The Medieval Book Reviews 4: Richard III: A Life by David Baldwin

In 1525, King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, met with the mayor and prominent citizens of London to request that they provide “a benevolence” of money for their monarch. One of the citizens replied that a statute passed by King Richard III made any form of taxation without the consent of parliament illegal.This statute would have profound implications for subsequent historical events including the English Civil Wars and the American Revolution.

After thirty years of Tudor propaganda designed to blacken the late King Richard III’s reputation, Cardinal Wolsey was incredulous that anyone would use the last Plantagenet King’s legislation to support his argument. Wolsey declared to the assembled Londoners, “I marvel that you speak of Richard the third, which was a usurper and murderer of his own nephews. Then of so evil a man, how can the acts be good? Make no such allegations; his acts be not honourable.”

The irate citizen continued to challenge the Cardinal, stating, “And it please your Grace, although he did evil, yet in his time were many good acts made, not by him only, but by the consent of the body of the whole realm, which is the Parliament.” This interpretation of Richard III’s life and reign mirrors David Baldwin’s approach to the often contradictory and fragmentary sources concerning one of England’s most controversial monarchs. Richard III: A Life analyzes the King within the context of his times, presenting the monarch as a complex figure, whose character was shaped by the violent and uncertain circumstances of the Wars of the Roses. Baldwin is the author of numerous works of English medieval history including Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked and applies his vast knowledge of the period to his assessment of Richard III.

Popular portrayals of Richard III contain little nuance, presenting the King as either the straightforward villain described by Cardinal Wolsey or the innocent victim of Tudor libel. In William Shakespeare’s famous play, the King is presented as an older man, even though he was only thirty-two when he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth field, and responsible for murders that took place before the actual King was born. Shakespeare’s King suffered from numerous health problems including a hunchback, and, according to one scholar of the play, celiac disease, and therefore must resort to deviousness and the removal of his relatives to achieve political leadership in the military climate of fifteenth century England.

Recent historical novels provide an alternate interpretation of the King’s character that is equally dramatically compelling but one dimensional. In Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III  or Sandra Worth’s, The King’s Daughter, Richard III is a chivalric hero, deeply in love with his wife, Anne Neville, despite the fact that historians know little about their relationship except that they spent their childhoods in the same household and grieved together when their only son died. These authors imagine Richard reluctantly assuming the throne to save England from the chaos that might come of a boy King’s rule although his precise motives remain open to debate.

In his balanced biography, Baldwin explains that these two contrasting legends of Richard III emerged from the same evidence because the King may have had had a split personality that changed according to his circumstances. During the brief periods when Richard felt secure in his position as Duke of Gloucester or King of England, he was known for his personal piety, strict moral standards, charitable endowments and love of learning. During the more extended periods when he fought to maintain his wealth and position, he did not hesitate to overthrow his nephew, accuse his mother of adultery or consider putting aside his ailing wife.  According to Baldwin, “He knew the difference between right and wrong, but the terrible uncertainty of his earliest years compelled him to behave in ways he himself would not have thought acceptable in other circumstances.” The historical Richard was not as villainous or heroic as the fictional King but a complicated figure whose actions changed according to his circumstances.

Baldwin quickly dismisses the ailments attributed to the King by Shakespeare for a medieval Prince with a hunchback and celiac disease would not have been able to fully participate in fifteenth century warfare as Richard did during the reign of his brother, Edward IV. The question of whether Richard was directly involved in the murder of his nephews, known as the Princes in the Tower, is more difficult to answer. Baldwin correctly observes that there is not enough surviving evidence to convict Richard or anyone else of their murder and that young Edward V’s situation was very different from previous deposed English monarchs who were adults despised for their misrule.

There was a medieval English precedent for the disappearance of a child claimant to the throne, however, that is not discussed in Baldwin’s work. When King John assumed the throne in 1202, he almost certainly had his sixteen year old nephew, Arthur of Brittany, murdered to secure his own succession. The same split personality that allowed Richard to justify the overthrow of Edward V may have concluded that the existence of a rival King would only prolong the Wars of the Roses, which ultimately ended in 1485 with the triumph of King Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth field.

David Baldwin’s balanced biography, Richard III: A Life is a welcome counterpoint to the one dimensional portrayals of the King in popular culture. King Richard III was a monarch shaped by the circumstances of the Wars of the Roses. Despite his brief reign, his decisions as monarch had a profound effect on the course of English history.

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