Occasions for Worship

Simon Walker

  • Richard II by Nigel Saul
    Yale, 528 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 300 07003 9

Each generation fashions its own image of Richard II. To his contemporaries, Richard’s fate was an admonitory instance of changing fortune: the King fell in the midst of his glory and was delivered into the hands of his enemies. To historians of the Tudor age, Richard’s deposition by one of his subjects was a terrible warning of the dangers of rebellion, bequeathing to succeeding generations a legacy of bloodshed and civil strife. Others read in the King’s fate a more personal message. ‘I am Richard II. Know ye not that?’ the ageing Queen Elizabeth demanded, mindful of her fallen favourite, the Earl of Essex, and his forlorn attempt to rally support for his claim to the throne by staging the tragedy of Richard’s fall ‘forty times in open streets and houses’. The play Essex performed was, in all probability, Shakespeare’s version of Richard’s final years, an account which turned the chronicle narratives of revenge and betrayal into a true tragedy by showing the King encompassed by the defects of his own character.

Shakespeare’s reading of Richard’s reign was so powerful that, in its essentials, it held the floor until the late 19th century. Writing in 1873, J.R. Green was doing little more than epitomise it when he ascribed to Richard ‘fitful inconstancy, an insane pride, and a craving for absolute power’. The first wave of professional academic historians, notably William Stubbs and his pupil T.F. Tout, did much to illuminate the mechanisms of Richard’s rule but they found the conundrum of his personality hard to solve. Stubbs felt that Richard’s sudden imposition of autocracy in the summer of 1397, after nearly a decade of constitutional propriety, was the work of a mind driven wild by too much contact with foreigners. The suggestion of mental instability he introduced was taken up with gusto by the last full-scale academic biography of the King to be attempted, Anthony Steel’s Richard II, published in 1941. Writing under the influence of a vulgarised Freudianism, Steel depicted Richard as the schizophrenic offspring of a heroic, distant father and a sexually wayward mother, an aesthete determined to prove his questionable virility, who turned himself into a ‘mumbling neurotic sinking rapidly into a state of acute melancholia’ in the attempt.

Nigel Saul’s new study would have been welcome simply for the opportunity it offers to reconsider Richard’s actions and personality in the light of more recent scholarship, though his balanced and perceptive account of the reign supplies much more. It follows the familiar format of the English Monarchs series, formerly published by Methuen and now relaunched by Yale, in offering a traditional life and times treatment, which allows Saul sufficient space to develop in some detail the political and strategic backdrop against which the drama of Richard’s reign was played out. Saul handles this part of his task very well: careful in exposition and elaborately courteous in disagreement, he proves a reliable guide to the various cruces of Ricardian scholarship – the future status of the Duchy of Aquitaine envisaged in peace negotiations with the French; the King’s plans for the lordship of Ireland; the nature and functions of his court. His conclusions are grounded in a thorough knowledge of the primary sources. The Richard that emerges – restless, assertive and inventive in his approach to ‘the burden of the government of the English’ – differs markedly from the neurotic nobody sketched by Steel.

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