Category Archives: biography

Free ebook: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: A Biography by K.H. Vickers is an exhaustive scholarly study that entertains and fascinates


It’s been 600 years since he was born and lived, and we’re still talking about him. Academics continue to study him, tirelessly combing through the brittle, yellowed pages of antiquity, churning out doctoral dissertations and thesis papers – yet few can agree if he was actually “The Good Duke” or one of the most despicable figures in English history.

Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, was the youngest son of King Henry IV, and the ever-loyal brother and lieutenant of Henry V. Born in 1390 and died in 1447, Humphrey remains among the most confounding and enigmatic personalities ever to stride across the stage of history.

Pinning down the essential nature of the Duke is a task of monumental difficulty. That’s what makes this 600-page exhaustive study of Humphrey by British Prof. Kenneth H. Vickers an extraordinary academic achievement. Vickers gave it his all. He vigorously attacks the problem of defining Humphrey page after painstaking page. He provides a voluminous bibliography of cited sources that is almost half as long as the text itself. A muscular appendix expands on additional issues.

Vickers’ conclusion? Duke Humphrey probably deserves his lasting reputation as “The Good Duke,” among certain segments of English society, high and low. However, the greater measure of the man is represented by his numerous, sometimes shocking failings.

Duke Humphrey was greedy, power mad and an ego maniac. His lusts for fame and wealth were without limit. He could be cruel and wildly impetuous, but also witty, personable and charming. He was brilliant — yet completely unable to sustain a long-term effort – be it in war, politics or devotion to a single woman. He lived to be flattered and adored by his court of groveling sycophants; his sexual hunger for the opposite sex is legendary.

Yet, Vickers manages to uncover Duke Humphrey’s saving grace: His burning love of literature and learning. Despite his repulsive and repugnant character flaws, Vickers credits Humphrey with nothing less than bringing the Renaissance to England, and delivering his country from the cloying cobwebs of the Dark Ages. If it wasn’t for Duke Humphrey, Vickers says, England may have remained mired in ancient ignorance for decades to come.

Humphrey single-handedly thrust England out of darkness and into the light by his aggressive sponsorship of Italian intellectuals. Somewhere along the line, Humphrey developed an insatiable love of the ancient Greek and Roman texts that were exploding on the scene after being lost for centuries in medieval anti-intellectualism.

At great personal financial cost, Humphrey commissioned a small army of brilliant Italian writers and linguists to translate into Latin, French and English the works of Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius and dozens of others. These translations were sent by the hundreds to Humphrey in England where he read them with great relish – but then he breathed new life into the local academic community by donating hundreds of volumes to what had become a backward, calcified and stagnant Oxford University – the primary body of learning on the British Isles.

Today it might seem difficult to comprehend that the donation of a few hundred books could be an act of real significance; however, the printing press was still a few decades away. Books were hand-made and hand-lettered by scribes. The production of a single book involved hundreds of man-hours – and those who were literate enough to do the job were rare members of society indeed. Thus, books were objects of rarity and enormous value.


Also, consider that no one – perhaps not so much as a single person –in England was capable of reading — not to mention translating — ancient classical Greek. For this, Duke Humphrey had to rely on the distant Humanist scholars of Italy. Merely the logistics of finding them, contacting them, making deals with them and arranging for translated books to be shipped to England was a remarkable undertaking. No one else was interested in doing it. It was Duke Humphrey who made it happen.

The historic effect of this effort is still rippling through British society today, Vickers claims (keeping in mind this book was first published in 1907). Thus, it would be impossible to overestimate the service The Good Duke paid to all of Britain.

But, ah, alas, despite this priceless everlasting boon bequeathed upon the Sceptered Isles by the hand of Humphrey, the rotting stench which clings to his reputation can never be scrubbed clean – nor should it be.

It was his lifelong, undying and illogical support of his brother’s war with France, especially after it was hopelessly and utterly lost, which brought untold tragedy to both realms, not the least of which is the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of common peasants of the French countryside.

If this wasn’t enough, Duke Humphrey’s fantastically insane decision to march an English army to Hainault (or Hainaut) after his semi-legitimate marriage to Jacqueline, Countess of Holland, so that he could claim what he deemed to be his – represents one of the most egregiously rash and ill-advised military blunders of all time. This action also unleashed monstrous cruelties of war upon a land of industrious, innocent, peaceful people who wanted nothing of England but to be left alone.

