The biography is so chunky and deep that one post won't do it justice. This Tuesday and next I plan to cover this book, starting with a post looking at Richard the man, and next time covering the times in which he lived.
Even if you're totally oblivious to the War of the Roses, like I was, you'll still enjoy it. So come learn some fresh and inspiring details about English history.
Richard the Third makes the best of scholars hold their heads in frustration. For many years he was portrayed as a dyed-in-the-wool villain: a canting monster embellished by More and Virgil's English histories, and Shakespeare's more familiar work, Richard the Third. After all, what's to know about him? He's a usurper of the English throne, who took over after his brother's death, murdered his young nephews by smothering, and was later conquered by Henry VII.
So biographies went, and so we knew Richard, until a slow and steady movement by dedicated historians tore apart Tudor invention to get at the real story. The Tudor accounts, they found, were quite biased. After all, Richard was of the line of the Plantagenets, and the Tudors didn't want the English people's loyalties to swing back to the Plantagenet heir. Simple enough: make the last king so abhorrent that they would be more than glad of their new usurper.
But lies aren't simple.
Kendall's book defined this new movement and gave new credibility to those who refused to accept the monster at face value. Until then, a lot of positive arguments for Richard were wishful thinking, riddled with factual errors and logical fallacies. Kendall provided a biography both more objective, and less Tudorish.
It's a good time to read this book, not only for its past value, but for the fact that over the last couple of years, it's been headline news in England. Kendall treats the subject with careful scholarship, drawing a more complicated, sympathetic, and realistic portrait of a king who lived with one difficult decision after another.
It's an inspiring read.
Richard the man is one of the coolest people to study in all of history. He was born sickly, and grew up a thoughtful, physically slight youth during a time when the throne swung like a wild pendulum between Henry VI and his father. His father died in the great struggle between Lancaster and York. His brother Edmund did as well. Richard fastened his love and pride on his charismatic older brother, Edward IV, and used all his strength and skill to promote his brother's cause. When Edward came to the throne, Richard received even heavier burdens of responsibility. He was trustworthy. He was obedient. Who wouldn't want a younger brother like that?
But then things went wrong. Richard married in one of the sweetest love stories I've ever read, and lived in northern England, winning the hearts of the men of York. Edward made a pact with France, sinking deeper into the clutches of his secret marriage and his new in-laws, the Woodvilles. Then Edward died, and Richard has nothing to comfort himself with, for the brave young man he loved ended life as an over-indulged, harried monarch. And Richard, as usual, was left to clean things up.
That's the history that shaped the monarch: it's a heartwrenching story of a man who was probably best suited to be support, trying to bear huge burdens without the support he himself had given to others. He used his kingdom to promote justice, but he had none of the comfortable compromise that other men used to keep the English nation afloat. He wanted to run the nation virtuously (whether or not he was perfectly virtuous himself) and the people at large weren't interested.
His biggest fault seems not to be uncontrolled ambition, but a conscience that was strong enough to torment him for wrongdoing, and not strong enough to keep him from committing it. He was a wise ruler among the men of York, but he didn't have the experience to deal with the political posturings in the court or abroad. He trusted men to be virtuous, and so they betrayed him. He allowed men to thrust him into decisions 'for ultimate good' that he would later deeply regret. He needed a Richard himself, but he could not be both Richard and king, and his divided heart destroyed itself.
Kendall's work, lengthy, meticulous, and engagingly written, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time for the past few weeks. It's worth studying on a variety of levels. There is, of course, the basic value of a more objective history of the 1470s. But there's much more than that: a study of men's passions and pursuits, of what people are willing to do for duty and ambition, and of how every single man of that time had a profound impact on English history. If you want to know that your life choices have huge ripple effects, then study Richard. If you want to see how loyalty or betrayal can make or break a nation, then study Richard. If you want to see how virtuous souls can struggle so violently with sin, then study Richard.
By the end of the book, I understood how Richard could desire the highest good for himself and others, and yet perhaps kill the princes at the same time. I don't know if he did; Kendall thought there were other viable possibilities, including the Duke of Buckingham. But I think Richard could easily have committed one wrong in his deep desire to rectify another. If that's the portrait Kendall intended to convey, then I got it and deeply sympathize with it.
His book later inspired the lady who organized the movement to look for Richard's skeleton under a car park in England. I remember when they found Richard's skeleton. I followed his funeral very recently. It is so, so cool to be alive at this time in history--because we get to see the end of the story. (Though more research on several extant skeletons would be a fantastic postscript).
Come back next Tuesday for a bird's-eye view of the culture of the War of the Roses: how Kendall's biography describes it, and how it shaped the English nation.