King Richard III: A Villain for all Time
Posted on 2nd February 2021
Richard III is the most controversial King ever to sit on the Throne of England and even now his short reign remains contentious and the subject of much heated debate. Was he the hunch-backed monster, the haunted child-killer of Shakespeare's play or the victim of remorseless negative Tudor propaganda? If he was the evil usurper who murdered his nephews then why is he the only English Monarch to have Appreciation Societies around the world dedicated to his memory? Why if he did brutally murder his own kith-and-kin for the sake of power are so many people willing to rush to his defence?
Richard Plantagenet, a son of York, and the future Duke of Gloucester, was born at Fotheringay Castle on 2 October, 1452. He was the eighth and youngest child of Richard, Duke of York, and his wife Cecily Neville.
He was a frail and sickly child who was not expected to survive infancy, the fact he did so was down to much tender care and a great deal of good fortune but denied the opportunity to play with other children as he was resulted in a bookish and serious child who would grow into an earnest and sober young man.
His father, also Richard, was a great-grandson of Henry III and was in little doubt that he should be King and not the Lancastrian Henry VI, and he was to press his claim with the utmost vigour alienating most of the English nobility by his presumption and his arrogance in the process.
Henry VI who had a childlike demeanour and often appeared vague and uncertain was perceived as being weak, something that Richard was determined to exploit claiming that Henry was unfit to wear the Crown; but if Henry was weak then his Queen Margaret most certainly was not and she was just as determined that her son Edward should inherit the throne and she despised Richard of York. As the dispute festered the two Great Houses of England, cousins by birth, grew further apart becoming embroiled in a power struggle that was to come perilously close to a clash of arms on a number of occasions.
Finally, with only two of the nobility pledging their support and unable to muster sufficient strength to win on the battlefield Richard of York was forced to yield and swear an oath of allegiance to Henry. It was a humiliating moment as he knelt in supplication before the King with his Queen and the other great nobles looking on, but his ambitions remained undimmed.
In August 1453, the always emotionally fragile Henry VI suffered some form of mental breakdown that left him totally incapacitated. It was a curse from God, so said Richard, and with no apparent prospect of a recovery in October a Grand Council was called to consider what was to be done. As the most powerful Magnate in the Realm after the King himself the responsibility for running the country should have fallen to Richard, Duke of York, but so firm was the belief that he would use his position to usurp the throne that the Council refused to cede power to him and any final decision was deferred.
If they were playing for time in the hope that the King’s condition would improve then they were to be disappointed and so finally on 24 March 1454, the decision was made to appoint Richard, Duke of York - Lord Protector of England. Now, as if to prove the nobility right in their fears Richard’s first act was to have his old nemesis and Henry's right-hand-man Lord Somerset, arrested. Those who had opposed him in the past now feared for their own safety.
Much to everyone's surprise in January 1455, Henry appeared to make a full recovery and resuming his duties as King he immediately had Lord Somerset released. York, feeling threatened, fled north still firm in his conviction that he should be King, a showdown became inevitable.
Their armies clashed at the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455, where seeing itself outnumbered the King's army simply melted away. It was to be an easy victory for York.
Henry was now in Richard of York's custody and was forced to recognise his pivotal role in the running of the country. York, aware of his unpopularity did not want to be seen to be usurping the throne rather he wanted to be acknowledged as Henry's successor. The King appeared to concur and was returned to London unharmed.
In March 1456, Henry again fell into a state of mental incapacity and York resumed his duties as Lord Protector.
Henry, who was rarely seen without a smile and appeared to like everyone he met could not see the danger that Richard, Duke of York posed and his frustrated advisers increasingly looked to his formidable wife Margaret of Anjou as she effectively took over the reins of power.
York knew that as long as Margaret of Anjou was Queen he would never inherit the throne and he feared that while he was away serving as Lord Deputy in Ireland his estates in England would be seized so he drew up an alliance with the powerful and just as ambitious Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known to history as the Kingmaker, for protection at home and to work on his behalf during his absence.
