Sources for the Reign of Richard III

Sources for the Reign of Richard III
The study of the history of the late fifteenth century depends on a study of the sources. In the past the history of the period was written solely from chronicles, using this term to mean contemporary narrative sources. Nowadays history is written from a much wider range of documents, but the chronicles still form a basis for the study of the period. Much has been written about the sources for Richard’s reign, a whole book indeed, Alison Hanham’s Richard III and his early historians 1483-1535, (1935), but here we will only treat very briefly with the major English writers, omitting Continental authors as well as Thomas More, whose work on Richard requires a study in itself, which it receives in The History of King Richard III (1963) by R.S. Sylvester.

First of all, the London Chronicles. These seem to have developed from lists of City officials with historical notes added. There are many of them, frequently partly based on eye-witness accounts of events. Some were edited by C.L. Kingsford in Chronicles of London, (1905, reprint 1977); the best known is The Great Chronicle (edited by A.H. Thomas and I.D. Thornley, 1983). Most of the London Chronicles are anonymous, but The Great Chronicle is probably by Robert Fabyan, an Alderman of London, who also wrote The New Chronicles of England and France (edited by Henry Ellis, 1811), a chronicle written from a Londoner’s point of view.

Next is the Chronicle of Crowland, edited by Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (1986). The relevant part is the ‘Second Continuation’ which covers the years 1459-1486. In origin the Chronicle was a local compilation, a complete forgery in fact, designed to substantiate the claims of the Abbey of Crowland to privileges and property. The second continuation is a different matter and is a description of events in the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III by an eye-witness of many of them. The identity of the author is much disputed. Nicholas Pronay believes it to be Dr. Henry Sharpe, Protonotary of Chancery, but John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln has been suggested, as have other candidates, (see for example Ricardian, vol 7, nos. 91, 96, 99, and vol. 8, no. 108).

It has been argued (Hanham, pp. 135-142, 148-151) that the Crowland Chronicle was used as a source for our next ‘chronicle’, the Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil. Vergil was an Italian, resident in England for many years, Archdeacon of Wells, and commissioned by Henry VII to write the history of England. He was a good historian and for the period before 1400 shows an independence of thought and a critical assessment of his sources, but after 1400 the work is biased towards showing how all events were a prelude to the accession of the Tudors. Vergil is still useful however and undoubtedly used the evidence of eye-witnesses of some of the events. The events of 1422 to 1485 are found in Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, edited by Henry Ellis, [Camden Society], 1844) and later events in The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil A.D. 1485-1537, (edited Denys Hay, Camden Society, 1950). Passages omitted from the published manuscript are given in Polydore Vergil, Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters, by Denys Hay, (1952).

Finally we have John Rous, the author of, amongst other works, the Historia Regum Anglie. Rous was chaplain of the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen at Guy’s Cliff near Warwick, founded by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and Rous spent his life under the patronage of the Beauchamps and their successors. His Historia is a general history of England up to the accession of Henry VII. Except for a few details it has no value apart from showing contemporary opinion in the early years of the reign of Henry VII.

The sources for the history of the later fifteenth century are discussed in Antonia Grandsen, Historical Writing in England, ii, c.1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century, (1982) and C.L. Kingsford, English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century, (1913). These books make it clear that much of the writing in the fifteenth century was carefully done and based on sources, albeit within the limits of the sources available. All of the books mentioned (with the exception of Denys Hay’s biography of Vergil) are available from the Society Library. — PWH