Sunday, May 25, 2014

Richard: The Young King to Be

Richard: The Young King to Be - Josephine Wilkinson

Yet there is something fascinating about Richard III. He is arguably the most intriguing character in English history. Few others have possessed the ability to polarise opinion in the way he does. Few have engendered so much hatred—or so much devotion—as Richard has (7).

This interesting, thorough biography of the first half of Richard III's life is let down by subpar editing which sees typos on nearly every other page. However, if you can see past that, it is an interesting attempt to bring out the aspects of Richard's personality that you might not be aware of, especially if reared on a diet of Shakespeare. I am generally in agreement with Wilkinson, who sees the historical Richard as a pragmatic medieval king, neither wholly noble nor a bloodthirsty villain. I found this Richard to have much in common with Sharon Penman's fictional version of him in The Sunne in Splendour, though Penman has necessarily made her Richard more noble and sympathetic (and his affair with Anne Neville one of love and passion). Of course, this book was written before the discovery of the king's remains in a Leicester car park, meaning that there is rather a lot of discussion on the possibility of Richard's deformity, which we know now to have been rooted in reality. Nevertheless, Wilkinson still brings up some interesting evidence in her attempt to argue that Richard had no deformity or impediment.

Wilkinson begins the life of Richard in a rather unusual way: with his astrological chart. Did you know Richard was a Scorpio? This subsides into an examination of the claims that when Richard was born, he already had teeth and a full head of hair. The second claim is not possible, but Wilkinson leaves no stone unturned to account for having been born with teeth. Did you know that Richard's mother was thirty-seven when she gave birth to him, and that she had already borne ten children? So a difficult birth is entirely possible. And I think, despite herself, Wilkinson may be a fan of the bad-boy Shakespearean Richard III, as she does spend most of a page discussing the various ways different actors have portrayed his deformity. I have always thought there was some hidden meaning of the scene in Shakespeare where Richard asks the Bishop of Ely about his strawberries, and the clergyman goes off to fetch some, setting the scene for “the impromptu execution of Lord Hastings” (128). Fascinatingly, Wilkinson gives this episode her attention as apparently it is in Thomas More as well, and suggests that Richard may have suffered from hives.

Clearly, Richard is in some distress and the reader is led to conclude that it is a result of his brooding upon his fancy that he is the victim of witchcraft. On the other hand, More is careful to mention Richard's change of mod and his withered arm in connection with his having eaten strawberries. The hypothesis is that Richard was aware that he was allergic to strawberries and that, if he eats them, they will produce a urticarial rash on his arm. He eats them, therefore, to produce precisely this effect (128).

Granted, Wilkinson thinks this unlikely, but dammit, I think it's an amazing hypothesis! Furthermore, Wilkinson delivers a very good link between Biblical corruption and cognitive bias.

Richard's life was shaped by his ambitious and courageous (if treacherous, depending on your point of view) father, the Duke of York, and later by his brothers Edmund and Edward. “What feelings overwhelmed the seven-year-old Richard as he watched his father's enemies advance on the family home can only be imagined. He, his brother [George] and sister [Margaret] and their mother were left to face the royal army as best they could” (67), as in some memorable scenes from The Sunne in Splendour. His brother Edward was then to become his idol (handsome and regal, Ned, as he is called in The Sunne in Splendour1 comes across as a larger-than-life character). Who can forget in Shakespeare when Anne grills Richard on having killed her husband, Edward, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales? The truth is, we don't know who exactly killed him. Nor do we know exactly who killed Henry VI, though Wilkinson admits it's possible that Richard ordered his death; however, she says it would have been a way to secure peace and may have been done on King Edward's orders. The historical Richard's worst crime, it would seem, is his bullying of the elderly Countess Elizabeth of Oxford into signing her inheritance away to him, in 1473. This, I really can find no excuse for (though Wilkinson's excuse is, again, he may have been acting on King Edward's orders).

Anne Neville herself, who comes across in Shakespeare as a curious mix between victim and firebrand, and in Sunne in Splendour as all you could wish for in a heroine, comes out of The Young King to Be as a coldly calculating noblewoman whose marriage to Richard was probably not, sniff sniff, a matter of love. Furthermore, somewhat shockingly, Richard and Anne were so much related by blood that they had to get a special dispensation from the Pope—though it is seems likely they got married anyway without it. Even more shocking—at least to me—is the fact that Richard had at least one illegitimate child, a daughter, Katherine Plantagenet, born perhaps prior to his wedding, perhaps not. He may also have had a son named John of Gloucester or Pontefract. Wilkinson mocks my shock; “It could hardly be surprising that Richard should have enjoyed romantic encounters. He was young, handsome: small and slender, with blue-grey eyes set in a strong, lean face2. He was cultured, athletic and robust” and a duke and a prince, besides (229). Who wouldn't want to get it on with Richard Gloucester?

Enjoyably, Wilkinson discusses Richard's (probable) domestic life from the time he was a tot (being left to cry as it was supposed to strengthen the child) to his late teens at Placentia (Greenwich) to his wedding night with Anne Neville in 1472. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is its thorough study of religion in Richard III's life, and given his patronage of many religious sites and houses, this was a genuine and important motivator in his life. Wilkinson has good evidence to suggest that Richard may even have been destined for a role in the clergy before circumstances made him into a warrior. It is interesting, too, that Wilkinson rather debunks Richard's connection to the north (though the fact that the north has claimed him is rather touching and will not be swayed by any amount of historical fact-showing).

Wilkinson's analysis of some of the other historical figures is interesting. Take, for instance, what she has to say about Henry VI: “He is a man who finds the rather revealing fashions of the time to be a source of temptation and, as a result, the source of inner guilt as his repressed but very active sexuality makes its presence felt” (30). She suggests that sexual repression may have triggered his schizophrenic catatonia in 1453. Despite the bad rep Elizabeth Woodville gets for being a wholly unsuitable choice for Queen of England, you have to admire her ambitious attitude. “How different things might have been if Edward had married Isabella of Castile. She would never have married Ferdinand of Aragon, there would have been no Catherine of Aragon, no Mary Tudor, indeed, there might have been no Tudor dynasty. England might have remained a Catholic country” (102).

It is strange that I feel in a weird way happy that Richard's path crossed with mine, as in 1459 he stayed at Sir John Falstof's mansion in Southwark, not far from where I walk every week.

1By the way, if you are wondering where that name comes from, it was a December 1460 sighting of a parhelion, which made it look like there were three suns in the sky. It is quite an arresting image. Interestingly, no one knows quite how Richard chose the boar as his emblem.
2Like Richard Armitage? :-P

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