Warwick laid plans to depose Henry VI on the grounds that he was a hopeless imbecile. It was quite possible that his son if he inherited the crown would have the same illness and then where would the country be? England needed a strong King not a dribbling fool.
On 10 July, Warwick defeated the King's Army at the Battle of Northampton and Henry was once again taken prisoner. In the wake of the King’s defeat York now returned to England and made his bid for the throne. On 10 October at a Parliament convened for this very purpose it appeared that York was on the brink of achieving his lifelong ambition. He entered the hall with his sword drawn and placed his hand upon the vacant throne. He had expected to be anointed Henry's successor by popular acclamation but what greeted him was a stony silence. He stormed out of the proceedings furious and condemning all present as traitors.
For the next four years there was an effective stand-off as both sides glowered at each other from their respective regions of support. York would regularly speak of his loyalty to the Crown, if not the person of the King, whilst Margaret of Anjou refused to believe a word of it.
Having gathered an army, Margaret took it north to confront York and decide things once and for all. Despite being advised not to do so York chose to fight and on 30 December 1460 the two armies met at the Battle of Wakefield - it was to be a one-sided affair as the greatly outnumbered Yorkist army went down to a catastrophic defeat and Richard, Duke of York, and his eldest son, the Duke of Rutland, were killed in the fighting.
Margaret of Anjou had triumphed and she had the Duke of York's body recovered after the battle and decapitated, his head being placed on a pole at the entrance to the town that bore his name with a paper crown upon it inscribed with the words, "Let York over-look York."
This was the harsh reality of the world that the young Richard had been born into.
Aged just 8 years old he had been witness to his father's defeat and now he was made to flee abroad to the Low-Countries along with his brother George by his mother who feared the vengeance of Margaret of Anjou. His eldest brother Edward, however, would remain to contest the throne.
As it transpired the Battle of Wakefield had decided nothing. Richard, Duke of York may be dead but his son was no less determined to pursue his legacy. Edward, like his father before him now conspired with his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, whose army remained intact to renew hostilities.
The war started well for Margaret when her forces defeated Warwick's army at the Second Battle of St Albans on 17 February 1461, but it was not a decisive victory, and she was in no mood to celebrate. Always vengeful she now ordered the execution of two prominent Yorkist noblemen she had been holding as hostages despite the King having promised them immunity from harm. Her behaviour which broke all the established rules of chivalry appalled even those who were her supporters. Lancastrian success however was to be short-lived.
On 29 March the two armies clashed again at the Battle of Towton - the bloodiest confrontation ever on English soil that was to cost 28,000 lives and leave the Lancastrian army routed which as it fled the field abandoned King Henry who was found sitting alone beneath a tree totally unaware of events and singing to himself. Edward ensured that he was well treated and had him returned safely to London.
He was later to order his murder though it is said he did so with a heavy heart.
With the Lancastrian Army routed, Margaret of Anjou having fled abroad with the young Prince of Wales, and the legitimate King incarcerated in the Tower of London, Edward had achieved what his father had failed to do and on 28 June 1461, he was crowned King Edward IV but he had only been able to triumph with the support of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. When he refused to marry Warwick's daughter as had earlier been agreed, they fell out.
Rather than marry into Warwick's family he had chosen to wed the woman he loved, Elizabeth Woodville.
The Woodville's were not only detested as ambitious upstarts but were also known to be Lancastrians, and Warwick believing he had been deceived now formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou and conspired with the King's brother, the Duke of Clarence, to put Henry VI back on the throne.
Taken completely by surprise in early 1470, Edward was forced to flee abroad taking his seventeen year old brother Richard with him. Throughout his short period in exile Edward plotted his return. He convinced his brother Clarence to change sides and with his forces much reduced Warwick was defeated and killed on 14 April 1471 at the Battle of Barnet.
