Author: Desmond Seward
Publisher: Pegasus Books
I am about ten pages in (page 22, given the charts and tables and what not) and already the writer has cast so much doubt on his own credibility that I cannot take him seriously. That’s too bad, because I was very excited about reading this book. To me, all this shows is the dubious value of a Cambridge education (or any other university education), which the book jacket so proudly boasts in favor of the author.
The first issue is that the first paragraph of his introduction claims that Horace Walpole’s book describing doubts about Richard’s villainy were admired by ‘Edmund Gibbon.’ Type ‘Edmund Gibbon’ in on Wikipedia; you won’t find him. There is no such person of repute. Surely the author must mean EdWARD Gibbon, the great (greatest?) historian whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while in places problematic, remains the single most compelling work of scholarship performed in the West since the birth of Christ. To mistake this man’s name is to show a lack of interest and care in the historian’s craft. It would be like calling Jackie Robinson ‘Jackie Robertson’ and calling yourself qualified to write about baseball history. I have read Gibbon–in his entirety–and consider him the smartest man to have ever lived, and the book to be among the greatest ever written (I’ve read thousands of classics and therefore consider myself uniquely qualified to make that comment).
The second problem, more fundamental to this topic, is that the author states, not even a page later, that Walpole’s writing belongs ‘no less to fiction’ than does a novel expressing questions about the truth of accounts describing Richard as a villain (if I understand what this novel is about, though I admit I have not read it). The claim itself is problematic. I have also read Walpole, and what Walpole does is not to portray fact but to question the credibility of the accounts of Thomas More and Francis Bacon, among others, who described Richard as a villain and who had shaped the narrative about Richard III IN WALPOLE’S TIME. It does not have any place as ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ because that is not the kind of book it is. It is an examination of evidence which explicitly states that Walpole has no interest whatsoever in clearing Richard’s name and therefore is calling for a fresh look at the evidence both for and against him, to which end he lends a start. Walpole happens to find the evidence against Richard III scanty and not credible. Thus the author’s claim that it belongs to fiction is absurd and, in my opinion, reflects severely on his credibility as a historian. It shows that he does not know what kind of materials he is looking at. He could have questioned Walpole’s conclusions or his interpretations and not had a problem.
Walpole is quite impressive in explaining why he has these doubts, not only questioning More’s source material and placement in the hierarchy of the Tudor monarchs but showing a political rationale that would make a good reader consider whether Richard might not have usurped at all, asking whether accounts of the murder of the princes in the tower attributing them to Richard were given by credible sources (especially going to great lengths to show that their own mother AND Henry VII believed one may have been alive when a claimant to the crown against Henry VII was defeated and claimed to be him), completely shattering the rumor that Richard murdered his own wife, destroying the legend that Richard III either killed Henry VI personally or was anywhere near the murder when it happened by citing eyewitness accounts of their interaction, and casting doubt on whether there was any political rationale behind the crimes that he might have committed. He brings into serious question the attribution to Richard of the murders of Edward IV and of Clarence, and suggests that his ‘usurpation’ was in fact a response to the overbearing and dangerous actions of Edward’s wife Elizabeth, which had offended not only Richard but many other nobles and which forced them to take power out of the hands of a ‘regent’ and hence the dowager herself. Given the politics of Richard’s reign AND Walpole’s account it is hard to conclude that Richard was a villain in any stronger way than his contemporary kings and his successors (Henry VII was in fact a tyrant of the highest order who can be more reasonably fitted as the perpetrator of most of the crimes attributed to Richard III). Walpole IS qualified to comment on the political rationale behind Richard’s decisions; nobody ought to disagree with that. Whether this author is equally qualified is left to the reader’s judgment.
The third issue for me is that within five pages of text he says at once that ‘nearly every professional medievalist’ agrees that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a ‘misshapen hellhound’ is ‘pretty near the truth,’ then goes on to say that ‘on the whole modern historians take the view that he was more like the white legend,’ which he describes as the legend ‘of a folk hero manque, a gallant young ruler, the supreme victim of political vilification in English history.’ The only way to make these two claims consistent with one another is to separate the word ‘historian’ from the word ‘medievalist’ and claim that he meant different things by using different words. That seems pretty far-fetched. I honestly believe this man has no clue what he is talking about, and therefore said two conflicting things about the same topic. And that does not speak well to his credibility, either.
There is actually a fourth issue here, which is that he deems all evidence unearthed in the last hundred years as supporting a general picture of Richard as a villain. But any evidence that is unleashed on the world 400+ years after the reign of a monarch is going to need much more skilled interpretation than contemporary evidence. Even thirty years after the monarch this is the case, which is one reason why Walpole’s doubts are so compelling. Given the author’s display of unusually poor interpretive skill, the obvious question is whether the evidence he presents as being against Richard are really against him? And I have a hard time believing that whatever information he presents is not being colored by decades of poor habits and what is clearly poor training.
The real fault is the publisher’s for letting this work pass for publication. It makes them look bad, and is in keeping with the general foolishness of many if not most publishing houses.