King Richard III

National Portrait Gallery, London

King Richard III; artist unknown, late sixteenth century

Richard III was king of England for only twenty-six months (June 1483 to August 1485). Yet thanks in large part to Shakespeare’s vivid depiction of him as a charismatic villain, he is one of the best-known monarchs and most controversial figures in English history. His critics claim, rightly, that he was a bully, a thief, and a murderer who usurped the throne by killing the “Princes in the Tower” (the boy-king Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York). By contrast, his defenders in the Richard III Society (founded in 1924 as the Fellowship of the White Boar) believe, also rightly, that his vices were exaggerated by Tudor propagandists and that he was a pious Catholic, a courageous soldier, and a conscientious ruler.

Richard’s admirers were thrilled in 2013 when archaeologists unearthed what were identified as his bones in a Leicester parking lot on the former site of the Greyfriars Church, where he was buried in 1485. Shakespeare made much of Richard’s physical disabilities, portraying him as hunchbacked, with a withered arm and one shoulder higher than the other. His bones (if they were his: Michael Hicks, in his excellent new biography, Richard III: The Self-Made King, seems rather agnostic about that) confirmed that he was short, slightly built, and did indeed suffer from curvature of the spine (scoliosis), but had no withered arm. He was also said to have been fidgety, continually biting his lip and repeatedly pulling his dagger halfway out of its sheath and putting it in again.

Born in 1452, Richard was doomed to live in what, to modern eyes, seems a very unpleasant period of English history. K.B. McFarlane, the Oxford scholar who became the most influential late medieval historian of his day, once remarked that its sequence of battles, murders, and executions makes the second half of the fifteenth century “repulsive to all but the strongest-stomached.” Richard grew up inured to violence and sudden death, for most of the men he knew in his youth were killed in battle or judicially murdered—that is, condemned after the mere semblance of a fair trial.

His was the age of what the novelist Sir Walter Scott would call the Wars of the Roses: the armed contests for the crown that took place at intervals from 1455 to 1487 between the rival dynasties of York and Lancaster, each claiming superior descent from King Edward III (1312–1377). Richard’s father, the third Duke of York, was killed in the first prolonged first war of 1459–1461, when the Yorkists dethroned the ineffective Lancastrian king Henry VI and replaced him with Richard’s eldest brother, who became Edward IV. The second war, in 1469–1471, briefly restored Henry VI, but ended with his death and the restoration of Edward IV, who reigned until his death in 1483. The third war began in 1483 with the accession of Richard III.

These conflicts were not about ideological issues. The Yorkists sometimes claimed to be the party of reform for the good of the “commonweal,” but the Wars of the Roses were essentially aristocratic quarrels, of little interest to the population at large. The participants were animated by greed for wealth and power, pursued with the utmost brutality. The stakes were high: political opponents were summarily executed or judicially murdered, and their lands were confiscated; the leaders of armies defeated in war were automatically beheaded; and there was much opportunistic switching of sides. Between 1460 and 1485 the crown changed hands six times, three kings died a violent death, and the direct lines of both Lancaster and York were extinguished.

The main objective of the nobles and gentry was to advance their dynasties. One way of doing this was by inheritance from a wealthy relative. But allegations of bastardy were frequent and inheritance disputes extremely common. The second way was by marriage to an heiress, regardless of her age, for women and children were pawns in this dynastic chess game. In 1478 Edward IV’s second son, the four-year-old Richard, Duke of York, was betrothed to the five-year-old Anne Mowbray, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. Margaret Beaufort, the wife of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was not quite fourteen when in 1457 she gave birth to the future Henry VII. Sometime after 1465, Katherine Neville, Duchess of Norfolk, three times widowed and in her late sixties, married one of the brothers of Edward IV’s wife, who was still in his teens.

