The Three Richards: Richard I, Richard II and Richard III

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 13

The Three Richards Richard I, Richard II and Richard III 1The Three Richards: Richard I, Richard II and Richard III
Nigel Saul
(Hambledon and London, £19.99)
ISBN 1852852860It is probably just as well that the present prince of Wales is called Charles and that the son likely to succeed him is called William. Anything but Richard, for of the three King Richards so far—Richard I, Richard II and Richard III—the first was killed besieging a castle in France, the second was deposed and later killed, and the third died defending his crown: clearly, during the 300 years spanned by their lives, being king of England was a dangerous occupation.
In this intriguing book Nigel Saul has taken each man in turn and set him in the context of his time, looking at the culture of the day, the contemporary idea of kingship, the relationship each had with those around him, the role of religion and war during each reign, and last, though by no means least, the woman each man made his queen.
But what can three such disparate men, divided by centuries, have in common? Quite a lot, according to the book. Each was a younger son, not expected to sit on the throne; none left an heir and all died violently. Saul—Professor of History at Royal Holloway, which forms part of London University—has written a book that is not only about the three Richards but also about the changing role of the monarchy in England. However, rather than asking how good a king each man was, he examines the mores of their reign, the expectations the people had of the monarchy and the degree to which the three Richards measured up.
Take, for instance, the matter of each man’s upbringing and outlook. Richard I was born in Oxford in 1157, but with Eleanor of Aquitaine for a mother and with extensive lands to command in France, he was French rather than English. A few centuries later we have Richard II, born in 1367 in Bordeaux, in Aquitaine, but brought up to be more English than French. And lastly we have Richard III, born in Northamptonshire in 1452 and English through and through.
Thus was their view of the horizon influenced. The first Richard (‘the Lionhearted’) went off on a crusade, the second talked about it but never went, while the last was far too occupied with domestic matters to look beyond the shores of his own country. Not surprisingly, war ‘and its shy sister peace’ was a constant in each reign, and not only for the obvious reason of aggrandisement. Saul quotes from William Worcester’s Boke of Noblesse, produced in the 1470s, which advocates the idea of national renewal through war. Soldiering and chivalry progressed hand in hand. Knights were created during lavish ceremonies in which the aspiring soldier was admitted to the king’s élite.
Huge knighting ceremonies served also to boost the monarchy, demonstrating the power of the king to bestow honour by elevating men to the title of duke or marquess. During Richard II’s time the titles of ‘highness’ and ‘majesty’ were introduced and served the same purpose. The knighting ceremonies, however, were also a means of pacification. When Richard II knighted the Irish chieftains, he followed this with a request that they should serve him at table.
Richard III walked the stage in a time of peace but wanted to revive the idea of chivalric kingship. War, in his estimation, was not merely ennobling: it was the essential foundation for successful kingship. In Saul’s view, the king most successful in terms of soldiering and chivalry was Richard I, and he cites as an example the crusade the king made, together with the conquest of Cyprus, which he took in on the way. ‘As a warrior’, writes Saul, ‘he was more than a match for the renowned Saladin.’
But was he? This book is a clear celebration of three kings whose reigns, to this day, still give rise to passionate debate. However, there is no denying that the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionhearted, petered out without any decisive confrontation between the two adversaries. After taking Acre, Richard shied away from engaging in battle, which might have ended in defeat. Thus Saladin was left in control of Jerusalem, despite the fact that the avowed aim of the crusade was to ‘liberate the Holy Land’. Saladin retired to end his days peacefully in Damascus, while Richard, on his way home, was taken prisoner and held in Austria for two years while his mother dilly-dallied over getting the ransom together.
In Richard II we have the boy-king who took on Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt. No mean feat at the age of fourteen, though he had canny advisers who were able to stage-manage a meeting with the revolting peasants during which Tyler and his men were betrayed and then killed. Saul comments that this revolt of the common people shook both the monarchy and the upper classes to their foundations. Strange, therefore, that the writer makes no mention of a key player in the revolt, the Kentish priest John Ball, later hanged, drawn and quartered by Richard II for his advocacy of social equality. Following the Peasants’ Revolt, the king started a campaign to exact unquestioning obedience from his people, testing this by subjecting them to heavy taxes. In Dublin he pursued the same line with the chieftains, with one of them, Donnchadh O’Byrne, swearing, Saul quotes, ‘faithfully to serve and obey the king his liege lord against all men with every kind of submission, obedience and fealty’.
Ireland was never far removed from what was going on in England during those 300 years, and this was not accidental. When the duke of York (father of Richard III) was sent to Ireland as viceroy in 1449, he took care to enlist the support of the Irish lords and chieftains in the Wars of the Roses, and with ‘suavity and sternness’ managed to get the Geraldines, though not the Butlers, to sport the white rose of York.
In Richard III, perhaps the most controversial of the three kings, we encounter a man who lavishly endowed religious institutions in Middleham and York, had his own Book of Prayer, was riven first by the death of his small son and then by that of his wife, but who had little compunction in seizing the crown and having his nephews confined to the Tower. And here we come to a strange thing: Saul looks at the facts surrounding the disappearance of the boys and, though failing to come up with any definite proof of Richard’s guilt, nevertheless states categorically that he ‘was responsible for the death of two of his own nephews’. What a pity that the writer should fall at the last hurdle.
The Three Richards is a book that will be as interesting to republicans as to royalists, and with reference to the latter it is worth noting that the Windsor family still enjoys the benefit of lands acquired under the Tudor settlement that followed the Wars of the Roses.
Mary Russell


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