A reconstruction of King Richard III based on the bones found under a Leicester car park.
Richard III was formally crowned on 6 July 1483, after a great procession that took him from Westminster Hall to the abbey. For a moment the uncertain events of the world changed into the order of ritual and spectacle. To the sound of trumpets heralds came out carrying the king’s armorial insignia; they were followed by the bishops and abbots with their mitres and croziers, the bishop of Rochester bearing the cross before the archbishop of Canterbury. The earl of Northumberland followed the prelates, with the Curtana sword of mercy in his hands; Lord Stanley came after, bearing the mace, and then Lord Suffolk with the sceptre; the earl of Lincoln followed them with the cross and orb, while the earls of Kent and Surrey carried other swords of state. The Earl Marshal of England, the duke of Norfolk, now stepped forward carrying the crown. He was followed by the king himself, wearing a robe of purple velvet furred with ermine and clad in a surcoat of crimson satin. Four lords held a canopy above his head as he walked towards the great west door of the abbey. This was the prize he had wished for. Anne Neville, his wife and now queen of England, followed him with her own noble procession.
Soon after the coronation, Richard set out on a wide circuit of his kingdom both to parade his majesty and to reconcile himself with perhaps recalcitrant subjects. He travelled from Oxford on to Gloucester and Worcester. In York he decided that he should be crowned for a second time, as if the ceremony in London had obtained the homage of only half his subjects. He was in many respects considered to be primarily a northern lord.
The image of Richard III has been outlined in letters of fire by William Shakespeare, who in turn derived much of his account from the history of Thomas More. More may have been a saint but he was also in part a fantasist, who had good partisan reasons for wishing to excoriate the memory of the last Yorkist king before the rise of the Tudor dynasty. Thus for More, and for Shakespeare, Richard was the smiling and scheming villain, the hunchback of dubious purpose, an abortive thing snatched violently from his mother’s womb. There may be some truth in this caricature, but caricature it remains.
The king, for example, was not a hunchback. As a result of strenuous martial training one arm and shoulder were overdeveloped, thus leading to a slight imbalance, but nothing more. Shakespeare suggests that he was ‘not made to court an amorous looking glass’ but two early portraits reveal a face not devoid of handsomeness. He is relatively small and slight, at least in comparison with his elder brothers; he looks preoccupied, if not exactly anxious. A German observer noticed that he had delicate arms and legs, but possessed ‘also a great heart’ by which he meant magnanimity. The archbishop of St Andrews remarked that ‘nature never enclosed within a smaller frame so great a mind or such remarkable powers’.
That ‘great heart’ was soon being called into question. Soon after the coronation had been celebrated, rumours and suspicions were whispered about the fate of the princes in the Tower. In the earlier months of the year the two boys had been seen shooting and playing in its garden. But then they disappeared from view. As the summer of 1483 turned to autumn the doubts grew louder and more persistent. Polydore Vergil, an historian as strongly biased against Richard as Thomas More himself, reports that the king decided upon the deaths while conducting his northern tour. In his account the king wrote to the constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, demanding that the boys be killed. When Brackenbury refused the king turned to a more compliant servant, Sir James Tyrell, who arranged their deaths with the help of two accomplices. They ‘suddenly lapped them up among their clothes, so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the feather bed and pillows hard unto their mouths, that within a while smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls …’. Other accounts of their fate included death by poison and death by drowning.
The most authentic commentary comes from another chronicler, Dominic Mancini, who reports that the two boys were drawn more and more into the inner chambers of the Tower and that their personal attendants were gradually dismissed. At the mention of the name of Edward V many men burst into tears but ‘whether, however, he has been done away with, and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered’. It was a mystery at the time, and has remained so ever since.
The fact is that the two boys themselves were never seen again beyond the walls of the Tower of London. There has been much speculation about their fate, but the only reliable conclusion must be that they were killed while they were in captivity. The occasion and nature of their death cannot now be known. Other candidates for the role of murderer in chief have also been suggested, including the duke of Buckingham and Henry Tudor who succeeded Richard to the throne. In the latter account Henry ordered their murder after his victory at the battle of Bosworth. But this is essentially a fancy. There can be little doubt that the two boys were murdered on the express or implicit order of Richard III. He may have persuaded himself that the two boys were indeed illegitimate, but that their baleful presence was a continuing threat to his regime.
