The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill

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The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography focusing principally on the last 150 days of the King's life, as well as the aftermath of the battle of Bosworth Field.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: June 2010
Publisher: The History Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-0752454047

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The controversy surrounding King Richard III has meant that there have been far more biographies about him than on any other pre-Tudor monarch, some extremely partisan in exonerating him of the crimes laid at his door, some (a minority, it seems) more than keen to endorse the Shakespearean portrait of a fiend in human shape, and others steering a middle course.

This book is written from an entirely different perspective. The majority of the chapters focus on the last 150 days of the King's life, from 25 March 1485, the first day of the medieval English New Year, to 22 August, the date of the Battle of Bosworth Field. From most other books, as far as this period goes, we have the sorry tale of a grieving King in deep mourning for his only legitimate son and then his wife, while at the same time aware of his impending doom. Here, for a change, we have the story of a man who had indeed been saddened by both deaths (Prince Edward the year before, and Queen Anne in mid-March) but at 32 still young enough to assume he had many years left ahead of him. In order to assure the succession he had to marry again, and negotiations had just been opened with King John of Portugal for the hand of his sister, the Infanta Joana. Negotiations were as good as completed in mid-August, ironically only a few days before Henry Tudor's invasion of England.

As the author admits, contemporary chroniclers have left a very incomplete, even muddled account of much of the year 1485. He gives an itinerary of sorts, with large gaps, of the King's movements around the country, between London, Windsor, Kenilworth, Coventry, and eventually Bosworth. Interestingly, there are about four pages discussing the death of the last Lancastrian King, Henry VI, who was put to death in May 1471. Shakespeare and others laid this at the door of the then Richard, Duke of Gloucester, although the most likely culprit was the victorious King Edward IV, who had only regained the throne about five weeks earlier. Ashdown-Hill looks at Richard's visit to Windsor in detail; Henry was already regarded as a saint and a martyr, and the new King (who had probably disapproved of his being killed) had ordered and paid for his remains to be moved from an obscure grave at Chertsey Abbey, where Edward IV had originally consigned them, to a more fitting tomb in St George's Chapel.

While some of his diary is unclear, it is known that the King went hunting during what proved to be the last few weeks of his life. This is taken as a sure sign that he was hardly nervous or fearful of the consequences of Henry Tudor and his army invading England. Prior to that, we have an interesting picture of his day-to-day routine. His timetable was probably similar to that of most of his wealthier subjects, with Christian observance playing a major role, and a timetable punctuated in the palaces by the bells and hour hands of weight-driven clocks. Given the lack of contemporary records such as diaries and letters, some of this is bound to be speculative, but it all sounds authentic enough. Biographies of medieval monarchs would either be extremely dry, short, or even both without at least a little gentle imagination at play.

Following an account of the last few days (during which he probably suffered from the then prevalent sweating sickness), battle and of his death, some attention is given to the myths surrounding the treatment and disposal of his body after it was found on the battlefield, as well as an examination of the ultimate fate of his remains, and even his DNA – a section which I found rather over-scientific. Finally, the author steels himself for the unavoidable question – albeit very briefly – which he knows any biographer of the last Yorkist King is going to be asked for sooner or later. Did he kill the Princes in the Tower or not? He chooses not to dwell on what he calls the hoary and currently unproductive chestnut. It is his aim to try and avoid the black and white arguments about his reputation, and by looking instead at his day-to-day life and the aftermath, so as to arrive at a better rounded picture of the man.

A complete biography of Richard III, it is obviously not. Readers who are not familiar with the basic story and would like to know more might find this a little on the dry side, and would be better advised to start with a more general life. Although very readable and fairly brief, it is slightly more into 'advanced' territory, but recommended nonetheless.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend The Princes In The Tower by Alison Weir.

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