Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book Review

Three Armies in Britain: The Irish Campaign of Richard II and the Usurpation of Henry IV, 1397-1399 by Douglas Biggs. 2006. This is vol. 39 in the History of Warfare series.

In my studies of the 14th century, I've always been a trifle weak on Richard II's reign. My core area of interest was always the reign of his grandfather Edward III and the life of his son the Black Prince. Not that I haven't read the usual biographies and histories, but I actually have a bookshelf full of histories and studies of the earlier period, and relatively little on Richard of Bordeaux, and I've been meaning to correct that.

I have always been fairly well persuaded that the traditional view of Richard as effeminate, unsoldierly, and perhaps mentally unstable was an exaggeration at best. Stubborn, haughty and his own worst enemy, yes. The author of this scholarly work makes the case for the military and political sense of Richard's actions in 1399, and attempts to demolish the traditional view of Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster as a heroic military figure.

For those not familiar, in 1399, King Richard II of England took an army to Ireland to pacify the Anglo-Irish territories there. While he was out of the country, his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who had been exiled and disinherited from the Duchy of Lancaster, reentered the country, quickly brought most of the political class of England to his side, and captured the hapless Richard upon his return. Richard was deposed in his favor by Parliament, and died in 1400 under suspicious circumstances. Shakespeare's tragedy on the topic is undoubtedly more familiar than the actual events to most people today. The author examines the rationale for Richard's expedition to Ireland, the progress of Henry's reentry into England and the Duke of York's rather unconvincing and brief resistance to Henry.

This is not a general history and the casual reader would not have an easy time keeping up, I would think. The author assumes his reader is familiar with the events of Richard's reign and the scholarly controversies about who, where, when and why. He engages in a close examination of the extant records to determine the movements and actions of the principal actors in the drama, and I find his conclusions persuasive.

What I don't find quite as persuasive is that this is fundamentally a work of military history. As an exploration and analysis of the documentary evidence for a complex political event which had military ramifications and features, it is highly successful. But it is rather unpersuasive in the military sense. The author has a tendency to assert the military wisdom of various actions without explaining why he thinks so. I would concede that he is perhaps merely assuming that he is writing for an audience likely to comprehend his observations, but it had rather a feel of being interjected because the work would be published as part of a series on military history. Further, the title itself, "Three Armies in Britain", is a trifle misleading. Certainly Henry and his allies comprise one army. The other two melt away at once, however. Richard's army is really left behind in Ireland. There is very little fighting and no battles worth mentioning, and the major issues are not really military in character.

Another flaw in the book is not Biggs' fault. This volume has the highest proportion of typographical errors I have ever seen in a professionally produced work, much less one produced for an academic audience. I have become inured over the last couple of decades to the declining standards for editing and proofreading in the publishing world, but this is startling. As I read, I gradually became distracted to the degree of looking for the next typo. Toward the end of the book, there are as many as two or more per page, often of the type that would be missed by a spell check program. I also found it weird that Henry "Hotspur" Percy, a figure frequently mentioned using his famous nickname because he shares his given name with his father the Duke of Northumberland, also alive at the time, is invariably referred to as "hotspur" unless the name begins a sentence. I realize that recent academic publishing standards have tended to use lower case for words like "duke" and "king", but this seems to me to be getting carried away and is quite jarring. Names are rendered with an upper case initial, and nicknames generally are as well. I don't see why this should change.

On the whole, however, a worthy and interesting addition to the corpus of Richard II study.

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