Following the defeat at Barnet and the death of her ally, Margaret of Anjou fled with what remained of Warwick's army into Wales. There she desperately tried to re-gather her forces and find new recruits but with Edward in hot-pursuit she had little time. Finally on 4 May, and forced to lead her army into battle in person, Margaret of Anjou was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury where taken into captivity she learned that her son, the seventeen year old Edward, Prince of Wales had been executed and broken in spirit she wept late into the night. Following a brief period of imprisonment she was allowed to travel abroad. She never again returned to England or posed a threat to Edward's crown.
Edward was now King for the second time, and this time with his enemies defeated his crown was secure. He also had Richard, who had remained loyal throughout, at his side. He was devoted to his brother and in a world of constantly changing alliances where few could be trusted with any certainty, his loyalty would prove invaluable. The same could not be said of his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence. He had not learned his lesson and continued to conspire against his brother the King. Finally, Edward's forbearance snapped. He had Clarence arrested and ordered his execution. Under pressure from his mother he permitted Clarence to decide his own method of execution and he chose to be lowered upside down into a vat of Malmsey wine. The execution was presided over by Richard, now Duke of Gloucester the younger brother for whom loyalty had been everything.
Over the next twelve years Richard did the dirty work on Edward's behalf. Being the King's strongman and enforcer made him few friends but he was richly rewarded for his loyalty with vast estates in the north of England. He was also in turn appointed Chief Justice of Wales, Grand Chamberlain, Lord High Admiral, and Constable of England.
Edward had proven an able administrator but now able to rule in peace and with his throne secure he became dissolute and the King, once admired for his athleticism and powerful frame now drank heavily, ate too much, slept late, and became lazy and bloated.
On 9 April 1483 he died suddenly aged just 40, probably of pneumonia. He left two sons, thirteen year old Edward, heir to the throne, and eleven year old Richard, Duke of York. Just before his death he named his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector.
The thirty one year old Richard was a handsome man, small of stature, dark haired, dark eyed, and contrary to popular belief free of any obvious physical deformity at a time when such things were commonplace. He was also an educated man and the well-thumbed and heavily annotated books in his private library attest to a man who took his learning well beyond any formal schooling. He was also devoutly religious though he never let his personal piety interfere in his politics. Consequently he never shrank from violence to achieve his aims and he was ruthless in the disposal of his enemies.
It had often been remarked upon, discreetly, how dissimilar he was to his brother, the recently deceased King. Not just in temperament and personality but physically. Edward had been lively, raucous, blonde, blue-eyed, with a ruddy complexion, and at 6'4" one of the tallest Monarchs in English history. So unlike the short, dark, pasty faced and sober Richard, who it was said was the spitting image of his father.
It had long been rumoured that Edward was illegitimate, the issue of his mother and an English bowman serving in France by the name of Blaybourne. If this was the case then Edward's sons were also illegitimate and Richard was the rightful heir to the throne.
Richard would have been aware of this rumour though he had never spoken of it.
Richard may have been devoted to his brother but he had always despised his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, a woman considered to be the most beautiful in England with her heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon but it was said that she also spat fire like a dragon and Richard considered her little better than a whore. She feared for her own life and those of her children in the hands of the martinet Richard. But he had always been a tender and dutiful uncle who was popular with the boys themselves - no one had any reason to think he would do them harm. Despite saying all the right words her she chose to seek sanctuary in an Abbey.
Her fears were not entirely unfounded. Richard had a loathing of women he considered were too free with their bodies and who he deemed to be whores. He had Jane Shore, a long-time mistress of his brother Edward's, whom the King had described as "the merriest, wiliest, and holiest harlot in my realm," arrested. She was then forced to walk barefoot through the streets of London wearing only a single loose gown and carrying a lighted torch to ensure that her walk of shame was brought to the attention of the people before being made to make public penance for her sins at St Paul's Cross. She was then thrown into Ludgate Prison.
