If, as L. P. Hartley famously contended, "the past is a foreign country" where "they do things differently," mediaeval England, in Michael Hicks’ account of the life of Richard III, seems an especially remote temporal outpost. This is particularly so when it comes to deriving some insight into the social and emotional ambience which structured the fifteenth-century aristocratic environment through which Richard artfully negotiated his way to the throne. Unlike the richly coloured world of the Tudors, of which —if the vast number of popular history books written about them is anything to go by— almost every angle of life at court has been vividly excavated, the personal tribulations of their immediate dynastic predecessors remain swathed in the kind of distant inscrutability with which individual Plantagenets are portrayed in contemporary portraits.
Hicks has spent almost fifty years researching his subject’s life, and it shows. Richard III: The Self-Made King is an intricately detailed account of Richard’s every recorded move on his journey from younger son of the powerful Duke of York to the last of England’s mediaeval monarchs. Such a remarkable academic undertaking undoubtedly testifies to Hicks’ tenacity and attention to detail, but does all that effort actually provide us with a biography which manages to body forth the man himself, rather than just scrupulously build up a vast inventory of his archival remnants? Was Richard a pantomime villain of a king or, alternatively, an outrageously traduced sovereign (depending on where your sympathies lie)? Which way will his latest biographer go in sizing up the case for and against Richard’s contested historical status? Will the payoff for the reader’s commitment to negotiating the highways and byways of this sizeable and encyclopaedic tome be a suitably climactic verdict on its subject’s kingly merits? Actually, Hicks isn’t interested in keeping us hanging about for very long, declaring up front that Richard “was one of the most disastrous monarchs ever to occupy the throne of England.” Admittedly, this isn’t meant as a direct slight on the broad spectrum of Richard’s character and lifetime achievements, referring instead to those ill-chosen manoeuvres that led to one of the shortest reigns in the nation’s history, but it does betoken Hicks’ underlying view that, for all his attested virtues, the seeds of Richard’s downfall lay in a long-fermenting sense of proud ambition which was prone to stifle his better judgement. As for the most notorious act with which Richard has become synonymous, namely the killing of the boy princes in the Tower, the author again does not mince his words when he unequivocally announces that “at Richard’s command the two boys perished violently in the late summer/autumn of 1483,” thus no doubt igniting the fury of true Ricardians everywhere.
Having set out his stall on Richard’s regal credentials and the likelihood of his guilt in his nephews’ murders, Hicks gives himself the leeway to get behind these headline issues and uncover more about the intricacies of his subject’s posthumous reputation. As has been recounted many times, the “dreadful minister of hell” of Shakespeare’s imaginings was a product of Tudor propaganda, the aim being to contrast Richard’s status as tyrannical usurper with Henry VII’s righteous royal legitimacy. To dust off a familiar adage, history is usually written by the winners, meaning that Richard, having held the throne for just two years, was at a particular disadvantage: there was so little time for the details of his reign to be thoroughly documented by contemporaries before the Tudor spin doctors set about clawing his reputation to tatters. Having said that, Hicks is at pains to point out that Richard’s most renowned Tudor biographer, Sir Thomas More, avoided pitching in with an unmitigated hatchet job on his subject, choosing instead to draw restrained attention to the more disreputable acts and personality traits unearthed from the secondary evidence, whilst providing some low-key mitigation for other aspects of the King’s conduct. Even so, this and similar contemporary texts succeeded in thoroughly blackening Richard’s character from early on in his successor’s reign. However, a reaction against this kind of character assassination began in the early seventeenth century amongst certain historians for whom Richard’s life and times had become a subject to be assessed with academic deliberation rather than as a construct of Tudor proselytism. In particular, antiquarian and historian Sir George Buck was able to point out “the inconsistencies and improbabilities of the traditional orthodoxy and to bemoan the erroneous criteria against which Richard was judged.” To some extent this position was consolidated during the eighteenth century, and subsequently proved influential in fostering the pro-Ricardian arguments put forth in more detail up to the present day. As for the most recent landmark event in the continuing saga of our fascination with Richard III, namely the discovery of his bones in a Leicester carpark in 2012 (or, as we are reminded, “the supposed discovery,” seeing as “the evidence is not conclusive”), Hicks, ever the prudent historian, is at pains to point out that if Richard’s supporters had assumed that the worldwide media coverage of this event would somehow automatically translate into improving his historical reputation, this has not proved to be the case. Contemporary historians still consider him accountable for many of the charges levelled against him, and his right to assume the throne remains a substantial bone of contention. In short, “if nobody now accepts the Tudor denigration of Richard III in its entirety, the division between critics and protagonists remains as sharp as ever.”