Royal patronage was another route to advancement, for only kings could bestow titles and offices of profit. Every battle led to the redistribution by the victor of the lands of those who had been killed in action or executed afterward, and each appointment to royal office brought with it the allocation of great estates. When in 1464 the indigent widow Lady Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville) was secretly married to Edward IV and became queen consort, her Woodville relatives were elevated into wealth and power for nearly two decades.

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Despite its many horrors (or perhaps because of them), the period continues to attract close attention from historians, both professional and amateur, and no figure has been subjected to more intensive scrutiny than Richard III. The argument about him started a few years after his death with hostile accounts of his reign by the Italian historian Polydore Vergil and the humanist Sir Thomas More (the main source for Shakespeare’s play), and it has never really stopped. There are too many gaps in the evidence for full certainty ever to be reached. The most influential rehabilitation of the king was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951). Voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers Association, it concluded that the Princes in the Tower had been done away with by Henry VII. For modern readers, the best biography is that of 1981 by Charles Ross. It has now been impressively supplemented by Michael Hicks, who was one of Ross’s undergraduate students at Bristol University and has been studying late-fifteenth-century England for the past fifty years.

Hicks excels in his mastery of the complicated history of the aristocracy of the period, their genealogies, their landed estates, and their constant reversals of fortune brought about by political and military events. Inevitably, with a cast of hundreds, many of whom changed their names and titles during their lifetimes, the details can be overwhelming: an entire page, for example, is taken up by a list of the northern gentry who were knighted in the early 1480s. Moreover, the index is frustratingly inadequate. Nevertheless, Richard III: The Self-Made King is indispensable as the most up-to-date scholarly survey of the subject.

Richard was only eight when his eldest brother became Edward IV and consolidated his hold on the throne with his victory in March 1461 at the gruesome Battle of Towton. George, the second of the three brothers, was made Duke of Clarence, and Richard became Duke of Gloucester. He was placed in the household of the powerful Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (known as “the Kingmaker”). There he acquired his military skills and became an accomplished rider, an essential requirement in an age when active men spent so much of their time in the saddle.

As a younger brother, Richard was wholly dependent on Edward IV’s favors. He stayed conspicuously loyal to him during the extraordinary attempt in 1469 by Warwick and Clarence to replace King Edward, first with Clarence and then with Henry VI. When Edward was driven into exile in October 1470, Richard went with him, and when they returned the following year, to be joined by Clarence, a congenital turncoat, Richard was wounded in the Battle of Barnet on April 14, in which Warwick was killed. Three weeks later, and still only eighteen, he commanded the vanguard at the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury, and as constable of England, whose court had jurisdiction over military matters, he condemned the defeated Lancastrian leaders to death, even though Edward had pardoned them. He and Clarence were also implicated in the murder of Henry VI’s son, Prince Edward of Lancaster, though Henry’s death was probably ordered by Edward IV. Later in 1471, Richard executed his illegitimate cousin Thomas Neville, the Bastard of Fauconberg, although he had been given a pardon a few months earlier. Richard was not a man to care about such details.

Edward IV gave Richard several high offices, including the wardenship of the West March, on the Scottish border. This was the beginning of what would become his northern power base, soon to be vastly augmented by his share of the Neville estates. Richard married Warwick’s second daughter, Anne, in 1472. Clarence had married her elder sister, Isabel, in 1469. With the Kingmaker’s death, there ensued what Hicks calls a “titanic struggle” between the two brothers over the lands to which their duchesses laid claim. In his eventual settlement of the dispute, Edward IV shamefully ignored the rightful heiress, the widowed Countess of Warwick, and divided the inheritance between Richard, who got the lands in Wales and the north, and Clarence, who was given those in the West Midlands and the south. This flouted the laws of inheritance and shocked onlookers.

