By Nathen Amin
In recent times there have been biographies aplenty in the Wars of the Roses, a trend that shows no signs of abating. Henry VII, Jasper Tudor, Edward IV and Richard III have received plenty of attention from historians in the last few years, to add to the Social Media groups and blogs dedicated to such luminaries of the fifteenth century.
Oddly, such a biography or study had yet to be written about the man who, in the eyes of many, initiated the brutal internecine conflict, Richard, Duke of York. It is true that he features as a major character either in works about others or general Wars of the Roses tomes, but for such an important figure however, a dedicated biography has been long overdue. Thankfully this is something Matthew Lewis has finally supplied.
Apart from being a highly influential fifteenth century figure deserving of modern analysis, Lewis outlines his motivation for the work to be an attempt to push aside the veils of myth and legend that surround the duke of York and to challenge the image of Richard as a man whose insatiable ambition dragged his nation into a civil war. Did Richard, after all, have a ‘burning ambition and unquenchable desire for the throne’ or was he merely acting in the general interest of the kingdom?
Lewis’ book begins with Edmund of Langley, a son of Edward III and the first duke of York; the narrative helps outline the importance of pedigree to Richard of York’s story, quickly zipping through the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V until we come to Richard’s early life. It is these early years that is often missing from other accounts in which Richard plays a part; most works feature Richard in his later life as a divisive magnate connected to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, so it is refreshing to read his early years where Lewis reveals details about where he was based and the development of early connections.
A typical insight into this often unexplored period of his life Lewis’ inclusion of a letter written by King Henry VI to a 16 year old Richard in 1428. The king addresses his ‘dear and beloved cousin’ and requests his presence to join the king’s household. ‘Do not delay in any manner, but know that your arrival we shall provide for you so well in household for your residence that you will be very pleased and content with this’. This is where Lewis’ book has worth – regular readers of the genre will be aware of the caricature of Richard towards the end of his life, but here we are provided evidence of his early life, on the cusp of adulthood.
Elsewhere, I noted that Lewis openly acknowledges the use of propaganda by the House of York, a dark art which was certainly used before the Tudors acceded the throne. It has become clichéd in recent years to castigate the Tudor Dynasty for their use of spin tactics in establishing their supremacy, but with Lewis recognising and revealing Yorkist use of similar methods, it only serves to show this is not a book built on bias to its subject, albeit one primarily from the duke’s point of view.
An example of this can be seen how the author doesn’t dodge the controversial question of the paternity of Edward IV, Richard’s son. Accusations by anti-Yorkists have long been levelled that Edward was not the son of Richard, but rather of an English archer. This supposition is based on the fact that Richard was possibly not with his wife at time of conception. Rather than rejecting this as a fanciful story designed to ruin the duke’s reputation, Lewis pays notice to the rumours rather than dismissing it out of hand, and whilst ultimately concluding that this controversy cannot be answered either way in the absence of DNA testing, it’s a logical and rational answer to a topic often treated emotionally. His later assertion that Richard wouldn’t have bothered seeking a prestigious match for a son he thought was not his, as well as the fact the duke always acknowledged his son, particularly resonate as a collected summary of the controversy.
The book is easy to read, with an engaging narrative merging gently with original sourced material in the form of chronicles and patent rolls. Richard, Duke of York, is a figure who ‘towers over late medieval history in England’ and this is a handy and much-needed biography of his life and times. The fact that I spent every work lunchtime over the last two weeks reading the book, and not feeling that I had wasted that time, speaks volumes for the writing style and content. A good addition to Wars of the Roses genre that is even-handed if sympathetic, detailed if concise and enjoyable to read.
Matthew Lewis is the author of two histories and two historical fiction novels about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The medieval period is a particular passion of his, which he hopes to spread through his blog. He is dedicated to teaching and discussing this period, operating two history podcasts and providing bite-sized facts to his Twitter and Facebook following. Wars of the Roses, the Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy, Medieval Britain in 100 Facts and Richard, Duke of York; King by Right are all available on Amberley Publishing.