After providing this overview of Richard’s fluctuating posthumous reputation and its historiographical context, Hicks sets about mining the archives to present a detailed narrative of his subject’s life. The future Richard III was born in 1452 into a lifestyle of rank and wealth. He was the eleventh of twelve siblings and one of four brothers to survive into adulthood. His father, the Duke of York, was a vastly rich English magnate and great-grandson of Edward III whose sons stood to gain a considerable inheritance befitting their status. Even so, as the youngest son of all, behind Edward, Edmund and George, Richard had markedly lower expectations of future titles, honours and estates.
However, those expectations were to be significantly raised when, following a decisive phase in the Wars of the Roses, during which Richard’s father and brother Edmund had been killed, his eldest brother Edward succeeded to the throne. On being created Duke of Gloucester, Richard now became a much more prominent star in the firmament of Edward IV’s regime. Even though he was still only a young boy, he would have been instilled with the sense of privilege and responsibility which came with his new-found status, and the imperative to acquire all the attributes — chivalric, athletic and decorous— which befitted someone in his lofty social position, even if his hunting abilities, for example, were somewhat curtailed by the physical restrictions with which incipient scoliosis (spinal curvature) left him. As well as his courtly attainments, from an early age Richard was a great landowner thanks to brother Edward, “who started his reign with the most enormous fund of lands of any mediaeval monarch.” Throughout the book Hicks details the dizzying amounts of acreage and property which Richard inherited, was given, and sometimes gave away (voluntarily or otherwise), all of which provides an intricate insight into mediaeval systems of patronage amongst the aristocratic elite. Whilst this cataloguing of the many and various endowments, estates and sinecures of which Richard had ownership or an interest emphatically attests to his landed wealth, at times the constant onslaught of such information can seem tediously fastidious, as if the author is more concerned to note every last bit of Richard’s property portfolio rather than use this information to shape the narrative. Similarly, the sheer number of personnel who pass through this sizeable work and their often circuitous relationship to Richard, his family and rival court factions sets the reader a somewhat labyrinthine exercise in remembering who was friend, foe or fawning retainer to whom. In amongst all this, any sense of Richard’s character or outlook on events is only sporadically discernible. What does come across, however, is that for all his reliance on Edward IV’s favour and despite any physical impairments, Richard was, from a young age, a determined, even headstrong character who threw himself into the business of managing the affairs of state allotted to him with vigour, not least when the likes of the Earl of Warwick or various Lancastrian foes staged rebellions against the king.
Following his brother George’s execution for allegedly plotting to usurp the throne in 1478, Richard became more than ever the king’s most loyal factotum. He is presented as a “proud and ambitious” young man intent on furthering his worldly prospects, as well as making provision for his immortal soul by funding several prestigious religious foundations. By the time Edward IV died in 1483, Richard had established a loyal power-base in the north of England and become both a well-respected and proven army commander and an all-round royal enforcer, with an important if subsidiary part to play in Yorkist plans to rule the country for generations to come. His brother’s unexpected and premature death changed everything: suddenly his own chances of acceding to the throne began to rapidly coalesce. It is at this point in the book (ten chapters in) that the figure of the man who was soon to be Richard III finally starts to emerge as a multifaceted historical figure, rather than just the sum of so many appearances in property deeds and royal decrees. Once the twelve-year-old Edward V had succeeded his father, it was, Hicks tells us, only a matter of weeks into the young king’s minority that “ruling England became Richard’s key priority,” even though he kept this objective to himself and hid his real intentions “so effectively….that these are difficult to divine today.” Having been made Lord Protector by his late brother in order to ensure the safeguarding and expert counselling of Edward V before the latter took up the reins of state, Richard instead sought to ride roughshod over the young king’s other advisers in order to realise his own agenda. Not that such a course of action went entirely unopposed, however; indeed, initially Richard’s status as Lord Protector was somewhat disregarded by the royal council, who rushed through plans to set a coronation date as soon as possible in order to secure the succession. A key player in this drive to have Edward V publicly crowned was his mother, Elizabeth Woodville (or Wydeville as Hicks has it), part of a family which would prove particularly troublesome to Richard’s furthering of his momentous ambitions – although, like several others, the Wydevilles initially failed to appreciate how “vigorous, intense, egotistical, ambitious, aggressive, ruthless and uncompromising” Richard had become, as well as how “capable, cunning and dangerous” he could be.
