Thursday, January 16, 2020

Books: Richard III, The Self-Made King

Richard III: The Self-Made King
By Michael Hicks
Yale University Press; hardcover, 388 pages; $35.00

The reign of Richard III, who was the last Yorkist king and the final monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, produced a turning point in British history. Despite leaving a lasting legacy, he only was on the throne for the final two years of his life. While great attention has been paid to his short reign, the period before his usurpation and kingship are not as well known.

Michael Hicks, an Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Winchester who was called "the greatest living expert on Richard" by BBC History Magazine, has written a definitive history on what shaped him into this consequential ruler in the new book, Richard III: The Self-Made King.

Richard III's entire life is explored, and Hicks traces the unfolding of his character and career from his early years as the son of a duke, which gave him prominence, to his violent death at the Battle of Bosworth. 

"It is half a millennium since Richard III (1483-5) was king," Hicks writes. "He is traditionally regarded as the last of England's medieval monarchs - 14th and last of the great house of Plantaganet (1154-1485) and third of the Yorkist kings (1461-85). He terminated both dynasties. He has been bracketed with King John as the worst of English medieval rulers. England's greatest playwright William Shakespeare depicted Richard III as an evil, power-crazed tyrant whose crimes fully justified the accession of the Tudors. Certainly Richard was one of the most disastrous monarchs ever to occupy the throne of England. Not only had he one of the shortest of reigns - a mere 26 months - but it terminated in complete defeat, with his deposition and death on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485. Bosworth was long accepted as the decisive moment that divided English medieval history from the modern history presided over by the Tudors (1485-1603), the Stuarts (1603-1714), the Hanoverians (1714-1837), and our own house of Windsor. That chronology no longer works. Centuries have passed since this divide was first acknowledged. It is no longer easy to lump Tudor England together with our own post-industrial, post-colonial, democratic, and digital age. 1500 no longer appears modern."

Hicks examines how Richard was far more than the villain responsible for the imprisonment and subsequent deaths of Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London. He was an adroit administrator who developed his own projects. Despite being small and physically weak, which he refused to allow to ever restrict him, opponents generally submitted to his will.

Richard III was a complex and conflicted individual who had strategic foresight, sought to implement reforms, and was capable of winning a kingdom.

"The future Richard III was born on 2 October 1452," Hicks writes. "He appears to have embarked on adult roles late in 1468, when he was 16, the same age that his elder brother George was allowed his majority. Late medieval noblemen normally came of age at 21. Edward IV wanted to make his brothers useful as soon as possible. They maybe have been mature for their age. Obviously, these first 16 years were of fundamental importance in the upbringing and formation of the future king, yet very little is known directly or can be established about Richard's infancy, childhood, adolescence, and even his adulthood up to the age of 19 in 1471. Yet Richard was not born in isolation. He had a context - indeed a whole series of contexts - and these contexts are known. He had a family, which evolved over the years into something considerably different. He was born into ranks and wealth, into the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption that went with his class, all radically different from the counterparts of the baby of a peasant, an artisan, merchant, or a bastard born to a single mother. Surely he was brought up like other aristocrats, nobles, and princes. Richard also immersed in and inescapably adopted the attitudes characteristic of his class. He imbibed the assumptions, prejudices superstitions, expectations, values and standards, ideals and political principles of his age. Few can be demonstrated in his case, but they have to be presumed. They helped form the man who was to be king. How Richard responded to each influence, each lesson, and each stimulus is seldom apparent. Moreover, what little is recorded is cloaked with myth and superstition with deduction, and with hindsight."

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