On Monday, scientists from the University of Leicester are to finally reveal the results of DNA that will tell us whether the bones discovered in a Leicester car park last year belong to Richard III. But while we are waiting for the results, perhaps we could have another look at the King and reassess his reign and personality.
And indeed, what do we know about the last Plantagenet Monarch? And what of we know is accurate or just a plain character assassination? Was he a monster depicted in Shakespeare’s famous play? Did he kill his young nephews and usurp the Throne? Why did he lose the Battle of Bosworth Field and how did he die? Unfortunately, none of those questions could actually be answered conclusively but I will try to draw as unbiased a portrait as possible.
Richard was born as the eighth and youngest child of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York and Cecily Neville both of whom had strong claims to the Throne of England. From an early age, Richard was a staunch supporter of his brother’s quest to claim the Crown. After Edward finally ascended to the English Throne (for the first time) in 1461, Richard was named the Duke of Gloucester.
Of all their siblings, it is indisputable Edward IV had the most trust in his youngest sibling, and the latter never disappointed him; throughout Edward’s reign, he was a loyal, caring and dedicated brother. Perhaps even more importantly, he proved to be an able commander; Richard played crucial roles in the battles of Tewkesbury and Barnet that resulted in Edward reclaiming the Throne from Henry VI.
For most of his life, Richard was depicted by contemporary sources as a man virtue and honour. In fact, his demeanour was put in stark contrast to that of his brother, Edward IV’s extravagant ways. As first President of the Council of the North, he greatly improved conditions of people of the region. In all the vast domains Edward IV bestowed upon his brother, he was regarded as a just and capable ruler whose actions greatly benefited common people.
The turning point of Richard’s character appears to be his brother’s death. Unsurprisingly, Edward IV named his trusted brother guardian and Lord Protected of his young sons, the elder of whom ascended to the Throne as Edward V. Richard promptly made steps to banish the boys’ Woodville relatives and supporters, and sent Edward V and his younger brother to the Tower (which was a royal residence back then and the place where English Monarchs traditionally prepared for their coronations). Shortly afterwards, the boys were proclaimed illegitimate and their uncle ascended to the Throne as Richard III.
These events certainly don’t seem to fit with Richard’s previous character and actions. What made him effectively betray the nephews he had sworn to protect and whom, by all accounts, he was deeply attached to? But if we look slightly deeper into the motives and especially the realities of the time, the answers may be quite obvious.
One of the first things Richard did was to ensure the relatives of the new King’s mother, the Woodvilles, were stripped of all their powers. It was feared that Edward V’s reign would more or less mean influence for the Woodville family – and everyone disliked the Woodvilles. They were viewed as an upstart family who used their royal connections to their advantage. And it’s hard to disagree when you have a look at their lives; Elizabeth Woodville arranged marriages for her numerous siblings with eligible scions of the most aristocratic families in the realm for the purpose of enhancing her family’s power and wealth. Among the more outrageous example was the marriage of 20-year-old John Woodville to the 68-year-old Catherine Neville, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk (ironically, she outlived him). This blatantly pushy policy of the Queen antagonised the old nobility and the House of Commons against the entire Woodville family. It is therefore understandable why Richard met so little (virtually no) resistance when he swiftly moved to prevent the unpopular Woodville family from gaining any influence.
The usurpation is actually not very difficult to explain either. The simple fact is that a 12-year-old was not prepared to Kingship. In our times, when the role of a Monarch is largely ceremonial one, that would have hardly matter. But it wasn’t so back then. The abilities of the King to rule directly affected the well-being of his country. Child Kings never succeeded in England; in fact, the War of Roses started because of a boy King as well. The country was just recuperating from the bloody and lengthy civil war, and no one wanted Lancastrians to resume it because of a weak king.
Whatever Richard’s personal feelings towards his nephew were, he was a statesman, a leader first and foremost, and it was his duty to protect the country. When first doubts about the legitimacy of Edward IV’s children surfaced, Richard seized the chance. A clergyman informed the Lord Protector that prior to marrying Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV had already promised to marry one Eleanor Butler (and in those times, a promise of marriage equalled actual marriage). Since Eleanor Butler was alive at the time of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, that made their union invalid and their children – including Edward V, illegitimate.
Soon thereafter, the Parliament passed Titulus Regius which invalidated the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and proclaimed that since their children were illegitimate, they were barred from the Throne. Richard’s elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, had been executed for treason against Edward IV, and his descendants had forfeited all rights to the Throne. That left Richard the sole rightful heir of Edward IV.
In fact, the legitimacy of the latter was questioned by Titulus Regius as well, noted by the interesting choice of words, which described Richard as “the undoubted son and heir of Richard, late Duke of York”. This wasn’t just a cheap swipe either; questions of Edward IV legitimacy had been there long before that. Even during his own lifetime, the Earl of Warwick and Edward’s younger brother openly spoke of his suspected illegitimacy. It is certain Edward bore little resemblance to his father. Moreover, it was established that at the time Edward was supposed to have been conceived, his father was away on campaign, making it tricky for him to father a child. Another circumstantial evidence comes from the fact that the christening celebrations of Edward – the first-born son of Richard of York and Cecily – was a very low key affair, whereas the christening ceremony of their second son, Edmund, was a lavish and expensive affair at the cathedral.
Bar from that passage from Titulus Regius, Richard himself never openly doubted his brother’s legitimacy. Mind you, he didn’t need to since his claims were based on the illegitimacy of his nephews. Whatever the case, Titulus Regius officially proclaimed Richard a King and he ascended to the Throne as Richard III. His Kingship wasn’t just a question of technicality; it happened by popular consent and actual request of the people.
