Thursday, August 28, 2008

More Maligning, but Not of Richard III

Having seen some posts here and there praising Annette Carson's new nonfiction book about Richard III as unbiased, I can't resist the opportunity to discuss it a bit more here.

First, having mentioned some of the inaccuracies in my last post, I should note that Carson has the Battle of Stoke taking place in 1490, instead of 1487 (p. 165). Giving the benefit of the doubt to Carson, I'll assume that this was a slip of the keyboard, but it sure shows some sloppy fact-checking on the publisher's part and, of course, hers.

Giving the benefit of the doubt is not something Carson does when Richard's enemies are involved. As I mentioned in the last post, Carson suggests that Elizabeth Woodville and/or Anthony Woodville poisoned Edward IV. She goes on to add a third suspect: William Hastings. What motives might these people, all of whom had thrived under Edward IV, have for killing the king, one might ask? Elizabeth, we're told, was no longer attractive to Edward IV and believed that she could more easily manipulate her son than her husband, who was bored with her; Anthony was planning to take over the government; Hastings had fallen out with Edward IV and thought he could manipulate Richard as protector. For evidence that the marriage with Edward IV was becoming strained, Carson cites as proof only that Elizabeth was "not even mentioned on the list of executors who met to prove the king's will," despite the fact that Elizabeth was in sanctuary at the time and thus couldn't have attended the meeting. Anthony's unguarded behavior at Northampton, which is most inconsistent with Carson's theory that he was plotting a coup, is ignored. As for Hastings' supposed motives, Richard (by Carson's own description a seasoned military commander) had not shown himself particularly manipulable, so there's no good reason to suppose that Hastings would have thought him to be so; indeed, the licentious Hastings might have had some difficulty getting on with the puritanical Richard. Also ignored by Carson are the petty facts that neither the Woodvilles nor Hastings was accused by Richard III or other contemporaries of poisoning or otherwise murdering Edward IV, that any poisoning by Anthony would have to be done by an agent since Anthony himself was in Wales, and that there is no evidence that Hastings and Edward IV were on poor terms in 1483. One wonders why Carson, having accused Richard's principal enemies of murder on such flimsy grounds, didn't add Buckingham to the list of poisoners for good measure.

Of course, if one believes that Edward IV was poisoned, another suspect should come to mind: the man who deposed Edward's heir and took the throne himself--Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Needless to say, Carson doesn't count Richard among the suspects, though his motives were far stronger than those of Hastings or the Woodvilles and his behavior after Edward IV's death far more suspicious. Like Anthony, he would have to had acted through an agent, but since this doesn't pose an obstacle to Carson in accusing Anthony, it shouldn't be one in Richard's case either. To clarify: personally, I don't believe that Richard or anyone else murdered Edward IV, but if Carson is going to make a case for it, it behooves her to examine all of the possible suspects, not just those who suit her purposes.

(Incidentally, much of Carson's poisoning theory, as she notes, derives from a book by one R.E. Collins, Secret History: The Truth About Richard III and the Princes. What Carson omits to mention is that Collins's co-author, John Dening, based his portion of the book upon his supposed conversations, via a medium, with the deceased Richard III.)

Not surprisingly, Edward V doesn't get much sympathy from Carson. We're told that he had been "brought up as a Woodville," whatever that means, and that he was "surrounded by Woodville handlers," which makes the poor lad sound like a show dog. Had he remained king and come of age under said "handlers," we're informed, "then once he assumed full power the career of Richard of Gloucester would be ended--and probably also his life." Why? Because that's what happened to protectors, silly. As Carson puts it, previous protectors, namely, Thomas of Woodstock and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, "had seen the effects of untrammeled power wielded by the dangerous combination of an unreliable child-king and a faction-ridden council, and had paid the price when they tried to control the situation." In fact, Richard II was 30 when Thomas of Woodstock was murdered, and Henry VI was 25 when Humphrey died while under arrest, so it's stretching things a tad to attribute their deaths to child kings.

Needless to say, Carson takes the allegations of witchcraft against Elizabeth Woodville seriously, though Richard III never proved them. Having surmised that Elizabeth fed Edward IV a love potion that led him into matrimony, Carson argues that he failed to repudiate the marriage when he came to his senses because he didn't have enough evidence against Elizabeth to prove his case, a fact that certainly doesn't stop Carson from accusing Elizabeth. Why a man who believed that he had been duped into marriage would subsequently announce the marriage himself to his council, formally present his bride to the council amid great ceremony, and then give his wife a grand coronation, is not considered by Carson. (Perhaps it was a really long-lasting potion?)

Carson suggests that Eleanor Talbot didn't come forth to prove her precontract with Edward IV because she was afraid of Edward IV and the Woodvilles. Fair enough, at least as far as Edward IV is concerned--who would want to tangle with a king? Later, however, we're told that Edward IV, having been lured by witchcraft into wedlock with Elizabeth Woodville, didn't publicly repudiate the Woodville marriage once he sobered up from his love-potion in part because he was worried about Eleanor Talbot and her family coming forward to bring up the precontract. So one moment, Eleanor's scared of Edward, and at the other, Edward's scared of Eleanor, depending on who Carson needs to be scared at the appropriate time.

But might Elizabeth Woodville's failure to challenge the precontract be explained by her own fear of Richard III, who had executed her son Richard Grey and her brother Anthony Woodville and had her two royal sons in his custody? Nope. According to Carson, Elizabeth and her children were "free to raise strenuous objections" and to demand that the case be tried before an ecclesiastical court, and their failure to do so proves that the allegations about the precontract were true. No mention at all of the possibility that challenging a man who had killed two of Elizabeth's close family members and had two more in his custody might be a bit daunting, especially after that man became king. Or that it might be a wee bit hard to find a proctor who would take her case.

Unbiased, this book? I think not.