|Richard IIIA Brief Biography and Introduction to Richard’s Reputation
by Wendy E.A. Moorhen
The following is a brief factual biography of Richard III which provides links to more in-depth articles and papers on his life, career and reputation.
Richard Plantagenet was born on 2 October 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, the youngest son of Richard, Duke of York, and his wife, the former Cecily Neville. York, a cousin to the reigning King Henry VI, held senior government positions but was unpopular with the Lancastrian regime. York’s disputes led to his early death at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. His eldest son, Edward, seized the throne of England in March the following year and defeated the Lancastrians at Towton on 29 March.
The young king Edward IV now assumed responsibility for the upbringing of his younger siblings who had hitherto experienced an unsettled childhood. The elder son, George, was created duke of Clarence and the younger, Richard, was created duke of Gloucester at the age of eight and entered the household of his cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, to begin his education as a nobleman. This took place primarily at the earl’s Yorkshire estates of Middleham and Sheriff Hutton.
Meanwhile, King Edward clandestinely married a Lancastrian widow in 1464 and thus began to alienate Warwick, his most powerful ally, who had favoured a political match with a European princess. Over the next five years the relationship between king and ‘over-mighty’ earl deteriorated until civil strife was resumed in 1469 and the following year Edward was driven into exile. One of the causes of their dispute was the marriage of Warwick’s elder daughter to Clarence without the king’s permission.
The Young Duke
Richard accompanied Edward to the continent and on their return to England in 1471 the eighteen-year-old duke was given command of the vanguard at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. These battles were resounding Yorkist victories and both Warwick and the Lancastrian heir, Prince Edward of Wales, were killed. The former king, Henry VI, died a few days later in London.
Richard now assumed the responsibilities of his position. He had been admiral of England since 1461 and he was now appointed constable. King Edward granted Richard many of Warwick’s forfeited estates and the following year the duke married Warwick’s younger daughter Anne, who was the widow of Prince Edward who was killed at Tewkesbury.
The couple took up residence in the north of England, which King Edward effectively entrusted to his brother, and Richard was created Warden of the West Marches of Scotland. Richard took his duties seriously and held the north against any Scottish incursions. In 1476, Duchess Anne gave birth to their only child, who became known as Edward of Middleham.
During the remaining years of his brother’s reign, Richard of Gloucester rarely left the north. Two such occasions included the invasion of France in 1475 and attending the parliament of 1478 when their brother Clarence was attainted for treason and privately executed. In the summer of 1482, Richard invaded Scotland at King Edward’s behest. He was accompanied by the Scots king’s brother, the duke of Albany. Richard and Albany marched as far as Edinburgh before Richard strategically withdrew over the border.
April – July 1483
On 9 April 1483 King Edward died, a few days short of his forty-first birthday. There had been no time to prepare for a transition of power and the heir, another Edward, was twelve years old. Factions were immediately formed, each believing that they had an important role to play in the government of England. There was the queen and her extensive family; the old nobility, represented in the former king’s Council, which included the late king’s friend and chamberlain, William, Lord Hastings; and his surviving brother, Richard, who was appointed the lord protector.
At the time of his father’s death, the new king was at Ludlow under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Earl Rivers. The queen sent for them to come to London and for the king to be crowned without delay. Lord Hastings possibly sent messengers north to inform Richard of his brother’s death and urge that he come immediately to London. Richard was joined on his journey south by the duke of Buckingham, a distant cousin. At Northampton, Richard and his followers met and arrested Earl Rivers. Richard then moved on to Stony Stratford where the king was resting, made three further arrests and escorted his nephew to London.
The queen, on hearing of these events, withdrew to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her family.
On 16 June the young king’s brother, Richard, Duke of York left sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and joined his brother in the royal apartments at the Tower. On 22 June Dr Ralph Shaa, brother of the mayor, declared to the citizens of London, that King Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegal. This was because of a pre-contract of marriage between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler and the clandestine nature of the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. The children of the marriage were declared illegitimate, and therefore barred from succession to the throne of England. Within four days Richard was acclaimed king of England.
