cover image Richard II

Richard II

Nigel Saul. Yale University Press, $65 (528pp) ISBN 978-0-300-07003-3

In 1377, 10-year-old Richard ascended the throne of a country still recovering from the Black Death and in the middle of the Hundred Years' War. Things were bound to end badly. The first full-scale biography to appear in half a century puts an extensive survey of the primary and secondary sources together with a keen analysis of its narcissistic subject's character, making this a welcome addition to Yale's series on the English monarchs. Though Richard's reign began with much goodwill, and he was able to handle decisively the Great Rebellion in 1381, he was brought down by magnates who could not help but see his attempts to set up a more forceful and efficient monarchy as a threat. By the time Saul, a reader in Medieval history at the University of London, reaches Richard's flight and deposition in 1399 (he died a year later of starvation, but whether self-inflicted or not, Saul does not definitively say), it is clear that it was Richard himself who raised the crown up and who ""created the conditions in which, `like glist'ring Phaethon,' he was brought down."" While the narrative often bogs down in detail and in the exploration of alternative interpretations of the evidence, this is nonetheless an eloquent and scholarly analysis of Richard and his reign that captures both their excitement and their complexity. Illustrations not seen by PW. (June)