Richard III: England’s Black Legend, by Desmond Seward
Desmond Seward tackles an ambitious task by trying to prove that Richard III of England was a true villain. With this book, he enters the heated debate over whether Richard was a slandered, misunderstood king or the vile murderer portrayed by later writers (Shakespeare, More, and others). Although Seward admits his outright bias on the subject, his argument struggles to be believable. Unfortunately, numerous issues plague this book, making Seward’s position difficult to accept.
The book begins with Richard’s birth and youth, describing his tutors and his family, before moving on to his involvement in the final phases of the Wars of the Roses. Seward then traces the early reign of Edward IV, where he argues that Richard likely was involved in the deaths of Henry VI and Prince Edward, the last Lancastrian king and his son. After that, the narrative explores the intrigue in Edward IV’s court, covering the murder of George, Duke of Clarence, and asserting that Richard was its orchestrator.
Once he explains Edward IV’s death some time later, Seward’s focus shifts to Richard’s alleged crimes as Lord Protector and King. He argues that Richard was indeed responsible for the deaths of the “young princes,” Edward V and young Richard of York; furthermore, Seward entertains the ideas that Richard had been planning to kill the youths for quite some time and that he truly had hopes of seizing the throne. Seward then depicts Richard’s successes and failures as king and contends that most of Richard’s contemporaries genuinely didn’t trust him. As he follows the unraveling of Richard’s dynasty, Seward also argues that Richard possibly had his wife, Queen Anne, murdered. Finally, the narrative shifts to Henry Tudor’s attempts to gain the throne and his victory at the Battle of Bosworth.
Normally, readers may be able to forgive and confront an author’s bias if it’s presented credibly, but it’s hard to do so with Seward’s. Vague assumptions permeate the book, weakening its argument with completely unsupported claims and phrases. They are excusable in historical writing if the author supplies background information to support them, but Seward rarely provides any. It’s impossible to challenge his argument because it isn’t supported enough to be convincing.
Seward’s use of quotations for support is similarly problematic. At times, he drops quotations straight into the text without mentioning where they’re from or who wrote them. That’s generally frowned upon in any form of writing, and it hinders the reader’s ability to learn. It’s understandable if Seward doesn’t want to bog down his work with a bunch of footnotes, but some form of citation needs to exist in a study of such a controversial and undecided topic. For the most part, meaningful and important citations are conspicuous by their absence, and believing Seward’s position becomes nearly impossible because it’s unclear where he obtains some of his information.
The sources occasionally present more issues. At times, Seward undermines his own argument by discrediting a source (e.g. chronicler Jean Molinet) as unreliable, then using that source to support his argument later. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a troublesome quality. Apparently, helpful information, even from dubious sources, gets used, while questionable material from the same source gets downplayed simply because it doesn’t agree with the author’s agenda.
Even Seward’s endnotes create more problems for the book. They frequently reference modern scholars to support a stance on a historical topic, which is often acceptable in historical writing if it’s also supported by historical evidence; however, Seward’s use of them often sounds like, “Dr. So-and-so agrees with me, so my point is valid.” It may not be what he intended, but it’s unhelpful and seems fallacious.
While the book struggles to present a strong and cohesive argument, it does succeed in a few areas. It relates a decent account of historical events during its subject era (minus the arguments about who’s guilty for the murders, etc.). Seward’s assertions may be problematic, but his recounting of the past moves fluidly and understandably. He also generously provides two family trees, those of York and Lancaster, a huge help with the dynastic quagmire of the Wars of the Roses.
Richard III: England’s Black Legend is a spirited and passionate attempt to argue against Richard’s proposed innocence. Seward’s perspective may, in fact, be correct, but the shortcomings of his presentation prevent him from creating a sound case. Every author writes with bias or agenda (that’s why they try to prove a point—their point), but Seward’s argument lacks the support it needs to be solid. Despite his success in creating a basic sketch of Richard’s life, the jury remains out on whether Richard truly was a villain.
Richard III: England’s Black Legend
By Desmond Seward
336 pp. Pegasus Books, July 2014. $16.95 (paperback)