I’ve written before about my interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. The whole nation’s awareness of this monarch and his deeds was triggered earlier this year by the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester.
As a result of both this and the television series The White Queen, based on several novels written about the Wars of the Roses by Philippa Gregory, I’m sure that both historical and fictional accounts of Richard’s reign must be achieving buoyant bookshop sales at present. If so, it’s a bandwagon that I was happy to jump on myself when I visited Blackwell’s Broad Street last week, by buying a book that I’d not encountered before, Richard III and the Murder in the Tower.
The topic, of course, is a familiar one. This book, which was published in 2009, is yet another enquiry into the fate of the princes in the tower, Edward IV’s two sons Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York. Unlike many of its predecessors, however, it is a scholarly and very balanced account which, whilst not attempting to provide a definitive answer to the question of who killed the two princes (and indeed whether they were killed), presents all the facts that are known about the events leading up to their disappearance and sets down the possibilities of what could have happened to them.
The author, Professor Peter Hancock, is an American academic, which may be the reason why he is able to tell his story with such dispassionate flair. It’s a curious fact that most English people who are interested in this story become heated partisans of either Richard III or Henry VII; I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon applies to discussions about the next English civil war that was to take place in the middle of the seventeenth century, one that was arguably even more bloody and brutal than the dynastic fight to the death between the houses of York and Lancaster. On some topics, English people have a reputation for showing undemonstrativeness to the point of being phlegmatic, but many are fiercely curious about their own past and correspondingly committed to allegiances to historical characters who may or may not have been supported by those of their ancestors who actually knew these people. (From what I know of my own antecedents, for example, I’m pretty convinced that they were Cromwellians, not Royalists, though I should have preferred them to have been the latter.)
To return to Professor Hancock, he has painstakingly examined all the available documents relating to the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and, although he has not turned up much new material, his keen eye for detail and astute interpretation of the facts have resulted in some very plausible alternative accounts of what may have actually happened. I won’t say what these are, for obvious reasons. He also encourages readers to consider the actions of the protagonists from the point of view of their contemporaries and the mores that prevailed at the time, rather than through the filter of what we now consider to be acceptable civilised behaviour (though it should be added that struggles for power today are conducted with just the same naked savagery as they were in the Middle Ages).
If I have any quibbles, they are all minor ones. Professor Hancock devotes a chapter to each of the key players, including Edward IV’s mistress, Jane Shore, except, inexplicably, Elizabeth Woodville, his queen. I should have been fascinated to know what he makes of her role – my curiosity whetted further by Philippa Gregory’s fictional rendering of this enigmatic consort. The text is also somewhat repetitive in places, perhaps because it was written over a long period of time, perhaps because the structural device of considering each of the main players makes repetition inevitable; if the latter, it is a small price to pay for the all-round appraisal that such an approach allows. Finally, Professor Hancock has a few favourite words that grate on the ear. The one that I dislike the most is ‘assumedly’, which he uses in the sense of ‘I assume that’. However, I confess I prefer this to that other conjectural phrase so often cropping up in history books: ‘He [or she] must have …’
I finished reading this book on the same evening that the final (tenth) episode of The White Queen was televised. I’d enjoyed the serial up to that point, but was dismayed by the ham acting and poor fight choreography that characterised its conclusion. From the melodramatic deaths of Edward of Middleham and Anne Neville at the beginning to the risibly shabby reconstruction of the Battle of Bosworth that was meant to be its climax (it appeared to be carried out by half a dozen extras having a mock skirmish in a wood on a Sunday afternoon), for the entire hour this dramatisation teetered perilously on the brink of farce. Professor Hancock’s book, which I picked up again after it was over, provided a refreshing contrast. I recommend it to anyone who is intrigued by Richard III and the fate of his nephews.
Last Friday, I experienced the rare treat of visiting Blackwell’s Broad Street, the Blackwell bookshop chain’s flagship shop in Oxford. It is a bookshop that I know quite well, though it is two or three years since I was last there. It is one of a handful of large world class bookshops in this country – as readers of this blog will know, my own particular favourite is Waterstones Gower Street, but that is partly because it holds strong personal associations for me and is therefore much more of an old friend than Broad Street. Gower Street is like a rather quirky intellectual woman of a certain age, always coming up with racy surprises of which you might not have thought her capable. She’s one of the liberated ‘new women’ of the early twentieth century, as her Arts and Crafts clothing and the pedigree of her creator, Una Dillon, both demonstrate. Broad Street, on the other hand, is the grande dame of British bookshops. She is an eminent Victorian, offspring of the sternly teetotal Benjamin Henry Blackwell, whose fine bookselling tradition was carried on by his son, also Benjamin, and very famous grandson Basil (‘The Gaffer’) who presided over this shop and its sister stores for more than sixty years.
It was not the first of Oxford’s bookshops that I visited on Friday, but, once through its surprisingly modest front door (it could be the entrance to any moderately well-to-do person’s house), I wondered why I had bothered with the others. Here were riches indeed! And cared for by very professional staff who seemed never to intrude on browsers except at that vital moment – which they must have sensed by some kind of invisible booksellers’ radar – when I was stumped and needed help.
I didn’t actually find the exact book that I wanted – I’m not sure that this book even exists, as I was searching by topic rather than title, but I spent an enchanted two hours in the shop nevertheless. I came away with three purchases, but could have splashed out on many more. I was also delighted to see four copies of Almost Love and two of In the Family on the shelves of the crime fiction section. I happen to know from my previous life that the crime fiction buyer in this shop is probably the best in the country, so I am doubly appreciative that he has chosen to stock my books.
Blackwell’s Broad Street also has a great coffee bar in which people may really be seen looking at and talking about the books they have just bought (instead of just reading the paper or examining their shopping); it has also several brilliant, if eclectically-arranged, second-hand sections. If you know Oxford, I am sure that you will have visited this bookshop. If you don’t know it and should ever find yourself in the city, I recommend that you include Broad Street in your itinerary!