LONDON -- In the war between art and history, in the matter of King Richard III, art is still winning.
It is winning because of lines like these, from Lord Hastings as he is led away to his death:
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearfull'st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look'd upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head:
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.
Then Ian McKellen, dressed in a protofascist uniform, limping and crooked, the ideal of cheerful treachery, slouches forth on the stage of the Royal National Theatre.
He is Richard III, Shakespeare's tragic villain.
The Ricardians in the audience must shiver in dismay and ask themselves again how they will ever make the world believe that the king represented up there by one of Britain's greatest actors was not a fiend?
He is a literary character and only that, created by Shakespeare with a little help from Sir Thomas More and a variety of propagandists fawning around the Tudor courts of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII, the Ricardians argue.
Considering the play, with all its concussive poetic power, why do they even try? Who can compete with the Bard? And who are the Ricardians anyway?
They are quiet people, but assiduous. They see themselves as the troops of historical truth. But they are not faring so well. Art has too many heavy hitters, like Mr. McKellen, who will bring his award-winning portrayal of the king to the Kennedy Center in Washington from June 23 to July 19.
Still, they are determined. One of them, Ray Battcock, says of Richard, "I think he did try to do good. He had good intentions. He made an excellent speech to his one Parliament about justice."
Another believer is Elizabeth Nokes, the secretary of the London branch of the Richard III Society, which has about 4,000 members throughout the world.
They are people who want to clear the name of the man they believe is England's most maligned monarch and who say his brief reign of two years was relatively enlightened and yielded major reforms of the law and civil administration, such as the bail law.
Richard, they say, if not a man of the people, was a man who benefited the people. His death in 1485 had two significant effects. It ended the long War of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster, which had torn England apart, and it brought the Tudor family to power.
The Tudors, according to the Ricardians, began the destruction of Richard III's reputation.
To people like Miss Nokes, the sad thing is that the Ricardians have not had anyone of a stature as great as that enjoyed by many who spoke against him.
"We've not had anyone with the power of a Shakespeare to tell the other side," she laments. "There is such a discrepancy
between Shakespeare's story and the facts; they are completely different."
It was this discrepancy that first impelled Dr. S. Saxon Barton, a Liverpool surgeon, to establish the Fellowship of the White Boar (Richard's insignia) in 1924, the predecessor organization of the Richard III Society.
Mr. Battcock said of Mr. Barton, "He put all his energies into it. He was tireless. Why? He must have been reading a lot about it and decided the verdict of history was uncertain, and something set him off."
Though Shakespeare wrote the play that established Richard III as a malignant presence, he was only taking a cue from earlier chroniclers. One was More, whose "History of the Reign of King Richard III" helped create the image of Richard as a "lump of foul deformity," the man who:
* Contrived to bring about the execution of Edward of Lancaster, a claimant to the throne, after the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471;
* Murdered Henry VI in the Tower of London, also in 1471;
* Had his brother George, the Duke of Clarence, drowned in a barrel of wine, in 1478;
* Usurped the throne of Edward V, in 1483, after having Edward and his younger brother, Richard, both children, locked in the tower and declared illegitimate;
* Had the two boys smothered, probably in 1483, and buried under a stair in the tower;
* Poisoned his wife, in 1485.
Among other things.
This is a lengthy rap sheet. Miss Nokes offers alibis:
"According to contemporary accounts, Edward was slain on the field in battle. . . . There is no evidence to connect Richard with the death of Henry VI." Reports that Richard killed his brother are not to be trusted; the same for the murder of his wife, she said.
And as for the usurpation and murder of the young king and his brother, his nephews, she said that if the children were illegitimate, Richard would have had a right to the throne. Reportedly he was informed they were. As for their murder, there is no evidence. The small bones, found in the tower in 1674 and now interred in Westminster Abbey, have not been proved to be of the two children in question.
Of all the crimes Richard is accused of, the murder of the boys is the one he is condemned for most vehemently.
A. P. Pollard, in his book "The Princes in the Tower," argues that though it is impossible to prove Richard's guilt, "It is probable, however, that they were killed with the knowledge of the king before the middle of September 1483."
"A lot of historians tend to think that way," said Miss Nokes, not exactly dismissively but in a voice suffused with skepticism.
It is unclear what drives the Ricardians. Why bother about the reputation of an obscure king? Is it a hobby -- or a hobbyhorse? Are the Ricardians like those people who go around trying to persuade the world that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Francis Bacon?
England is full of people grouped in little societies with weird agendas. But the Ricardians seem to have moved beyond that. "We are respectable now," says Miss Nokes, suggesting they weren't always so.
Why do they do it? "There is a feeling among us that we want to see a wrong righted."
How do they do it? Very quietly: They organize lectures on arcane topics somehow related to their cause -- like the June lecture on the bell ringers of Fotheringhay (where Richard was born in 1452), and they observe the anniversary of his death by gathering each Aug. 22 on Bosworth Field.
(They can't go to his tomb at Leicester Abbey, since his remains were pulled out during the reign of Henry VIII and thrown into the Soar River.)
Are they succeeding in getting the message on Richard across? "Increasingly, he is being given the benefit of the doubt," Miss Nokes said.
Mr. Battcock said, "History taught in schools these days is much changed; they are more careful when they talk about Richard's reign."
Col. David Anderson, deputy governor of the Tower of London, )) where English history is offered at its bloodiest, lends some support.
"When our chaps are giving the tours, we tend to emphasize the melodrama. You know, the bloody and gory side," he said, adding: "A few years ago one tended to implicate Richard III perhaps a little more strongly than one does today.
"Is that because of the Richard III Society? I don't know. It just is."