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Richard II: Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-1399 Christopher Fletcher.

Richard II

Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-1399 Christopher Fletcher

Oxford University Press 316pp 55 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0199 546916


Gazing on the face and form of Richard II's tomb at Westminster it is difficult not to agree with Froissart's invention of gossip from the mouth of the Duke of Gloucester, that the king was something of a 'lard arse'.

Boyishly pictured in the Wilton Diptych, Richard II's character and appearance have seemed well established. A minor for much of an eventful reign which contained the Great Rising of 1381, Richard seems to have passed from an effeminate youth to a pudgy and vengeful adulthood in which he sought a murderous redress against those who had restrained him. At the end of his reign, occupied by an elevated sense of the majesty of kingship, he tyrannised his subjects and brought about his own deposition and possible murder.

Christopher Fletcher takes issue with this dominant reading of Richard's reign and does so by posing questions about the nature of youth, manhood and manliness as they are revealed in literary texts, sermons and chronicle writing. Like Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, Richard had ignored the counsel of wise men in favour of those children who had been his playfellows. For Fletcher these texts reveal that Richard's youth and effeminacy were in reality the weapons of a political opposition which sought permanently to infantilise him and to restrict the proper resumption of royal authority. The king's reaction was to pursue a course of manly activity that included military campaigning, planned in Europe, and achieved in Scotland and Ireland, and due punishment of slights to his manhood. Richard II's kingship was thus always a fractured one, but its origins lay not in the king's character and tastes, as portrayed by those who later justified his deposition, but in the shortcomings of an ageing noble community, itself bereft of wisdom, and the economic tensions of the later 14th century.

This is an ambitious book, frequently disputatious and often uncharitably critical of previous writers. It entails, of necessity, a new political narrative of the reign in which successive crises are reinterpreted, as well as a lengthy treatment of the nature of aristocratic masculinity in the later Middle Ages. In truth these two themes are moored in suggestive proximity to each other, rather than entirely successfully integrated, and the writer is better at complex detail than clear outline. Yet the insights of the book and Fletcher's use of sources not often given prominence in the conventional political narrative, notably diplomatic correspondence, episcopal sermons, and poems such as Richard Maidstone's celebration of Richard's agreement with London, are important. Masculinity may well prove to be a fruitful line of enquiry for Ricardians.

Philip Morgan teaches at the University of Keele and works on warfare in the late middle ages.

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Author:Morgan, Philip
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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