Stubbs, Steel, and Richard II as Insane: The Origin and Evolution of an English Historiographical Myth

Stubbs, Steel, and Richard II as Insane: The Origin and Evolution of an English Historiographical Myth

By George B. Stow

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 143, No. 4 (1999)

Introduction: One of the more enduring problems of later medieval English history centers on the character and personality of King Richard II (1377–99). It has long been thought that “Richard’s personality—his natural or inherited character considered apart from the important actions of his life—was the chief cause of his downfall.” Whatever its perceived importance, the character of Richard II has defied precise definition, and it is a curious thing that Richard remains even in the present age a mysterious and misunderstood monarch. At the midpoint of the twentieth century Vivian H. Galbraith observed that “the key to Richard’s failure lies in his character, in the sort of man he was: and about that there is no agreement.”  A few years later George Holmes went even further, noting that although Richard’s personality was “the most important factor” in his reign, “just what his personality was is much more difficult to determine. . . . [Richard II] remains the most enigmatic of the kings of England.”

Although his character has undergone several metamorphoses across nearly six hundred years of historical scholarship, by far the most damning—if not the most far-fetched—is the twentieth-century depiction of Richard as a madman, whose gradual lapse into insanity led to his tragic end. This portrayal first achieved notoriety in Anthony Steel’s Richard II. In Steel’s view, Richard was disadvantaged from the start because his was “a schizoid mind”; and he became in his later years an “unbalanced widower, half-hearted autocrat and pitiful neurotic.”  At the very end of his reign, Richard had turned into a “mumbling neurotic, sinking rapidly into a state of acute melancholia, in which he could offer only the feeblest of resistance from the first, while before long it would be totally impossible to rouse him.”

Steel’s depiction of a neurotic Richard II proved irresistible to later students of Richard’s reign, and it was eagerly adopted as the standard description of the king’s character. In Joan Evans’s English Art: 1307–1461 (1949), for example, we learn that Richard was “a neurotic character, alternating between bouts of melancholy and bouts of extravagance, capable of energy and determination, but quick to despair when faced by reverses.” A.R. Meyers’s England in the Late Middle Ages (1952) followed suit with the idea that “the favourite explanation of Richard’s failure is that he was always mentally unbalanced and finally mad.” The most complete incorporation of Steel’s depiction, however, appeared in May McKisack’s The Fourteenth Century, 1307–1399 (1959). In McKisack’s opinion, “Richard II had become dangerous, perhaps dangerously mad. His final breakdown is . . . tragic. . . . The malice and cunning with which he carried through his acts of revenge, his mounting recklessness, his dark suspicions . . . all suggest a sudden loss of control, the onset of a mental disease.”

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