During the 1470s Richard built up his northern hegemony, by legal means if possible, by force and fraud if not, for he had no inhibition about trampling on the rights of others and terrorizing widows into handing over their estates. In 1474 Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and other northern peers recognized him as their lord. He also became patron and lord of the towns in the northeast, especially the city of York. Four years later, Clarence was judicially murdered, on the charge of treasonably plotting against Edward IV. This was not Richard’s doing, but there is “overwhelming” evidence, Hicks writes, that he welcomed it. He was now the king’s only brother and the greatest nobleman in the land.

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As the king’s lieutenant on the northern borders, Richard was “inflexibly aggressive” toward the Scots. When King Edward declared war on Scotland in 1480, nearly all the nobility and gentry of northern England joined Richard and helped him to recapture Berwick. He was rewarded in 1483 by the king’s gift of southwestern Scotland as a virtual palatinate.

Edward IV’s death on April 9, 1483, at the age of forty took everyone by surprise. Despite disagreements on matters of policy, Richard, unlike Clarence, had continued to be loyal to his brother and had frequently sworn to recognize his son Prince Edward’s right to succeed him. The prince, however, was only twelve, and the immediate question was which of the rival factions at his father’s court should be put in charge. The Yorkists, led by William, Lord Hastings, and Thomas, Lord Stanley, wanted Richard to be Protector. But the widowed queen and her relatives, the Woodvilles and the Greys, insisted that he should merely be the chief member of the council advising the monarch and that Edward should be crowned king immediately.

This was the point at which Richard resorted to violence. He formed a close alliance with Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, whose ambitions in the southwest counties had been frustrated by Edward IV’s grants to the Marquis of Dorset, one of the queen’s sons from her first marriage. Claiming that the queen’s family was planning to kill him, Richard with Buckingham arrested her brother, Earl Rivers, along with other Woodville supporters, as they were bringing the young king to London. When they arrived on May 4, Edward and his brother were sent to the Tower, and Richard, as the only surviving adult male of the house of York, was confirmed as Protector until the coronation. He evicted the queen’s relatives from their offices of state, but the council refused his demand that they be executed. It was probably this refusal that made him decide on usurpation, in order to prevent a Woodville revanche. His seizure of the throne was as much for his own safety as because of any deep-laid plan.

On June 10, Richard sent a message to the city of York and his second-in-command in the north, the Earl of Northumberland, asking for troops, because the queen’s family was allegedly plotting to destroy him, along with Buckingham and “the old royal blood of this realm.” Three days later, at the council, he accused the devoted Yorkist Lord Hastings of conspiring with the queen to bewitch him and had him summarily beheaded without trial. Lord Stanley, Archbishop Thomas Rotherham, and Bishop John Morton, who all supported Edward V, were arrested. This, it has been rightly said, was Richard’s Rubicon.1

On June 25, at Pontefract in Yorkshire, the Earl of Northumberland presided at the illegal execution of Earl Rivers, Lord Richard Grey, Sir Thomas Vaughan, and Sir Richard Haute, all members of the Woodville party. In London on June 20, Dr. Ralph Shaa preached a sermon supporting Richard’s claim to the throne, on the grounds that Edward IV’s sons were illegitimate because his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous, since he was already secretly betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler. Whatever the truth of this, Richard, like the other councillors, had sworn allegiance to Edward V. Nevertheless, on June 26 he accepted an invitation from an assembly at the Guildhall to take the throne and was crowned ten days later.

This was a blatant usurpation, for Edward V was still alive. It was also a bloody one, since it had involved the killing of four of the queen’s allies, the summary execution of Hastings, and, most horrifying of all, the eventual murder of Edward V and his brother. The boys had been sent to the Tower in May and by the autumn were believed to have been killed, though it was not known how or by whom. In 1502 Richard’s trusted servant Sir James Tyrell allegedly confessed that the king had ordered the constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, to kill them, but that when he hesitated, Tyrell was sent to do it instead. There is no certain proof, but Hicks is convinced by the circumstantial evidence that the two boys were murdered on Richard’s command in the late summer or early autumn of 1483. Significantly, the king refused to quell rumors of their death by letting them be seen in public. A pall hung over him thereafter.

