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31. Jan, 2016

On the matter of sources that are usually cited for the origin of Richard III’s blackened reputation, it occurs to me that I’ve done quite a lot of reading lately around Thomas More’s influential Richard III, which means I have been delving more deeply into the analyses published in the Appendix to my book Richard III: The Maligned King.

Many scholars of 16th-century literature subscribe to the view that More was writing satirical drama to pillory his exemplum of 'The Tyrant', personified (regrettably) by Richard III in his unfinished book. Dr Arthur Kincaid led the vanguard in 1972 with his assessment that its dramatic structure is paramount to its proper appreciation, which was accepted by R.S. Sylvester in the 1976 Yale edition of Richard III which I think is still considered the gold standard (see page xvi). Other analyses have been content to follow Kincaid’s lead, e.g. a paper dated 1982 by Elizabeth S. Donno in Renaissance Quarterly. Alison Hanham continued in the same vein in Richard III and his Early Historians (1975), although Hanham fell into a common error by categorizing More as an historian. As early as 1963 Sylvester’s commentary in Vol. 2 of the Yale ‘Complete Works of Thomas More’ had made it clear that already the literary world rejected it as constituting what we (or historiographers) would call history, and indeed the title ‘History’ of Richard III was almost certainly attached to it posthumously. In support of Kincaid et al. are the contemporary reports that More was fascinated by the theatre, had already tried his hand at writing plays, and was known to leap up on to the stage during performances and interpolate an off-the-cuff role for himself.

Thomas More had spent a number of his young years in the household of Cardinal John Morton, under the cardinal’s tutelage, and in the early 1600s the idea that Cardinal John Morton authored More's book was current among members of the antiquary movement. They knew of a certain tract hostile to Richard III written by Morton which was in the library of More's son-in-law – some had read it, others knew of its contents, so there clearly were close similarities between the two works. Since then, scholarly assessments of More's English and Latin have decided against Morton’s authorship (which wasn't very likely anyway, especially when you consider that Morton died in 1500). 

Nevertheless, knowledgeable 17th-century antiquaries like Sir George Buck and Sir William Cornwallis were so vehement and outspoken about the authorship of More's book by Morton that I believe they should not be ignored. My proposition is as follows ... (1) That More DID have access to Morton's tract, and (2) that its contents DID prompt More's embarking on his Richard III project, to the extent that that's where he got his entire premise of Richard as tyrannous, hypocritical, murderous, etc. Thomas More was thus fully equipped with the ready-made central villain for his polemic against tyranny, fleshed out with Morton’s anecdotal reports of his various crimes. I then propose that (3) working from this basis, More added all the embellishments that transformed it into a piece of dramatic craftsmanship – the condemnatory language, the dialogue, the moments of high theatre like the confrontation with Hastings – until he had something that satisfied his muse. In other words Morton loaded the gun and More discharged it with results that Morton could only have dreamed of.

At this point a number of questions arise. Undoubtedly the several extant versions (in English and Latin) are brilliantly conceived and executed. So why did More set his bravura piece aside and never seek to publish it? He couldn’t wait to see Utopia in print, yet he never even finished his Richard III – and, significantly, never mentioned a word of it in all the copious writings of his that are known to us. As you might expect, I have a proposition for this, too: (4) eventually, I submit, he started questioning the veracity of the information provided by Cardinal Morton’s tract. This was a private project to which he returned on and off over the span of several years, and he had probably written many thousands of words of his drama before he thought to speak of it to anyone. If he initially found some of it rested on shaky ground, this would not have bothered him: More was entirely happy with the rhetorical practice of arguing persuasively both for AND against a proposition, and in this period of time ‘historical truth’ was not a matter of great concern. My suggestion is that there came a time, however, when he simply couldn’t suppress the nagging suspicion that the basis of his Richard III story as told by Morton was unreliable. This was not merely a matter of questioning the accuracy of the events in his story, it was much more important than that: if what I suggest is the case, Thomas More’s belief in the mentor of his youth would have been shaken. Nothing less than this, I believe, would have disillusioned him deeply enough to have stopped him in his tracks.

14. Jan, 2016

In the space of a few days cancer has taken two amazing English talents aged only in their sixties. The news about David Bowie was only just sinking in when we heard today of Alan Rickman's death. I encountered him first in roles like Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility, see photo) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves), having kicked myself for missing him in Liaisons Dangereuses. In the early 1990s, while working on my biography of Jeff Beck, I did a lot of research for a planned biography of Alan Rickman - he had trained at RADA, as had my husband, Paul Carson. I was pipped at the post by a gossipy effort by Maureen Paton which I thought did him less than justice. His versatility was enormous, and I treasure a signed photograph he gave me. An unforgettable talent.

11. Jan, 2016

An emotional day today, with the death of David Bowie. His music a part of my life since the 1960s. It’s not tremendously well known that I wrote the first (unauthorized) biography of British rock guitarist Jeff Beck, published in 2001 by Hal Leonard and awarded 4 stars by Q Magazine. In the book I recounted the story of how Jeff came to appear onstage with Bowie at his Ziggy Stardust farewell concert. It runs as follows.

