracy seems not to have been his main motive, but more the moral enhancement of his readership.

    • servetus says:

      Thanks. Next week I want to talk about M’s introduction of Richard III. It’s definitely “use-directed,” and / but I would argue, relatively ambivalent and not just a smear on his ambition if we read it from the perspective of times. For instance, he describes all the brothers with an idiom (stately of stomach) that means “haughty,” but in C16 that was an appropriate attitude for a noble. …

      OK, but you’ll have to wait until next week 🙂

  • AJBrown says:

    Because so many people think of Sir Thomas More as being a contemporary of Richard III, and thus of the History as being a contemporary “eye-witness” account (and therefore presumably reliable, particularly in light of Sir Thomas More’s qualities as an adult), I think it is important to emphasize that More was hardly more than a toddler during Richard III’s reign – he was five years old at the time of Richard’s coronation and about seven when Richard died – and that he wrote his History of King Richard III some 30 years later, during the reign of Henry VIII, based entirely on hearsay and secondhand (or even less direct) information. Sir Thomas himself acknowledges this several times throughout the History, as when he says, for example, “I shall rehearse you the dolorous end of those babes, not after every way that I have heard, but after that way that I have so heard by such men and by such means as methinks it were hard but it should be true.” (Note, too, that Sir Thomas admits to having heard differing versions.)
    I think it is also important to mention that John Morton, Bishop of Ely during Richard III’s reign, in whose household More grew up and from whom he undoubtedly got much of the information for his History, was an avowed enemy of Richard’s who ardently served the Lancastrian and Tudor causes and was even involved in a plot on Richard’s life. Henry VII later made him Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. Morton (largely remembered for “Morton’s Fork,” an unscrupulous method of tax collection he devised for Henry VII) is depicted in More’s History in the most favorable light: “The Bishop was a man of great natural wit, very well learned, and honourable in behaviour, lacking no wise ways to win favour…wise, insightful, godly.” Sir Thomas refers to Henry VII as “the noble Prince.” King Richard, on the other hand, is described as “malicious, wrathful, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, envious, arrogant, pitiless, cruel, wicked, unnatural, and a traitorous tyrant,” to cite but some of More’s epithets in the work (not to mention labelling him a murderer several times over). The History can hardly be called a work of objective scholarship; it is known to be full of factual errors, contradictions and distortions; and its own author repeatedly admits it is pure hearsay and conjecture. Thus whatever other goals Sir Thomas may have had it writing it, it cannot be taken as reliable biography, which unfortunately it has been in the past.

    • servetus says:

      Thanks for the comment, AJ Brown, but I think you miss something in my discussion here. Did you read the post, or did you just assume what I was going to say after I said that More was worth reading? Because it is a *great* read.

      The post is an attempt to establish a chain of transmission for the text we use to read More, to explain who he was (a complex, ambiguous individual who burned heretics but stood up for his own freedom of conscience), and to discuss the most important influences on his work. I would love to read additional adumbrations of those themes.

      On the points you are making here, which bear no relationship to my actual statements — I hardly disagree. My post in fact *says* that More is not a primary source but a secondary source, and it *also says* that Morton, whom most scholars believe was the major primary source for the work, was involved in the Hastings conspiracy and thus not a fan of Richard’s. So you’re running violently and unnecessarily through open doors here. In fact, no modern historian simply takes what More said about Richard at face value as fact about Richard’s life (and, as I say, neither did More’s 16th c. contemporaries. More’s work is a model for drama and poetry, not for historiography.)

      The point of this series is to show what the sources meant *in the context of their times.* No historical source is “objective.” No one can write anything down or make a record of anything without establishing a specific point of view, and no point of view is “neutral.” All textual sources are only “reliable” in the sense that they more or less reflect what their authors hoped to have said to a particular audience. (My statements about *you* do not necessarily say anything about you, but they say a great deal about *me*.) It is only through the comparison of different sources that we can hope to get a picture of something that might have happened.

