Article abstract: England’s most maligned monarch, Richard III, in his attempt to restore order and dynastic stability to a nation torn by three decades of civil war by first serving his brother, Edward IV, loyally and then by accepting the throne himself, fell victim to the intrigues of those who were jealous of his loyalty and abilities and who coveted the Crown.
Richard Plantagenet was born on October 2, 1452, at Fotheringay Castle, the youngest of nine children of Richard, Duke of York, and Cicely (née Neville), Duchess of York. He had two sisters—Anne, Duchess of Exeter, and Margaret (later Duchess of Burgundy)—and three brothers—Edmund, Earl of Rutland, Edward (later Edward IV), and George (later Duke of Clarence)—who survived to adulthood. Young Richard’s father had a claim to the throne, which was then occupied by the third king of the House of Lancaster, Henry VI. Although Richard, Duke of York, secretly aspired to the throne, he made no formal claim until 1459, four years after the outbreak of the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster known as the Wars of the Roses. In the 1450’s, young Richard was nothing more than a junior cadet of a leading aristocratic family. None would have anticipated that within three decades he would become England’s most controversial monarch.
Richard’s attitudes and actions throughout his life were determined by the violence and chaos which became endemic among the great noble families during the Wars of the Roses, lasting from 1455 until Richard’s death thirty years later. The immediate background of the wars can be traced to the mental incapacitation of Henry VI in the summer of 1453. Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, to whom a son, the future Edward, Prince of Wales, was born in October, 1453, desired a regency for herself. Richard of York was named protector, however, and served capably until Henry regained his sanity in 1455. Then, under the influence of York’s enemies, the restored king not only demanded and secured the duke’s resignation but also threatened his life. It was at this time that the Duke of York and his supporters, chiefly his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, rose in rebellion. The first phase of the Wars of the Roses was decided at the Battle of St. Albans. Henry was defeated and taken prisoner by Richard, but the Duke of York did not take the throne, remaining temporarily satisfied to control the government indirectly. Queen Margaret was displeased, however, with York’s unofficial supremacy. Determined that her son should eventually succeed his father, she made her move in late 1460. At the Battle of Wakefield, on December 30, 1460, the Yorkists suffered a seemingly disastrous defeat. The Duke of York and his oldest surviving son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed. Warwick did not arrive from France fast enough to save his cousin, and the Lancastrians had regained unchallenged control.
The revival of Lancastrian power did not, however, last long. The leadership of the Yorkist cause was now assumed by the dead duke’s oldest surviving son and Richard’s oldest brother, Edward. Joining his forces with those of Warwick, Edward defeated the Lancastrian forces at Towton Moor on March 29, 1461. Henry VI and Queen Margaret fled, and Edward of York marched on London, claiming the throne as Edward IV by right of descent from Edward III. Soon after his coronation in June, 1461, his brothers George and Richard were admitted to the Order of the Garter. At this time also George was created Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester.
The first years of Edward’s reign went well, and primarily with the aid of Warwick, he succeeded in restoring order to the realm. In 1463, Queen Margaret again raised the standard of revolt for the House of Lancaster. Again defeated, she fled with her son Edward into exile in France. Henry VI was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. At this point, Richard was only eleven years old. Already in his short life he had witnessed extreme violence and had been its indirect victim. His father and brother and various relatives and friends had been killed in battle or executed, and he had been forced into exile with his mother. The impressionable boy had learned that immorality and duplicity were rewarded often with success. Soon, he himself was to play a leading role in the tumultuous course of events.
Little is known about Richard’s life during the 1460’s. He, his brother Clarence, and his unmarried sister Margaret probably were quartered at the royal palace at Greenwich from 1461 to 1465. From 1465 until at least 1468, Richard alone was placed in the custody of the Earl of Warwick, then the most powerful magnate in England with extensive landholdings throughout England and especially in the north. Richard spent those years at Warwick’s castles of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton, where he became acquainted with his future wife, Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville (the Duke of Clarence married Warwick’s older daughter, Isabel), and with one of his closest lifelong friends and supporters, Francis, Lord Lovell. Richard also became acquainted at this time with many of the northern noblemen and gentry who were attached to Warwick. Through marriage, Richard would later become Warwick’s principal heir in the north, and this region became his base of popularity and power. His connections there were later helpful in his securing the throne and in his brief reign.