In October 1483 there was a widespread rebellion by gentry across all of southern England. Essentially a protest by former members of the Yorkist establishment, it was led by the man who had profited most from Richard’s accession, the Duke of Buckingham. His motives are a mystery. The initial aim of the rebellion was to restore Edward V, but when rumors of his death leaked out, support switched to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the son of Margaret Beaufort. He was publicly acknowledged by exiled rebels in Rennes cathedral on Christmas Day, 1483, as their king, on condition that he marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. By then, however, the revolt had been put down. Buckingham was executed and so was Sir Thomas St. Leger, both of them Richard’s brothers-in-law and both condemned without trial: a later apologist for Richard explained that Buckingham “lost his head in the field according to martial law used by armies.”2

Despite its failure, the rebellion was a decisive event, forcing Richard to remain mobilized for the rest of his reign. It also created a new Woodville–Tudor alliance, as many former members of Edward IV’s household fled to Henry Tudor, soon to become King Henry VII. Among them was John Morton, bishop of Ely, who would return from abroad in 1485 to become his archbishop and lord chancellor. A quiet hemorrhage of the disaffected continued throughout Richard’s reign.

Most of the lands and chattels confiscated from the attainted rebels went to northerners, because Richard now distrusted the southern aristocracy and saw no option but to plant his northerners everywhere. Thorough as ever, Hicks devotes four pages to listing them all. As a sixteenth-century chronicler remarked, Richard “more loved, more esteemed and regarded the northern men than any subjects within his realm,” and they “entirely loved and highly favoured him.” Yet they were greatly resented in the south, marked out, as they were, by their distinctive dialects, dress, and manners. Hostility to their presence probably did more to cause Richard’s unpopularity than even the murder of the young princes.

Richard was an energetic and peripatetic king. He improved the financial administration and kept his pledge to administer “equal and rightful justice” by setting up a form of legal aid that would become the Tudor Court of Requests. He continued as constable when he was king, with Sir Ralph Ashton as his vice-constable and executioner. He reformed the heralds, who oversaw the use of armorial bearings and carried messages to the enemy during battles, giving them a charter and new premises. He also used sworn bonds to control his subjects, with others standing surety for their good behavior.

He ruled cautiously, trusting few. He had the support of John Howard, whom he created Duke of Norfolk, but Thomas, Lord Stanley, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, were less certain allies: Stanley, because his wife, Margaret Beaufort, was plotting on behalf of her son, Henry Tudor; Northumberland, because Richard had greatly weakened his authority, and that of the north’s other traditional rulers, by retaining personal control of the West March and establishing a Council of the North, under his nephew and subsequently heir-presumptive, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln.

Richard was keenly interested in ceremony and display. He possessed four gowns of cloth of gold, which by a sumptuary act of 1483 only royalty could wear; and he supported musicians, especially trumpeters. He knew Latin, read French, and owned some Chaucer and Lydgate. He also appears to have been genuinely pious. A daily attender at mass and an outstanding patron of the church, he contributed to many chantries and collegiate foundations, including St. George’s, Windsor, and the magnificent chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. He planned to endow York Minster with what would have been the largest-ever chantry of one hundred priests. These benefactions were not entirely disinterested, for the clergy he endowed were often expected to spend time praying for him and his family. To his own book of hours he added a prayer for protection by Saint Michael against “the plots of my enemies.”

Richard had a puritanical streak and wanted a reformation of public manners. His “principal intent and fervent desire,” he claimed, was “to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced, increased and multiplied”; he denounced the rebels of 1483 as “adulterers and bawds.” How, one wonders, did this stern moralist rationalize his two bastard children, let alone his murders and thefts? What one would give to have overheard his conversations with his confessor!

