This song was written in May of 2013, and represents my first attempt at writing a song about a historical Medieval figure: Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet line of English kings. (People do sometimes ask me what a Plantagenet is.) The song was first publicly performed at The Wars of the Roses in Concordia of the Snows, Memorial Day weekend 2013.
The bardic highlight of the event was a “Bardic Thyng”, where bards were challenged to side with York or Lancaster and defend their choice. I performed the song in favor of York. The song won (though York, at this event as in history, lost the war).
The Last Plantagenet
© 2013 words & music by Eric Schrager
Richard the Third, I say you all!
Was there ever a king so vile?
Stabbing his long way to the throne
With a traitor’s self-serving smile.
What a fiend! O how glad the people were,
When King Henry destroyed this brute.
So say the Tudor histories,
And they’re surely beyond dispute.
How on earth to bury such a king?
Hold no funeral, throw a fête!
Still, we must ask, is this the truth
Of the last Plantagenet?
Fiercely young Richard armies led
To defend brother Edward’s throne.
Their middle brother traitor turned,
And his life forfeit to atone.
But when Edward at forty died from vice,
And Protector he Richard named,
Caught, unprepared, ‘twixt widow Queen
And the Kingmakers’ warring claims.
His advisers all were chess masters,
Each one scheming against a threat.
Swiftly the pawn did king himself,
As the last Plantagenet.
Had he his nephew Princes killed?
It could be: Richard was no saint.
But if he erred in dealing death,
It was toward mercy and restraint.
For he left noble houses well intact,
And great trouble for him they’d make…
Unlike the Tudors’ bloody reigns
For they never made that mistake.
When King Henry gave the death decree,
Did his father-in-law regret
Having switched sides and sealed the fate
Of the last Plantagenet?
Two years upon the throne: not long
For a king to perfect his art.
Courtly intrigues were not his taste,
And he never could play the part.
But if most of the nobles loved him not,
To the common folk he was true,
Freeing us from corruption’s grip:
Aye, he did what king must do.
If it be his only legacy
That the poor might escape from debt,
Deeply indeed his people mourned
For the last Plantagenet.
Bravely did our abandoned king
Meet his ending on Bosworth field,
Felled by a ring of twenty swords,
To the last, though, he would not yield.
He was too much the soldier, swift to act,
Surely this was his fatal trait.
Now he’s remade, by Tudor scribes,
Patient schemer for all to hate.
Did they bury Richard? Just his name,
And the rest are we bid forget.
Let us blame thirty years of strife
On the last Plantagenet.
Though they call him England’s enemy,
In my mind, I can see him yet:
Twenty armed men all bearing down
On the last Plantagenet.
My primary source for this song is Anthony Cheetham’s The Life and Times of Richard III, which I picked up at Pennsic a few years back. Some time later it occurred to me that this thesis would make for an intriguing song.
The earliest inspiration of the song comes from the first episode of series 1 of Blackadder. The (intentionally ridiculous and farcical) introduction explains that history is often a series of lies written by the winners, and that Henry Tudor personally rewrote history to make his predecessor, Richard III, out to be a villainous murderer, when in fact he was nothing of the sort. (The episode imagines an elaborate chapter of history has been wiped from the books, which introduces the first of the Blackadders…but that part isn’t relevant to the song. Clearly the authors are poking some fun at “Ricardians”, historians who attempt to reclaim Richard’s blighted reputation.) That seed, that history is (as Voltaire said) “tricks we play upon the dead,” was in my mind when I bought the biography…and became, as it turns out, something of a Ricardian myself.
In February 2013 it was publicly confirmed that Richard III’s skeleton had been unearthed from under a parking lot in England, centuries after having been left out for public display by Henry Tudor, then hastily buried without ceremony, then dug up and thrown into the Soar River. (Edit: this version of the story is apocryphal. Richard was buried and given a site under the floor of a church, with little pomp and circumstance, but befitting a defeated monarch.) With Richard III and his legacy suddenly in the news, there would never be a better time to write this song. When I learned about the Wars of the Roses event, I decided to complete the song and present it there.
The tune is actually recycled from a song I abandoned back in 2004, a few months after I’d written “The Bastard’s Tale”. I was trying to write a whimsical, if occasionally melancholy song called “The Dying Dragon”. It was framed as Drake telling a tall tale in a pub, of the time he met a dragon on his deathbed, who offered Drake the chance to become a dragon in the morning if he stayed the night and witnessed the event (Drake opted out, but always wondered if he should have stayed–or even if the dragon had been jesting with him). The story was flagrantly lifted from C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I suspected the (very non-period) source would be impossible to disguise. But the tune had always stayed with me, and while I was puzzling over the proper tune for the Plantagenet piece, it suddenly presented itself, and with only slight modification it fit shockingly well, despite the completely different tone of the newer song.
Intro: Bm F#m G A Bm A Verse: Bm D G D A Bm F#m G A Bm A Bm D G D A Bm F#m G A Bm A Chorus 1-4: Bm F#m G D A Bm F#m G A Bm G A Bm A Final Chorus: Bm F#m G D A Bm F#m G A Bm Bm F#m G D A Bm F#m G A Bm G A Bm