Richard II: A True King’s Fall by Kathryn Warner

This is a very well researched book which covers the life and reign of the much-maligned (and arguably, misunderstood) Richard II, the boy king who inherited the throne after the death of his revered grandfather, the “warrior-king” Edward III (his father, the Black Prince, having died a few years earlier).

With a great knowledge of family trees and the complicated familial links of the great British and European dynasties and making solid use of contemporary records and chroniclers, Warner unravels aspects of Richard’s early years as king, the hurdles he had to overcome, his love of pomp and finery, his devoutness to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia and great love of his friend, De Vere, and the impact the loss of both these people had upon the man. She also describes how contemporaries both manipulated the boy-king for their own ends, how Richard II indulged in blatant favouritism and puerile revenge against those he didn’t favour, how the people swiftly turned against their liege, and how all this came back to bite him viciously in his final years.

The tale of how Richard was usurped by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke or Henry IV and ended up starving to death (whether deliberately or against his will) is well known. So are stories that he didn’t actually die but was replaced by a look-a-like and lived for many years after (imposters did spring up from time to time). As Shakespeare and other writers and poets have found, Richard’s life and reign are the stuff of stories – full of pathos (the little boy who lost his father while young, his grandfather, beloved wife; was rumoured to have a homosexual relationship,  betrothed to child for  his second marriage, was spoiled, prone to tantrums, failed to live up to the great expectations his father and grandfather set in terms of being a militant leader; earned the contempt of parliament and the people, the cautious warnings of poets and clergy, was vengeful, spoiled, prone to temper tantrums and yet also generous at times and when young, incredibly brave (he faced a huge rebellion when a mere teenager and quelled it) and yet, this biography didn’t capture the imagination or this reader in quite the way other stories about this king have.

Warner’s writing is lovely and when she unspools the life and times of the king and those around him, it is engrossing reading. For example, early in the book she describes the king physically based on a study of his remains at Westminster and contemporaries’ descriptions. She also tells us that he was prone to revealing his emotions on his face as he changed colour when angry or upset. He also ”invented” the pocket handkerchief – that is a piece of fabric exclusively dedicated to blowing and cleaning the nose – fascinating! These are wonderful gems with which to approach the later political machinations with which he not only became embroiled but facilitated. However, these parts are too often dominated by reams of reams of what seems like unnecessary information about bloodlines and relationships of British royals and other nobles that reads like the Old Testament where so and so begat so and so for generations. You end up becoming not only side-tracked from the main narrative but lost in a blizzard of names. It was, for a life of a remarkable and fascinating – for all the wrong and right reasons – king, often boring. I also found that Warner sometimes passes moral judgements about various people’s lives and actions which grated. Or she adds suppositions that don’t seem to have a place in what is otherwise a fine work of research and evidence-based accounting.

Overall, however, I found this an interesting read that placed Richard II and his reign in a slightly different context to usual.

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