Book Review: Richard III: England’s Black Legend

Richard III:  England’s Black Legend, by Desmond Seward

This book is a pleasure to read despite the fact that the author expresses his bias pretty openly.  On the other hand, maybe part of the pleasure of reading this book does result from the way that the author refers to the various servitors of Richard III as his henchmen, as there is something noble about being open and up front with your biases and then still showing mastery of the relevant sources to do it.  As someone who has a fair amount of interest in the history of the Plantagenets and Tudors [1], this book takes a remarkably negative approach to Richard III.  Mind you, that approach is not necessarily a mistaken one, but it is certainly a harsh one.  Given that a great deal of the suspicious deaths in late Plantagenet England were laid at the doorstep of Richard III, from the death of his wife to his brother to his two nephews to King Henry VI and his eldest son to numerous others, Richard III has attracted a lot of negative attention.  This book gives the strongest case against Richard III that can be made, showing how someone could be adept at seizing power as a corrupt Renaissance prince but not be adept at wielding it.

This book is organized in a pretty traditional fashion as a biography.  The author comments on some new developments, such as the discovery of the resting place of Richard III in a Leicester car park, and comments as well on the vibrant state of historiography between three different legends of Richard III, which are called the white legend, gray legend, and black legend.  The author then proceeds through 200 pages of text to give little or no benefit of the doubt to Richard III, showing how his ambition for power was tempered during the reign of his strong elder brother Edward IV and how his experience as a hatchet man for his brother and his growing up in the North influenced his behavior and the narrowness of support for his regime that made it possible for him to be overthrown by a coalition of diehard Lancastrians, disaffected Yorkists, and supporters of the Woodville arriviste party who were incensed at Richard III’s murder of the princes in the tower.  Of particular interest is the way that the author shows Richard III as both ambitious and grasping for power, unable to recognize the disloyalty of others, especially the Stanleys, and tormented by the possibility that he would receive harm from the spirits of those whose death he had caused.

This is not a perfect book.  Some readers, especially partisans of Richard III, will be incensed at the way that the author looks at every possible area of gray and interprets it as being negative for Richard III.  Even the fairly enlightened policies enacted by his only parliament are not credited to the embattled ruler in this account.  Aside from the relentlessly negative bias, though, what struck me is that this book showed a great deal of attention to sources that were negative on Richard III, which is not hard to find, but that the author declined to talk about Richard III’s marital diplomacy apart from an apparent and unsavory interest in his niece Elizabeth.  Some of the negative feelings that one would feel about Richard III would be mitigated if he was not thought to have been obsessed with incest as a way of carrying forward the Plantagenet dynasty.  Of course, Richard III was a thirty-something man who had been rather suddenly bereft of both his son and a wife, and such a man on the prowl can be terrifying even if one is not a Plantagenet, I suppose.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Richard III: England’s Black Legend

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Remember, Remember (The Fifth Of November) | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Digging For Richard III | Edge Induced Cohesion

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