During the 1460’s, relations between Edward IV and Warwick began to sour. Warwick, who had played a key role in advancing the Yorkist cause, assumed the right to advise the king unofficially and direct his policy. One of his major goals was to arrange a fortuitous marriage alliance for the young Edward in order to establish greater stability for the House of York’s dynastic future. Several royal alliances were considered, but Edward, strong-willed, impetuous, and amorous, secretly married an Englishwoman of his own choosing, Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of Richard Woodville, Baron Rivers, a former Lancastrian ally, and the widow of Sir John Grey, a Lancastrian retainer who had been killed at St. Albans. Edward kept his marriage, which was to doom his dynasty, secret for several months. When he was finally forced to reveal it to Warwick, the latter was incensed, as were many of Edward’s other supporters who resented his marriage into a Lancastrian family, and who were especially alienated by the preferments the king showed to members of his wife’s family. In 1468, Warwick and his supporters, which a year later came to include his new son-in-law, Edward’s brother the Duke of Clarence, struck against the king. Taken by surprise at Northampton, Edward was imprisoned at Middleham. Warwick thus acquired the nickname “the Kingmaker,” for he had two kings as prisoner: Edward at Middleham and Henry in the Tower. Although Warwick soon restored Edward to his throne, the king, infuriated by Warwick’s execution of his wife’s father and brother, refused to accept permanent subservience to the earl. In March, 1470, Warwick was accused of treason. The earl escaped to France, taking Clarence with him. Joining forces with Queen Margaret and her son Edward of Lancaster, and aided by a subsidy from Louis XI of France, Warwick planned to return to England, restore Henry VI to the throne, and marry his daughter Anne (later Richard III’s wife) to Edward of Lancaster. They then crossed the Channel to England in September, 1470, raised the banner of rebellion against Edward, and forced him to flee across the Channel to his ally, his brother-in-law the Duke of Burgundy, taking with him his loyal younger brother, Richard of Gloucester.
While abroad, Richard began to play an active role in the affairs of his family and the realm. In his late teens, those physical features distorted by later pro-Tudor detractors, especially by William Shakespeare, had developed. Physically, he resembled his father. Darker and shorter than Edward and George, who had inherited the Neville fairness and height, Richard was not the deformed “crookback” as he was later portrayed in order to enhance his villainy. Perhaps one arm and shoulder were larger than the other, but this was probably more because of its use with a sword in the practice of the martial arts than because of a deformity. Richard was held in exceptionally high regard by his brother Edward because of his loyalty, martial abilities, and intelligence. In March, 1471, Edward and Richard set sail for England. Within three months the king and his younger brother had met Warwick in battle at Barnet, where the mighty earl was killed, and had defeated the main Lancastrian army at Tewkesbury, where Edward of Lancaster was slain. Most of the Lancastrians were killed at Tewkesbury. A few escaped, however, including the young Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who was later to become Richard’s most inveterate foe. Edward IV now resumed the throne, and soon after, Henry VI died in the Tower under mysterious circumstances. In the summer of 1471, it appeared that the last Lancastrian threat had been removed, and England looked forward to many years of peace and enlightened rule by its young king. The Duke of Clarence had been temporarily reconciled with the king, and Richard was rewarded by the king for his loyalty and services at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Richard received large grants of land and offices and was married in 1472 to Edward of Lancaster’s young widow and the companion of his youth, Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville.
