Richard III / The Sunne in Splendour group read rumbles on! Week 3

Original Richard III / Richard Armitage fan art by Tannni of Tannni Design.  Follow her on FB here.


Latest Richard III updates at King Richard Armitage Fan Initiative: More on Leicester and the Leicester / York battle for the body, as well as ways to follow Sharon Kay Penman and other fans of The Sunne in Splendour on FB. And if you have a strong position on the Leicester vs. York question, some more links to petitions to relocate the body are here.

And thanks again to everyone who signed the petition in support of realizing Richard Armitage’s Richard III project and put us over the 1,000 signatures mark this week!


[Left: Sharon Kay Penman. Source.]

Yesterday or the day before in history! Sharon Kay Penman informs us via her fan club on FB that yesterday was a big day in Lancastrian history. She writes:

On October 13th, 1399, the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV, was crowned, having forced the abdication of his cousin, Richard II. Brian Wainwright’s Within the Fetterlock and Edith Pargeter’s A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury are excellent novels about this period in British history.

And on October 13th, 1453, Marguerite d’Anjou, queen of Henry VI, gave birth to a son, named Edward. The Yorkists were highly skeptical of his paternity, but that was only to be expected under the circumstances. No one can prove that Edward was Henry’s son, just as no one can prove that he was not. Actually, that can be said of any historical figure, so I think we should give the queen the benefit of the doubt. What is indisputable is that Marguerite was fiercely devoted to her only child.


So, on to week three of the group read, chapters eleven through fifteen of The Sunne in Splendour. For those who wish to tweet or comment on facebook, the links are all found at the bottom of this post. Also: I’m going to start using TSIS as an abbreviation for the title of the book. As usual, these are just things I am wondering. What’s on your mind? I was asked a question about the historical accuracy of the use of obscenity in the novel, and I have to confess I don’t know because I haven’t ever studied this question. But I’ll look for information about it or anything else you want to know, if these things would be helpful.

Here’s this week’s comic poll. I think one of the great strengths of this novel is its snappy dialogue, and I wonder which lines you’d like to see in a film project based on it?

OK, now with regard to last week: the function of Lovell’s slightly incredible diary is probably clearer now. If, last week, it was saving us the time of separate chapters to introduce each of these characters, this week it offers us a meta-perspective on Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV’s controversial wife) and shows us why people at court — and Warwick particularly — had reasons to dislike her; and, in case we’re at all confused as to the plot, it gives us a nice summary of the state of affairs on pp. 162-3 and p. 184. Handy.

Last week‘s comic poll (results at right) asked readers to consider which teenage Richard Armitage / Dickon moment they’d most like to have seen. You will be unsurprised that I went with the whole “when will I lie with a woman?” problem, but as you can see, reader opinions were quite evenly split. What this split suggests to me is that a lot of what we would call “teenage moments” simply make for really great screen fodder. I love the quote on p. 126 that has adolescent Richard saying, “I still do think that fourteen is a rotten age!” (Dude, my mother would totally agree.)

That said: The European middle ages didn’t recognize a distinct concept of “adolescence” (defined as the period between puberty and legal adulthood, and particularly the mercurial emotional states we now associate with it). People whom we would consider children had to develop political acumen as they were held liable for their attitudes and decisions, as we see in Warwick’s anger at Richard over his defense of his brother Edward’s marriage (TSIS, ch. 8). Very young people engaged in acts we now define as adult. We see this difference to our own age reflected in the novel’s acknowledgement that Francis Lovell was married at the age of twelve to an even younger wife — a legally valid marriage, contracted for him on behalf of the Yorks while he was still the ward of Warwick to assure access to his inherited fortune. Marital partners in such cases would not have engaged in intercourse until the bride was a fair bit older, probably not until the female attained first menses. Such unions were made for political purposes. The church opposed them, and chances were always good that such marriages would be legally nullified or that one partner would die before the partners physically consummated the union. (The practice was thus perilous, and the alleged failure of Edward IV to nullify a betrothal made before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville became the pretext for declaring their children illegitimate, the legal step that put Richard III on the throne.)

