Richard III – The Self Made King by Michael Hicks

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Distinguished by his abominable acts, Richard III lives on as the king men and women love to hate. His crimes are many, some unproven, yet considered guilty anyway. Almost every critic, armchair or academic, has focused on those terrible two years prior to the killing of this king by his Tudor rival…except Michael Hicks.

This author is well qualified to comment. As Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Winchester, his status has allowed him the free time to assemble the notes of a life-long study of the fifteenth century.  BBC History Magazine has accurately described him as “the greatest living expert on Richard.” His previous publication, The War of the Roses, was commended as “a meticulous dissection of competing dynamics with a clear account of the course of events … a definitive and indispensable history of a compelling, complex period” (Yale, 2012).

This book grows out of Hicks’s earlier study, the difference lying in the sharper focus on Richard as he fitted within that span of thirty years (1455 – 1485). Thoroughly considered analysis is a feature of this volume, but never interferes with the flow of a story well told. The first chapter is sharply focused and placed in the most appropriate part of the book since it tells of ‘Myths Ancient and Modern: the Shaping of Richard III’. Hicks’s purpose is to debunk the myths, and tell the story as historical research reveals it to us.

Unfortunately, historians who research the fifteenth century in Europe rarely agree with one another. Hicks shows that the old divisions of Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts through to the House of Windsor are no longer useful. To consider the Plantagenets from a viewpoint of the modern era is to forget the huge time lapse since the 1500s. The mental frame of the mind of Sir Thomas More who provides a lot of what we know is coloured by the official line of the Tudors, yet scholars accept his accounts as though they were eyewitness. Polydore Vergil tells a similar story, a tale of the victor, never the vanquished. Hicks does not accept these accounts without question. He strikes out on his own.

One of the attributes that will not be denied when reading Hicks’s account of Richard III is the balance he brings to an argument. He excoriates More for deliberately and skilfully setting out to deceive. “More’s characterisation therefore cannot be accepted as it stands, but neither can it be rejected out of hand. It is not purely Tudor propaganda” (6). Hicks pursues the point that there were very good reasons for the apparent acceptance of the Tudor view at the time. There is much more found in that first chapter that drags the reader to return there.

Moving on, we learn that Richard was the eleventh of twelve children. His father, Richard Duke of York and his mother, Cecily Neville, were a wealthy couple, members of powerful, pious families. Conspicuous consumption in a great household was reality to the child. It was the norm. At the same time, the law of primogeniture applied, and this made a huge difference to Richard’s circumstances. How do we know? Hicks supplies the intricate detail that he obtained through poring over primary sources when available, and affirming or disputing conclusions from secondary materials. He provides what experience tells him most likely happened but admits that no proof exists to show why the scenario he describes is probably correct.

Reading Hicks is like absorbing oneself in a thrilling biography or a well-told mystery story except that one has to learn to be patient. Passages of thoroughly referenced material and cogent argument soon appear, a challenge for the casual reader. Richard was a very junior son and had to work very hard to find the resources to fund the life-style of a duke (52), a newly-created duke who inherited nothing (56). He was expected to cope with Edward IV’s re-allocation of favours at will, but was offered no forfeitures of property as compensation. Hicks shows how demanding the king was of his nobles – Richard was still only 17 when commissioned to suppress a rebellion in Wales (67), and younger still when called on to condemn a man to death.

Richard’s story to this point in time (about 1472) is pulled together on pp 80 – 81. Distinguished by loyalty seems a good way to describe Richard at 17. He is depicted at this age and throughout the story of his life, as a man focused on the accumulation of wealth, since for him wealth equalled power. There is no suggestion that he ever considered rebellion against his king, let alone snatching the throne. It is unfortunate that, until Hicks’s book, few scholars viewed Richard as a reformer, yet some of his reforms survived the depredations of Henry VII (361). Hicks see evidence of Richard’s active pursuit of justice and cites the practice of the royal prerogative as an administrative tool (331), while on page 362 he summarizes a view of Richard before the final battle.

It’s not a laudable distinction to own but at least one historian grants Richard the title of first king to use character assassination as a deliberate instrument of policy (Ross, quoted in Hicks, 369).  While his strategies were geared to winning the hearts of the population at large and specific groups in particular, he lost out to Henry Tudor because of a number of issues. Henry’s promise to wed Elizabeth of York attracted many of the Yorkist nobles to his side. Moreover, Henry’s followers employed a cunning use of propaganda that told stories about Henry that were blatantly untrue. These were allowed to exist uncorrected, since their substance gave the Tudor praise that he had not earned. Thus Henry, the claimant for the throne, outclassed the incumbent, Richard. Sworn, but false, statements that the present king had ordered the murder of the princes in the Tower was one such series of events that did his cause no good.

When I think about the fate of the princes in the Tower I see a case study in the same balanced writing that I have already mentioned. Hicks weighs what evidence his sources provide, he re-examines the sources and eliminates or re-weighs evidence that was not as compelling as it was when first sourced. He reaches a conclusion that it was more likely than not that Richard had ordered the princes killed, but insufficient evidence forces him to state that no proof exists.

This is a beautiful book to hold, a fascinating book to read, and an academic treatise as good as any I’ve seen in the past twelve months. While I still dislike Richard, I think I understand him better.

Richard III – The Self Made King


By Michael Hicks

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-21429-1

$59.99; 388pp

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