. . . At around this time Beck made a surprise guest appearance at the famous ‘retirement’ night of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars world tour, mounted at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. Beck’s appearance was arranged by Bowie as a birthday treat for his guitarist, Mick Ronson, who idolized Beck’s playing and had always longed to play with him onstage.

Beck was sent a mysterious note from Bowie, enclosing tickets and asking him to be at the show. Called up for the encores, he joined the band on ‘Jean Genie’ and ‘Love Me Do’ (with Bowie supplying the harmonica part). A second encore, ‘Around and Around’, also featured Beck on his magic voice tube. [This was the ‘talking guitar’ effect often used later by Peter Frampton.]

The surprise appearance entailed even more of a surprise for Beck when he learned that the show had been filmed for cinema and TV. This was something he hadn’t expected, and frankly he didn’t feel he had performed too well . . . Given the option, he decided to exclude his appearances and they were duly edited out of the film and the official live album. Nevertheless, the first two numbers were shown on US television and the third one was broadcast in Europe!

Beck was left with a strange memento of the occasion when he was given a weird rag doll by Bowie and Ronson, which they said resembled him. An odd gift, but one that he kept ever afterwards. He also attended Bowie’s retirement party at the Café Royal the following night, where the guests included Mick and Bianca Jagger, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Keith Moon, Lulu, Cat Stevens, Lou Reed, Barbra Streisand, Britt Ekland, Tony Curtis, Elliot Gould, Ryan O’Neal, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with music supplied by Dr John. Surely one of the most glittering rock events of the decade.

11. Jan, 2016

I posted a link on Facebook to my speculative little piece on the 'Hastings plot' (see Ricardian Topics page) and the reach on Facebook is already well over 10,000! Plus it's being reproduced in blogs and newsletters. Such has been the interest that I've edited it a little to make things a bit clearer to the non-specialist reader.

What I would really LOVE is for anyone interested in this to PLEASE read my little book Richard Duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and High Constable of England (available here and from the Richard III Society) (and as an eBook) because this explains Richard's legitimate powers within the government at the time of the Hastings incident. Context is everything, so it's important to consider who in this scenario was acting legally and who illegally!

27. Aug, 2015

I review books rarely – almost never – because being a professional writer myself, I have too great an appreciation of the depth of travail entailed in producing written work of a quality that satisfies my personal standards. To pick holes in the labours of others must be done with great sensitivity towards the author’s literary endeavours which, if he or she is anything like me, will have taken years to bring to fruition. 

In any case, how can I pick holes in a book such as Josephine Wilkinson’s The Princes in the Tower which so closely echoes my own analysis of the same subject five years previously? Indeed, I must reserve my harshest censure for the publisher’s dust-jacket blurb, which blares the promise of ‘a ground-breaking new theory about what really happened and why’. Of this promise – let us hope it was not penned by Wilkinson – the lack of fulfilment has been much criticized, not least by readers who have previously seen the book’s entire contents in my own Richard III: The Maligned King (The History Press, first edition 2008).

Unlike Wilkinson’s Princes, none of my books has ever attempted to give an answer to the ambitious question in her sub-title, Did Richard III Murder His Nephews, Edward V & Richard of York? Sad to say, publishers are tediously predictable in employing the word ‘murder’ whenever publications discuss the fate of Edward IV’s sons (murder sells books and TV spin-offs) consequently I am again inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt over this piece of un-historian-like hucksterism. It irresistibly calls to mind another example of publisher’s chicanery from a few years ago, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower, a book title transparently designed to give the impression that it dealt with the topic of the disappearing princes.  (It didn’t.) 

As writers, researchers, historians and scholars, I hold it as our duty to resist simplistic and, ultimately, historically illiterate language of which ‘murder’ and ‘usurpation’ are common examples, used for effect but never precisely and adequately defined in their historical context. Especially when, as in Wilkinson’s case, the concept of murder in relation to Richard III’s possible disposal of the princes is never addressed within the book that bears the word on its cover (indeed, the words ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ are used interchangeably – e.g. see page 157). This is one of the reasons why I prefer nowadays to self-publish my books. If nothing else, I can make absolutely sure that what it says on the cover is consistent with what the reader finds inside. A book title is like a copywriter’s headline: you do your product a fundamental disservice if your advertising portrays it falsely.

And so to the book’s contents – 159 textual pages aside from front matter and end matter; no illustrations, no genealogical tables, no index. Still, what luxury to have 159 pages in which to set out in full those researches which I had perforce to confine to a single chapter of some 12,500 words! Yet, employing my practised publisher’s eye to compare The Maligned King with The Princes, I discern that the latter contains easily 100 words fewer per page than the former. And with each of eleven chapters having a title page, where some 60-odd words are lost to the title formatting, this  means we lose another estimated 650 from the total word count. Thus we are left with somewhere short of 33,000 words of textual argument. In case this is difficult to visualize, compare my paperback Richard III: A Small Guide to the Great Debate, also published in 2013, price £5. Although it has 28,500 words, 14 illustrations, two family trees and an index, I had always considered it rather a modest effort. Perhaps I should revise my assessment when setting it beside Josephine Wilkinson’s The Princes in the Tower at £18.99 hardback and £9.99 paperback. 