[Left: Wedding of Henry VI and Marguerite d’Anjou, from Vigilles de la mart de Charles VII (c. 1461), Bib. Nat. ms. fr. 5054.]

Child marriages were restricted to the nobility and the very wealthy — for most of medieval, early modern, and modern history, the average western European married around the age of 25 (the so-called “Western European marriage pattern”), with men a bit older and women a bit younger. Custom and inheritance practices in these regions required partners to assemble a dowry and found their own households. Families organized marriages to keep property together, so that many younger children never married. This historically unique practice reduced fertility substantially by placing significant social obstacles to reproduction in females’ most fertile years, and has been cited as a reason for the “early” economic takeoff that spurred European colonization of the globe and, later, capitalism. Nobles, however, needed to marry earlier, because a large number of heirs (in an age of crushing infant morality) guaranteed family stability and political maneuverability. In the case of early nationalizing monarchies, as we see especially clearly in the case of England, where the Yorks, Lancasters, and Tudors were all challenged by royal minorities and the attendant political squabbles of a regency, dynastic stability was necessary to, if not always sufficient for, a guarantee of political stability.

[Right: Badge of loyalty worn by Richard III’s household in the 1480s. Source.]

The absence of adolescence also shaped key experiences of the future Richard III’s family. His sisters were married at 18, 14, and 22 respectively (that last, because she was the last York daughter and thus the family’s last bargaining chip). His eldest brother, Edward (IV), succeeded to the throne at 21, not least because of previously demonstrated military prowess (TSIS, ch. 4); Edmund, Richard’s next brother, had been killed in battle a few years earlier, at 17 (TSIS, ch. 3); his final brother, George (Clarence), was married and politicking for the English throne under Warwick’s guidance by the age of 20 (TSIS, ch. 10). Richard himself was awarded his first military post as arrayer at the age of 11, but he must have done the work. He held an independent military command at the age of 17; Richard would help his brother back to the throne through important actions during battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury. He was Constable of England at 17 (TSIS, ch. 12), when the office was still more than ceremonial, and slightly later Chief Justice of Wales (TSIS, ch. 14 and 15).

[One serious reason for Armitage to play this role is we’d have an action guy who can also act — not the cerebral, crazy King Richards of the past. I’m still neutral on whether he can play seventeen, although I’m starting to worry. But, I mean, seriously — ask yourself: would you allow your seventeen-year-old to guard your northern border against the Scots anyway? Check it out if you don’t know any — here’s a gallery of males who say they’re seventeen. Oh, wait, the Scots aren’t so dangerous anymore and they’re not on my northern border. Hmmm. Probably this is not a great test.]

[Left: The amazingly alluring Elizabeth Woodville. Keep in mind that the shaved hairline was a style of the period.]

In line with the question of the responsibilities of medieval almost-twenties, despite the attractions of the love scenes between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (TSIS, ch.13), I continued to be preoccupied by Penman’s depiction Richard’s character. As described by Warwick to the hostage Edward IV in ch. 11: “Dickon, G-d help him, is both an idealist and a moralist.” My first question for the week: Is this assertion really borne out by the events described in ch. 11-15? To move to a subset of the idealism / moralism question, in ch. 12, Penman has Richard say to Warwick, “I was was well instructed during my years in your household, Cousin. … In all save honor” (p. 159). What do the events of these chapters suggest that the term “honor” means to Richard (and where did he learn it if not from Warwick)? And how does Penman use the various observers of Richard from these chapters other than Warwick (Lovell, Edward, Elizabeth Woodville, Stanley) to create a complex picture of the increasingly mature Duke of Gloucester?