Just how intent Richard was on manipulating events to suit his purposes became apparent when he and his ally the Duke of Buckingham intercepted the coronation route at Stony Stratford in April 1483 and had Edward V and his younger brother Richard confined to the Tower of London, ostensibly for safekeeping. From then on Richard moved quickly to remove, by execution or otherwise, anyone who stood in his way, including one-time confidante Lord Hastings, whose safety had been fatally compromised by his association with the Wydevilles. By July 1483 Richard was king, having had Edward IV’s legitimacy and that of his children publicly and successfully declared invalid. As for how, in summary, he managed to pull off this spectacular coup d'état, Hicks points out that Richard “took the crown because he could…He had the necessary power and his rivals had not.” It was, in fact, “a process, not a revolution” that led to the accession of Richard III.
In his remaining time on the throne, Richard did his best to persuade all concerned of his indisputable right to kingship, starting with an elaborate and well-attended coronation at Westminster, followed by a further investiture in the heart of his northern loyalty base at York. Like his older brother before him, he also set about scattering favours and privileges wisely to useful supporters and allies, along the way gaining a reputation amongst the country’s commoners as a fair, judicious and merciful king. Unfortunately, the small matter of what had happened to Edward V became the subject of increasingly audible murmurings. As a counteractive measure the news was artfully leaked that the boy and his younger brother were now dead, thus nullifying any attempts to use them as living embodiments of Richard’s unconstitutional seizure of the crown. However, this news also presaged the proposal of Henry Tudor as a viable candidate to supplant Richard the usurper. Henry’s cause began to attract more and more of Richard’s clandestine enemies whilst, in southern England, a popular challenge to Richard’s rule headed up by the Duke of Buckingham was fast gaining adherents. As it turned out, Richard managed to decisively put down this rebellion and have its ringleaders, including the Duke of Buckingham, swiftly executed. Thus, by 1484, he had firmly consolidating his grip on the throne – or so he may have thought. Within eighteen months, however, he was fighting for his life and crown on Bosworth Field.
On 7 August 1485 Henry Tudor’s invasion forces landed at Milford Haven and only a fortnight later would fight the battle that marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty. With his typical vigour and determination, Richard, having heard of the disembarkation, immediately set about mustering his forces to engage the enemy. What eventually took place on the 22nd of August when the adversaries met on the plain near Market Bosworth is the subject of conjecture and second-hand accounts, Bosworth being “almost the worst recorded of the major engagements of the Wars of the Roses.” Consequently, and given what was in it for those on the winning side, who wanted to boost their reputations and share in the subsequent spoils, Richard’s last actions as king and his commanding of his troops can barely be glimpsed through the fog of subsequent propaganda, like so much else in his story. What is known is that Richard had a much larger army than Henry Tudor, but the latter’s forces were deployed to such strategically astute effect that the fact of them being outnumbered was effectively nullified.
Then there were the unreliable Stanleys, an aristocratic family whose most prominent member, Thomas, Lord Stanley, had served as Richard’s steward and constable of England. According to Hicks, once at they arrived at Bosworth the Stanleys and their contingents “lurked nearby, initially committed to neither side and even wandered around the battlefield” to assess which army would be the likely winner. Eventually these double-dealing mediaeval renegades sided with the Tudors, thus considerably reducing Richard’s chances of victory. Nevertheless, once the battle had begun, Richard fought bravely alongside his troops and at one point thought that he had a realistic chance of slaying Henry Tudor himself, a notion which turned out to be his undoing as, during the ensuing melee, he famously became unhorsed. Once he was remounted, it wasn’t long before his life and reign were unceremoniously ended by —it is thought—a Welsh halberdier.
By way of summary, Hicks raises the question of whether Richard’s disastrous end on Bosworth Field was brought about by his own deficiencies and unpopularity with those who were meant to fight alongside him, or whether this view is just more Tudor agitprop. Whatever the truth is, it seems that the battle itself was a closely run thing and that with just a little more good fortune Richard might have won. As for the man himself, Hicks lists determination, sheer force of personality and a refusal to let any physical incapacities get in the way of his ambitions as amongst Richard’s most notable attributes. However, despite the loyalty and affection that he generated amongst a good many of the populace, particularly in the north, it was his usurpation of the throne which saw him lose the allegiance of many key players, and provided the impetus for a steadily increasing opposition to his cause. In effect, Richard overstepped the mark, and in doing so consigned himself to centuries of vilification which —despite the best efforts of his latter-day advocates— has never quite been laid to rest.--Mark Jones