The marriage to Anne brought to Richard half of the Warwick inheritance. The Duke of Clarence, however, resented having to split the inheritance with his brother. The estrangement that had already developed between the brothers as a result of Clarence’s treachery toward Edward widened and was never to be resolved. As a result, historians have been unable to determine the extent of Richard’s involvement in Clarence’s conviction on the charge of treason in 1478 and his subsequent private execution, according to tradition in a butt of Malmsey wine. Certainly, Clarence’s fall was primarily the work of the Woodvilles, whom he continued to resent. Nevertheless, although some defenders of Richard have argued that Richard intervened unsuccessfully to save his brother’s life, certainly they were on very poor terms personally by 1478, and Richard was not overly saddened by his duplicitous brother’s demise.
Richard spent the remaining years of Edward’s reign primarily in the north, where he had his base of power and wealth. Eventually, in 1480, he was made Edward’s lieutenant general in the north and, in 1483, hereditary warden of the western marches. In his viceregal position, he exercised his authority effectively and scrupulously and became much loved in that section. In 1482, he also undertook a successful military expedition to recapture Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Scots. Most important, after 1478 Richard was seldom at court and thus not directly involved in the intrigues that revolved around the feud over the succession between the king’s closest friend and adviser, Lord Chamberlain William Lord Hastings, and the queen, her two sons by her first marriage (the Marquess of Dorset and Lord Richard Gray), and their ally John Morton, Bishop of Ely. Edward, with Hastings’ support, decided that in the event of his premature death his brother Richard should head a regency for his oldest son, Prince Edward. The Woodvilles opposed a protectorate by Richard, fearing that they would be supplanted in positions of importance by Richard’s supporters. They wanted a Woodville regency, or at least the authority to hold the young king and thus control his actions, both of which were vehemently opposed by many of the most powerful families, who regarded the Woodvilles as dangerously ambitious upstarts. Although Edward IV succeeded in effecting a reconciliation between Hastings and the Woodville faction at the time of his death in April, 1483, the succession question arose again immediately thereafter.
Richard, motivated by both personal ambition and a desire to avert a return to the factionalism of the 1450’s and 1460’s, then made his move and became intimately involved in a series of events which formed the foundation of the later Tudor defamation of the last Yorkist king. In a letter from Hastings, Richard (still in the north) received the news of his brother’s death and his appointment as Lord Protector. He then wrote the proper letters of condolence and set out for London. During the course of his journey, he received additional letters from Hastings telling of the Woodville machinations. At Stony Stratford, Richard joined forces with his main ally, Henry, Duke of Buckingham, took the young king, Edward V, away from his uncles and half brothers, and placed Edward under his own protection. Richard Woodville (the young king’s uncle) and his half brother Richard Grey were executed soon after, the queen mother sought sanctuary with her younger son, Richard, and her daughters at Westminster, and Dorset fled to France. The Woodville’s attempted coup had been thwarted, and the young king and the Lord Protector arrived in London on May 4, 1483. By the middle of May, Edward V had taken up residence in the Tower of London, where he was joined in mid-June by his brother Richard. This was by no means unusual during the period before a coronation. What happened at this point is unclear. Apparently, the queen mother was continuing her intrigues against Richard and was accused of conspiring with one of her husband’s former mistresses and Hastings’ present mistress, Jane Shore. Whatever the case, during a Council meeting in the Tower on June 13, Richard accused his old friend Hastings, as well as John Morton, Bishop of Ely, and Thomas, Lord Stanley, the stepfather of Henry Tudor, of plotting against his authority and life. Hastings was beheaded immediately on Tower Green, Stanley was briefly imprisoned, and Morton was placed in Buckingham’s custody.
Although the coronation of Edward was postponed, it was becoming clear that Richard’s position as Lord Protector was precarious. Increasingly, he became convinced that he must take the throne. Several more years of divided loyalties and conspiracies under a regency was politically untenable. On June 22, one Dr. Shaw in a sermon at St. Paul’s Cross accused Edward IV of bigamy, thus questioning the legitimacy of his children by Elizabeth Woodville. Four days later, with the assistance and prodding of Buckingham, a petition was drafted which set aside the claims of Edward IV’s children, reduced their mother from queen and wife to Dame Elizabeth Grey, mistress of the late king, and prevailed upon Richard, as Edward IV’s nearest legitimate heir, to take the crown. Richard agreed and, in so doing, regardless of his motives, undoubtedly helped to avert another civil war. On July 6, 1483, Richard was crowned king and his wife, Anne, queen.
