Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: Richard The Young King To Be by Josephine Wilkinson

The further back in the historical record one travels the more difficult it becomes to find complete records from birth to death on one's subject.  And so it proves challenging to write biographical materials even on persons who become king.   It is the mark of a good writer to acknowledge these difficulties and provide thoughtful analysis on the scant material available.   It is perfectly permissible to provide family background on the subject as it can provide valuable insight into the biographical subject.   What is not permissible is to pad one's book with overly detailed descriptions of palaces and ceremonies.  To do so only heightens the lack of material and the potential folly of deciding to divide a biography into two books.

It is the latter road which Josephine Wilkinson takes in her 2008 biography Richard The Young King To Be.  The volume covers the life of King Richard III from his birth at Fotheringay Castle in 1452 to his marriage to Anne Nevill, younger daughter of Richard, Earl of Warrick and Richard III's beginnings as a landed magnate in the north of England.  

As The Thespian noted, it is fine to espouse on the family of the biographical subject. Such analysis can provide a great deal of insight into the formation of a person's character.  And the family of Richard III, the youngest child of Richard, Duke of York, possible heir to the throne of King Henry VI is a fascinating one.  In brief, Richard, Duke of York was doubly descended fro King Edward III.  By his father, Edmund, 1st Duke of York, the 4th son of Edward III  and from his mother, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the 2nd son of Edward III.  King Henry VI was descended from John of Gaunt, the 3rd son of Edward III.  Confused yet?  Welcome to the mess that became the Wars of the Roses.

King Henry VI had become king as an infant.  After his regency, he proved a weak ruler and his reign was dominated by a series of advisors.  These included his cousins, Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset and Richard, Duke of York.  When the king became incapacitated by a catatonic mental breakdown, control of the realm became more urgent and included a new player, King Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou who, during his illness, gave birth to the couple's only child and heir, Edward of Lancaster.  Eventually events led to civil war and the disinheritance of the king's son in favor of Richard, Duke of York.  Queen Margaret's army killed the Duke of York at the battle of Wakefield.  This put the Yorkist claim to the throne in the hands of our young Richard's eldest brother, who following the slaughter of the battle of Towton was crowned King Edward IV.   Our young subject matter is not quite eight years old.

The problem with creating a biography on the young life of King Richard III is that he does not become a factor in his own story until he becomes a teenager.  He participates in his brother's coronation being invested as a Knight of the Bath and intriguingly becomes a page in the household of Richard, Earl of Warrick, the "kingmaker".   Dr. Wilkinson pads her book with pages of minutiae such as every detail of the ceremony to become a Knight of the Bath or the duties of a page in a noble household.  We do not need a pages long description of Middleham, the estate of the Earl of Warrick to get an understanding of the young Richard.

The narrative becomes more interesting as Richard ages into the teenager who fights for his brother following his brief overthrow in 1470-1471.  The more fascinating character during this time period is the middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence who switches sides in a bid for more power and influence and later tries to prevent Richard's marriage to Anne Nevill, the younger sister of Clarence's wife, Isabel in order to keep control over the Nevill inheritance.

Dr. Wilkinson also tries to make a case that the marriage of Richard and Anne was one which could not be made legal with a Papal dispensation. She bases this on the grounds that as Richard was the brother-in-law of Anne's sister they were related in the first degree of affinity which could not be overcome.  Dr. Wilkinson is overlooking the examples in the Spanish and Portuguese royal families where the sisters of Katherine of Aragon married in turn to maintain the diplomatic alliance.

What is good about Dr. Wilkinson's book is the use of excerpts of original source material to break through the later Tudor propaganda of the horribly deformed monster so exquisitely brought to life by Shakespeare.  Yet, she undermines this by adding speculation on the odds of Richard being born with teeth and examining the other parts of the nonsense that Richard III was deformed by giving potential plausible explanations and then later dismissing her reasons for doing so.   Dr. Wilkinson instead should have mentioned the propaganda and forcefully dismissed it using a few well placed sources of Richard's appearance during his lifetime.

It is also a mark against the publishers at Amberley Press to make the use of original source material and not adopt modern spelling,  The Thespian has noted before that this publishing house will use modern spelling when the excerpt has been previously "translated" while leaving other excerpts untouched.  It is The Thespian's opinion that this is lazy editing and only succeeds in making the books less accessible to the general  reader.  

It is due to these problems that The Thespian cannot recommend this book to a general audience.  There must be better biographies of Richard III available and she recommends seeking them out.

Richard The Young King To Be by Josephine Wilkinson was published in 2008 by Amberley Press.  The second volume of the biography Richard III, From Lord of the North to King of England was published in 2010.  For additional information, please visit

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