Richard III: A Ruler And His Reputation – Book Review
Richard III: A Ruler And His Reputation. David Horspool. Bloomsbury Press, December 2015. 320 pages. Hardcover. $30.00.
Richard The Third. Is there a greater villain in English history? Even Guy Fawkes, a man who wanted to blow up over two hundred members of Parliament and impose a Spanish Inquisition styled theocracy over England, gets parades. Poor Richard gets only calumny, memorialized as a deceitful child-killing hunchback who seized the throne and tyrannized his people.
But hold on now, declares eminent historian David Horspool, how much of this is true and how much of the story is Shakespearean myth? With that in focus the author plunges into a biography as deep as it is rehabilitative. Richard III: A Ruler And His Reputation is a scholarly yet readable work of a fascinating period of history.
As an American, everything I know about The Wars Of The Roses is this; a bunch of guys, all named either Henry or Edward, kept stealing the throne from one another in a half-century of civil war. Because Richard’s life bridges this same span, his history is the history of the Lancaster – York conflict. Horspool does a fantastic job of bringing this age into sharp focus and providing a firm footing to understand the ever-shifting dyanistic struggles that shaped both modern England and our dark portrait of King Richard III.
Richard’s father, also named Richard — again with the confusing fifteenth century naming conventions! — made his own play for the throne. And failed. Though the elder Richard Of York positioned his family so that two of his sons would become King Of England themselves, their successes came only after political and physical exile. The reigning monarch, King Henry VI, was mentally ill and so merely a cypher on the throne, a pawn for the power brokers around him.
Edward, Richard Of York’s son and eldest brother to the book’s subject, returned from his exile and proved to be an adept commander, one of history’s finest warrior-kings. In a series of battles and political maneuvers he was able to defeat the Lancastrian supporters of Queen Margaret, wife of King Henry VI and the real power in the kingdom. In the span of six months Edward went from fugitive son of a far-fallen family to king.
Only eight years old when his brother ascended the throne, Richard quickly grew into a loyal right-hand man. Years later when their middle brother George, Duke of Clarence, rebelled against Edward, Richard cobbled together a small military force and shadowed the rebels, keeping them engaged until god-of-war Edward was able to rouse an army and sweep in for the kill. Although brother George was forgiven, Richard reaped the benefits of victory, becoming presumptive heir and gaining the estates of the wealthy and powerful Earl of Warwick, chief supporter (many say instigator) of George’s rebellion.
Edward was as good a king as he was a commander. Although conflicts continued to erupt throughout his reign, the “ship of state” was capably guided. Unfortunately, all flesh is mortal, so after twenty-two years of reign the pious warrior King Edward IV was summoned before his God.
What followed was tragic. Edward’s brother Richard, Duke Of Gloucester, took Edward’s two sons and locked them away in The Tower Of London where they would be later murdered. Publicly questioning their legitimacy and casting disrepute upon his brother’s legacy, Richard declared himself king and ruled less than two years. Richard’s already dispirited forces met the soldiery of Henry Tudor, soon to be Henry VII, on the fields of Bosworth. With Richard’s death in that battle, half a millenia of Plantagenet rule over England came to a bloody and muddy end.
Horspool does an excellent job in fleshing out this history and making it accesible. Much of his work is as detective, for Richard casts a slight shadow through history despite the infamy of his final few years. There are swaths of his life where his actions, even his exact whereabouts, have to be gleaned sideways from historical sources. For example, when Edward declared war on France and crossed the channel only to negotiate a last-minute rapproachment with the French king, Richard is not listed as being among the royal party at the treaty ceremony. Had he not traveled into France? Had he been sent away? Was he for or against the treaty? These are the sorts of minutae that historians live for. David Horspool does a methodical, professional job of reconstructing Richard’s life and activities. (Yes, Richard was in France, but he was against the treaty and so stayed out of the negotiations.)
The author attempts to reconstruct Richard’s motives with nearly equal success. How would it have affected Richard as a young boy to be hustled out of the country into foreign exile? What was it like to live in an era when even your own brother could turn against you? In seizing the throne and going down fighting at Bosworth, was Richard the son trying to emulate Richard the father? Psychology is an inexact science, and Horspool comes across a little too pro-Richard from time to time, but his efforts at analysis provide a nuanced view of a man far deeper and complex than the hissing hunchback of stage.
Horspool writes about the perception of Richard as much as he writes about the history of Richard, detailing what was written of the man before Bosworth and contrasting it to the villainous portrayals that followed his defeat. Richard in life was a trusted lieutenant to the king, a skillful soldier and diplomat, a respected (though apparently not well-liked) nobleman. As king he commanded loyalty among the aristocracy, parliament, and commoners. It was in death that he became the crippled monstrosity, the lifelong deceiver, an earthly and mortal Lucifer. Horspool uses his book to counter what he terms Tudor propoganda at every turn.
A few conclusions which Horspool reaches must be taken with pinches of salt, remembering that the author is a member of The Richard III Society — Guy Fawkes may have his parades, but Richard has a fan club. Although Horspool is absolutely correct in reminding us not to judge the entirety of Richard’s life and contribution to history by his final two years, it is those final two years that condemn the man who would be king. One act in particular. His own nephews, the legitimate heirs to the throne, were murdered, if not directly on Richard’s orders then at the least with his tacit approval. For all the skill and yeoman’s effort he exhibits throughout this well-done biography, the author cannot exorcise those ghostly bloodstains.
David Horspool has every reason to be proud. He has written a biography of Richard III that is at once a fine work of scholarship while remaining an engaging and illuminating read for those of us who are not professional historians. The Richard that steps out of this book is a man of his times, a man who under other circumstances would be a Brittanic hero. It is easy to admire his strengths and accomplishments. Which makes all the more tragic Richard’s self-inflicted fall from the graces of history.
Richard III: A Ruler And His Reputation is an excellently written and thoroughly researched biography of a complicated man. Anyone with interest in the period would do well to have this in their library. And since it is Richard III, anyone who enjoys Milton should give this book a read as well.
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer and boardgamer living in Pittsburgh. When not reading books on history, he is selling them at a local bookshop.