Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Alternative history, or What you Will, by Alex Marchant


In nine days’ time it will be the 534th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, often viewed as a turning point in English history. It’s when the medieval period is deemed to have ended and the early modern age begun – with the fall of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, and the victory of Henry Tudor, first in the dynasty that bore his name.

King Richard III of England

Of course, history is never quite that simple, but it’s handy to focus on a specific date marked by a climactic battle, such as 22 August 1485, rather than have to chart the decades-long transition between medieval and modern to be found in religious changes or the gradual move from rule based on personal loyalty to a more modern, bureaucratic state.
Either way, this coming weekend, the event will be commemorated in the annual Bosworth Medieval Festival on the fields of Leicestershire, with its re-enactment of the battle itself by hundreds of modern-day ‘knights in shining armour’.

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[The alternative] King Richard, 'fighting manfully in the thickest press'

Usually the festival stages two battles – one from earlier in the Wars of the Roses (say, Barnet or Tewkesbury) before the main event to ensure value-for-money for the ticket-holders. Last year, however, they tried something a little different: re-enacting Bosworth as though King Richard had won.
That was always going to be a popular plan for a sizable proportion of the audience. The Yorkist side, and particularly King Richard himself, appears to attract the most support at the event. On each occasion I’ve attended, there’s been audible encouragement urging Richard on, even after he is unhorsed during his fateful, heroic charge to try to reach Tudor and decisively end the battle. Tudor, lurking at the rear of his mostly French, mercenary troops, rarely receives many cheers – and is often subject to jeers. Is it the usual British fondness for the underdog (ignoring the fact that, ostensibly, Richard commanded the greater army on the day), or is it just that, of the two men at the heart of the battle, Richard is the better liked – despite the evil reputation that still hangs about him after the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries?

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The original 'alternative' Richard III, courtesy of Master Shakespeare


Alternative history is not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but there does seem to be a fair amount of it written about Richard III. Is it because of that very specific date – from which different timelines can easily flow? What if … Richard had won, there was no Henry VIII and the Reformation hadn’t happened? What if … Richard had married the Spanish infanta, Columbus’ voyage had been a English–Spanish joint venture, and a united empire later flourished in the New World? Or is it simply that, on a very individual level, Ricardians – who, like myself, believe the man was maligned after his death – just want to imagine a better life for him? After all, in his 32 years, he lost his father and three older brothers (only one through natural causes), his wife and his young son (within a year of each other), then finally his life and his crown as a result of the basest treachery.

Richard and son Edward in a modern window, Middleham



Although I was sorely tempted to change the outcome of the battle as it approached when I was writing The King’s Man, I had to resist, as the whole aim of my retelling of Richard’s story in my Order of the White Boar books was to tell it as accurately as possible – drawing on the contemporary records that showed a very different man from the Shakespearean villain. Since then, I’ve toyed with the idea, wondering at which point in Richard’s life the timelines could have diverged and the tragic later events of his life been avoided. One such exploration led to a short story, ‘If Only’, that will be included in a second Ricardian anthology to be sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK later this year (details of the first anthology can be found here: mybook.to/GrantMetheCarving, and of the second here: https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2019/06/30/right-trusty-and-well-beloved-the-final-line-up-for-second-richardiii-anthology/). Another piece of short fiction in that anthology, ‘Richard Redux’ by Terri Beckett, also offers a piece of alternative history, but one starting at what is a point often favoured by Ricardians – the climax of the Battle of Bosworth itself. What if … Richard had won on 22 August 1485?

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King Richard escorting the defeated Tudor off the field


The ‘alternative battle’ went down a storm with the audience at the Medieval Festival in 2018 and there were hints from the organizers that they might do it again. Will they this year? I’ll find out next weekend.  Meanwhile, of course, there are always alternatives to be found within any alternative history. Just how did Richard’s victory come about? Was treachery avoided? Did the death-or-glory charge attain its goal of killing Tudor? Did William Stanley come into the battle on the right side at last after 533 years?  What do you think would have been the most likely alteration that would have turned the tide of history?*
And do you have a different favourite moment in history about which you’ve often wondered – what if?

[*To find out what happened in ‘Bosworth 1485 – Mark II’, here are two blog posts written just after the event (yes, this unprecedented event definitely merited two!): https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2018/08/21/bosworth2018-and-king-richard-wins/ and https://maryanneyarde.blogspot.com/2018/09/bosworth-1485-mark-ii-by-alex-marchant.html.]


Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year (which Alex really shouldn't have taken on!)



Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:


4 comments:

Umberto Tosi said...

Fascinating post! I'm sure that your insistence on well informed, historical authenticity also lends your alternative histories authority. The next street over from where I live is named Bosworth, by the way, a quiet, maple-lined street with the post box on the corner where I mail my letters. You've set my imagination running amok with alternative histories along our little street - the most nightmarish being the one in which we find ourselves with Donald Trump as US president and your Boris PM of UK - both possibly deaths-knells of their respective democracies. This would well have been fallout from the alternative historic union of England with authoritarian, Catholic imperial Spain that you cited, had Richard III won that battle. Like all histories, however, it can't last.

Damyanti said...

This post taught me so much! Sharing.

Griselda Heppel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cecilia Peartree said...

Yes, I can understand people wanting to avoid having had the Tudors in charge (though I wonder about Shakespeare in that case).
I love alternative history ideas. I was talking to a friend about the relatively recent decision to make the succession to the British throne dependent purely on birth order rather than gender, and we realised that if that had happened after Queen Victoria's death her daughter Vicky who married into the German royal family would have inherited and there could have been a Union of the Crowns between Britain and Germany. What kind of effect might that have had on 20th century events?!