Shakespeare's 'King Richard III' and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy

By Hunt, Maurice | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's 'King Richard III' and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy


Hunt, Maurice, Papers on Language & Literature


Granted Queen Elizabeth's touchiness concerning the subject of royal bastardy, Shakespeare ran a risk in King Richard III by focusing questions of bastardy in such a way that they invite comparison with problematical details of bastardy in the Tudor succession. The queen's life-long association with bastardy makes Shakespeare's emphasis surprising.(1) Analysis of Tudor bastardy reveals the emergence of a paradigm of illegitimate legitimacy (or legitimate illegitimacy), a composite reproduced in the discourse on royal bastardy in King Richard III. The ambiguous melding of legitimate illegitimacy that allowed Elizabeth, her half-sister and half-brother, and her grandfather to side-step challenges to their right to rule (or potentially to rule) reappears in the play in the rationale that Richard of Gloucester uses to dispossess his nephews and seize the crown. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's dramaturgy finally exonerates rather than undercuts the Tudor monarchy. In the play the growth of bastardy into a metaphor for a certain illegitimacy of human nature transforms the dramatic debate into one of even-man's existential legitimacy or illegitimacy. In this respect, a figurative bastard is much worse than a ruler of moral character who may (or may not) be a bastard in the technical sense of the word. The legitimately born "bastard" Richard and the pious, ethical Henry, Earl of Richmond, who is tainted with bastardy in the play (as he was in life), illustrate this paradoxical idea.

Understanding the problematical history of Tudor bastardy becomes a prerequisite for fully appreciating the representation of royal illegitimacy in King Richard III. Charges of bastardy afflicted the Tudors before and even during the historical times depicted in King Richard III. Henry VII's paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, and Catharine of Valois, the widow of Henry V, fell in love and had three sons (Edmund, Jasper, and Owen); but the parents may never have married. This ambiguity invited the stigma of bastardy. Because the boys were the children of a former queen of England, those guarding the rights of the minor Henry VI such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester regarded the children as a threat and so branded them illegitimate. Still, King Henry VI countenanced Owen Tudor's sons, making them royal half-brothers. Edmund Tudor--Henry VII's father--in 1453 at age twenty-three became the Earl of Richmond. Concerning this recognition, Eric Simons speculates, "whether [King Henry VI] and his Council were now convinced that [the young men's] parents had been truly married at their birth, or whether they considered it politically advisable to remove the stigma of bastardy from the royal half-brothers, cannot be said" (6). In 1459-60, an act of Parliament affirmed the legitimacy of Edmund, Jasper, and Owen Tudor, chiefly because of their father's Lancastrian services during the Wars of the Roses (Simons 5-6). Nevertheless, the taint of bastardy continued to surround the births of certain progenitors of the founder of the Tudor monarchy--Henry VII.

Henry VII's maternal great grandfather, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, was--in Simons's words--"technically a bastard" (6). King Henry IV had specifically excluded the Beauforts from the order of succession. The kingship claim of Edmund Tudor's son, Henry, Earl of Richmond, depended principally on the young man's descent from Catharine of Valois and from Edward III's son John of Gaunt via Lady Margaret Beaufort, granddaughter of John Beaufort (Given-Wilson and Curteis 18). Yet we have seen that both of these routes included the quicksand of original bastardy charges. After the final Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury and the ascension of the York King Edward IV, Henry and his uncle jasper Tudor sought refuge in France. In January 1584, the new king Richard III "obtained the outlawry of the Earl of Richmond and the Countess of Richmond, his mother" (Simons 26). In June 1485, Richard, waiting for Henry Tudor's imminent invasion, at Nottingham issued a proclamation declaring that Henry "`is descended of bastard blood both of the father's side and of the mother's side, for the said Owen his grandfather was bastard born, and his mother was daughter unto John duke of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swvnford, and of her in double adultery begotten, whereby it evidently apppareth that no title can or may be in him, who fully intendeth to enter this realm purposing a conquest'" (Given-Wilson and Curteis 159). …

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Shakespeare's 'King Richard III' and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy
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