Kings and Queens: Constructing a Legacy

The Kings and Queens series of stamps chronicles a 600 year history of British monarchy, from Henry VI in 1339 to Elizabeth II, and depicts portraits of each ruler in the houses of Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stewart, Stuart, Hanover, Saxe-Coburg and Windsor; an epic issue which was released over four years. This blog examines the legacy of two monarchs: Richard III and Lady Jane Grey. Evidence in the stamp issue reveals the construction of a history which legitimised the successive victor’s rule and propaganda which consolidated their power. This reconstructed past is still popularly bought into, highlighting the success of the original spin doctors.

The Houses of Lancaster and York stamps, issued 28 February 2008.

The Houses of Lancaster and York stamps, issued 28 February 2008.

Richard III: villain or victim? Opinion is split where this monarch is concerned due, in part, to successful Tudor propaganda. I ought to make clear that I do not wish to determine who was responsible for the infamous deaths of ‘the Princes in the Tower’ nor establish which monarch was most ‘wicked’ but to identify activities following Richard’s death which constructed an evil identity, actions which may have been orchestrated by the Tudors in order to legitimise their rule.

The animalisation of Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III describes him as “spider”, “toad” and “hedgehog” in order to brutalise and dehumanise him; Richard’s “deformed” and “unfinished” physicality purportedly representing the monster within. Richard III was published during the reign of Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Richard’s conqueror. The play reinforced the Tudor lore that Henry VII swept away evil and brought justice to the land. Interestingly, a powerful patron of Shakespeare’s was Ferdinando Stanley; heir to the throne, following his mother, if Elizabeth died without issue. Ferdinando Stanley was a descendent of the brothers Thomas and William Stanley who had a reputation of playing for both sides in the Wars of the Roses and waited until the decisive victor of the Battle of Bosworth was clear until joining the Tudor forces. One might consider the plausibility of Stanley’s involvement in Shakespeare’s creation of monster-Richard in order to immortalize the role his family played in ensuring Tudor victory and retell their past Yorkist involvement in a more sympathetic light.

Richard III (1483-1485) stamp, issued 28 February 2008.

Richard III (1483-1485) stamp, issued 28 February 2008.

The portrait of Richard III used in the stamp issue was painted in around 1520, there is no surviving contemporary portrait of Richard, and has been the inspiration for most subsequent likenesses. X-ray analysis of the portrait reveals that the unevenness of the shoulders was a later addition. The painting was completed around four years after the birth of Henry VIII’s only child to that point: a daughter, Mary. This was a challenging time for the Tudors as stability was dependent on a line of male heirs. The negative portrayal of Richard III in this context is important as it reaffirmed the greatness of Tudor rule. One may imagine that the portrait was sent back to be made more hideous in order to further bolster the juxtaposition between the monstrous old rulers and virtuous Tudors.

Adding weight to the argument of Tudor propaganda is the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton; confirmed to be that of the monarch in 2013. The skeleton showed evidence of scoliosis and infers that Richard would have been quite stooped. This characteristic was exploited and enlarged in the Tudor period and Richard’s body transformed into a symbol of malignity, perhaps because successful lies are built on shreds of truth. Unfortunately the skeleton cannot prove or disprove John Rous’s assertion, made shortly after Richard’s death, that Richard was born with fully grown teeth and hair, but I am confident that this can be apportioned to Tudor monster making.

House of Tudor stamps, issued 21 April 2009.

House of Tudor stamps, issued 21 April 2009.

The Royal Mail press release for The House of Tudor issue describes the era as “marking the end of the Middle Ages [and]… the introduction of the Renaissance into England.” This simplistic statement is dependent on value judgements which reduce vast periods into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Popular history buys into these sweeping judgements by maintaining the use of monarch’s nicknames such as Richard the Lionheart which denotes bravery and superiority. William I’s competing nicknames demonstrate the importance of victory to the construction of positive legacy as the nickname ‘William the Bastard’ vied with, and ultimately lost to, ‘William the Conqueror.’

Lady Jane Grey (1553) stamp, issued 21 April 2009.

Lady Jane Grey (1553) stamp, issued 21 April 2009.

Jane Grey, great granddaughter of Henry VII, was Queen for nine days in July 1553. On the stamp issue, and every website I found in a rudimental internet search, she is referred to as Lady Jane Grey; never Queen Jane. Regardless of how she became Queen, Queen she was. Regardless of the length of her reign, reign she did. That she is not remembered as Queen Jane reinforces the legacy of illegitimate rule. The ‘Lady’ title happily suits both historical identities constructed around Jane: either she was never the legitimate Queen hence she was only ever a Lady, or, the queenship was foisted upon the unsuspecting Jane hence she only ever wanted to be a Lady. Jane Grey is the only monarch in the series without the appropriate title. The maintenance of the ‘Lady’ title in the stamp issue compounds the identities most commonly attached to her: a pretender, seizing the position unjustly or a puppet, forced into power. The way that we refer to Jane Grey reveals perceptions regarding her personality which subsequently become accepted as fact.

Public memory of monarchs’ personalities is often constructed by their vanquishers through title, nickname, plays and portraits. This version of history belies complex events and their subsequent reconstruction. The Kings and Queens series is most interesting in the presentation of historical constructs which are accepted as fact but were carefully constructed historical fiction.

- Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant

One response to “Kings and Queens: Constructing a Legacy

  1. Simon Thompson

    Nice article and some very good looking stamps.

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