As Richard’s reign progressed and the number of his supporters dwindled, he governed with the aid of an increasingly narrow clique. Dislike of his henchmen Sir William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, and his childhood friend Francis, Lord Lovell, was reflected in the notorious couplet that led to the brutal execution of its author: “The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our dog/Rule all England under a hog.”

The sudden death in April 1484 of Richard’s ten-year-old son, Edward, was a severe blow. When his wife, Anne, died a year later, some unfairly accused him of poisoning her so that he could marry his niece Elizabeth of York and beget more children. This incestuous proposal would have required papal approval and was blocked by his supporters, because it would have meant their replacement by the old Yorkist establishment.

Later in 1484, the French king, Charles VIII, gave shelter to Henry Tudor and raised money for him. The presence of French, Bretons, and Scots in Henry’s invading army reflected Richard’s failure to secure the neutrality of his neighbors. Richard did what he could to stress the weakness of Henry’s claim to the throne through a woman (his mother, Margaret Beaufort), and in a proclamation of June 23, 1485, denounced Henry as one who would destroy “all the noble and worshipful blood of his realm for ever” and “do the most cruel murders, slaughters, and robberies, and disherisons that ever were seen in any Christian realm.”

A stained glass window depicting Richard III and Henry VII in St. James Church

John Taylor

A stained glass window depicting Richard III and Henry VII in St. James Church, where Richard was said to have prayed the night before the Battle of Bosworth, Sutton Cheney, England

Although Richard knew Henry was coming, he didn’t know where or when he would land. It proved to be Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire on August 7. Sir William Stanley let him march through Wales safely, although the Stanleys had profited hugely from Richard’s bounty. Less than half the peerage gave Richard any support as the foe approached. The old Yorkist establishment had been alienated by the murders of Hastings and Edward IV’s sons, and the mass of the population stood by, indifferent to Richard’s fate. Even so, his army was twice the size of Henry’s when they met on August 22 at Bosworth, thirteen miles east of Leicester. Richard lost the battle because his supposed ally the Earl of Northumberland treacherously failed to engage; he was murdered four years later by the common people of Thirsk, Yorkshire, “they owing unto him deadly malice for the disappointing of King Richard at Bosworth Field.” The forces of the Stanleys also kept their distance until they were sure of intervening on the winning side. Richard, wearing his crown, fought bravely, personally killing Henry’s standard-bearer, but was cut down when rashly attempting to assault Henry himself.

Richard, who, pace Shakespeare, did have access to a horse, could have fled to his sister, Margaret of Burgundy. He might even have recaptured the throne, as Edward IV had done in 1471, but he apparently preferred to die rather than lose it. His naked body was carried across a horse to Leicester, exposed for two days, then buried without stone or epitaph. Years later, Henry VII paid for a coffin, but when the Greyfriars convent was dissolved during the Reformation, the bones were thrown out and the coffin became a horse trough outside the White Horse Inn.

Hicks sees Richard as “a man of dynamic energy and foresight and a master of detail,” but fundamentally egotistic, ruthless, and uncompromising. He lived in a violent and dishonorable age, and it is tempting to say that he was simply a man of his times, no more lacking in principle than many of his peers. But Hicks is surely right to say that “his usurpation decisively breached the standards expected of the aristocracy and of a king.” He was responsible for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, the four Woodville relatives of Edward IV’s queen, and his close associates Hastings and Buckingham. The horror of these crimes gave plausibility to all the later accusations levied against Richard, however unfairly. As the London chronicles noted, if only he had remained the protector of the two princes, his memory would have been praised rather than reviled.

  1. 1

    Colin Richmond, “1483: The Year of Decision,” in Richard III: A Medieval Kingship, edited by John Gillingham (London: Collins and Brown, 1993). 

  2. 2

    George Buck, The History of the Life and Reigne of Richard the Third (1647), p. 37. “Off with his head—so much for Buckingham” was Colley Cibber’s invention in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1699).