chapter  8
19 Pages

“Puttyng Downe and Rebuking of Vices”: Richard III and the Proclamation for the Reform of Morals

Like the reign and character of Richard III himself,2 his Proclamation for the Reform of Morals has inspired conflicting interpretations. Issued from Leicester on October 23, 1483, the Proclamation is a manifesto against the leaders of the so-called “Buckingham’s Rebellion” that was distributed throughout southern England.3 Setting out Richard’s commitment to the “putting down and rebuking of vices,” the Proclamation denounces the rebels on the basis of their alleged sexual behavior. But the Proclamation may also be situated within a larger context. As king, Richard appears to have been preoccupied with “vice” in many of his public statements, often making retrospective criticisms of the sexual behavior of his late brother, Edward IV, and his courtiers, as we shall see. Richard’s propaganda has been considered previously in the light of his contentious claim to the throne; all of Edward’s children were ultimately barred from the succession on the grounds that Edward’s marriage to his queen, Elizabeth, was invalid.4 Richard’s concern with personal morality has sometimes been dismissed, therefore, as a rather crude attempt to manipulate public opinion, readily understandable on the part of a usurper whose title was in dispute.5 However, some have discerned elements of personal principle, evidence of Richard’s adherence to a stern code of sexual ethics, perhaps even to the extent of religious fanaticism.6 Richard’s own intentions are obviously important, and will be considered in some depth, but I have also tried to think about the audience of the Proclamation, and how it might have been received. Royal proclamations were intended to persuade, not only to command, and may therefore be seen as a good place to look for the

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wider society. The Proclamation raises broader questions not only about Richard’s personal attitudes but also about contemporary perceptions of the relationship between sexual and political morality. Richard’s public statements about his enemies’ sexual behavior were in fact consistent with normative principles that were deployed in a variety of rhetorical contexts; they might also have demonstrated sensitivity to genuine contemporary concerns.