His reign of just over two years came to an abrupt end at the Battle of Bosworth Field. His opponent was Henry Tudor, leader of the Lancastrian party. Henry’s claims to the Throne were dubious at best; they were based on his mother’s descent from John of Gaunt, the third surviving son of Edward III. However, his mother was descended from one of the children of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford; while those children were legitimised after their parents’ marriage by an Act of Parliament, a subsequent Act specifically barred from those children or their descendants from ever inherited the Throne.
Henry Tudor strengthened his claims to the Throne by his arranged marriage to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV (who was the Yorkist heiress to the Throne, assuming her brothers were dead). Despite the popular myth of Henry rallying English troops around himself to fight the “evil” King, most of his army consisted of hired mercenaries. Richard III was full of resolution to end the conflict there and then: he declared that “This day I will die as a King or win”.
The Battle of Bosworth Field was won not by Henry’s army or lost by Richard’s – it was decided by treachery. Richard had about 10,000 troops while Henry had some 5,000. But the fate of the battle was to be decided by the Stanley brothers, powerful lords who arrived at Bosworth Field with around 6,000 men. Despite the fact one of the Stanley brothers was married to Margaret Beaufort, they appeared to have been loyal to Richard. The King repaid them by granting the Stanleys vast lands. Furthermore, when Lady Margaret was implicated in the Buckingham rebellion, Richard spared her life and although he took away her lands and properties, he promptly gave those to her husband.
And yet, as the battle unfolded, the Stanley brothers to one side and didn’t interfere. The battle was not going well for Henry Tudor and, desperate to get Stanley’s to his side, he rushed to their direction with only a few men around him. Richard saw that and eager to end the battle, charged after Tudor, his battle axe held high. He managed to kill Henry’s standard bearer and was within a metre from his rival – which is when the Stanleys interfered. They charged against Richard, sweeping the King into a marsh where he was hacked down and killed. It is said that his final words were “Treason! Treason!”
Richard III was a formidable fighter and certainly not the weak hunchback Tudor propaganda depicted him as. In fact, one of his contemporaries who had witnessed the battle called Richard “the only gentleman” on the battlefield. News of Richard’s death was greeted with shock and sadness. When his demise became known in York, the city elders recorded how their King who had “mercifully” reigned over them was “piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of the city”.
What happened to the Princes in the Tower is not known. They certainly disappeared around 1483, at the time of Richard’s reign. Did they die of natural causes (there was another epidemic of plague at the time)? Did he order them to be killed, as is most commonly assumed? Or did others made sure the boys will never be seen again? Certainly, Henry Tudor desperately needed them dead for even if he was the one who defeated Richard III the Princes, if alive, would have far more sound rights to the Throne than he or his wife. He needed to know they were dead before launching a campaign. And while his opportunities were fewer than those of Richard, he did have the means. Or perhaps it was the Duke of Buckingham who hoped to win the Throne for himself (he had exactly the same claims to the Throne as Henry Tudor – a descent from John of Gaunt through an illegitimate line). Or maybe the femme formidable of Tudor court, Margaret Beaufort (Henry’s mother) took the matters into her own hands? None of those questions were ever answered.
Richard III started as an extremely popular Monarch. Soon after his coronation, Thomas Langton (the Bishop of St David’s) wrote to a friend of high hopes people had of the King, and that Richard “contents the people” with many “relieved and helped by him and his commands”. The Bishop also wrote: “I never liked the conditions of any prince so well as his. God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.”
It is hard to argue with Langton’s views because during his short reign, Richard III did indeed work hard to better the conditions of his people. In December of 1483, he instituted the Court of Requests, a place where poor people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard. He was also the Monarch that introduced bail in January 1484, to protects suspects from imprisonment before trial, and to protect their property from seizure during the time. A man of literacy himself, he banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books, and ordered the translation of the written laws and statutes from French (the traditional language of the law) to English so that common people would understand it.
His contemporary historian, John Rous, praised the King as a “good lord” with a “great heart” who punished “oppressors of the commons”. Even during the Tudor reign, Richard’s reputation as a fair ruler persisted: William Camden stated in his “Remains Concerning Britain” (1605) that Richard “made good laws”.
Richard III’s depiction as a heartless villain started during the Tudor era. The Tudors were among the first to understand that in the long-term people will remember what is written – and history is written by the victors. Among the first acts of Henry VII was to start portraying Richard as an evil usurper who the Tudors fought and defeated in a glorious battles. Writers and historians continued the trend. Thomas More attributed Richard’s physical deformities to an “evil mind”. Polydore Vergil (Henry VII’s official historian) called him “devious and flattering”. The highly unflattering portrayal culminated in Shakespeare’s famous play which sealed Richard’s image for centuries to come. Two things that no one – not even More, Vergil and Shakespeare – doubted was Richard III’s personal bravery and his sharp mind.
The truth about Richard III is hard to decipher after all these centuries. He was brave and clever, an able ruler and commander – that everyone seems to agree with. Was he also a wicked person, a scheming villain and a heartless killer of innocent children? That is open to a debate. Even if he was all that, that simply made Richard a man of his time, nothing more and nothing less. Indeed, the “good” Henry VII had far more blood on his hands than Richard: he never hesitated to dispose of anyone he viewed as a potential threat, no matter how young or old they were. That trait seems to have been inherited by his son, Henry VIII, and grandchildren, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
We judge Richard III’s actions (perceived, actual and possible) through prism of time and based on current ideas of morality. The late 15th century was nothing like our age: it was an age of survival when you had to do sometimes unthinkable things to stay alive. Richard III might have been better than that, or he might have been a typical ruler of his time. Perhaps one day we shall have answers to all those questions. But today, I am glad there is even a debate about his character and motives.
I am not by any means an expert on the late King and the above article is my personal opinion based on research. I have to admit though that the character of Richard III fascinates me and I would certainly like to see his good deeds become known as well.