Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Richard the Third, by Paul Murray Kendall (Part Two)
Last Tuesday I blogged about one of the biggest historical mysteries still being discussed today: Richard III, and the princes in the tower. Was he a grasping, ambitious brute, or a sensitive and caring king? Did he murder the princes in the tower, or was he framed by traitorous colleagues?
You could live a happy and fulfilled life without studying Richard, but in light of the splash it's made in current events, and the rich character study of Richard's life, as well as the enlightenment it brings to history itself, it's worth gaining at least a cursory acquaintance.
Last week we looked at Richard and certain aspects of his character. This week I want to conclude by looking at the time in which Richard lived and the factors that shaped his character. If you need to catch up, click here.
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.Kendall's book Richard the Third 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.
Reading Paul Murray Kendall's Warwick the Kingmaker was brilliant set-up for the life and times of Richard III. History is like the Bible--best read in context. You'll get a lot out of Richard just reading Richard the Third. Precede it with Warwick the Kingmaker, and you'll get the full impetus of how the generation before him shaped the kingdom that Richard inherited.
The conflict between York and Lancaster was staggering, and both had very legitimate claims to the throne. What made it even worse was all the illegitimate offspring who wanted a piece of the puzzle. Henry VII, the usurper who took over from Richard III, was descended from a liaison between Katherine, wife of Henry V, and a Welshman who was most definitely not her husband. Political ambition and sexual sin fouled each side, and York and Lancaster not only had to deal with each other, but with deep dissension from within their own parties. No wonder England was in trouble.
Not only are the men fascinating, but the wives of the various monarchs are forces to be reckoned with. Their fathers and brothers and husbands had rights, and they strained every influence in their power to help secure them. If you want proof that women had power even in the 1600s, just look at the time of Richard. Women were landowners and rulers in their own right, influencing home and foreign policy with sometimes disastrous consequences. Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, shaped their husband's personalities and kept the various nobility on their toes. Elizabeth Woodville, in her attempts to cement her Woodville relations in positions of power, alienated Richard III from his brother's court for years. When his brother died, and Edward V was due to take the throne, Richard's duty to declare Edward V illegitimate led to an even greater rift.
One huge part of Richard's culture, which had a profound effect on who was loyal to York and who to Lancaster, was the bestowing of lands and titles. Now we think of a man owning land, and it's his until he chooses to sell it. In Richard's day, if land was granted by the king, it could be retracted by the king. Sometimes the king took it because you weren't behaving well; sometimes because someone else wasn't behaving well and needed to be soothed; sometimes because after investigation, another person had better inheritance rights. Sometimes you were given land because your father didn't behave well, and the king wanted to sweet talk your loyalties. Sometimes your land was taken away for your father's sins. No wonder loyalties switched back and forth so often.
The commoners of that time had a kind of loyalty to king, but much more loyalty to the local landowner. Whichever lord or duke they lived under, they served in battle, switching sides as often as he did. They didn't always care which king they were fighting for. As long as their rights and livelihood were secure, and injustice wasn't too rife, what did it matter whether a French Henry or an English Richard ruled over them? Obviously I'm doing some huge generalization here, but that's one thing I picked up from the time period. When Richard came down to the bitter end at Bosworth Field, the indifference of the commoners and their obedience to the lesser lords proved part, at least, of his death sentence.
There's not time to go into England's relations with France, or the colorful characters that populated Richard's court--Lord Hastings, Lord Stanley, the Duke of Buckingham, and others--but suffice it to say, you're in for a huge treat of personalities, ambition, diplomacy and compromise. Talk about melodramatic. There was no telling whether your friend would be your friend from one day to the next, or whether you would have to give orders to execute them. Family Christmases were a game of hidden daggers. The various estates scattered over England often sheltered resentful lords who were nursing their wounds in private until they could right their wrongs. Nobles fled to France after failed revolts, and then returned again. Welshmen staked their claims and betrayed them without a second thought. If you don't know much of the history going in, like I didn't, then it's an ample source both of education, and of entertainment.
When you read Richard the Third, it is indispensable to read the Appendices as well as the main work. Appendix I deals with the controversy of the Princes in the Tower, and who may have killed them. Appendix II, though more for the dedicated reader, is a must-have overview of the historical accounts contemporary with Richard's life. If you truly want to understand the controversy, then it's helpful to know know which writers were French, which were English, which wrote during Richard's time, and which wrote during the time of his usurper, Henry VII. All these factors influence the reliability of the reports. Believe it or not, some of the "facts" which ended up in your history books are actually quite debatable.
Everything is a kaleidoscope of meaning when it comes to history. A lot of Richard's life was pieced together from receipts and acts of Parliament, detailing where he was and when. A lot of his motives can be logically surmised from the friendships influencing his line of thought. A lot of the choices he made were also affected by past treaties with France, the mistakes and victories of mentors and relatives, and the foreign relations with Burgundy, France, and Spain.
When understanding any person, it always helps to understand the people and places around them. This is vital with Richard, and enabled Kendall to recreate a wonderful and engaging portrait of his life and reign. I highly recommend Paul Murray Kendall's Richard the Third. It is well worth your time.