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Richard III - re-assessing his reputation in a modern light (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

Richard III may be one of the most maligned and misunderstood monarchs in English history. He has been labelled a usurper and a murderer of children; a manipulative, cunning, grasping, deceitful, ambitious and deformed monster, out to get rid of every obstacle in his way in his bid for power and the throne. That attitude to Richard has persisted right up to the modern era, the efforts of the Ricardian movement to restore his tainted reputation not withstanding.

The basis of the derision aimed at Richard comes from the twin pillars of Thomas More's A History of Richard III and William Shakespeare's Richard III. More's account has been taken as a veritable history of Richard III and it is thought that Shakespeare used More's work as an inspiration for his own play. However, there is evidence to suggest that Thomas More did not intend his "biography" of Richard III to taken as a literal interpretation of the life of Richard III but more of an exercise in writing and a type of morality tale; Shakespeare simply wanted to entertain his audience. Their works must also be viewed in the context of the audience they were writing for: the Tudor monarchs that had supplanted the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the battle that ended the so-called Wars of the Roses that were fought between the houses of York and Lancaster over a period of decades. So these men were hardly expected to be either objective or sympathetic towards their subject. The Tudor dynasty had to establish its legitimacy and vilifying Richard was as good a way as any of achieving this. In fact, Tudor propaganda demonising Richard turned out to be very effective indeed.

So it may shock you to learn that a lot of the accusations levelled at Richard are unfounded. Now, I am not a Ricardian in the strictest sense: I don't intend to defend every little action that he took. But I do think history has been unkind to this unluckiest of English monarchs. He was not incompetent like King Edward II or King John, he was a renowned warrior and he was supremely loyal to his brother Edward IV. On this last point, I do not believe Richard was scheming or aiming at the throne until quite late. In any case, he had very little chance of becoming king: he was fifth in line to the throne behind his brother, his nephews the two princes Edward (later Edward V) and Richard of Shrewsbury and George, Duke of Clarence. Then there is his aforementioned loyalty to Edward IV, unlike Clarence who actually did rebel against his older brother and was eventually executed in 1478. What cannot be denied is that a path to the throne did open up for Richard. Edward IV died of an illness in 1483 and the aforementioned middle brother George had been executed some years before. So Richard now found himself third in line to the throne behind his two nephews. It seemed assured that the House of Plantagenet would endure. So what happened? Let's take a closer look at this fascinating monarch and see if we can't strip the myth from the man.

History is nuanced and complex. So are the figures that move through it, and Richard III is no exception. I have no doubt he didn't make things easy for himself. Evidence points to him not being the most savvy of political creatures. For example, he let Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of the future Henry VII the first Tudor monarch) live after a 1483 plot was uncovered that she was almost certainly involved in. At the time, she was married to Thomas Stanley, who was currently serving as Lord High Constable of England. Richard confiscated her titles and estates and effectively put her under house arrest; however, he made no further moves against her. One assumes that he did not want to antagonise Stanley by pursuing further measures against his wife in an effort to keep him loyal to the regime. However, Stanley would go on to turn against Richard at Bosworth, the culmination of another plot hatched by Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville (mother of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury) and Henry Tudor himself. Perhaps Richard III would have done well to rid himself of potential conspirators; then again hindsight is 20/20.

So onto the accusations levelled against him, starting with his reputation as a usurper. Was he? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes and no. Let's go back over the chain of events that led to Richard assuming the throne.

  1. Edward IV dies in April 1483

  2. On his deathbed he names his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector during his son's minority

  3. Richard is informed by Lord Hastings (best friend and chamberlain of the late Edward IV) that the Woodvilles are moving to supplant his role as Lord Protector and to hurry to London

  4. Richard rides to London from his base in Yorkshire to fulfil the role allotted to him

  5. Richard, his cousin Henry Stafford the Duke of Buckingham and Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers (brother to Elizabeth Woodville) meet in Northampton. The acclaimed but not yet crowned Edward V is in Stony Stratford at this point

  6. Apparently the three men talk into the night. At some point Earl Rivers takes himself off to bed. Richard and Buckingham are left alone talk some more

  7. The next day Richard arrests Earl Rivers, his nephew Richard Grey and the chamberlain Thomas Vaughn. They are taken to Pontefract Castle and later executed on the pretext of a supposed plot against his person

  8. Richard and Buckingham ride on to Stony Stratford and take possession of Edward V

  9. Together they ride to London and arrive at their destination in May 1483. Richard takes his place as Lord Protector and preparations for the coming coronation begin apace; the king is transferred to the Tower of London for this purpose

  10. The coronation date is delayed and finally fixed for June 22 1483

  11. At a council meeting at the Tower of London in June 13 Richard has Lord Hastings arrested and summarily executed, citing a plot against his person

  12. Richard sends a dispatch north asking for arms and men to come to his aid in London

  13. Richard of Shrewsbury joins his brother Edward at the Tower of London 16 June

  14. The coronation date comes and goes and Edward V is not crowned as king

  15. Richard is told by the clergyman Robert Stillington that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is invalid due to being pre-contracted to another lady, Eleanor Butler, when he married Elizabeth. This effectively makes his offspring are illegitimate.