The always frivolous Jane used to make fun of the stern, unsmiling Richard, often in the presence of the King and this was not something he was likely to forget. It was also the punishment he would have liked to have imposed on Elizabeth Woodville but as the mother of his brother’s children he dared not do so.
In many respects Jane was the proxy victim of Richard's ire but the shame did little long-term harm and later released from prison she married Sir Thomas Lynom, the Solicitor-General.
Following Edward's death it fell to the Queen's brother, Earl Rivers, the Head of the Prince of Wales Household to escort the young Prince safely to London for his Coronation but he was to be intercepted on his procession south by Richard who informed him that he was taking the Prince into his charge and before his departure he had the Earl arrested and imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. There on 25 June 1483, he was executed.
Richard was advised by the powerful Lord Hastings, who had always been utra-loyal to the House of York, to house the Prince in the Tower of London for his own safety. He would later be joined there by his younger brother, Richard. With the Protectorate in place and the Coronation of the young King due on 13 June, Richard invited Lord Hastings and the other leading nobles to a meeting to discuss how they should proceed.
Richard, who was not known for his sense of humour, appeared particularly jocular and at sometime during the discussions he ordered that some strawberries be brought. He then excused himself for a moment. Upon his return he was accompanied by an armed escort. Then standing before Lord Hastings he angrily denounced him as a traitor before having him dragged out into the courtyard and beheaded. It was the first authorised execution ever carried out within the grounds of the Tower of London.
Despite having been summarily executed, Lord Hastings was never formally attainted with the charge of treason and his family were permitted to retain his titles and estates, while his wife Katherine was placed under Richard's personal protection. His behaviour casts doubt upon whether or not Richard truly believed Hastings to be guilty of treason.
Instead, if it was indeed his plan to usurp the throne then he may have thought it wise to rid himself of a man whose loyalties were known to be with the young Princes.
Not long after the execution of Lord Hastings, Richard declared Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville void on the grounds that he had previously been betrothed to Eleanor Butler, thereby making his deceased brother's children illegitimate. With the bastardisation of his nephews, Richard was now the legitimate heir to the throne.
Prior to 22 June, the two young Princes who were still in the Tower of London were often seen playing in its grounds, though it is possible that despite their carefree behaviour they were already fearing for their lives because Edward had earlier requested a remission of his, and his younger brother's sins. What is known, however, is that after 22 June they were never seen again.
On the same day that the Princes were last seen alive a sermon was preached outside St Paul's Cathedral that announced the Prince of Wales and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, had been declared bastards and that Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was now the rightful King. At this moment Richard was supposed to appear upon the balcony and accept the acclamation of the crowd but he had been delayed and by the time he appeared the crowd had dispersed. Nevertheless, he was crowned King Richard III on 6 July 1483, and his Coronation confirmed by Parliament the following January.
On 12 July 1472, Richard had married Anne Neville, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Though it was a political and dynastic marriage it transpired that she was just as pious as her husband and though they may not have shared a passionate relationship, she was only ever once pregnant with child, they seemed to have been happy and content and they would often spend their evenings discussing religious issues and from the beginning of his reign both Richard and Anne were keen to provide grants for the Church and endowments for Colleges and Universities.
Anne Neville was the one person who it could be said was close to the distant and unknowable Richard, not just his wife but his confidante and his friend.
If Richard ever imagined for one moment that his reign would be readily accepted then it wasn’t for long. Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, led a rebellionintended to restore Edward V to the throne. When it became clear that the young King had been murdered he switched his allegiance to the last surviving Lancastrian claimant to the throne Henry Tudor, who was in exile in France. The rebellion was easily crushed and Buckingham was executed but it was apparent that Richard's reign would not be a peaceful one.
On 16 March 1485, Anne Neville died aged just 29, Richard displayed little emotion and remained tight-lipped, but then that was his way. On the day that Anne died there was also a solar eclipse of the sun. To many this appeared to indicate that Richard's reign was doomed to end in tragedy. Richard, who believed in Signs from God, would also have been aware of this, but again he remained tight-lipped.
