Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Book Review

Richard II and the English Nobility by Anthony Tuck. Edward Arnold, 1973.

This is a survey of the relationship between Richard II and the higher nobility of England. As we noted in the previous review, the relationship ended in disaster for Richard with the Lancastrian usurpation in 1399.

Tuck takes the view, not unlike our previous author, that Richard was not the mentally unstable figure of tragedy, but an able ruler with a plan for the development of the monarchy that differed from what his nobles preferred.

Successful English monarchs during this period, modern scholars tend to agree, worked in concert with their nobles - Edward III was the exemplar. Richard, however, chose to model his rule after his great-grandfather, Edward II, heedless of the historical lesson there. He attempted to sideline the great landed magnates and to create his own court party, using the administrative machinery of the royal household in innovative ways to get around relying on the nobles. There was substantial resistance, and it is possible to read biographies or studies of Richard II and feel one wants to slap him for what seem like unnecessary provocations. The author even addresses the question of whether Richard and his contemporaries were aware of the historical parallels with Edward II and his deposition (he demonstrates that they were.)

Tuck traces the phases of Richard's rule: first the period of his youth when the court party was formed, then its destruction in 1387 when the Appelant nobles defeated Richard's favorite Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and very nearly deposed the king. Then a period of relative calm in which Richard managed to balance more assertive rule without provoking the nobles in the early 1390s. Finally the end of the reign, in which Richard had his aristocratic enemies killed or exiled, achieved a period of dominance that even sympathetic writers like Tuck acknowledge was tyranny; which ended in the deposition discussed in more detail in the previous book.

This is, like Three Armies in Britain, a scholarly study, not a popular history. Tuck assumes his audience knows the basics and makes only occasional reference to the Peasant's Revolt, the military events of the reign or Richard's marriages. But it is a first class piece of academic writing. Although uncompromising in academic quality, Tuck is a skilled writer, and the book is an enjoyable read, unlike many drier accounts. Scholarly works on any topic have a reputation for being boring and filled with jargon. (I once amused myself in a peer review exercise by accurately predicting which law article would win the competition - the one with the most uses of the word "heuristic." I don't think my sarcasm was appreciated, as they didn't ask me back the next year.) But Tuck demonstrates that it is possible to write a serious scholarly study that is actually a pleasure to read. I might add that unlike the more recent book, this volume is completely free of misspellings, typographical errors, and shows signs of expert editing - which is to say that you can't see that the editor did anything and you don't notice what the editor didn't do.

A highly recommended book for the late 14th century enthusiast.

No comments: