Book Review: “Richard the Third” by Paul Murray Kendall


So it was with great trepidation that I started to read Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of Richard the Third. I absolutely loved his Louis XI, the Universal Spider book. But I had a sneaking suspicion Kendall was an apologist for old Richard III. Well, my suspicions were confirmed in the first chapter! About Richard III’s father, Richard Duke of York, Kendall says his “abilities were moderate” and “Excessive greed and ambition…seem to have been largely absent from his character”. Kendall goes on to say “It would require the unrelenting enmity of a queen (Margaret of Anjou) to remind him that he owned a better title to the throne than Henry the Sixth”. I thought, this is going to be good. But I decided to give Kendall a pass because the book was written in 1955 and a lot has changed since then.

Despite my reservations and all of its flaws, this is a fabulous book. Kendall resorts to purple prose but for the most part he relies on primary sources to tell Richard’s story. There are a few places where his bias is obvious. If the reader takes this in stride, Kendall reveals a lot of insight, not only into Richard himself but into life in fifteenth century England. He breaks down the intricate relationships between king and nobles during the conflict that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses.

He covers Richard’s life from birth until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. He doesn’t mince any words about some of Richard’s actions as king. He says Richard did consider marrying his niece Elizabeth of York. He also asserts that the evidence supports the theory that the princes in The Tower died on his watch and that he was responsible even though it could not be proven in court. He devotes an entire appendix to examining the evidence about the princes. There is also another appendix where he gives his thoughts on Richard’s character. He feels Richard felt guilty about taking the throne and this colored his actions.

His comments on Richard’s condition of being a hunchback are way off base as we now know. He says the reason one shoulder was higher than the other was due his military training and using a heavy sword. He also states that Richard’s bones were thrown in a river as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII. We now know this is not true. Kendall is particularly harsh in his comments about Henry VII.

Despite all this, this book is a real page turner. It was hard for me to put it down and I was disappointed when I was finished. The chapter describing the Battle of Bosworth is masterful. I would recommend the reader read all the notes to the text in the back of the book as they are packed full of historical information. This book definitely clarifies the life of Richard III.

Book Review: “Louis XI: The Universal Spider” by Paul Murray Kendall

Louis XI book cover

King Louis XI of France has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been researching his daughter Anne de Beaujeu who was de facto King of France after the death of her father when she acted as regent for her teenage brother King Charles VIII. She’s a very interesting character, a formidable woman who was very much like her father.

Some time ago I was browsing the used book section of biographies at our locally owned bookstore and just by chance there was a copy of this book on the shelf. I knew nothing about Louis other than he was called “The Spider King” and wove webs of diplomacy around Europe during his reign. So I said, okay, I’ll bite as the price was good. Admittedly the book stayed on my shelf for several years before an interest in Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy arose. Margaret’s husband, Charles the Bold, was the sworn enemy of Louis XI. I needed to know more.

Imagine my delight when I started reading this book! I couldn’t put it down. Louis rebelled against his father, King Charles VII at the age of sixteen and was at odds with him until the day Charles died. The Battle of Montlhéry and the defection of the Count of Maine at the critical point of the battle was riveting. The siege of Beauvais and the bravery of the heroine Jeanne Hachette caught my attention. Louis’ marriage to Margaret Stewart was a disaster. Louis conspired with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and Queen Margaret of Anjou to restore King Henry VI to the English throne. It’s impossible to make this stuff up.

Kendall relied completely on primary sources, some of which had just become available when he wrote the book and he quotes them liberally. He poured over the sources with a fine toothed comb and really gives us an in depth view of Louis’ character. Admittedly Kendall is an apologist for Louis who had a bit of a bad reputation while he lived and well after he died. But it didn’t matter. With taking this into account, the history of his reign is fantastic reading in and of itself. Louis appears to have had a great sense of humor and the way Kendall describes him makes me wish I could have met him.

Paul Murray Kendall was Professor of English Literature at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and spent several years in Europe doing research for his books. He was the editor of “Dispatches with Related Documents of Milanese Ambassadors in France and Burgundy, 1450-1483, Vol. I and Vol. II: 1450-1460”. A good deal of his biography of Louis came from these works as the Milanese ambassadors lived at Louis’ court. It took Kendall thirteen years to write this book and it was originally published in 1971. Kendall died in 1973. The volume I purchased was a republished paperback edition issued in 2001, the thirtieth anniversary of its original publication.

This edition has a nice section of pictures along with several appendices. These include a genealogical table and a list of rulers and principal lords which is a sort of cast of characters for the time period. There is a preface written by Kendall’s daughter. If anyone choses to read this book, be sure to read the notes. Kendall admits he didn’t have space in the narrative for some of this information so he left it for the notes. I believe this book is out of print but it may be available from a re-seller or in a campus or public library. I highly recommend it if you can find a copy.