  16. A sermon is preached at St. Paul's Cross declaring this very same thing. This claim is repeated by Buckingham in public to a crowd of London's citizens a few days later. Cecily Neville, wife of Richard of York and mother of Richard III is also said to have told her son that Edward IV was actually illegitimate himself, being conceived while her husband was away

  17. London's citizens declare in favour of Richard assuming the crown in a show of public acclaim

  18. Richard assumes the crown as Richard III July 6 1483. His ascension is ratified by an act of Parliament called Titulus Regus, which you can read in full here. His nephews are declared bastards

So there we have the the timeline of events as they happened. The speed at which they unravelled is breath-taking, taking only a few months from April - July 1483. And it begs the question: did Richard aim at the throne from the start or did he come to the decision gradually over a period of weeks or months? Did he have an epiphany moment in which he realised he should take the throne for himself? This is a difficult question to answer so many centuries removed but we will do our best.

I don't think Richard was aiming for the throne right from the start. He had been loyal to his brother Edward IV all throughout his reign and the latter had rewarded him accordingly. When Edward died in 1483 I believe Richard intended to fulfil his role as Lord Protector. Just the fact that he was named Lord Protector shows how much Edward trusted him to look after his children during their minority. However, in fulfilling his promise to Edward he would have to come up against the Woodvilles, whose fortunes had been raised up substantially by Elizabeth's marriage to Edward IV. Apparently there was quite a bit of animosity and resentment towards the Woodvilles by the nobility for their low born status and having been raised so high by Edward.

Now, I don't think that the Woodvilles were aiming for a coup de etat per se. There is every reason to suppose, however, that they want to consolidate their hold on power through Edward V. This is evidenced by just how quickly they marched the young boy down from Ludlow Castle in the east marches to London to have him crowned as soon as possible. (On the flipside, one might also argue that England was kingless and therefore to see Edward V anointed and crowned as soon as possible was desirable.) In any case, it seems that Richard believed that the Woodvilles wanted to cut him out of the action so to speak. He became convinced (or perhaps convinced himself) that not only would the Woodvilles side-line him but that he would even end up being killed. Perhaps that's what he and Buckingham (having himself no love for the Woodvilles) talked over that night at Northampton. It could explain the apparent overreaction that was the arrest and later execution of Rivers, Grey and Vaughn.

So far we have witnessed an attempted manoeuvre by the Woodvilles to side-line Richard from the Protectorate and install themselves as the power behind the throne. As the family of Edward V, it would have been very important to hold on to and consolidate their status and position obtained under Edward IV. So perhaps they can be forgiven for taking the actions they did. So far so good then. Can we then assume that Richard was aiming for the throne from this point onwards? He had taken possession of his nephew at Stony Stratford and from then on Edward V was pretty much a hostage of the Lord Protector (would Richard have seen it this way?). However, the fact that an initial coronation date was set and that the prince was sent to the Tower of London seems to suggest not (remember that at this time it was common for princes to sojourn at the tower before their coronation). Richard was working in the role of Lord Protector and everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan, albeit with a delayed coronation date of June 22.

Then another shocking event took place at the council meeting of June 13. Richard - with assistance from the seemingly ever loyal Buckingham - arrested Lord Hastings on a charge of conspiring against him in cahoots with the Woodvilles. Hastings was then summarily beheaded. If there's a point in which Richard is definitely thinking about taking the throne, I believe it is this one. There is no evidence that Hastings was conspiring against the Protector's life with the Woodvilles, although as Edward's IV's closest friend he would have been loyal to his young sons. There is no doubt that his removal would remove another inconvenient obstacle to the throne, so it seems that some machinations are taking place.

What clinched it was the subsequent revelations of Edward IV having entered in a pre-contract with another woman when he married Elizabeth Woodville, making his sons illegitimate. There was also Cecily Neville's shocking claim that Edward himself was a bastard. On this point I am not sure much can be made. Even if Edward had been a bastard, it could could be argued that he won the crown through conquest in battle. In any case, the charges that seemed to stick were the ones to do with the pre-contract with Eleanor Butler. No doubt this news came at a very convenient time for Richard as well, although he was not the instigator of the charges; that "honour" goes to the aforementioned clergyman Robert Stillington, the Bishop of Bath and Welles. That information dashed any lingering hopes of Edward V being crowned as king.

Let's go back to the original question of whether Richard III usurped the throne then. He did in a sense because he took it from Edward V. Even though he had royal blood, he was not in the direct line of succession. So he took the throne from the person who was meant to be next in line. In another sense he didn't usurp the throne. He was urged by the citizens of London to take the throne and he did. The act of parliament, Titulus Regus, made the whole thing official. Does it follow then Richard III should have token the throne? If you believe that Edward IV was already married to Eleanor Butler then yes. There's no evidence of that marriage taking place and Eleanor had convectively died years before, taking the secret to her grave. We only have the word of Robert Stillington, who he claimed he performed the wedding ceremony. Could he simply have been telling Richard what he wanted to hear? Again, the timing is very convenient and there's no evidence either way. Unless a document turns up one day we'll never truly know.

So this is the end to part one of my re-assessment of Richard III's reputation. In this part I have discussed the question of whether he usurped the throne or not. Next time we will look at whether he was responsible for killing the princes in the tower. Thank you and see you then.

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