The house of the Plantagenets, from Henry II to Richard III himself, was brimming with blood. In their lust for power the members of the family turned upon one another. King John murdered, or caused to be murdered, his nephew Arthur; Richard II despatched his uncle, Thomas of Gloucester; Richard II was in turn killed on the orders of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke; Henry VI was killed in the Tower on the orders of his cousin, Edward IV; Edward IV murdered his brother, Clarence, just as his own two sons were murdered by their uncle. It is hard to imagine a family more steeped in slaughter and revenge, of which the Wars of the Roses were only one effusion. It might be thought that some curse had been laid upon the house of the Plantagenets, except of course that in the world of kings the palm of victory always goes to the most violent and the most ruthless. It could be said that the royal family was the begetter of organized crime.
There had been usurpers before, wading through gore, but Richard III was the first usurper who had not taken the precaution of winning a military victory; he claimed the crown through the clandestine killing of two boys rather than through might on the battlefield. This was noticed by his contemporaries. The god of battle was not on his side. The first example of his uncertain status came in an uprising of some southern nobles in the autumn of 1483. They were the prominent magnates of the shires south of the Thames and the Severn, many of them having served in the household of Edward IV. They were led by the duke of Buckingham, who had previously been one of Richard’s most loyal and assiduous supporters. It has been presumed that Buckingham, believing Edward V to be still alive, had decided that the better course lay in supporting the young king’s cause. He may, however, have wanted the crown for himself. Or it may be that horror at the news of the princes’ deaths led him into precipitate action. Richard’s reaction was one of fury towards ‘the malice of him that had best cause to be true’, as he wrote, ‘the most untrue creature living’. In any event the rebellion was unsuccessful. Richard and his commanders rode down the rebels and Buckingham, captured at Salisbury, was summarily executed.
Another eminent figure was involved in this first rebellion. Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, was a descendant of Edward III through the illegitimate (but later legitimated) issue of John of Gaunt. When Henry VI died in the Tower, Henry Tudor became de facto head of the Lancastrian household. As a result he found it necessary to flee to France, where he could escape the attentions of Edward IV and protect himself against the rise of the house of York.
At the time of the succession of Richard III Henry Tudor had become the most significant opponent of the new regime, therefore, made even more commanding by the troubled circumstances of Richard’s accession. He was also aided by his mother. Lady Margaret Beaufort came into contact with Elizabeth Woodville, still claiming sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, through the agency of a Welsh doctor who ministered to both great ladies. It was agreed between them that Henry Tudor should marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. This is also the best possible indication that Elizabeth the queen knew her two sons to be dead. Why else would she support another man’s claim to the throne?
With this guarantee Henry sailed to England at the time of Buckingham’s rebellion; all but two of his fifteen ships were scattered by a tempest and, when he hovered close by the coast of Dorset, he discovered that the revolt had ended ignominiously. So he returned to Brittany, followed by the rebels who had managed to evade the king’s wrath. Henry Tudor set up what was in effect an alternative court.
Yet Richard was for the moment safe. He tried to make his position even more secure by promoting northerners into the positions previously held by the magnates of the south, although of course this proved less than popular with the southerners themselves. They did not want ‘strange men’ in their shires, where rule was generally maintained by a closely knit group of relatives. Each shire was essentially a family business. The king was now stripping its assets.
The nature of his subsequent rule, however, has perhaps been judged unfairly because of its inauspicious beginnings. He had all the makings of a firm and even ruthless administrator. He set up a ‘council of the north’ to consolidate his power in that region, and it proved to be such a necessary tool of administration that it continued into the middle of the seventeenth century. Such was his zeal for public business that more than 2,000 official documents passed through his hands in the course of two years. Everything came to his attention, from the preparations for battle to the mowing of hay at Warwick. The high dignitaries of the Church, in convocation at the beginning of 1484, addressed his ‘most noble and blessed disposition’. This may be the standard language of the supplicant, but differs so notably from the usual accounts of Richard III that it deserves to be mentioned. The more benevolent view of the king is strengthened by the words of a popular ballad, ‘Scottish Field’, in which is described:
Richard that rich lord: in his bright armour.
He held himself no coward: for he was a noble king.
