Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!
Alarums. Enter KING RICHARD III
Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
(The Tragedy Of Richard The Third, Act 5 Scene 4, C.1592)
Shakespeare wrote more than 100 hundred years after the fall of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. His portrayal presents a villain with a cunning wit, clever, charming, ruthless. In today’s parlance one might consider these the traits of a sociopath, driven by a complex megalomania, in compensation for the world’s perceived slight of an inferiority born of his malformed image,
(The Tragedy Of Richard The Third, Act 1, Scene 1)
Shakespeare’s study was largely based on Sir Thomas More’s The History Of King Richard The Thirde, c.1513. More’s manuscript was left unfinished, and published after his death. Both his allegiance to the heirs of the Tudor Dynasty, and his purpose in presenting rather than a factual history, but a cautionary exemplar of the subversion of law by an absolute tyrant, necessarily displayed an unabashed bias.
More has Richard III of little of stature, ill featured of limbs, crooked-backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right, hard favoured of visage, and such as is in states called warlike, in other men otherwise, he was malicious, wrathful, envious, and from before his birth, ever frowarde…He was close and secret, a deep dissimulater, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill. (Modernized from the 1997 University of Oregon Renascence Edition)
Shakespeare’s, Richard was also a veiled caricature of the contemporary politician the hunchbacked Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, notorious manipulator, and much feared spymaster, the power behind the throne in the Court of Elizabeth I.
And yet when it comes to the finale, when it comes to battle, both critique of tyranny and satire on the machinations of politics are put aside. Whether hero, villain, or tyrant, is of no account. The ancient rite of trial is invoked. Before gods and men, life is put upon a single turn, fate does not judge, but irrevocably decides.
The line itself, describing a moment of edged fate, was taken up almost as soon as it was uttered. Shakespeare’s contemporary, satirist and playwright John Marston (1576-1634) employed it and several variations in his own plays;
A fool, a fool, a fool, my coxcomb for a fool.
A boat! a boat! a boat! a full hundred marks for a boat!
A man, a man ! a kingdome for a man!
It has been quoted, repeated, parodied and lampooned ever since, a lazy erudition chancing an uneven bargain, calling for everything from an axe to a hearse to a cheeseburger, in order to inveigle a lacklustre laugh. So much so that, out of context, the cry has come to mean one of cowardice, not an impassioned prayer to the gods of battle and fate.
This misconception hears it as Richard willing to exchange his kingdom in its entirety for a horse on which to flee. It is a distortion, not an understanding that bears any weight, born of umpteen malappropriations. Richard is not bargaining his kingdom for his life, he utters a cry to the old gods, the gods of horses and men, rallying fate, in the thick with foes dying and soldiers deserting, unhorsed and with the fray desperate he cries that with a horse he could turn the battle, take the fight to his nemesis, carpe diem, and secure his kingdom.
Amongst Richard III’s contemporary chroniclers many were detractors, though several took a more worldly view.
On the 2nd of August 1485 Richard III rode out to meet an invading army of French mercenaries and English rebels led by Henry Tudor, under the purse of the French Court. There he met his fate.
Polydore Vergil (C.1513)
The report is that King Richard may have sought to save himself by flight, for they who were about him, seeing the soldiers even from the first stroke to lift up their weapons but feebly and faintly, and some of them to depart the field privily, suspected treason, and exhorted him to fly, and when the matter began manifestly to falter, they brought him swift horses, but he, who was not ignorant that the people hated him, is said to have answered that that very day he would make an end to war or life…
Jean De Molinet, Historiographer to the Burgundian Court (C.1490)
The Earl Of Northumberland, who was on the king’s side with 10,000 men, ought to have charged the French, but did nothing except to flee, both he and his company, and to abandon his King Richard, for he had an undertaking with the Earl Of Richmond, as had some others who deserted, him in his need. The king bore himself valiantly…and bore the crown upon his head, but when he saw this discomfiture and found himself alone on the field, he thought to run after the others. His horse leapt into a marsh from which it could not retrieve itself. One of the Welshmen then came after him, and struck him dead with a halberd, and another took his body and put it before him on his horse, and carried it, hair hanging as one would bear a sheep.
Diego de Valera, to the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon, (March, 1486)
Now when Salazar, your little vassal, who was there in King Richard’s service, saw the treason of the king’s people, he went up to him and said, “Sire, take steps to put your person in safety, without expecting to have the victory in today’s battle, owing to the manifest treason in your following.” But the king replied, “Salazar, God forbid I yield one step. This day I will die as a king, or win.” Then he placed over his helm the crown royal, and having donned his coat of arms began to fight with much vigour, putting heart into those that remained loyal, so that by his sole effort he upheld the battle for a long time. But in the end the king’s army was beaten and he himself slain, and in this battle more than 10,000 men are said to have perished on both sides. Salazar fought bravely, but for all this was able to escape.
John Rous (C.1486)
And like the Antichrist to come, he was confounded at his moment of greatest pride. For having with him the crown itself, together with great quantities of treasure, he was unexpectedly cut down in the midst of his army by an invading army small by comparison but furious in impetus, like a wretched creature. for all that, let me say the truth to his credit: that he bore himself like a gallant knight, and, despite his little body and feeble strength, honourably defended himself to his last breath, shouting again and again that he was betrayed, and crying, “Treason! Treason!”
The Croyland Chronicler (C.1486)
In the place where the Earl of Northumberland stood, with a fairly large and well-equipped force, there was no contest against the enemy and no blows were given or received in battle. In the end a glorious victory was granted by Heaven to the Earl of Richmond…As for King Richard, he received many mortal wounds, and like a spirited and most courageous prince, fell in the battle and not in flight.
Ballad Of Bosworth Field (Earliest known date is Bishop Percy’s Folio, 1750, but presumed to have been composed before 1495)
Then to King Richard there came a knight,
And said, “I hold it time for to flee…”
Richard said, “Give me my battle-axe in my hand,
Set the crown of England on my head so high!
For by Him that shape both sea and land,
King of England this day I will die!”
Not for want of a nail, a shoe, a horse, a knight, a kingdom, as the rhyme thought also to originate with Richard recounts, a tale of unplanned for chance, unexpected consequences, chaos theory and perhaps the importance of military logistics, the armoured knight a-horse was the preeminent fighting ordinance of his day, as Molinet said later, perhaps referring to Richard, perhaps not, Par ung seul clou perd on ung bon cheval, by just one nail one loses a good horse (C.1507) rather perd cheval, mal chance.
Richard III, neither the savage gallant of Shakespeare grasping at power, seizing grandiloquent vengeance, nor the figure despite accuracies and evidence to the contrary, subsequently vilified through history, the usurper, kin killer, child murderer, the historic Richard, was also brave, pious, forgiving and trusting, to his downfall. A King and a man like others, pride before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Neither saint nor hero, nor kingly knight, but he was perhaps the last knightly King. For a moment, for want of a horse.
Perhaps he should have attended better to his Chess. The cheval, the knight, the horse may advance and harry and attack, and be sacrificed. The King, never.