Guest article by Matthew Lewis
Richard III remains one of England and Britain’s most controversial and divisive monarchs, his profile defying his brief reign of just two years between 1483 and 1485. His accession and rule remain shrouded in uncertainty and occluded by the widest possible interpretations, from a wholly good man forced to become king to an evil schemer who plotted and murdered his way to the throne. The truth, as with most things, probably lies somewhere along the scale between these two extremes, but is still more subjective and affected by the reader’s personal beliefs than most other historical questions. What is often lost, but what is critical to trying to understand what might really have happened in 1483, is an appreciation that Richard was a man, a real human being, the culmination of his hopes, fears, dreams and losses, much like you or I today. Understanding the man who arrived in London to face the melee of disintegrated politics can only help appreciate his responses to the challenges he faced.
Born on 2 October 1452 at his family’s traditional seat of Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, Richard ought to have been forgotten by history. He was the fourth surviving son and seventh surviving child of Richard, 3rd Duke of York and his duchess Cecily Neville. The fourth son of a royal duke would never have been expected to make an impact, unless perhaps from within the Church, a path Richard may have been set upon from a young age. He was extremely pious, well read and legally trained. That was not to be the course his life would take though. By the time of his birth, his father had already taken an army to Dartford to oppose Henry VI’s government and been left in disgrace. Richard was born into the very brink of civil war.
In 1459, York gathered his forces at Ludlow and moved his wife and young children, Margaret, George and Richard, from Fotheringhay to the stout fortress on the Welsh borders at Ludlow. Richard passed his seventh birthday during the preparations. The men and weapons pouring into the town and the preparations for war he witnessed must have been exciting for a little boy. This is the first time we can place all of the sons of York together at the same time. Edward, Earl of March (the future Edward IV), Edmund, Earl of Rutland, George (later Duke of Clarence) and Richard joined their father, his brother-in-law the Earl of Salisbury and Salisbury’s son, the famous Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, remembered by history as The Kingmaker. York led his men out of Ludlow to Worcester before turning east toward London, but news arrived that a vast royal army was marching to oppose them. York withdrew to Ludlow but the king followed him. In the middle of the night on 12 October 1459, York, Edward, Edmund, Salisbury and Warwick fled.
When dawn broke on 13 October, the Yorkist soldiers found themselves leaderless and surrendered to King Henry. Ludlow was sacked, Gregory’s Chronicle recording that the king’s army drained the inns so that ‘men went wet-shod in wine, and then they robbed the town, and bore away bedding, clothe, and other stuff, and defouled many women’. York had made the decision to leave behind his wife Cecily and their three youngest children, Margaret, George and seven-year-old Richard. A later legend grew that Cecily met the king’s army at the market cross with her young sons beside her, but there is no contemporary evidence for this. Nevertheless, Richard would have been aware that he had been abandoned by his father and older brothers, left to face a marauding army that sacked Ludlow and, as the Brut Chronicle notes ‘despoiled the castle’. It must have been a frightening experience just days after the excitement of seeing his older brothers and watching the preparations for war. York no doubt relied on Cecily’s sex and their children’s youth to keep them safe, and he was correct – they were placed into the custody of Cecily’s sister the Duchess of Buckingham – but it is doubtful that Richard understood much beyond the terrifying desertion of those he looked to for protection.
From here, Richard’s life span with dizzying speed. His father and brothers were attainted of treason, deprived of all lands and titles and branded traitors. Cecily negotiated a generous settlement to provide for her and her youngest children. They were probably kept from the worst of what was happening, but even at seven, