Thomas More – a public servant who from 1518 served on Henry VIII’s Privy Council and later became Lord Chancellor – wrote his History of King Richard III between around 1513 and 1518.
More’s account – which dramatised conflicts, provided descriptions of both body and mind, and looked for causes as well as recording facts – was popular and was incorporated into the work of other chroniclers, including Holinshed and Stow, as well as influencing dramatists such as Shakespeare.
The work survives in English and Latin versions, both unfinished, with some variation in detail between the two. More borrows freely from other Tudor accounts of Richard’s reign, such as those by John Rous and Polydore Vergil, and adds original detail from direct testimony.
The portrayal of Richard III
Richard III’s Tudor successors from Henry VII onwards had a vested interest in portraying him as a bad, and indeed unlawful, king to increase their own legitimacy as the line who deposed him. More’s account, written under Henry VIII, follows the Tudor propagandist line and paints Richard as a usurper, accusing him of killing the princes in the tower (it is likely but not proven that Richard arranged their deaths).
Half way down the first column on page 37 is More’s now famous description of Richard: ‘little of stature, ill featured of limes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage … he was malicious, wrathfull, envious, and from afore his birth, ever frowarde.’ He also describes Richard’s difficult birth, used to portray him as monstrous and unnatural, reporting that it was said he was born feet first and ‘not untothed’ (i.e. born with teeth). More considers the possibility that these reports go beyond truth out of hatred for Richard, but also ‘that nature chaunged her course in hys beginning, whiche in the course of his lyfe many thinges unnaturallye committed.’ In the second column, More also describes Richard as ‘close and secrete, a deepe dissimuler’ and ‘not letting to kisse whome hee thought to kyll’, a line that seems to anticipate Shakespeare in Richard’s line ‘why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile’ (3 Henry VI, 3.2.182).
Shakespeare’s Richard III and More’s History
More’s History is the main source for Shakespeare’s play Richard III, although there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew the 1557 version in addition to the 1548, which he had definitely read. More’s witty and ironic presentation of Richard and his villainy seem to have been particularly influential, as were the parallels he drew between theatre and politics: ‘And so they said that these matters bee kynges games, as it were stage playes, and for the more part plaied upon scaffolds’ (p. 66).