Encouraged by his supporters, including Elizabeth Woodville, who had since been re-admitted to the Royal Court, Henry Tudor landed at Mill Bay in Pembrokeshire with a small army. Richard immediately gathered his forces and marched north. He would nip this rebellion in the bud just as he had the previous one, but then the truth was he had to. He was widely seen as having murdered his way to the throne and his rule had never been accepted by the English people. He knew full-well that the people would in time rally to Henry Tudor's cause.
The two armies were to meet at Bosworth Field near Leicester on 22 August 1485.
Richard's army outnumbered that of Henry Tudor who had only been able to rally around 5,000 men, but they could not be relied upon. Moreover, the two armies of Lord Stanley and his brother William were camped nearby.
Richard, who had made so many enemies as his brother's enforcer, knew that they were hedging their bets and would only intervene on his side if he was seen to be winning. As a precaution he had taken Lord Stanley's son hostage threatening to execute him in the hope of securing his father's fidelity. Upon hearing of this Lord Stanley was heard to remark, "I have another."
As the two protagonists faced each other that wet, sunny day, Richard doubted if his army would fight for him. As the battle began there was treachery in the air and the early clashes did not augur well for the King's fortunes.
Just 30 minutes into the battle Lord Catesby rode up to him declaring that all was lost and that the King must flee while the road remained open. Richard refused and scanning the battlefield he saw in the distance the Red Dragon Standard and there he knew he would find Henry Tudor. With a grim determination and no little fatalism he, together with a few loyal Lords and the Knights of his personal household, would charge into the heart of the enemy where he would kill the usurper in single combat.
Waving a battleaxe high above his head and charging at full-pelt, Richard cut and slashed his way through the enemy as his Knights fell around him. As he neared his prey he could see the Stanley's attacking his army. Shouting Treason! Treason! He was now only yards from Henry Tudor who recoiled in terror and had to be steadied by a Knight, when he was unhorsed. Fighting on foot he was offered a horse with which to make his escape but declined it. Surrounded by his enemies and still declaring them Bastards and Traitors he was cut down. Such had been his courage that even Henry Tudor's official biographer felt compelled to write: "Richard, alone, was killed fighting in the thickest of his enemies."
Following the battle Richard's body was stripped naked and mutilated, his testicles being removed and forced into his mouth, before being dragged by a horse through the streets of nearby Leicester. His Crown was found hanging from a thorn bush.
Richard III's reign was over but the controversy remains.
There is no doubt that he had usurped the throne, just as there is no doubt that he believed he had every right to do so, but did he murder the Princes in the Tower? It is true that he could not have ascended to the throne without their removal but having already declared them illegitimate, why murder them? It has always been assumed that as the most obvious beneficiary of their deaths he must have been responsible but there is little evidence for this other than hearsay and conjecture, and there are other suspects.
One possible suspect in the disappearance of the Princes was Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. He had been for a time Richard's right-hand-man but seizing on the opportunity to press his own claim for the throne as a descendant of Edward III's son John of Gaunt he had rebelled in October 1483. Like Richard he could have had no justifiable claim to the throne while the Princes remained alive and he would most certainly have had access to the Princes and could easily have had them killed without Richard's knowledge.
Even after he was arrested and sentenced to death for treason Buckingham made no accusation against Richard with regard to the disappearance of the Princes.
It could also be said that the man who benefited most from the death of the Princes was Henry Tudor. After all, he had little, if any, legitimate claim to the throne as the illegitimate son of the third son of Edward III. He may have been the last remaining Lancastrian candidate to the throne but the poor status of his own legitimacy meant that any other candidates to the throne would have to be eliminated. But he would have had little opportunity to do so until after his victory at the Battle of Bosworth, unless, of course, the murders had been committed on his behalf. The Duke of Buckingham had sworn allegiance to Henry before his execution and could have committed the deed as a way of proving his loyalty.