The king also gained the reputation of being a good law-maker. When at a later date an alderman of London disagreed with Cardinal Wolsey over a proposed exaction, he reminded the prelate that such forced taxation had been forbidden by a statute of Richard III. ‘Sir,’ Wolsey said in his usual high-handed manner, ‘I marvel that you speak of Richard III which was a usurper and a murderer of his own nephews, then of so evil a man how can the acts be good?’ The alderman replied that ‘although he did evil yet in his time were many good acts made not by him only but by consent of the whole body of the realm which is in parliament’. So, contrary to the Tudor myth of the evil hunchback, memories of Richard III’s good governance remained in London fifty years after his death. Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor in a different reign, commented upon ‘the politic and wholesome laws’ passed in Richard’s first and only parliament.
Piety, verging on moralism, seems to have been the most abiding aspect of his character. In the Act claiming his title to the throne the king denounced the rule of Edward IV as that of one who, determined by ‘adulation and flattery and led by sensuality and excess, followed the counsel of persons insolent vicious and of inordinate avarice despising good virtuous and prudent persons …’. It seems likely that he did believe the Woodvilles to be of ‘sensual’ stock, and therefore justified to himself the murder of the two princes as a means of cleansing the body politic.
Two months after publishing this attack upon the Woodvilles he sent a circular letter to the bishops of England in which he declared that his fervent wish was ‘to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced’. This might just be an act of public piety but, after the death of his wife and only son, he composed a prayer of more private intent in which he asked God ‘to free me thy servant King Richard from all the tribulation, grief and anguish in which I am held’. His son, Edward, had died at the age of eleven in the spring of 1484; the insecurity of the York lineage was clear to all. His wife followed her child to the grave early in the following year. Richard was effectively alone in the world, prey to the ‘grief and anguish’ he lamented in his prayer.
Another intriguing aspect of his religious faith can be found. He owned a copy of the Wycliffite translation of the New Testament, as well as William Langland’s Piers Plowman; both of these books had been condemned by a synod of the Church in 1408. They smacked of Lollardy and a more austere version of Catholicism. It can be safely concluded that Richard was interested in an unorthodox and more rigorous piety, wholly in keeping with what can be surmised of his stern character. He need have no scruples if he was doing the work of the Lord.
The death of his wife freed him for a further matrimonial alliance, and serious reports emerged at the time that he planned to marry Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest daughter, thus pre-empting her betrothal to Henry Tudor. It was even rumoured that he had poisoned his wife in order to hasten the new marriage. It never seemed likely, however, that he would be able to marry the girl whose brothers he had destroyed. Even by the standards of this harsh and cruel age, it would not be considered to be a blessed union. In any case his disdain for the Woodvilles was well known.
Yet the rumours persisted, to the point where Richard was obliged to summon a council in which he denied ever having wished to marry Elizabeth of York. Even his closest supporters had been horrified at the prospect and, according to one of the chronicles, declared to his face that the people ‘would rise in rebellion against him, and impute to him the death of his queen’. There was widespread mistrust of him, especially of his harsh and unyielding temper. We have the paradox of a man of faith who was also a man of blood. But is it such a paradox, after all? Those of an austere faith may be the most ruthless and relentless, especially if they believe that they are acting in God’s best interests. Richard III has often been accused of hypocrisy, but his real vice might have been that of zealotry burning all the brighter with his belief that he was surrounded by enemies.
Elizabeth of York was of course engaged elsewhere. In the cathedral of Rouen, on Christmas Day 1483, Henry Tudor pledged that he would marry her on being crowned the king of England. His supporters, all the time swelling in numbers, then swore loyalty to him and to his claim. Polydore Vergil states that Richard III was now ‘vexed, wrested and tormented in mind with fear almost perpetually’. He travelled around his kingdom, never staying in one castle or monastery for very long. He arranged for a force of soldiers to seize Henry Tudor from the duchy of Brittany but Henry, warned in advance, fled across the border into France.
It was from this country that he launched his invasion of England in the summer of 1485. An exile of twenty-two years was about to come to an end. Richard could not of course predict the point of invasion, despite the presence of his spies in Henry’s entourage; so he settled on Nottingham as a convenient site for a court that was now essentially a war camp. Nottingham was in the middle of the kingdom and in any case close to his northern territories, from which most of his support would undoubtedly come. In that early summer, the king issued a general proclamation in which he denounced Henry Tudor as a bastard on both sides of the family and as a minion of the king of France; if he seized the throne he would ‘do the most cruel murders, slaughters and robberies and disherisons that ever were seen in any Christian realm’.