Richard’s coronation proved to be the personal apex of his reign. Although he attempted to govern well by enacting financial reforms, reducing taxes, building churches, patronizing learning, and instituting reforms to aid petitioners, he was plagued almost from the beginning by rumors and plottings. To discredit him, the Woodville faction complained that Edward IV’s sons were in danger, thus laying the foundations for the most vicious accusation soon leveled against Richard: that he had ordered the murder of the little princes in the Tower. Ostensibly sickened by these rumors, Richard undertook a royal progress to York and was most enthusiastically received wherever he stopped. Buckingham accompanied him as far as Gloucester, where he left the royal train to go to his castle of Brecknock, where he met with Morton, the crypto-Lancastrian he had been holding captive since the crucial meeting in the Tower. Richard, who had made a fatal mistake by temporarily abandoning his capital and the south, was enthusiastically welcomed at York, where he knighted his nine-year-old son, Edward. When he left York in mid-September to return south, he soon received word that his most trusted supporter, Buckingham, had assumed the leadership of an uprising against him.
The motive for the duke’s defection has never been clear, but the prime movers in the plot appear to have been Morton, Lord Stanley, and his wife, Margaret Beaufort, Lady Stanley, who advanced a dubious claim to the throne through the Lancastrian line for her son Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Morton, who held great influence over Buckingham, was apparently convinced to support the Stanley-Tudor connection because of the fall of the Woodville faction which had originally provided his hope for advancement. Although Richard defeated and captured Buckingham and had him executed, he failed to deal sufficiently harshly with the other rebels. Most portentously, Lady Stanley’s life was spared, and Morton escaped to join Henry Tudor. In April, 1484, Richard’s only son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, died at Middleham. A year later, in March, 1485, Richard’s wife Anne succumbed to tuberculosis.
Within a period of less than two years, Richard had had his royal authority seriously challenged and had lost his wife and only child. Within less than six months, he was to lose his crown and his life. In August, 1484, Henry Tudor crossed from Brittany and landed at Milford Haven with a motley army composed primarily of mercenaries paid for by his mother, Lady Stanley. Although Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William Stanley professed their loyalty to Richard, they, along with the equally duplicitous Earl of Northumberland, on whom Richard had depended, defected at the beginning of the Battle of Bosworth, where the armies of Richard and Henry Tudor met on August 22, 1485. Abandoned by most of his friends, with the notable exception of Lord Lovell, who had remained a faithful friend since childhood, Richard fought valiantly but was finally killed. Stripped naked and thrown across the back of a pack horse, his body was taken to nearby Leicester, where it was buried in the church of the Grey Friars. With the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign, the grave was opened and the remains were scattered. Henry Tudor, the last indirect remnant of the Lancastrian line, now took the throne as Henry VII and inaugurated the Tudor dynasty. The Yorkist line and the Wars of the Roses were effectively at an end.
Although the historical Richard III died on the battlefield of Bosworth, the legendary Richard was born there with Henry Tudor’s assumption of a throne to which he had a highly dubious claim. Immediately, Henry found it necessary to blacken the name and reputation of his predecessor as a means of enhancing his own and to provide a justification for his unsurpation. He and his son, Henry VIII, remained acutely insecure about the stability of the Tudor dynasty and as a result welcomed accounts critical of the last Plantagenet. Unfortunately, many of Richard’s actions, regardless of their motivation, made him suspect.
Two individuals were particularly responsible for the creation of the myth that has made Richard III the most controversial English monarch. The first, Polydore Vergil of Urbino, was an Italian humanist who came to England in 1502 as a deputy of his Italian patron and collector of papal taxes, Cardinal Adriano Castelli. Under Henry VII’s encouragement, Vergil wrote a history of England, his Anglicae Historia Libri XXVI, completed in 1513 but not published until 1534. Vergil was not rewarded by the king for his labors; thus, he was not a lackey of Henry. It was nevertheless he who first portrayed Richard as the consummate villain. The second, and best-known, creator of the Tudor tradition of Richard III historiography was Sir Thomas More, whose History of King Richard III (written c. 1513) first appeared in 1543. More’s history may have been influenced, or some have suggested even written, by John Morton, Bishop of Ely, the traitor to Richard in whose household More served as a page in his youth. Vergil’s and More’s histories portray Richard as a monster in physical appearance and deeds.