If the Princes had still been alive when he arrived in London then he would no doubt have had them disposed of. He did not formally declare them dead until more than a year after he had ascended the throne and even then made no attempt to either find or produce the bodies.
This permitted the emergence of future pretenders to the throne claiming to be one of the missing Princes. Even so, Tudor propaganda proclaiming Richard to be a monster of unspeakable wickedness remained almost relentless.
Then again, if Richard was not responsible for the disappearance of the Princes then why did he never make any comment to that effect? If they were still alive why did he not produce them to quash the many rumours that were circulating at the time?
In 1502, James Tyrrell, who had been a trusted servant to Richard III, confessed to murdering the Princes at his behest, but the confession had been extracted under torture. He was also unable to reveal where the bodies had been buried other than to say that they had been removed from the Tower. But despite his confession he was never publicly accused of the crime or charged with the murders. Instead he was executed soon after on 6 May 1502, for treason.
In his History of Richard III, Sir Thomas More elaborated further upon the Tyrrell confession. He claimed that the two Princes had been smothered in their beds by two thugs, Myles Forest and John Dighton, on the orders of James Tyrrell. The bodies were then buried "at the stayre foote, melely depe in the grounde under a great heape of stones."
More goes on to write that the bodies were later removed and buried elsewhere, but it should also be remembered that Sir Thomas More was an unequivocal propagandist for the Tudor regime.
In 1674, during repairs to the Tower of London the skeletons of two children were discovered in a coffin. King Charles II assumed they were the remains of the two Princes and had them reburied with much pomp and solemnity.
In 1933, an autopsy of the remains failed to determine either the sex of the skeletons or how exactly they died though it was agreed that they were the remains of children between 10 and 16 years of age.
Richard III reigned for just 2 years and 2 months, yet in that short period of time he introduced changes to the law that we now take for granted. In December 1483, he instituted the Court of Requests where poor people who could not afford legal representation could have their grievances heard. In January 1484, he introduced a system of bail whereby those accused of a crime could remain free prior to trial so as to protect their property from seizure. He also revoked restrictions on the sale of books and invested heavily in educational establishments.
Also, as a man born and raised in the north he had always been concerned at the levels of poverty he witnesses there. Upon becoming King he created a Council of the North to work to improve the economic conditions of the common man.
Such reforms introduced in such a short space of time have led many of Richard's supporters to consider him to be England's great lost King, but he remains difficult to like; an austere man who drank rarely and ate only sparingly he did not enjoy society and spurned festivals and banquets whenever possible always being happiest in the company of his wife, seeing to his religious devotions, or doing his brother’s bidding. He was also an essentially humourless man, something of a prig, and a religious fanatic who never went out of his way to make friends, or to garner support. This would return to haunt him once he became King.
Some might say he lacked warmth but he did possess human traits that attract people. His dedication, loyalty, and the heroic manner of his death remain to his credit. He was also known to have showered affection upon his nephews which flies in the face of the widely held belief that he was cruel and unsympathetic, and certainly Edward never felt any qualms about leaving his children in the care of their uncle. But he was also utterly ruthless in the pursuit of his ends and never shrank from using violence to achieve them.
Whether all this leads us to believe that he murdered the Princes in the Tower or was the victim of a campaign of relentless vilification remains open to question. Either way, it makes him one of the most enigmatic and written about Kings ever to sit upon the Throne of England.
On 4 February 2013, it was announced that remains discovered buried beneath a car park in Leicester were those of Richard III. That the body had been interred in the town was hardly a revelation. The diarist John Evelyn had written as early as 1654:
To the old and ragged city of Leicester, large and pleasantly seated, but despicably built, the chimney flues like so many smith’s forges; however, famous for the tomb of the tyrant Richard III which is now converted to a cistern from which (I think) cattle drink.
Should Richard III have been buried as a King of England in Westminster Abbey or as a usurper Lord and the murderer of children in a city connected only with his brutal death?
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