Exactly a week ago today, on 4th February 2013, we had the electrifying news that the skeletal remains discovered in a Leicester Car Park were those of King Richard III, the last ‘medieval monarch of England’. Experts from the University of Leicester confirmed that DNA from the bones matched the DNA of Richard’s descendants.
(A) The Enduring Fascination of King Richard III.
(1) Richard III reigned for only two years (26th June 1483 to 22nd August 1485); yet he is one of the most famous monarchs in British History. Richard III is one of the few British monarchs to have a society named after him. ‘The Richard III Society’, founded nearly 90 years ago in 1924, is today a flourishing society. There is also a ‘Richard III Society’ in the USA, founded over 50 years ago in 1961.
A major function of both these societies is has been to rehabilitate the posthumous reputation of King Richard III. Shakespeare effectively executed a ‘hanging job’ on the last Yorkist monarch in his famous play:’ The Tragedy of King Richard III’ (written in 1593). In Shakespeare’s complete canon of cads only Iago exceeds Richard in criminal conduct. In his play, ‘The Third Part of King Henry VI (1591), Shakespeare portrays Richard as exultingly murdering the ‘saintly’ King Henry VI: “Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither.” [Act V, Scene VI.] However, Shakespeare was not alone in damming Richard III’s reputation. Another ‘saintly’ historical character, Sir Thomas More, did much to blacken Richard’s reputation in his ‘History of Richard III’ (written between 1512 and 1519). More’s account was little more than political propaganda. As Professor Hicks remarked about twenty years ago: “How was More’s Richard III ever regarded as objective?” [M.A.Hicks, page 39, in ‘The Wars of The Roses’, Macmillan, 1995.] More is still often regarded as a very upright historical character. In the year 2000, More was even glorified by Pope John Paul II, who declared More to be the Patron of Catholic Politicians.
(2) The other reason for Richard III’s enduring fascination is the question of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. On 9th April 1483, King Edward IV died, only 41years old. Edward IV’s premature death caused a constitutional crisis, as his two male heirs were both minors: Edward, Prince of Wales (12 years old) and Richard, Duke of York (just over 9 years old).
Immediately after his father’s death, Edward Prince of Wales became King Edward V, but he was never crowned. Both Edward and Richard were effectively removed from the monarchy, and their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, became King Richard III. Both princes were lodged in the Tower of London, but both soon disappeared from public view, and, within a few months, were presumed dead. This is not the place to go into a long analysis on the sad fate of the two young princes; but Richard III must be counted as one of their potential ‘murderers’. If the princes had survived Richard III’s coronation, it was in Richard’s self-interest to exhibit the princes, if only to head off potential unrest. He might therefore have given the order for their execution. However, there are two other possible ‘murderers’ who also might have ordered the princes’ murder.
(i) Henry Tudor (King Henry VII)
Like Richard III, Henry Tudor was a usurper. He had a weak claim to the English Crown (mainly through his mother, Margaret Beaufort). After he took the throne in August 1485 (by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth), Tudor made sure he eliminated any rival claimants to the throne. Chief among these was Edward, Earl of Warwick (Richard III’s nephew). Henry Tudor ordered his execution in 1499. One feels that Tudor would have been equally prepared to have the two young princes executed after his accession to the Crown.
(ii) Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.
A devious character, he played the key role in helping Richard accede to the English Crown in 1483. In recognition for Buckingham’s ‘Kingmaker Role’, King Richard III showered Buckingham with rewards, especially in Wales. (On this matter, Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ is simply erroneous).
Having been amply rewarded by Richard III for helping him accede to the Crown in the summer of 1483, Buckingham then turned against Richard in the following autumn. Buckingham’s reasons for his sudden change of allegiance are still uncertain; but Professor Carpenter has suggested: “Possibly Buckingham had some idea that a rebellion in favour of Henry Tudor might remove Richard and culminate in his (i.e. Buckingham’s) ascent to the throne.” [Christine Carpenter, ‘The Wars of the Roses’, page 212, Cambridge, 1997.] Extending this line of argument, Buckingham would have had no scruples in having the two princes murdered in the Tower after Richard’s accession in June 1483.
(B) Richard III’s Fall From Power 1483-1485
- Richard’s usurpation engendered opposition from those Yorkists who supported the young King Edward V. This culminated in a major rebellion against Richard in southern England, led by the Duke of Buckingham in the autumn of 1483, and involving Henry Tudor. Even so, Richard crushed this rebellion with ease, so one feels that Richard’s ultimate overthrow, in August 1485, was not primarily linked to the circumstances of his usurpation. Richard’s very short tenure as King of England was due to a combination of long run factors and chance events.
- Long Run Factor: Richard III’s Narrow Power Base.
Richard’s power base was the north of England. Richard had remained loyal to his elder brother, King Edward IV, when Edward had temporarily lost the English Crown in 1470. After Edward IV’s dramatic recovery of the English Crown in 1471, he rewarded Richard for the latter’s loyalty (especially in the north of England). In 1471, Richard was appointed High Sheriff of Cumberland and granted the lordship of Middleham. From 1471 onwards, Middleham Castle (in North Yorkshire), became Richard’s power base.
