Reeves, Compton. Paul Murray Kendall and the Anniversary of Richard the Third

A. Compton Reeves

[Originally published in the Fall, 1995 Ricardian Register. This article was added to the website November 21, 2003 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Kendall’s death]

PHoto of Paul Murray Kendall
Paul Murray Kendall, 1911-1973

It would be interesting to know the percentage of today’s Ricardians for whom the first non-fiction book they read about King Richard III was Richard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall, which first appeared in 1955. Any book that has remained in print for forty years must indeed have been a good introduction to the subject. To mark the anniversary of the publication of Kendall’s study of King Richard, it seems fitting to examine briefly the career of Kendall and to note some of the early reactions to Richard the Third.

Kendall spent the majority of his academic career teaching English at Ohio University in Athens. The English Department and the Archives and Special Collections Department at Alden Library, Ohio University, have made it possible for me to put together for Ricardian readers this sketch of Kendall’s life.

Paul Murray Kendall was born on 1 March 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and graduated from Frankford High School in that city in 1928. He moved on to the University of Virginia, where he took all of his professional training: A.B. in 1932, A.M. in 1933, and Ph.D. in 1939. Before completing his doctorate, Kendall became, in 1937, an instructor in the English Department at Ohio University. His primary teaching responsibility was Renaissance literature with an emphasis upon Shakespeare. Kendall did not immediately become one of the more notable members of the faculty. It was not until 1947, for instance, that he was granted tenure, and in a letter of 14 May 1951, having recently turned forty, he expressed the hope that he might at least be considered for promotion from Associate Professor to Professor.

He had in 1950 been awarded the Marburgh Play Prize from The Johns Hopkins University for his three-act play, “The Ant Village,” and he had published some light verse in such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, and had published a scholarly article on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in a festschrift. In the 1951 letter noted above, Kendall mentioned that he had “finished about a third of a fictional-biographical study of Richard III, the object of which is to show that Shakespeare’s portrait of that monarch is totally unhistorical.”

Kendall cannot help but have felt a vote of confidence when he was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship for 1952-53, and the fellowship gave a boost to the completion of Richard the Third, which was published by W. W. Norton in 1955. The reviews of Richard were entirely friendly.

E.F. Jacob, who was six years away from publishing his volume in the Oxford History of England, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485, wrote in the Manchester Guardian(13 January 1956), “This new life of Richard III has two principal merits: it deals with his whole career, not merely with the last two years; and it is carefully constructed from original authorities,” and went on to credit Kendall with “distinguishing between genuine contemporary testimony (even if much of that is hearsay) and Tudor myth, and making it clear when resort is had to conjecture.”

R.B.Dooley, writing in the Catholic World (November 1956) said: “In all the reams of writing in print that have been spilled by the enemies and friends of Richard III, this is actually the first objective biography.”

To mention but one more early review, A. L. Rowse stated in the Chicago Sunday Tribune (26 August 1956) that “Mr. Kendall has achieved the best biography of Richard III that has been written.” In a review a few years later, in a demonstration of independent and unencumbered judgment, Kendall eviscerated Rowse’sBosworth Field and the Wars of the Roses (1966).

As Kendall’s first book, Richard III had admirable reception and was a runner-up for the National Book Award in 1956 as well as being picked one of the best books of the year by the American Library Association.

Two years after Richard, Kendall had two more books appear: Warwick the Kingmaker and History of Land Warfare. For the academic year 1957-58 Kendall had the first of his two Guggenheim Fellowships; the second was for 1961-62. Warwick the Kingmaker won the Ohioana Award in 1958 as the best nonfiction book published by an Ohioan in the previous year and the New York Times called it one of the top biographies of 1957. By this time Kendall had been promoted to professor and in 1959 Ohio University named Kendall and two other professors the first Distinguished Professors in the history of the University.

Kendall was not yet finished with fifteenth-century England, for The Yorkist Age appeared in 1962 and his second Ohioana Award followed in 1963. A work edited and introduced by Kendall was published in 1965: Richard III: The Great Debate: Sit Thomas More’s History of King Richard III and Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III, and in the same year there appeared The Art of Biography, for which Kendall was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Further recognition followed for Kendall. The Ohio Board of Regents named him a Regents Professor in 1966 and renewed the appointment each year until 1969 when he was named permanent Regents Professor. In 1970 Kendall retired from Ohio University, to become head, together with Professor Charleton Hinman, of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Kansas. Kendall was continuing with other projects also, most notably his projected edition with Professor Vincent Ilardi of the University of Massachusetts of the fifteenth-century Milanese ambassadorial dispatches. It was while at Kansas, in 1971, that Kendall’s final historical biography, that of King Louis XI of France, was published. Meanwhile, Ohio University, where Kendall had taught for thirty-three years, awarded its Regents Professors Emeritus and honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

It should be noted that Kendall was not the only author living under his roof. In 1939 Kendall married Carol Seeger, one of his students at Ohio University, and Carol Seeger Kendall was an author in her own right. She won an Ohioana Award in 1960 and was runner-up for the 1960 Newberry Award for her children’s novel, The Gummage Cup, published the previous year. The Kendalls had two daughters, Carol and Gillian, but only the elder had been born when Richard the Third appeared, and hence the dedication of the book “To my two Carols.”

Paul Kendall did not have long to work on the Kansas campus in Lawrence, for he died in Lawrence on 21 November 1973 at the age of sixty-two. In his career he had written extensively, and although King Richard III was not his singular passion, he did a major service for the study of Richard. He told Richard’s story in a compelling fashion and, even if historians might grumble that Kendall put a major issue like the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons in an appendix of Richard the Third, there could be no disparaging the interest in the life and reign of King Richard III.

Books by subsequent writers have deepened and made more subtle our understanding of Richard and his times, but while delving into such tomes as Charles Ross’sRichard III (1981), P.W. Hammond’s and A.F Sutton’s Richard III: The Road to Bosworth Field (1985), M. Hicks’s Richard III: The Man Behind the Myth (1991) or A. J. Pollard’s Richard III and the Princes in the Tower (1991), we students of Richard and his era must in all fairness and candor acknowledge our debt to an Ohio University professor of English by noting the fortieth anniversary of the publication of his first book.


Compton Reeves, professor emeritus of history at Ohio University, is the former chair of the Richard III Society, American Branch and the author of Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England

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