      So please go back and read the original post in the series. You’re asking questions of More that his text does not seek to answer. *Your* question is, “what was Richard really like? What was he responsible for?” That was not a concern of More, and it’s not fair to ask it of him. Everyone in More’s hypothetical audience already “knew” what Richard was like and that he was responsible for the murder of his nephews; these matters were not in question. More doesn’t need to confirm that, and denial would have been pointless, so he simply repeats what he knows about it.

      In contrast, More’s bigger question, like that of most Renaissance humanists who wrote history and biography, is: what does history teach us about life? how should a king be? What kind of exemplum does Richard provide?

      This point becomes abundantly clear in the first paragraphs of the work, which are not about Richard but about Edward. For More, Richard is the ultimate contrast to Edward; Richard the moralist hypocrite who constantly lies to achieve his ends. This is not so much a statement about Richard — Richard is a convenient example and one that would have been much talked about in More’s time — as a statement about government and leadership. The themes of the work are leadership, immorality, and the nature of good / bad politics. Richard is just the vehicle for these statements. By understanding this, we can understand why, although his behavior was not that different from that of many medieval kings, his behavior might have been troubling for people observing it a few generations later, when standards about the proper conduct of government were changing. You can also read More as a sort of response to a general cultural suspicion about an emerging Machiavellianism that historians like Theodore Rabb have charged destabilized the European political system beginning in the sixteenth century.

  • fitzg says:

    Very much appreciated this textual analysis. At university, Utopia was presented as an exemplar of Renaissance humanist thought. Although the writer Josephine Tey presented More as a Tudor toady, of course that is far from the truth. More, after all, lost his head to the overgrown pre-adolescent Henry VIII, in a matter of conscience.

  • Trudy says:

    I’m hoping to follow all of this to fill in the very wide gaps in my knowledge of this subject. In due course, I’ll read TSIS. This will be great background info.

    • servetus says:

      I almost want to say, “don’t read TSIS first,” except that of course many people think it’s a great novel and it has gotten a lot of people, apparently including Richard Armitage, excited about this story. So read it, but with a serious grain of salt. (The posts from the group read on “me + richard” document some of the issues with its historical claims.)

      I suppose I’m going to eventually get hung up on my ambivalence about the whole “faithfulness” question. I don’t find Penman’s Richard convincing on the basis of what I know about the sources for this history. OTOH, Penman’s book has made the story live for a lot of people — and if they learn something more about the history, I should be happy about that.

      This is all CDoart’s fault, really. This was a historical topic that I very much kept myself out of until about a year ago.

  • servetus says:

    I would say that that’s not incorrect (re: Utopia), and there’s always the issue in Renaissance letters of gameplaying in the sense that Renaissance authors cultivated a sprezzatura (nonchalance) in writing that was specifically intended to say that anything really problematic was simply a joke or a thought experiment. Their political positions at courts and universities required them to have this “way out.” Still, more was more serious and religious than the average Renaissance humanist.

    I’ve only read Utopia once with students, and it was a really hard text for them to understand, as it has been for modern scholarship, which has never come to judgment as to whether More agreed with any of the statements made by the characters he presents in the texts, nor come up with a convincing reason *why* More wrote it. I’m following Logan when I say that it reflected More’s feelings about the morality of government, but the most recent interpretation by Harvard literature giant Stephen Greenblatt (someone whose work on Renaissance poetry I deeply admire, and whose thinking about texts, the “new historicism,” is deeply influential on my own writing) suggests that Utopia was written under the influence of More’s reading of Lucretius and is actually a comment on the sources of pleasure. Another influential reading was that of Quentin Skinner — making the more conventional point that Utopia is an early critique of private property’s influence on government.

  • fitzg says:

    One historian has speculated that a vein of irony permeates More’s writing. Perhaps, those who find this feasible might consider his description of Morton to be ironic. Another has suggested that More failed to complete his history of Richard III on beginning to question his (or Morton’s) premises. I don’t have the citations to hand, will have to re-research.

    TSIS is good enough of its genre, with adequate research, but it is not history. Mind you, I first read The Daughter of Time as a teenager, before reading anything by an historian, but it was influential in future history studies. 😀

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