Go to the Devil

David Carpenter

  • Richard II: Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-99 by Christopher Fletcher
    Oxford, 336 pp, £24.95, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 959571 6

By far the most striking image of Richard II is the one found in the great portrait of him, crowned and enthroned, which still survives in Westminster Abbey. Painted in the 1390s, when the king was in his twenties, it gives him a slightly boyish, even feminine appearance, with red cheeks, full lips and a small goatee beard. Much of this, however, is the work of 19th-century restorers: when the portrait is viewed under infrared reflectography, the lips are less full, the beard covers part of the cheeks as well as the chin, and the line of the jaw is firmer and more defined. The king seems altogether more masculine. The touching up of the painting was probably influenced by a view of Richard that had been circulating at least since the time of his deposition in 1399, but is it right? In his new study of Richard’s reign, Christopher Fletcher argues that, far from exhibiting boyish or feminine characteristics, as his enemies alleged, Richard strove to live up to contemporary ideas about how a man should behave. In many ways he was a conventionally ‘manly’ king.

The charge that Richard was immature was made explicitly by Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, in the sermon he preached on Richard’s deposition in 1399. There he contrasted the ‘boy’, Richard, with his supplanter, the ‘man’, Henry IV. He also elaborated on the childlike characteristics that rendered Richard unfit to be king: he was untruthful, wilful and understood only his own pleasure. Arundel was not suggesting that Richard was still a child in terms of mental capacity. Rather, he was branding him with the instability, irresponsibility and lack of wisdom that were supposedly among the features of childhood. In this Arundel has been followed by most later historians, who have added a lack of martial spirit to the bill. For V.H. Galbraith, Richard was a ‘misfit in his own class’ with ‘nice personal habits’, a ‘non-co-operator, who hates rugger and cricket and refuses to shout on the touchline’. (Galbraith revealed something of his own background here: a public school boy, he had shown ‘impetuous courage’ in the First World War, winning a croix de guerre avec palme, and, it’s said, forcing men over the top at the point of his officer’s revolver.) Few now would describe Richard in quite these terms, but still, as Fletcher very fairly observes, ‘over the years, Richard II’s unmanly character has provided the cement with which historians have filled the gaps in their interpretations of his reign.’

Fletcher devotes three chapters at the beginning of his book to exploring contemporary ideas about boyhood and manhood. What emerges, he argues, is that Richard’s critics were relying on a very partial and distorted account of what manhood was thought to be. Archbishop Arundel and the rest accused Richard of being inconstant, wilful and unreasonable, largely ignoring the central quality of manhood: the ability to act with strength, bravery and, if necessary, with violence. They also failed to acknowledge that what they saw as wilful extravagance and unjustifiable punishments might be the expenditure required of a man’s estate and the revenge required by a man’s honour.

In the second and longer part of the book (some eight chapters), Fletcher presents an entirely new chronological account of the politics of the reign. The central contention is that ideas of manhood were not simply the rhetorical flourishes of Richard’s opponents. Rather, Richard’s key actions and policies throughout his reign were essentially attempts to assert his manhood. Part of the background here is that Richard was only ten when he came to the throne in 1377, after the death of his grandfather Edward III, the hero of the first phase of the Hundred Years War (Richard’s father, the Black Prince, had predeceased him). For Richard to prove that he could act in a manly fashion was also to prove that he could wield political authority, choosing his counsellors and spending money as he wished, free from parliamentary oversight. There was more, however, to Richard’s espousal of manhood than a desire to escape restriction. It was also the key to successful rule. As Fletcher puts it, ‘to turn around the fortunes of the kingdom … he would have to become the apogee of the “man” of contemporary language and theory, combining military and moral strength and so bringing victory in war and peace at home.’

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