It was all so unnecessary! The Hainault campaign drained vast sums of treasure from the English coffers, wreaked hideous brutalities upon the prosperous people of The Low Countries– raping, pillaging, killing, burning, ravaging, destruction of cattle and crops – all for the insipid whims and greed of Humphrey!

Today’s historians owe an enormous debt to Professor Kenneth Hotham Vickers for this extraordinary manuscript. Before Vickers brought out this volume more than a century ago, there was yawning gap in the modern record. The life and deeds of one of England’s most prominent princes was languishing in the obscurity of dusty archives.

I made a considerable attempt to find out more about Kenneth Vickers, but precious little is available, at least on the Internet. But perhaps it is fitting that a man who devoted his life to the study and teaching of history be remembered by a great work of history – and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester serves as a magnificent legacy for an exceptional scholar.

NOTE: You can download a free copy of this book here: HUMPHREY

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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“This Is Me, Jack Vance!” is a remarkable autobiography by a remarkable writer


Over the past 30 years I have read just about everything Jack Vance has written – many dozens of books – and, yes, I have re-read most of them multiple times. I know there are five or six of his titles I have read 15 or 20 times each – I’m not kidding – and each read and re-read is always pure unadulterated joy.

Vance is a writer of strange power; he is a unique phenomenon in literature. There was never another writer like him before, and there will never be another like him again. The science fiction writer Robert Silverberg said other writers have occasionally tried to imitate Vance “only to embarrass themselves or find it impossible.”

And yet, while it can’t be said that Vance is an obscure writer, in his long career he never approached the fame and recognition of his fellow genre artists, such as Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov. He won every major award in science fiction, including the Hugo and Nebula multiple times – as he also did in another genre, detective novels and murder mysteries. But true fame eluded him – and that was probably okay with him.

Writer Michael Chabon said of Vance: “Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or The Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.”

Of Vance’s place in American literary tradition, Chabon said: “It’s not Twain-Hemingway; it’s more Poe’s tradition, a blend of European refinement with brawling, two-fisted frontier spirit.”

The immensely popular Neil Gaiman read his first Vance tale at age 13. He said: “I fell in love with the prose style. It was elegant, intelligent; each word felt like it knew what it was doing. It’s funny but never, ever once nudges you in the ribs.” Gaiman credits Vance with his own desire to become a writer.

One of the reasons Vance never became as revered as a Mark Twain or as popular as a Ray Bradbury is that his style can be (or seem) challenging. Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of my friends say, “I really tried to get into Vance, but I always found myself dropping out of his books after two or three chapters.” On the other hand, Vance certainly has legions of fans, and may be more popular in Europe than the United States.

Vance published this biography, THIS IS ME, JACK VANCE! at about age 95. As of this writing, he is 97. He has been blind for more than 20 years, and the loss of his eyesight eventually forced him to stop writing – even though he completed some of his best works after his eyes failed, including the marvelous Lyoness series and “Night Lamp,” the latter of which is a near masterpiece.

Because of his blindness, Vance was obligated to write his biography by dictation, a process with which he was not familiar or comfortable, and he says so at the beginning.

Norma and Jack Vance

What interesting is that this is a biography of a great writer which contains almost nothing about writing at all. He provides about three pages of commentary about writing near the end of the book, and then he only did so at the insistence of his agent and editors.

The majority of the book is devoted to his passions for life: traveling around the world on a shoestring budget; restaurants serving great food wines, liquors and whiskeys; the world’s oceans and sailing; carpentering his home in Oakland from the ground up. Last but not least, and his most ardent passion of all – jazz.

Vance says that his wife, Norma, was an indispensable part of everything he wrote. Their method was to cloister together in a room. Using a fountain pen and notepad, Jack would churn out 2,000 to 3,000 words per day. Norma would type and edit his drafts. Jack would then pore over the first typed version and make changes. Norma would then retype the manuscript – and they sent it off to publishers – all of whom were eager to print whatever they could get with the name “Jack Vance” on the byline.

Ah – but what rooms they worked in! A cabin in rural Ireland, a cottage in Tahiti, a balcony room by the sea in an Italian hotel, a houseboat parked on Nageen Lake in Kashmir, a campsite tent in Zimbabwe, an Oceanside apartment in Australia, a rented house in Mexico – the travels of Jack and Norma (and later with their young son, John), left me astounded!

So this is a biography quite unlike any other – iconoclastic, completely unconcerned with commercial appeal or popularity, unpretentious, humble, filled with terrific, entertaining anecdotes – the last remarkable work of one of the most remarkable writers of all time.

Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

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