What Richard III can teach us today

Friday , February 08, 2013 - 9:26 AM

John Watkins

MINNEAPOLIS — I like the idea of the hunchbacked Richard III, newly exhumed from his final resting spot beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, visiting the Oval Office. You can imagine the late, unlamented English monarch exchanging pleasantries with U.S. President Barack Obama about horseback riding and complaining about what a pain it is to deal with the intolerable French. They might also exchange notes on the inevitable headaches of leadership — though, in Obama’s case, he’s not likely to take his skeet-shooting gun and parachute into Helmand province to battle the Taliban.

But the conversation could quickly take a more somber turn. If there is a lesson from the 1485 fall of Richard’s House of York, it’s that there are worse things than judicious appeasement.

In general, the Wars of the Roses — the 30-year civil war between Richard’s Yorkist family and their Lancastrian cousins — continued a three-way policy dance that dated far back into the Hundred Years War. The Lancastrians often found support among the French; their bitter enemies, the Yorkists, found their friends among the powerful Dukes of Burgundy. In 1475, Edward IV, Richard’s older brother, became the first solvent English king in decades by finally cutting a good deal with the French. In exchange for no longer pressing his dubious claim to be the legitimate king of France, the French gave him a cozy pension and lucrative trading benefits. Yes, Richard’s very distant cousin Henry V had been more dashing in all his belligerence at Agincourt, but it had cost his realm dearly. Edward was learning that diplomatic success was easier and cheaper to achieve than military victory, and often had longer lasting results.

By the end of Edward’s reign, however, that agreement between France and Yorkist England was starting to weaken. Edward’s brother Richard III came to the throne determined to ignore it and to readopt a more swashbuckling attitude toward France. Huge mistake: France eagerly dumped money and resources into the invasion planned by Richard’s Lancastrian enemy, Henry Tudor. (Henry had been living in exile first in Brittany and later in France itself.) If Richard had not antagonized the French, they almost certainly would not have supported Henry — whose claim to the succession was weak at best — and Richard might have escaped the double ignominy of death in battle and eventual burial under a parking lot, though perhaps he would not have been immortalized by history’s greatest playwright.

In general, Richard III is less explicitly focused on foreign policy than Shakespeare’s other early history plays. In terms of dramatic interest, murdering little princes and drowning people in malmsey butts trumps treaty negotiations and ambassadorial exchanges. But as Richard rallies his troops to fight Henry, he speaks disparagingly of the “overweening rags of France” who have accompanied Henry back to England. Discounting the significance of French support was a mistake. A fatal one.

Lessons for today? Richard’s radically unstable England does not look much like a 21st-century democracy. It lacked the clear principles of succession and state monopolies on violence that characterize the United States and its Western European allies. But with its armed factions marauding over the country, 15th-century England does resemble some of the countries with which the American president has to deal. Shakespeare’s hunchbacked monarch would not be the last world leader to muscle himself into power through murder and intimidation. Nor would he be the last to swashbuckle on the international front in a desperate effort to solidify support at home.

Although writing at a moment when dynastic ambition still dictated policy, Shakespeare intuited the intimate relationship between foreign and domestic affairs that later characterized the Westphalian state. What was true of the feudal past remains true of failed states that trouble the modern world. Countries without reliable successions and whose rulers fail to achieve a governing consensus pose a constant threat to their neighbors. From Mali to Eritrea to Syria, strongmen and would-be dictators are the first to disregard international agreements and rake up old quarrels in the vain hope of legitimizing their regimes.

Fortunately for England, Henry Tudor learned from his predecessors’ mistakes. Although Henry VII’s claim to the throne was even shakier than Richard’s, he learned quickly that making peace with his neighbors was a better route to legitimacy than belligerence. The treaties he negotiated with France, Spain and Scotland brought his realm a stability and prosperity that it had not known for two centuries.

Obama and his advisers should take note of how England’s neighbors, France in particular, availed themselves of Richard’s fall to settle years of border disputes and to integrate England into a more cooperative set of interstate relations. France even provided Henry a generous annual subsidy that helped him stabilize his realm. At least until the accession of Henry’s foolhardy son Henry VIII two decades later, England and all its neighbors profited from his wise domestic governance. There is hope for failed states. They can be reclaimed and integrated within the community of nations. But world governments must recognize and support a potential leader, like Henry Tudor, who work with them to forge lasting, stabilizing agreements.

And what lessons does Richard III hold for the world’s petty tyrants? Nothing is more tempting when you have trouble at home than shaking fists at your traditional enemy. That strategy rarely works and often even backfires. Damaging your credibility on the international front will only exacerbate your problems at home. It might even get you buried under a parking lot.

Watkins is a professor of English and affiliate faculty in history at the University of Minnesota.

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