Richard II (1997)

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Richard II

By Nigel Saul (1952-  )


Professor, Royal Holloway, University of London


Series Editor: J.J. Scarisbrick

This was the first new series book since Henry V in 1992 and the first by Yale, although it must be acknowledged that it was commissioned by Methuen before Yale owned the series. It was published in hardback in April 1997 (UK) and May 1997 (USA). The paperback followed in 1999. Between these two books some significant changes had taken place in the publication of the series. In the five years since Henry V Methuen had ceased to be the publisher of the series and that role had been assumed by Yale University Press. In 1997 Yale commenced their oversight of the series republishing five existing (ie. Methuen) English Monarchs titles during 1997, republishing one existing book previously not in the series, and this new book.


Nigel Saul’s ‘Richard II’ was the first biography of Richard II since the 1941 biography by Anthony Steel (1900-1973), seen as unsatisfactory even then and certainly in recent times. Steel was Principal of University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff, at the time of the publication of his 1941 book. Steel's legacy though was to revive and popularise the Victorian notion devised by Bishop Stubbs, now regarded as spurious, that Richard's downfall was due to insanity or mental imbalance. In a piercingly analytical piece in The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 143, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 601-638 George B. Stow (Professor of History, La Salle University) traces the history of this 'cause' of Richard's deficiencies as king and the context in which Stubbs devised this theory. While Stubbs is held up as a giant in the field of historical study Stow finds him lacking with regard to his view of Richard II. It was a view that lasted throughout the Twentieth Century. This is the strength of Nigel Saul's study. His modern historiography demolishes this antique view of Richard II and brings a scientific account of the rise and fall of this most problematic king. The pseudo-science of Victorian historians is replaced by late-Twentieth Century critical analysis. Nigel Saul's achievement cannot be understated. This work is a reason that biographical history is both written for academic publication and read by an appreciative audience.


So entwined is Richard’s story with Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) that this is by necessity also a study of both men. Since 1997 this book then stood as the only representation of the life of Henry IV - up to his usurpation of the throne - and such a good account that it may also acted as a disincentive for a full scale biography of Henry. This changed with the release by Yale of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson in 2016. This new book concentrates on the period of Henry’s reign and not dwell overly on the first 32 years of his life, other than the crisis of 1399. Therefore, Professor Saul’s book on Richard II and Professor Given-Wilson’s book on Henry IV should be seen as a pair, working together rather than overlapping.

Hardback 1997

& Paperback 1999

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Book Number: 13

Paperback 2008 reissue and Kindle (UK)

Cover: From a portrait of Richard in Westminster Abbey. The king is sitting in the coronation chair.

J.R. Maddicott in History Today; February 1998; 48, (2) reviewed this book as “...the first to draw fully on the un-published resources of the Public Record Office, to point to the contemporary trends in continental kingship which so powerfully influenced Richard's thought and actions, and to synthesise the mass of modern scholarly writing on the reign”. Saul has “a clear and well-presented view of his subject “. Maddicott comments that what is new in this book is the way Saul brings "Richard’s religion to bear on his political thinking, and his showing how the king’s religious and political beliefs meshed together. Maddicott does question the narrative structure of the book, with Richard not moving to the centre of events until the second half. He comments that the political violence during the reign might have received more emphasis by a different author, and that Richard’s relations with parliament “might have been treated in a more unitary and less episodic way”.


George B. Stow, in Speculum Volume 74, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), wrote "Rooted solidly in primary sources, fleshed out with the latest secondary interpretations - many of which Saul makes mincemeat of - and argued from an analytical yet common-sensical approach, Saul's study lays out the reasons behind the inexorable unraveling of Richard's reign." He concludes that "very little room for criticism has been left to the present reviewer". Again as is usual for books in the series, the reviewer adds that a new English Monarchs biography will be the standard work for many years to come.


As an additional piece of trivia, this is the only book in the series for which the first edition hardback was given the blue and white Yale format of the 1990s. As observed above, it was the first new book in the series by Yale and the next new book, George IV was blessed with the new and improved format of the portrait of the king gracing the entire cover, although the paperback two years later retreated back to the blue and white design.


For the next decade hardbacks and paperbacks had different cover designs. Hardbacks had the portrait design and paperbacks had the blue and white design. This was the pattern of the releases for the five new books and the four existing books brought into the series as paperbacks until the George III paperback in 2008 was given the hitherto hardback/portrait cover. From Henry IV in 2016 minor changes were made for the paperback release but otherwise resembled the hardback version.

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