Richard the King
King Richard III was crowned, together with his wife Anne, on 6 July at Westminster Abbey. Shortly afterwards the couple began a progress around the country which ended in York with the investiture of their son Edward as prince of Wales. In the autumn of 1483, however, King Richard suffered a serious set-back. His former supporter, the duke of Buckingham, became involved in a rebellion, based primarily in the west country and Kent. Although swiftly repressed, the effects were far-reaching and King Richard now began to rely more on his northern supporters, placing them in the offices left vacant by the rebels.
The rebellion had been supported by a scion of the house of Lancaster, the exiled Henry Tudor, a descendant of King Edward III through his son John of Gaunt’s legitimised Beaufort family. Tudor had assumed the role of representative of the Lancastrian line and had become the focus for disaffected English nobles and gentry.
On Christmas Day 1483, in Rennes Cathedral, Henry Tudor declared his intention of marrying King Edward IV’s eldest daughter, the Lady Elizabeth, when he became king of England. He then spent the next eighteen months planning his invasion.
King Richard meanwhile called his first, and only, parliament in January 1484. The legislation covered three main areas, the ratification of Richard as king, the passing of acts of attainder against the October rebels and the passing of a number of acts designed to reform part of the legal system.
King Richard’s reign was overshadowed by the threat of Tudor’s invasion and by personal loss. Near the anniversary of the death of his brother, King Edward, Richard’s son died and the king and queen shut themselves in their apartments at Nottingham Castle to mourn their loss. Richard’s queen died less than a year later on 16 March 1485.
The long-awaited invasion came on 7 August 1485 when Tudor landed at Milford Haven in Wales. King Richard mobilised his forces and on 22 August king and invader joined battle at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. Despite Richard’s superior army, the battle was lost when the king was slain after Sir William Stanley turned traitor in favour of his step-nephew, Henry Tudor, and led his forces into the battle on Tudor’s side. Richard Plantagenet was the last king of England to die on the battlefield.
The victor of Bosworth was to establish his own dynasty but his genealogical claim to the throne was both tenuous and cadet. It may also have been illegal without an act of parliament to amend Henry IV’s legitimisation of his Beaufort siblings who were barred, together with their descendants, from inheriting the throne. Tudor wisely decided to claim the throne by right of conquest but was cognizant of the need to take every opportunity of enhancing his own reputation at the expense of his predecessor. Richard’s actions and behaviour were the subject of attention and scrutiny and were presented, in the weeks and years after his death, as those of a wicked and unscrupulous tyrant.
During his own lifetime, however, Richard’s reputation was high, the loyal brother of Edward IV who administered the north of the realm and defended the country against the Scots. The premature death of Edward IV led to a national crisis in which Richard emerged as king. With the benefit of hindsight, historians have generally interpreted the fateful events of 1483 in the light of Richard being a calculating usurper. There are, of course, some contemporary criticisms and rumours about Richard but these are inevitable in view of his high profile. The decisive arrests of Rivers and others thus appear as pre-emptive acts to gain control of Edward V. The fact was that Richard had not been officially informed of his brother’s death and that his sister-in-law sought to crown her son with unseemly haste, an act which would have reduced Richard’s power to rule the king despite his appointment as Protector. Once crowned, Edward V would have ruled through his Council, the composition and performance of which could be manipulated by the Woodville faction.
Richard’s next decisive act was based on the revelation of a plot and the execution of its alleged leader, Hastings. Traditional historians have accused Richard of inventing the plot in order to rid himself of Edward V’s staunchest supporter. However, documents are extant which demonstrate that Richard was aware of the conspiracy before taking action, sought to obtain re-enforcements to support his protectorship and conducted a mop-up operation to neutralise other conspirators, all of which suggest that Richard was suppressing a genuine plot.
