Oh dear, these history books. An online bookseller I deal with kindly sent me a copy of a ‘book of history’ published in the United States, featuring long essays on three women – Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort. The writers are Philippa Gregory, a historical novelist, David Baldwin and Michael Jones, history PhDs at British universities. The men write more easily and less breathlessly than the woman, but she is the more famous writer. The book has a rather stretched title – The Women of the Cousins’ War, the Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother.
Before reading a book I admit to the habit of flipping through the pages to see the illustrations, but unfortunately my eye was drawn towards a line of writing in one of the three biographies: Henry Tudor, the line said, defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. Then I was quite unable to read the book, and it joins hundreds of other regularly dusted hardbacks in my library. Why, the blogger may ask, should I not read a book because of one rather silly and uninformed line? I believe it is because if all three historians obviously agree with the line, which is manifestly untrue, chances are that the rest of the 342-page book is as irritating, not to say exasperating and infuriating, as G.B. Shaw would say.
No-one, but especially not Henry Tudor, defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The king was cut down by the soldiers of the treacherous Stanley, younger brother of Lord Stanley; the day before the battle the armies of the Stanleys had supposedly been loyal to their king, and prepared to fight for him, not block his cavalry charge against the would-be usurper Tudor, who, paling visibly, was about to turn and run before Stanley’s troopers made up their minds to change sides. Henry as soldier was no match for Richard of Gloucester, accustomed to fighting in those dreadful medieval battles since he his early teens whereas the future ‘Winter King’ spent almost all his life before the battle in hiding somewhere else.
Richard was defeated by treachery, not by Henry Tudor, who after Bosworth became Henry VII, first of the Tudor dynasty about which we have written quite venomously in this website a few times. I often wonder why so many of these historical books are published in America, and not in Britain. Perhaps British publishers’ readers dislike the Braveheart – type misinformation? One can only hope so. The US publisher in this case is Simon and Schuster – a distinguished name in the publishing trade.
An important point: Philippa Gregory must not be confused with another lady writer called Philippa Langley, who recently published an accurate and provoking book about the discovery of bones under a Leicester municipal carpark, bones now proved to be the remains of the slaughtered King Richard III. Scientific research has since told us that Richard was not a hunchback, and nor did he have a withered arm. He was certainly small of stature, but of perfect, even athletic shape. The scientists have also decided that Richard of Gloucester was not born with teeth, or black hair down to his shoulders, though he may have had a slight limp due to one fifteenth century leg being shorter than the other. I belong to a generation whose history teachers informed us that Richard murdered his brother’s children in the Tower, murdered his own brother Clarence, poisoned his own wife, knifed Henry VI’s princely son at Tewkesbury, and had his friend Buckingham beheaded, as well as his colleague Hastings. There is evidence only for the last two deaths. I am sure Gregory, Baldwin and Jones know this as well as you do and I do, but after five hundred years of bad press, a wonderfully entertaining pantomime by Shakespeare, the solemn words of Saint Thomas More and the diarist Polydore Vergil, who is going to face the facts?