Paul Murray Kendall, the author of this biography of Richard III, one of the most controversial English kings, carefully and painstakingly constructs Richard’s life and times through contemporary fifteenth-century sources, resolutely attempting to thrust away the “Tudor tradition” once and for all.
Necessarily, it takes a long while to get through a volume so heavy with facts and references, especially considering Kendall backs up nearly all of his points with lengthy endnotes. These are welcome and flesh out every aspect of Kendall’s thought processes as he attempts to show us the man who has been so maligned. What emerges is a picture of an honest, well-intentioned man, perhaps too eager to seize a throne, let down by nearly all of his contemporaries. As Duke of Gloucester, Richard won the allegiance of the North, a task which no one had yet managed since William the Conqueror, if not before. He stood by his brother and his brother’s children, for the most part. As King, Richard forgave many of his enemies, bestowed annuities on helpless people, and passed laws entirely for the betterment of society. He did not ask Parliament for a tax despite facing two rebellions, and in general focused largely on increasing the well-being of the poor. He even compares Richard to Henry VII, and Henry comes out the worse for it.
The matter of the Princes in the Tower also comes into play, as do Richard’s motives for dethroning his nephew Edward V. In each case, Kendall addresses the matter logically and with plenty of evidence from the sources he has consulted. Richard comes out of all this possibly guilty, but understandably so, especially in the latter case. Kendall doesn’t believe that Richard killed the princes, and neither do I, though my opinion has been formed for some time now.
Kendall’s writing is at times overly flowery and it’s fairly obvious that this book is over fifty years old. That doesn’t negate its virtues, but it does make for occasionally slow reading, especially compared to current popular biographies. This is very easy to read compared to the original sources, of course. One must also keep in mind that other evidence has been discovered in the years since Kendall’s biography; nevertheless this one remains a cornerstone in the case for Richard III and should be read as such.
I particularly enjoyed the excerpts from Richard’s letters displaying characteristics of his that Kendall wanted to show. I’ve read several medieval biographies at this point and the glimpse into the subjects’ minds is fascinating. Richard’s mind is no less, and it is in these letters that we can feel closest to the king who was betrayed by so many people and even by his own generous policies.
With this biography, Kendall tries, and succeeds, at building a picture of Richard III that is not marred by Tudor legend, a picture of a man and not a monster. He goes through each source and attempts to extract what is true and what is false. I can’t say if he has the whole truth, because I don’t think anyone ever will, but he does a remarkably convincing job.