Since Penman is surely aware that adolescence was foreign to the middle ages, my next question concerns its purposes for this narrative. The fact that I’m not a Ricardian probably heightens my suspicions. The historian in me wants to assert quite frankly that I don’t see Dickon as depicted here as either an abstract idealist or a moralist. I think that, if we believe the way Penman has constructed him so far, he has some ideals to which he holds with unswerving loyalty. But, I think equally, and more importantly, the reason that he achieved and maintained these powerful positions in service to his brother lie in a combination of skill (he was apparently competent at everything he touched) and pronounced pragmatism (think of him telling Francis Lovell at their first meeting that executions are necessary even if you don’t want to watch them). In previous chapters, I tended to see Penman’s willingness to give Richard something like an adolescence was intended to humanize him — if we think, for example, of moments in the novel like his attempt to separate himself from Warwick as a father figure; his tension over the impossibility of a marriage with Anne Neville; his sadness over the expropriation of John Neville; his letter to his lover, “sweet Kate,” and so on. What I worry about, however, is that the reader’s willingness to attribute to Richard moments of adolescence based on the teenagers we know are starting to overshadow the traits that we can clearly in see Richard III’s res gestae of 1469-70.

And a final, random question, just because I wonder: did you understand exactly how/why the hostage Edward IV was able to escape Warwick’s clutches in chapter 12? Do you feel this incident is depicted in ways intelligible to the modern reader?

Next week: TSIS, ch. 16-20. Be there or be square!


The Sunne in Splendour Group Read continues on Sunday night at 9 p.m., U.S. East Coast time, and continuing Sunday nights through February.

Directions for veterans of #ArmitageWatch are found here.

Participate via the Institute of Armitage Studies facebook page, here. You can sign up there for a reminder to come and chat on facebook, too.

If you want to sign up for Twitter in order to participate in the chat, but haven’t yet, an explanation of procedures is found at the bottom of this post. The tweetchat “room” for this event will be here.

The chat is free form — come to tweet your impressions, or even a favorite quote from the first five chapters of the book.

~ by Servetus on October 15, 2012.

21 Responses to “Richard III / The Sunne in Splendour group read rumbles on! Week 3”

  1. If I’d had Richard Armitage to stare at my A level history classes would have gone so much faster!


  2. I voted for #2. I actually think Richard said what he said because he wanted to hurt Warwick and knew that comment would hurt him in light of what passed previously. I agree that Richard’s a pragmatist rather than an idealist. But he’s definitely a very loyal pragmatist. 🙂 I didn’t think there were many hints in the story to suggest that he was an idealist so that particular description (that he’s both a moralist and an idealist) surprised me a little. (or I may have missed the hints)! On a shallow note, what a beauty Elizabeth Woodwille was! Oh and I think Edward sort of “charmed his way” out of captivity by managing to summon some powerful lords to his side to Middleham (with the help of Francis?That wasn’t very clear to me) and Warwick hadn’t reached the point yet where he’d publicly antagonize the King. Plus Richard appeared at the right moment with an army.


    • Family loyalty (esp love of his brother Ned) seems paramount to him, for example, and having his own stance and following it (as opposed to his brother George, who lets himself be so easily influenced by others). He also seems to be quite proud. But if he were such a total idealist, wouldn’t he be more openly angry / frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to marry Anne Neville, for instance?

      Yes — that’s it. My concern was that modern readers wouldn’t understand how instable power relations were at the time — that Edward could manage to walk out of captivity without a battle. (My students wouldn’t get this, I’m fairly certain).


      • I actually did 7 semesters of history at the University before I decided it wasn’t for me and I dropped it. Most of our courses were obviously focused on Hungarian history so we didn’t get to study English history in that much detail. But it’s clear to me that in the course of War of the Roses the balance of power was always shifting from one side to the other. As soon as one powerful lord switches allegiance, into exile the other side goes…:)


        • wow, you dropped after 7 semesters? That’s almost the whole degree, no?


          • Yeah back in those days we had to do 10 semesters to get a Uni degree. I guess I’m just not very good at finishing things..I also did 6 semesters of Italian got all the credits (that was some years later when the credit system was first introduced) but never started on my thesis so…No degree there either.. Ah well.


