I started reading about Richard II during the summer before my junior year. The following school year, I continued my reading during breaks, since my ordinary school work left me little time or energy for independent research. Seeing as the reading I’ve done up until this point was begun over a year ago and has occurred primarily in chunks separated by long stretches of time, I have inevitably forgotten a good deal of information. Therefore, I thought it would not only be informative to others, but helpful to myself, to spend my second blog post summarizing my reading so far.
The first academic book I read about Richard II was Nigel Saul’s 1997 biography of the king. As the most recent full length biography of Richard, Saul’s Richard II is a staple in the reading list of any Ricardian scholar. However, Saul’s work has received nearly as much criticism as it has popularity. For example, Saul has been deemed overly sympathetic to the king, particularly when assessing Richard’s policy of recruiting men throughout the country to a royal affinity, modeled off of the affinities built up by magnates in the localities (Gundy 11). According to Saul, “Richard’s formation of a magnate-style affinity represented an intelligent and practical response to the problems raised by the exercise of royal authority in the later middle ages” (Saul 268). However, more recent historians, such as A.K Gundy, who based her argument off of the work of Helen Castor, have claimed that by acting as a private lord, the king compromised his ability to provide justice to the magnates of the kingdom (Gundy 23). Personally, I agree that in certain places Saul is too eager to defend the actions of a king who was ultimately responsible for his own downfall. At the same time, I will continue to treat Saul’s Richard II as a valuable resource. This is because Saul is both very thorough in recounting the reign and relatively neutral in his perspective compared to other historians I have read who write to argue rather than inform.
One such historian is Christopher Fletcher, author of Richard II: Manhood, Youth, and Politics, 1377-99 (2008). This work, which originated as a Masters thesis (Fletcher vii), attempts to debunk the effeminate reputation which Richard II has gained over the centuries. In it, Fletcher presents some very interesting ideas, many of which introduce new ways of interpreting the reign. Very significantly, he provides plentiful evidence to counter the long-standing assumption that Richard desired peace in the war with France during the 1380s (Fletcher 98-126). While it seems unlikely to me that Richard was as war-hungry as Fletcher portrays him, Fletcher certainly convinced me that the king’s stance on the war was much more moderate than is often thought. Although Fletcher’s book introduced me to new ways of looking at several parts of the reign, I also felt that at times he attempted to interpret events in the context of his argument which in reality had little if any connection to his thesis. The result was that Fletcher’s arguments often felt forced. Since I plan on writing my own argumentative essay about Richard II, I will look at this negative aspect of Fletcher’s work as an example of a common trap historians fall into that I hope to avoid.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the book I am working on now is A.K Gundy’s Richard II and the Rebel Earl (2013), which I am a bit more than halfway through. Since this is the text I am coming into contact with most often at the moment, it is almost certainly the most influential on my current conception of the reign. This being said, I can say with as little bias as possible that Gundy’s work has been very insightful so far. First of all, the introduction to the book offers a review of most of the important scholarship published on Richard II beginning with the work of W.H Stubbs in the late 19th century (Gundy 2). Reading Gundy’s criticism of other authors allowed me to see the arguments made by historians I have read in the past more objectively, especially those posed by Nigel Saul. Additionally, Richard II and the Rebel Earl is unique in its structure as a local study, focusing on the impact of Richard’s policies on the areas of England dominated by Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a prominent magnate who was one of the five leading rebels in the crisis of 1387-1388. By choosing to frame her book in this way, Gundy is able to present a clearer, more detailed explanation of the noble opposition to Richard II than authors who focus only on Richard himself and the leading figures in his court. Furthermore, Gundy’s explanations of local political society have given me a better understanding of how medieval government operated not just at the center, but also in the localities.
Once I finish reading Richard II and the Rebel Earl, I hope to move on to looking at primary sources (translated into modern English of course!). I own, but have not yet used, two collections of translated sources from the reign: Chris Given-Wilson’s The Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397-1400: The Reign of Richard II (1993) and A.K McHardy’s The Reign of Richard II: From Minority to Tyranny 1377-97 (2012). I’m looking forward to exploring the reign from the eyes of contemporaries for the first time and will be sure to write about my experiences with primary sources when the time comes!
Image: The “Richard II shelf” of my bookcase, taken by me
Fletcher, Christopher. Richard II: Manhood, Youth, and Politics, 1377-99. Oxford UP, 2008. Oxford Historical Monographs.
Gundy, A. K. Richard II and the Rebel Earl. Cambridge UP, 2013. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series.
Saul, Nigel. Richard II. Yale UP, 1997. Yale English Monarchs.