A skeleton dug up from a parking lot in Leicester, England last year was confirmed this month to be King Richard III. This provides as good an excuse as any for exploring the now overlooked but always relevant complexities of kinship.
The last of the Plantagenets ruled England until his 1485 death at the Battle of Bosworth Field fighting Henry Tudor, who succeeded him as King Henry VII.
As Richard’s supporters, the Ricardians, like to complain, history is written by the victors. And the victorious Tudors had the best writer ever, William Shakespeare, whose patroness, Queen Elizabeth I, was Henry VII’s granddaughter.
Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard as a hunchback Machiavel who ordered the murder of his own brother and two little nephews has furnished the screenplay for memorable movie versions of Richard III starring Laurence Olivier in 1955 and Ian McKellen in 1995.
Although Richard III was written early in Shakespeare’s career, it chronologically concludes his two tetralogies about English kings. The playwright much later returned to royal history to coauthor the uninspired Henry VIII, but Richard III’s death on Bosworth Field—“My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse”—is the capstone of a vast dramatic edifice that has influenced Anglo-American thought ever since.
As the Ricardians bitterly note, Shakespeare so dominates our impressions of pre-Tudor monarchs that there is relatively little demand for fresh works of historical fiction about pre-Tudor royals.
In contrast, because Shakespeare in his prime shied away from writing in depth about Tudor history, there’s no end to new works fictionalizing the Tudors. At least since Charles Laughton won the 1933 Best Actor Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII, the Tudors have been depicted onscreen perhaps as often as any family in history. For example, in 1998, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett were both Oscar-nominated for playing the Virgin Queen.
English royal history in this period is of peculiarly broad interest because it combines affairs of state, family soap opera, and violence—lots and lots of violence, but the most memorable is of the domestic variety that has fascinated audiences since Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex.
Steven Pinker wrote in The Blank Slate:
Aristotle was perhaps the first to note that tragic narratives focus on family relations. A story about two strangers who fight to the death, he pointed out, is nowhere near as interesting as a story about two brothers who fight to the death. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Oedipus and Laius, Michael and Fredo, JR and Bobby, Frasier and Niles, Joseph and his brothers, Lear and his daughters, Hannah and her sisters.…
The peculiar horror of when-brother-fought-brother has long been thought to have Darwinian roots. When an interviewer asked biologist J. B. S. Haldane if he would give up his life for his brother, he famously quipped, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”
In the 1960s, William D. Hamilton fully worked out the math of kin selection that Haldane had hinted at: We share copies of, approximately, 50 percent of our idiosyncratic gene variants with our parents, siblings, and children, 25 percent with uncles/aunts and nephews/nieces, 12.5% with first cousins, and so forth. This helps explain nepotism: You have a genetic interest in helping your brother’s child succeed at reproducing, but less of an interest in your first cousin’s child, and even less in your second cousin’s child.
In the 1970s, Robert Trivers showed that this logic explains sibling rivalry as well. Your relatives are your most natural allies because you share more genes with them than with strangers. Yet they are also your most likely rivals for your family’s resources, such as inheritances…for example, the throne of England.
This balance between nepotism and neposchism, between sibling rivalry and sibling revelry, makes for high-stakes drama, especially when a crown is at stake. As the Earl of Richmond, soon to be the new king Henry VII, laments in the concluding speech of Richard III:
England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,
The father rashly slaughter’d his own son,
The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire.…
The fascinating 2006 academic paper Culling the Cousins: Kingship, kinship, and competition in mid-millennial England analyzes two centuries of English royal-upon-royal killings from a Darwinian perspective. They count 47 homicides between members of the royal family (defined as descendants of King Edward III).
The long reign of the philoprogenitive King Edward III proved that when it comes to heirs, you can have too much of a good thing. He died in 1377, leaving not just “an heir and a spare” (as the current Prince of Wales has contrived to do), but five legitimate sons and three daughters.
For the next two centuries, Edward III’s descendants fought a “cousins’ war” for the throne, coalescing into two main rivals, the House of York (whose symbol was the white rose) and the House of Lancaster (the red rose). In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott christened this struggle that climaxed on Bosworth Field the “War of the Roses.”
A couple of decades earlier, the House of York had taken the throne away from the Lancastrian Henry VI, making Edward IV king. Here, thanks to Wikipedia, is a simplified family tree:
While Edward IV was king, his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was “privately executed” for treason in the Tower of London. Shakespeare presents this killing as part of Richard’s machinations to eliminate future rivals.
Edward IV died in 1483. His will made his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Protector of his 12-year-old son, the new King Edward V.
But before the lad could be crowned, the ambitious Richard induced Parliament to declare his late brother’s marriage illegitimate, rendering Richard’s wards bastards. This law also implied that Richard’s brothers had been cuckoo’s eggs themselves, making Richard the only true heir. Richard had himself crowned king.
The little ex-king and his younger brother disappeared in the Tower of London and were never seen again. To shore up his claim to the throne with a dynastic marriage, Richard set about wooing his brother’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.
Interestingly, over the course of the two centuries between the death of Edward III and the gradual decision of Elizabeth I to stop executing threats to the throne, 42 of the 47 royal victims were various kinds of cousins of their killers. Only five were closer relations: one brother, two uncles, and two nephews (the tragic “princes in the Tower” who Shakespeare claims were smothered at Richard III’s command).
In other words, Hamiltonian nepotism was more powerful than Triversian sibling rivalry during the Cousins’ War.
These statistics help explain Richard III’s exceptional notoriety. Kingship was a bloody business, but most of intra-royal executions were of cousins, often distant cousins. If Shakespeare is to be believed, Richard III was guilty of three of the five killings of closer-than-cousin relatives over two centuries of turmoil.
Of course, the Ricardians don’t believe Shakespeare. And I’m not equipped to play 15th-century detective over who murdered the princes in the Tower.
Then, Henry Tudor, who claimed to be a Lancastrian via his mother’s illegitimate ancestry, invaded from exile in France and overthrew the king. In the last speech in Richard III, the new king announces that, as leader of Lancaster, he will marry the slain Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York:
We will unite the white rose and the red…
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace….
This dynastic marriage’s heirs would include Henry VIII, who divorced England from the Pope’s influence, and Elizabeth I, whose navy’s victory over the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 brought the English the peace and self-confidence necessary for the cultural climacteric of the Shakespearean Era.
Dynastic marriages have long been seen as a solution for otherwise insoluble political difficulties (although Paul Johnson argues that they mostly only multiplied plausible claimants to the throne). In the case of the War of the Roses, this dynastic marriage more or less worked. Scion Henry VIII’s Reformation set off a new round of Protestant v. Catholic squabbling that went on until 1688, but he did embody the satisfactory resolution of the York v. Lancaster fight.
I’ve long argued that the meteoric success of Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention stems from his devoting the first 390 words to his ancestry, which culminates in the “improbable love” between his black father and white mother: a symbolic dynastic marriage between America’s main races.
Of course, Obama has mythologized his parents’ tawdry history: a 17-year-old girl with jungle fever knocked up by an already married man, a bigamous wedding, and then little evidence that they ever even made a home together. (Being Obama, a man who would rather mislead than flat-out lie, the politician left himself the lawyerly out: “Hey, I said it was ‘improbable.’”)
I suspect that Obama’s improbable rise to the presidency originated in his having introduced himself to the American people as the product of a figurative dynastic marriage that united the white rose and the black. By his dual nature he would…somehow or other…solve America’s race problem as permanently as the marriage announced at the end of Richard III solved England’s rose problem.
The details of how this would work were always a little fuzzy, but the message was clear: Elect Obama president.
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