  3. I have a 14 year old boy…and spend waaaay too much time in the company of 18 year old boys. I wouldn’t trust them to guard the northern border of the backyard against an invasion of leaves 🙂 But, as you point out, 17 in 1585 was very different than 17 today (love the gallery – is Taylor Lautner still only 17?!) I think concerns about RA playing that young are valid and the man himself acknowledged the same a few years ago didn’t he? Great post – I’m having a really hard time keeping up with the reading because it feels like work right now 😦 I look forward to these posts to keep me updated – Thanks!


    • When I lived in Germany and ex-SO would drive me to FFM airport, we’d always have a laugh at the eighteen year old service people hanging out in the airport, and I always said, do you feel you are safe under the protection of these teenagers? There’s also something about doing it together as opposed to on their own.


      • They definitely get braver (or dumber) in packs. I walked out of class the other day and overheard the following conversation between 3 youth of said age – spoken loud enough that I had no trouble hearing it from across the hall – “Dude, that is ONE vagina for the rest of your life!” I gather one of them was contemplating marriage? A rebuttal came to my lips, but being of a more rational age (and wanting to keep my job) I did not say it out loud. Keeping in mind that they are legally adults, who can vote and own guns, I’m rather afraid 🙂


        • I suppose we can be happy he said “vagina” and not some other word.


          • The total lack of appropriate boundaries just slays me. Good thing it was me and not one of the nuns! Although, I would pay to hear that conversation 🙂


  4. Thanks for the post…I’m not able to keep up with the reading right now, so this will be a great reference to go back to. re: trusting 17 year olds…I have a 14 year old boy, and I spend waaaay too much time in the company of 18 year old boys, so splitting the difference, I wouldn’t trust the average 17 year old boy to guard the borders of the backyard against an invasion of leaves from the neighbors yard. But as you point out, 17 in the sixteenth century was very different from 17 today. PS – love the gallery (is Taylor Lautner STILL 17?) 🙂


  5. […] Week 2!   Servetus’ background information and new questions to chapter 11 – 15: Richard III / The Sunne in Splendour group read rumbles on! Week 3   Chapters 16 – 20 are on the reading list for this week and will be discussed next […]


  6. Loved this post! Judit, I do agree that the portrait of Elizabeth Woodville clearly indicates great beauty. Unusual, at a period before the English had begun importing continental artists, and before they were fully influenced by Renaissance culture. (The two portraits of Richard III also indicate more than usual attempt at realism, too, though technically somewhat lacking.)

    Perhaps it’s unfortunate that post-WWII culture has bestowed special status on the cult of the “adolescent”! Just joking – I think. 😀


    • When you read TSIS you really end up with mixed feelings. I personally think our society extends adolescence too long (even if it has to do that because of problematic labor markets). However, I wouldn’t wish Richard III’s teenage years on anyone.


  7. […] Last week, as well, I went nattering on about life stages in the later middle ages and the tension in Penman’s work between portraying the very real political and military responsibilities of Richard and his brothers and fellow nobles, and trying to make him sympathetic to a modern reader in terms of the “teenage” life crises that we could use as a lens for understanding his experiences. This week, we see much more clearly the responsibilities and dangers that a young man (Richard turned eighteen just as he was fleeing England) in this position was subject to — how his every choice involved the judicious attempt to avoid destruction and seek advantage. Aside from the family considerations involved — how do we understand the choices available here and what’s our evaluation of his skill in making them? As Duke of Gloucester, Richard would have had an independent status that he might have maintained in England had he been willing to make nice with Warwick. Is Penman’s depiction of this choice as entirely related to considerations of loyalty to Edward convincing? Or is she trying to have us see him as insufficiently emotionally independent to go that route? Given that he has now served in important political and legal and military positions, how do we read Richard’s reversion to a much more open emotionality — again the adolescent lonely for home and family — in ch. 20? What is its purpose otherwise? […]


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