Richard III: A Medieval Kingship; & Richard of England

Published in History Today

Richard III: A Medieval Kingship
edited by John Gillingham (A History Today Book Collins and Brown 154 pp,)

Richard of England
D.M. Kleyn (The Kensal Press xiii + 220 pp.)

During the last two decades or so an immense number of books and articles have appeared on the history of fifteenth-century England: a flood of scholarship which has transformed its reputation from that of Stubbs' 'worn-out, helpless age' to that of an epoch full of change and vitality. Writing about it has become almost a minor industry with a flourishing sub-department on Richard III. So much so that the first of these books, Richard III: A Medieval Kingship, contains no less than eight essays by well- known scholars offering diverse points of view on possibly the most controversial monarch in English history.

John Gillingham in a judicious and lively introduction explains why Richard's reign has attracted an attention out of all proportion to its brevity – that although the fifteenth century was a violent age and should not be judged by modern moral standards even then Richard's level of violence was so highly abnormal that its effects dangerously destabilised both domestic and international politics.

Alexander Grant's paper admirably demonstrates this second contention, showing that the king's aggressive tactics needlessly turned both France and Brittany against him so that Bosworth might well be considered the last battle of the Hundred Years' War. At home allegations of child murder were uniquely horrible – far more abhorrent than the violent disposal of earlier adult monarchs who had proved both unstable and dangerous. This atmosphere, by helping to destroy the high hopes generated by the reform projects of Sir John Fortescue and Edward IV, led to so great a reaction that the events of 1483-85, not the Wars of the Roses in general, formed the real crisis for the monarchy – a contention again maintained by Colin Richmond in his usual vigorous manner.

Richmond also convincingly depicts Richard as in the grip of increasing paranoia due to a long-term insecurity about property rights (a point which Rosemary Horrox has also amply demonstrated in an earlier book). Richard began life as a penniless younger son dependant on land grants from his brother, Edward IV, which he needed to build up into a secure great estate. Most of these grants, because of the appallingly complicated state of the contemporary law of real property and the existing family settlements of previous owners, needed extensive litigation to make titles secure, which Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, and already a formidable egoist, as Michael Hicks shows, pursued with unscrupulous tactics and often rank injustice.

This paranoia continued in a heightened form on June 13th, 1483 when he was egged on by Buckingham, a man of limited intelligence and burning resentments of his own. Richmond suggests that the murder of Lord Hastings marked a decisive turning point with the English political past. This novel brutality shocked everybody into submission and it was followed by the execution of the Wydevilles and Sir Thomas Vaughan (whose alleged plot- ting was equally implausible). By the end of the summer it was widely believed that Edward and Richard of York had been killed. As they were never produced it is virtually impossible to believe that they had not been. The execution of the Wydevilles was just politically acceptable. The slaying of children was not.

In the remaining essays Rosemary Horrox neatly analyses the workings of government in the late fifteenth century and the necessity for local co-operation. Government continued to function because people want- ed it to, but Richard's major political mistake was his apparent assumption that Edward IV's affinity would continue to support him. Its failure to do so led to his increasing reliance on northerners which caused immense resentment in the south. Anne Sutton, with a splendid command of detail, shows the tremendous importance of royal splendour and display, though she perhaps exaggerates the immediate importance of St George's Chapel, Windsor, failing to mention that only the choir had been completed by 1485. M.K. Jones stresses Richard's desire to shine as a soldier but points out that certain contemporaries were sceptical about his generalship. His military career was limited as compared with those of Rivers and Hastings. Nor did he live up to the chivalric code and he paid the penalty.

Finally P.W. Hammond gives a useful account of attitudes to Richard across the centuries. These differed during his lifetime and were sometimes the expression of corrupt expediency. For example both Rous and Pietro Carmelianus changed their views according to who was in power. This essay would have benefited from fuller treatment.

To turn from the meticulous research and judicious assessments of these articles to D.M. Kleyn's Richard of England (in fact Perkin Warbeck) is to enter the world of the historical gossip columnist picking up sensations at the fringe of the political establishment. The author admits that she set out to 'prove' her father's conviction that Warbeck was Edward IV's younger son. Later she states that she has been reproved for using 'discredited historians' but excuses this strange reliance as 'it has been hard to avoid where real evidence is so scarce'. Apparently any tittle-tattle is better than none. In fact the bibliography while citing like-minded daytrippers into the late Middle Ages such as V.B. Lamb and Audrey Richardson completely ignores the voluminous scholarship of the 1980s. For example C.D. Ross' Edward IV (1976) is cited but not his Richard III (1981). The major works of B.P. Wolffe, M.K. Jones, A.J. Pollard and J. Gillingham among others are absent and learned journals, apart from The Richardian, might as well be non-existent.

Out-of-date scholarship prevails. The Wars of the Roses are still 'thirty years of destructive civil war' (p.31) and anyone Richard III accused of plotting against him is ipso facto assumed to be guilty. Facts, suppositions and attributed emotions are mingled together. Graphic details from seventeenth-century writers like Sir George Buck and Sir Francis Bacon are quoted as if they were contemporary observers and at one point Molinet (1453-1507) is described as 'a later historian' (p.132).

Mrs Kleyn has little idea of the immense complications and constant fluctuations of the international politics of northern Europe and although Margaret of York, the dowager duchess of Burgundy, was deservedly and immensely popular she was never the free agent that this book implies. In the end it was Maximillian, the Archduke of Austria, as Christine Wakeman in Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy (1989) (which obviously appeared too late for Mrs Kleyn to have read) who dominated Warbeck's career through his interpretation of imperial needs. This book is, unfortunately the working-out of an obsession.

J.R. Lander is the author of The English Justices of the Peace, 1461-1509 (Alan Sutton, 1989)