A Book of Prayer

“A book of prayer…true ornament to know a holy man” (III.7)

Richard III’s books. With commentary by Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs.

  1. Chronicles of St. Denis. A history of France from the earliest times to c. 1400; the miniature on fol. 136 shows a fight at the Siege of Meaux. Richard placed his signature ‘Richard Gloucestre’ in a convenient space below and about halfway through the book. (British Library Royal Ms. 20 C VII)
  2. Pages from the Book of Hours and Prayers which Richard used as king: (1) the Hours of the Virgin; (2) Calendar page: the insertion of his birthday on 2 October is in Richard’s hand; (3) The first surviving page and beginning of a prayer for ‘comfort and distress’ added for Richard’s personal use; (4) the Office of the Dead. (Lambeth Palace Ms. 474)
  3. English translation of the German mystic Mechthild of Hackenborn signed by Richard and his wife, ‘R. Gloucestre,’ ‘Anne Warrewyk.’ (British Library Egerton Ms. 2006)
  4. Richard III’s copy of the ‘Story of Troy’ and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain,’ the only books he signed as king. The pages are also signed by Oliver Cromwell, 1656. (Leningrad State Public Library)
  5. Copy of Wycliffe translation of the New Testament in English signed ‘A vo me ly Gloucestr’–detail of inscription and signature. (New York Public Library)
  6. Richard’s ‘ex libris.’ ‘This book belongs to Richard, Duke of Gloucester’ in his copy of the story of Tristan & Isolde, at the bottom ‘san remevyr’ motto and autograph of Elizabeth of York. (British Library, Harleian Ms. 49)
  7. Signatures of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Henry, Lord Fitzhugh (brother-in-law to Warwick the ‘Kingmaker’) in a History of England from the 6th century to 1198. (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge Ms 96)
  8. Arms of Richard III and his queen, Anne Neville, in the copy of the Roman Vegetius manual on the Art of War, a standard text book used in the 15th century. (British Library Royal Ms. 18 A X11)
  9. An example of the heraldic decoration on Richard’s copy of the ‘Guidance of Princes’ by Giles of Rome, one of the most famous and widely used books of advice on the correct conduct of Princes. The arms are those of St. William Fitzherbert, Archbishop of York. (Sion College Ms. Arc L42. |L\26 fol. 27b)
  10. Richard’s signature and a motto (‘I have desired it so much’) in a collection that includes stories from Chaucer, Lydgate, an English translation of the Old Testament and the romance ‘Ipomedon.’ (Longleat House Ms. 257)

Richard III’s books: Do they tell us anything about him?

Was Richard III an ideal prince?

Among his books was a so-called ‘Mirror of Princes’, a book of guidance on the correct conduct of all men, and especially kings. A prince should be prudent, dignified, sympathetic, just, temperate, courageous, magnanimous. He should love, honour and be humble, and be on friendly terms with his subjects. He should learn how to rule himself, his household and his kingdom.

Richard also owned a manual on the art of war, Vegetius’ ‘On Military Matters.’ This contains advice on how a commander and a prince should behave in war and in peace. It has the famous maxim: ‘If you want peace prepare for war.’

Was Richard III religious?

Apart from English translations of the Old and New Testaments, Richard and his wife had an English version of the Book of Special Grace of the German mystic Mechthild of Hackeborn.

Richard's Books

We also have Richard’s Latin book of hours from which he read his devotions. It was second hand, made sixty years before he acquired it as King. We know he used it because he personally wrote his birthdate in his calendar. He also had several devotions added to its already extensive contents: short prayer to his favourite saint, St Ninian, evangelist of the North, and a long, moving prayer for comfort in sorrow and distress. This particular prayer was very popular in Western Europe in Richard’s day — it also found, for instance, in a book of prayers that belonged to the great Dukes of Burgundy. Part of its text runs:

Lord Jesus Christ, deign to free my, your servant King Richard, from every tribulation, sorrow and trouble in which I am placed…hear me, in the name of all your goodness, for which I give thanks, and for all the gifts granted to me, because you made me from nothing and redeemed me out of your bounteous love and pity from eternal damnation to promising eternal life.

This is the entreaty of a soul distressed by sorrow: it does not, as has sometimes argued, contain any evidence of a sense of guild greater than that felt by any fifteenth-century Christian.

Was Richard III a scholar?

He owned books in three languages. His volumes of the stories of Troy and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain were in Latin. They were seen as the most reliable source on the early history of England and included the legends of Brut, Lear, Arthur and Cymbeline, which became famous in English literature. His history of France, the Chronicles of St. Denis, were in French and were made in France. The voluminous English history which he owned is again in Latin. He also possessed the text of a Latin prophecy concerning the return of the British race to rule their own island.

Did Richard III read for pleasure?

When still a young man he signed his name in a collection of romances and moral tales and his ex libris also occurs in a copy of the story of Tristan and Isolde. The romances include Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ and ‘Clerk’s Tale,’ Lydgate’s ‘Siege of Troy’ and a unique copy of a romance of love and chivalry that has some very attractive descriptions:

… the lady went to supper, and Ipomedon anon went and served the good lady of the cup, and she beheld him and asked him, whether he had aught eaten, and he answered and said, ‘Nay!’ and she made him to sit in a chair before her, and there, this book tells, they took both such a charge upon them, that it held them both the term of their lives, the which charge was love, that never departed after.

Sixteen texts in eleven manuscript books owned by Richard III survive. We can recognise them because he put his name in them and sometimes a motto as well. They are all unpretentious, all but one are second hand, and only one of them has any extensive decoration. Several he owned while he was still Duke of Gloucester. They were largely the kind of books owned by any gentleman of his day.

If these books bring us near the real Richard III, he is a very shadowy figure, but when we actually read their contents we get to know him a little better and we feel disinclined to make him either a hero or a villain.

Richard III's Books -- buy the book from Amazon.com Anne F.Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs are authors of many books and articles on Richard III and fifteenth century English history. Their book, Richard III’s Books: Ideals and Reality in the Life and Library of a Medieval Prince,(Sutton Publishing, 1997) is available from Amazon.com; a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Richard III Society, American Branch.