It is image of Richard that has come down to the present through two of Shakespeare’s historical plays, Henry VI, Part III (c. 1590-1591) and Richard III (c. 1592-1593). This is the Richard who has been accused of a catalog of crimes of gargantuan proportions. It was Shakespeare’s Richard who not only murdered the little princes in the Tower but also slew Henry VI in that same mysterious building and his son, Edward, Prince of Wales, at Tewkesbury. It was this Richard who tricked his brother Edward IV into ordering the execution of the Duke of Clarence. Shakespeare’s Richard even gloated over the death of his own wife, Anne, and perhaps even ordered it to enable himself to effect a more beneficial marriage alliance with his niece and Henry Tudor’s later bride. Although Shakespeare intended his play to be good theater rather than sound history, the popularity of his dramatic works, especially Richard III, and the appeal of the Bard’s Richard to actors, who revel in his cleverness and villainy, have assured that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard will remain foremost in the popular imagination.
Fortunately, Richard’s defenders and supporters have also vigorously advanced their argument that he was the innocent victim of Tudor vilification. The first major exponent of the revisionist school of Richard historiography was the man of letters Horace Walpole, whose Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III was published in 1768. Since then, the debate has raged on unabated. Indeed, it has been suggested that something has been written about Richard in every single generation since his death. The Richard III Society, an international organization dedicated to his rehabilitation, remains very active. Although most of the questions about Richard’s actions will never be definitively answered, the continuation of the great debate about the last Plantagenet promises to attract curious and passionate detractors and defenders long into the future.
Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard III. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1955. This account was the definitive biography of Richard III until Charles Ross’s publication. Although Kendall occasionally romanticizes his subject, his biography is still valuable to the scholar and the best-written of all, thus providing an ideal introduction to this fascinating subject.
Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard III: The Great Debate. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1965. This volume includes the texts of the two key conflicting arguments in the great debate over Richard III’s character and deeds: More’s History of King Richard III and Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III. Edited and with a useful introduction by one of the two leading twentieth century authorities on the subject.
Kendall, Paul Murray. The Yorkist Age: Daily Life During the Wars of the Roses. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1962. An extremely evocative social history of the era in which Richard lived by a scholar who has immersed himself in the period he has chosen for study. This is a marvelously detailed, eminently readable companion piece to Kendall’s biography of Richard.
Lamb, Vivien B. The Betrayal of Richard III. London: Coram, 1959. 3d ed. London: Mitre Press, 1968. This small volume has been included as a good example of the continued intensity of the great debate over Richard. This book, as its title indicates, is a defense of the maligned king and discounts, or at least seriously questions, most of the charges of Richard’s detractors.
Ross, Charles. Richard III. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. This is the indispensable study of Richard and of the historic debate that has arisen about him. Exhaustively researched and scholarly, yet well written and readable, Ross’s biography is scrupulously objective. It is one of the few books on the subject which deals fairly, but critically, with both Richard’s detractors and his defenders.
Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. New York: Macmillan, 1952. This novel by one of England’s best-known mystery writers centers on an amateur sleuth’s attempt to solve the mysteries associated with Richard III while temporarily confined to a hospital. Although the work is fictional, the material dealing with Richard is sound history. There is no better introduction to the subject for the curious but superficially informed reader.
Wilson, Derek. The Tower: The Tumultuous History of the Tower of London from 1078. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979. Although the historical time frame covered by this volume is far broader than the era of Richard III, it is nevertheless a fascinating study and provides interesting insights into those dark events associated with the Tower during the Wars of the Roses, especially the fate of the little princes, Edward and Richard.