Still and all, you don’t judge a book by its word count, any more than you judge it by its cover. Which in this instance is probably a good thing, since I have never been a fan of Delaroche’s portrayal of the sons of Edward IV, two waxen faces set against funereal black. Curiously, Wilkinson’s Introduction tells us that she found discussion of them in her two-part biography of Richard III a dilemma: ‘I knew that everything that came after would be shaped by whatever conclusion I drew regarding their fate. ... I could not allow their story to swamp my biography of Richard’. As a writer I had found no such problem, but here we encounter the historian's self-imposed burden always to sit in judgement. A mystery demands a conclusion to be drawn. Hence the sub-title we discussed earlier, Did Richard III Murder His Nephews, Edward V & Richard of York? This particular mystery, says Wilkinson, can ‘hijack’ a biography.

I’m not so sure. I suspect her anxiety results from the subject having become an overworn trope in the popular (and ill-informed) consciousness, stoked up by third-rate TV documentaries fronted by celebrity-seeking pundits, resulting in an irritation-factor in academics out of all proportion to its historical importance. The laager mentality takes over, and they circle the wagons behind orthodoxy. In short, what Wilkinson was really worried about was that to take the matter of the sons of Edward IV seriously within her scholarly biography might invite ridicule and dismissal by her peers. One can scarcely blame her for such very real anxieties.

Of course, a review of the resultant book must evaluate it on its own merits. Wilkinson herself prepares us not to expect a running narrative, but rather a series of discrete essays drawn from earlier researches, adjusted and offered for publication with an extra essay added. It is certainly best judged with this in mind. As an avid reader and writer of essays (or articles), I am familiar with the form. Here they act as individual assessments, in the main, of candidates for the role of guilty party in a rather pedestrian whodunnit. A disappearance has been plucked out of five centuries of history and presented as an alleged homicide. Backgrounds of the supposed victims are supplied. An outline of the immediate circumstances of 1483 is sketched in, but with almost no explanation of the political and constitutional power-play so essential for an understanding of the tensions surrounding their disappearance. Most of the characters are presented in terms of estate holdings, family connections, inheritances and attainders. Humanity is so completely absent that I can only suppose this was a purposeful design, aimed at distancing the author from her subject-matter. Could it have been to avoid being tainted by the upsurge of heated emotions surrounding the discovery of the king’s body at the very moment her biography was in full flow? Again, one can scarcely blame her; but she must have realized that such an approach leaves huge gaps in any attempt to appreciate ‘what really happened and why’ as promised on the book-jacket. 

Another deficiency, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the lack of engagement with the vexed problem of sources. In a collection of essays, space could have been made for one more to address the dating, authorship and reliability (or unreliability) of the several chronicle and narrative sources quoted. Thomas More’s Richard III is the honourable exception from this cavil, as Wilkinson is courageous enough to nail her colours to the mast of literary drama as opposed to history penned by a saint. However, she offers very few connecting links between many of her quoted sources and the Tudor climate within which they were written. Her wholesale acceptance of Polydore Vergil is more than a little disconcerting, especially as Vergil supplies almost her entire grounds for considering Margaret Beaufort’s candidacy as perpetrator of the alleged ‘murder’. Wilkinson is also surprisingly approximate about the Crowland Chronicle, and seems unaware of the 1986 Pronay and Cox edition which is absent from her bibliography. The edition she cites is that of H.T. Riley (1854). This explains why, among other odd remarks, her assumption of its author (footnote 2, page 173) ‘as is usually thought, John Russell’ is out of step with current thinking. 

The lack of a narrative thread means that most of the essays discuss the princes’ death as a foregone conclusion requiring only the identification of its perpetrator, therefore the sudden appearance in the last four pages of a case for their possible survival comes as rather a shock. Obviously I am delighted to read Wilkinson’s comment on page 156 that, ‘Based on the rumours of survival, historians have speculated that the boys had been removed from the Tower and taken elsewhere.’ Footnote references to sources in Wilkinson’s final pages are thin on the ground, so the how and the why remain unexplained. Fortunately, anyone who has read my books will find this case, so superficially treated by Wilkinson, presented in depth in The Maligned King and more concisely in A Small Guide to the Great Debate. Cogent arguments will be found explaining exactly how its accomplishment could be reconciled with the known facts and the geography of the Tower of London, the latter point illustrated with a specially commissioned artist’s reconstruction.

Although I personally learned nothing new in the way of facts, sources, theories or arguments here presented – and nor will most well-read Ricardians – the book is certainly valuable as a dispassionate reiteration, by a historian unconnected with Ricardian circles, of material too often regarded as irrelevant by traditional thinkers. And a welcome change to find gossip and rumour treated as such rather than as fact. Wilkinson has made good use of the luxury of space available to examine a number of the items mentioned, although others which could benefit from elucidation are left in the air. Its principal weakness lies in the author’s lack of joined-up thinking, especially as to the practicalities of the theories she examines. On the whole, I’m guessing it will take a reader already well versed in the Yorkist era to find this book useful.