The declaration of the illegality of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville has been interpreted as a convenient excuse for Richard to overturn his nephew’s succession and it was indeed a timely discovery. However, the legality of Richard’s actions and of the precontract dispute are still the subjects of academic debate.
Once Richard was crowned and his nephews bastardised, the young princes were no longer an important factor at the Ricardian court. Their ‘disappearance’, however, led to the greatest controversy surrounding King Richard – did he kill his nephews?
Accusations of infanticide, however, were not enough for the historians seeking to defame the dead king. The death of Richard’s own wife came under suspicion with hints of him murdering her with poison, of murdering her former husband after the battle of Tewkesbury, of murdering King Henry VI, and even of his own brother Clarence, despite his treason being confirmed by the act of attainder passed by King Edward IV’s own parliament. By the time the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare penned what was to become one of his most popular and frequently performed plays, The Tragedy of King Richard III, the works of the anonymous Croyland Chronicler, John Rous, Bernard André, Polydore Vergil, Sir Thomas More, Edward Hall, Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed had been written. Shakespeare followed their tradition and presented his anti-hero as the murderous, deformed tyrant so well known to theatre, television and cinema audiences.
Within a few years of its first production a backlash against the ‘traditionalist’ version of King Richard’s history was written by Sir George Buck although it remained unpublished for some years. Later in the sixteenth century, Richard’s fate as the archetypal villain was sealed when John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough is reputed to have said ‘I take my history from Shakespeare’ despite the fact that Richard’s villainy was so over the top that the character has failed to gain acceptance as a real and identifiable person with many audiences.
The Great Debate, as the study of Richard’s reputation became known, truly began in the seventeenth century when Horace Walpole wrote his Historic Doubts and rattled the cages of the traditionalists. That debate is not yet over, with the majority of the British historical academic community still promoting Richard as an infanticide. Some academics have acknowledged that Richard was a talented administrator and that he cannot be held responsible for the deaths of Henry VI and his son, but their overall assessment is still that of an evil and avaricious man. This shift in his reputation has now led to new claims of avarice in that his motivation for taking the throne is said to be found in his fear of losing the Neville inheritance.
Gaining a re-evaluation of Richard’s reputation entails the painstaking task of examining the primary and Tudor sources and assessing his actions, both as duke and king, against the background of his times, his contemporaries, his predecessors and his successors. The art of rhetoric, so beloved of one of Richard’s greatest critics, Sir Thomas More, comes into play as the interpretation of his actions, such as his 1484 legislation, which has been described as either ‘enlightened’ or ‘divisive’, depends on the writer’s orientation. There is no clear evidence that Richard was guilty or innocent of his so-called ‘crimes’, but historians, whether detractors or sympathisers, must work with the information derived from the sources and endeavour to present a balanced view of this controversial figure.
The most comprehensive study of Richard’s posthumous reputation has been carried out by the Society’s former chairman, the late Jeremy Potter, and published as Good King Richard?
Wars of the Roses – Timeline
1455 – 22nd May Battle of 1st St Albans
1459- 23rd Sept Battle of Blore Heath
1459 – 12th Oct Battle of Ludford Bridge
1460 – 10th July Battle of Northampton
1460- 30th Dec Battle of Wakefield
1461- 2nd Feb Battle of Mortimor’s Cross
1461 – 17th Feb Battle of Second St Albans
1461 – 28th March Battle of Ferrybridge
1461 – 29th March Battle of Towton
1464 – 25th April Battle of Hedgeley Moor
1464 – 15th May Battle of Hexham
1469 – 26th July Battle of Edgecote Moor
1470 – 12th March Battle of Losecote field
1471 – 14th April Battle of Barnet
1471 – 4th May Battle of Tewkesbury
1483 – 9th April Edward IV dies
1485 – 22nd August Battle of Bosworth
1487 – 16th June Battle of Stoke