The Praise of King Richard the Third

The Praise of King Richard the Third is the first of the four paradoxes included in the 1616 edition of Essayes of Certaine Paradoxes printed by Thomas Thorpe, and certainly the most discussed in relation to its authorship. While the following two are translations (praising the “French pocks” and Nothing) and the fourth (on debt) has a prior version which remained in manuscript and was published only in 1931, the history of this encomium is more controversial.

It appeared in print for the first time in Thorpe’s collection but there are ten extant manuscript versions, four of which with evidences of authorship: the Devonshire and the 1612 Folger manuscript bear the name of William Cornwallis (the former dedicated to his “worthy friend Mr. John Donne”) (Allen 1946, xvi), the Rawlinson manuscript the initials ‘W.C.’, and the British Museum manuscript ‘Hen. W.’ (dedicated to Sir Henry Neville) (Ramsden and Kincaid 1977, i-ii).

While Zeeveld argued that the Elizabethan manuscripts “are unquestionably recensions of a much earlier defense written by a contemporary supporter of Richard as a response to a calumniator sympathetic to the new Tudor regime” (1940, 947) and thus that Cornwallis appropriated the text, in his 1977 edition of the encomium Arthur Kincaid refuted these assumptions and persuasively demonstrated that Cornwallis should be considered the author. According to the critic there is no evidence of the existence of an earlier defence written in the early Tudor period by someone else; instead, he theorised “that Cornwallis came across the original Morton tract and set out to refute it, probably afterwards turning his work into something like a paradox” (Ramsden and Kincaid 1977, ii) (cardinal John Morton’s attacks on Richard III circulated in manuscript in his lifetime but are no longer extant).

This encomium was the first printed text to attempt a defence of the king and an influence for later works, among which Sir George Buck’s The History of King Richard the Third.

Although Cornwallis probably used Gerolamo Cardano’s Neronis Encomium (firstly published in 1562) as a model for his piece, the text contains a partial quotation from it, most part of the defence was drawn from historians’ accounts: references to Thomas More, Philip de Comines, Edward Hall, and Holinshed give evidence of Richard’s virtues – his discreetness, liberality, wisdom – alongside his abilities as a statesman: he instituted good laws, reduced taxes for his citizens and cared for the stability of the country already during the reign of his brother, Edward IV, whose orders he executed with discretion and success. Most of the accusations moved against him, from his claim to the throne to his dream before the battle of Bosworth, are dealt with as being caused by misunderstood reasons: once ascertained of the unlawfulness of his brother’s marriage, Richard’s rise to power was led by his concerns for the people and the nobility; if he did command Shaw’s sermon held at Paul’s Cross (which stated for the first time the unlawfulness of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and Edward V’s claim to the throne, thus legitimating Richard III as the rightful heir), it was only to make the people partakers of his right to the throne and to show his sense of justice; the killing of his two nephews in the tower prevented any further dissension and granted peace to the people, but who can say it was not God’s punishment for the sins of their father? As regards the dream which he had the night before his death, on the eve of the final battle against the future Henry VII, his accusers saw it as a sign of remorse for his tyrannous life, but even great leaders such as Caesar and Brutus had dreams just as horrible before their end. It was, in fact, his chance to make peace with God before asking his soldiers for forgiveness and facing his death.

At this point, the author concludes his argumentation by addressing directly the “judicious reader” (l. 460): if one compares Richard III to other rulers, despite his reputation, the reader would find him “as innocent of cruelty, extortion, and tyranny as the most; as wise, politic, and valiant as any” (l. 463).        


Works Cited


Allen, Don Cameron (ed.) (1946), Essayes by Sir William Cornwallis, the younger, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Cardano, Gerolamo (1640), Neronis encomium, Amsterdam: Joh. et Cornelius Blaev.

De Commines, Philippe (1817), The Historical Memoirs of Philip de Comines Containing: The Transactions of Louis XI and of Charly VIII of France and of Edward IV and Henry VII of England, London: W.M. Dowall.

Hall, Edward (1809), Hall’s chronicle : containing the history of England, during the reign of Henry the Fourth, and the succeeding monarchs, to the end of the reign of Henry the Eighth, in which are particularly described the manners and customs of those periods, London: J. Johnson.

Holinshed, Raphael (1807), Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, London: J. Johnson.

Ramsden and Kincaid (1977), “Introduction”, in Kincaid, Arthur (ed.) The Encomium of Richard III, by Sir William Cornwallis the Younger, Turner & Devereux, i-xiv.

Zeeveld, W. Gordon (1940), “A Tudor Defense of Richard III”, PMLA 55 (4), 946-57.