In the following year, 1472, Richard was appointed President of the Council of the North. This was King Edward IV’s experiment in devolution, and was designed to strengthen Yorkist government in the north of England, in an era of restricted communications. Richard seems to have successfully governed North England. According to one contemporary chronicler, Domenico Mancini: “He (Richard) kept himself within his own lands (Northern England) and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favours and justice. [EHD, Volume IV, edited A.R. Myers, page 330.]
Richard’s policies in the North of England were very successful in the 1470s. Together with the Percies in Northumberland, Richard virtually ruled Northern England. Richard’s crowning glory occurred in August 1482 (six months before Edward IV’s death). In that month, Richard led a northern English Army that re-captured the key fortress of Berwick upon Tweed. This military triumph protected northern England against Scottish incursions, thereby increasing Richard’s popularity in Northern England,
In a sense, Richard was a northern king imposed on a largely hostile south of England, including London. This meant that Richard’s power base was narrow, and it became even narrower after the southern Rebellion against him in the autumn of 1483 (The Buckingham Rebellion). The Rebellion was ended by Buckingham’s execution for treason. Richard signed the death warrant , not in London; but at Grantham (a Yorkist borough enfranchised by King Edward IV in 1463). Richard’s response to this southern rebellion was to dispossess disloyal southern magnates. This was understandable. What was less sensible was to replace them by ‘planted’ northerners. This mistake meant that Richard passed up the opportunity of broadening his narrow power base by getting southern support.
Thus, when Richard faced Henry Tudor’s invading Army at Bosworth in August 1485, his Army was mainly commanded by northern magnates; one of whom was to prove disloyal (Lord Stanley), the other was to prove indifferent (Lord Northumberland)
- Short-Term Factors: Chance Events.
Historians have tended to play down the importance of chance events as major factors influencing historical change. Chance events tend to be very specialised. They fit into the Karl Popper mode of unique events: they cannot be replicated. As they are so varied, they do not easily fit into the pattern of the ‘Hierarchy of Causes’, so beloved of historians. I may say that my personal instinct is to favour long run causes, which can be tabulated in importance. For example, in my recent, January Blog, on the internal weaknesses affecting Henry VI’s Lancastrian Regime, I focussed on economic factors. That is, I was applying a neo-Marxist analysis to the weaknesses of the Lancastrian Regime in the mid-Fifteenth Century. I am perfectly happy with this line of argument, as historical experience does show some linkage between economic pressure and political conflict. In other words, economic factors are significant in the hierarchy of causes. Similarly the extent and nature of a political power base is an important long run factor explaining the retention (or loss) of government. (For example, the British Labour Party’s power base in northern England in 2013 is like Richard’s power base in 1483 – too narrow to retain government.)
However, perhaps we need to pay more heed to chance factors in explaining historical events, including Richard’s loss of power. There were at least two major chance events that collectively may explain Richard’s brief two year reign.
(i) Family Tragedies: 1483 and 1485.
On 9th April 1484, Richard’s only son(and heir), Edward of Middleham, died, aged only ten years old. This was a great personal tragedy for Richard, who received the sad news whilst in Nottingham (again, not London). On a practical level, it meant that Richard had no direct heir (he then designated his nephew, Lord Lincoln, as his heir). Just as bad, Richard’s own wife, Anne Neville, died on 16th March 1485. This was an ‘unlucky death’, as Queen Anne was then only 29 years old. It is thought that this chance event, a double tragedy, made Richard more reckless as a monarch. In particular, it might explain Richard’s headstrong actions at Bosworth, when he threw caution to the winds in his desire to personally eliminate Henry Tudor (instead of retiring northwards to re-group his forces, as his commanders advised).
(ii) Opposition of France 1485
It is not generally realised how much Henry Tudor depended on French help at the battle of Bosworth (certainly not mentioned by Shakespeare). Estimates of the size of the French forces vary, but 3,500 seems about right, and this clearly was a major factor explaining Tudor’s ultimate triumph, especially as the French forces had superior weaponry. Not only that, but Tudor’s invading force was conveyed to Wales in French ships.
It seems that this determined French support for Henry Tudor was simple ‘bad luck’ for Richard, the result of a series of chance events and coincidences.
To begin with, in 1483, in France, as in England, a minor became king . In France, Charles of Valois became King Charles VIII of France on 30th August 1483 (he was then thirteen years old). The Regent was Charles’s elder sister, Anne of Beaujeu. However, young King Charles VIII was threatened by his uncle, Louis, Duke of Orleans: just as King Edward V had been threatened by his uncle (Richard). The Regent Anne decided to oppose Richard (the Duke of Orleans was pro-Richard).
King Richard III remains a figure of controversy. Even his skeletal remains are a cause of debate. It is absolutely right that Richard III receives an honourable interment; but the actual place of interment is today a matter of some dispute. One feels that Richard himself would prefer his final resting place to be in the North of England (York Minster would be an obvious resting place). However, it seems that Leicester Cathedral will have the honour of harbouring Richard’s remains, despite the fact that Leicester was a Lancastrian stronghold in the Wars of the Roses. Still, one feels that Richard would appreciate this irony; perhaps it is for the best.
King Richard III is one of the few medieval kings to lose his crown by losing his life in battle. Name two other medieval monarchs who similarly lost their thrones by losing their lives in battle.