On 7 August Henry landed at Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire, with seven ships and 1,000 men. The French were happy to finance the venture as a way of distracting Richard from his designs to aid the old enemy of Brittany. Henry began moving northwards through Haverfordwest to Cardigan, where his forces were joined by some of his Welsh allies; Henry was the nephew of Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, and was thus considered by Welshmen to be Welsh. A bardic song rang in the valleys:
Jasper will breed for us a dragon –
Of the fortunate blood of Brutus is he
A Bull of Anglesey to achieve;
He is the hope of our race.
Henry needed a myth to bolster his uncertain claim to the throne. In any case the Welsh affinity was of vital importance to him. As he led his troops through Wales he flew the red dragon of Cadwallader, from whom he claimed ancestry, on the white and green colours of the Tudors. He advanced into England through Shrewsbury and at Newport, in Staffordshire, he was greeted by his first English adherents. His was still a vulnerable army, made up of men from France and Brittany as well as Wales and England, and might not have been considered powerful enough to confront the king of England. Even by the time he reached Shrewsbury, however, it was clear to the king that a rebel army had come into England without meeting any serious resistance.
Richard himself could not necessarily rely on the loyal support of the magnates; he had alienated the great families of the south, and of the midlands, by imposing upon their shires the members of his northern affinity. He had a feudal, rather than a national, sense of his kingdom, and his past actions made it impossible for him to knit the nation into unity. From Nottingham Richard marched to Leicester where he issued a call to arms, urging his subjects on their utmost peril to join him. He had refused to advance to Leicester until after the feast day of the Assumption, another example of his overweening piety. He told his retainers to ‘come with such number as you have promised, sufficiently horsed and harnessed’.
The duke of Norfolk and the earl of Northumberland were among those who obeyed his summons. The men of the north also responded quickly, with the city of York sending eighty men ‘in all haste’. The duke of Suffolk made no move. Another great nobleman, Lord Stanley, held back on the excuse or pretext that he was suffering from the sweating sickness; whereupon Richard seized his son and told Stanley that, if he did not arrive with his forces, the young man’s head would be cut off. In the event Lord Stanley and his brother arrived with sufficient men, but their loyalty was ever in doubt. The king did not know whether they would enter battle as his friends or as his foes.
When the armies met on Bosworth Field, on 22 August, the advantage lay with the king. He had mustered 10,000 men, while Henry commanded half that number. There are no authentic descriptions of the battle itself, except that it began with the sound of gunfire; both sides had artillery, including cannon and the recently fashioned handguns. The bursts of fire solved nothing, and a bout of hand-to-hand fighting followed. At some point Richard decided to move up and attack Henry Tudor himself, in a deliberate decision to terminate the conflict as soon as practicable. It was a rule of war that an army would disperse or retreat as soon as its commander was killed. He may also have believed that some of his men were about to desert him.
Taking only his most loyal supporters with him he galloped hard into the mass of men around Henry Tudor, wounding and killing as many as he could reach with his sword. He is said to have cried out ‘Treason! Treason! Treason!’ He had made the mistake of separating himself from the main body of his army, but his sortie was effective for a while; then Sir William Stanley, who had stayed apart, now entered the battle on the side of Henry Tudor. In the ensuing chaos Henry’s men surrounded the king and attacked him; he was engulfed, and his horse was killed beneath him. His blood ran into a small brook, and it was still being reported in the nineteenth century that no local person would drink from it. The dead king’s prayer book was later found in his tent on the field of battle.
An hour’s fighting had sufficed. After the battle was over, the crown that he had worn upon his helmet was found lying on the field. It was taken up and placed on the head of Henry Tudor. Richard’s body was stripped of its armour and carried on a horse to the Franciscan house in Leicester where it was buried without ceremony in a stone coffin. The coffin was later used as a horse trough, and the bones of Richard III scattered. He is the only English king, after the time of the Normans, who has never been placed within a royal tomb. He had ruled for a little over two years, and was still a young man of thirty-two. The great dynastic war was over. The roses, white and red, were laid in the dust.