I have always been fascinated by Richard III. Was he truly the villain depicted by Shakespeare or the wronged heroic figure, who made an excellent King, that we see in more recent historical fiction? What is the truth about the Princes in the Tower? The discovery of his remains by the University of Leicester has bought Richard and all the mystery surrounding him back to media interest. As the Plantagenet Alliance begin their court case to have Richard III interred at York instead of Leicester this is set to continue.
After my visit to Leicester and their excellent exhibition I returned to reading about Richard III and have enjoyed some of the more recent books immensely. As well as historical biographies I have always loved historical fiction. The huge advantage, to me, of historical fiction is that it does not have to weigh the evidence fairly, or admit to any gaps in knowledge. It allows an author to completely commit to their opinion of a historical character, and for the reader to ‘see how it fits’. Our history contains so many intriguing characters and mysteries that it makes perfect stories – and for me there are few more intriguing or mysterious than Richard III. I was therefore delighted to discover Loyalty by Matthew Lewis.
Lewis presents the more sympathetic Richard that has been popular recently. No hump-back, nephew murdering Richard here – rather a loyal brother, a skilled and efficient soldier, a kind and loving husband and father and a potentially great King. It emphasises his successful handling of the North and his progressive policies which aimed to improve the conditions of ordinary people. However, he is mainly depicted as a balanced character with a number of flaws such as his inability to control his furious temper and a blood-lust in battle (although this may not have been viewed as a weakness by his contemporaries). Importantly the story Lewis presents fits with the facts we know about Richard (apart from one deviation which is explained in the author’s notes) and so provides an interesting and credible alternative theory for the life and character of the King.
I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Richard as a grieving father and husband. Often the loss of child or spouse of this time is brushed over and only discussed in terms of its political and dynastic affect, as if it had little emotional value. I found Lewis’s writing here very believable and compassionate – it felt like I have been given a real window into looking into this period of terrible grief.
Overall, although I found that Richard was idealised to some extent (many of his flaws seem to disappear as the novel progressed), I found it an extremely well researched and well written book. I was completely engrossed in the story – and my previous knowledge of Richard in no way impacted on my enjoyment or on my eagerness to find out what happens next. The framing of the story with the discussion between Thomas More and Hans Holbein adds a further dimension to the story and answers the Princes in the Tower question in a new and very convincing way. For new comers to Richard III it is a compelling introduction to a mythical King that will leave you wanting to know more; and for those who already know his story well it presents an entertaining and likable picture of the King. I for one eagerly await Matthew Lewis’s next novel.
Other fiction books I would recommend about Richard III are The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman.
For up to date non-fiction I would recommend David Baldwin’s Richard III for a general overview and The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA: The Book That Inspired the Dig by John Ashdown-Hill for anyone interested in understanding the DNA evidence.
Do you have any favourite Richard III books or any favourite Historical novels? Would love to hear your views.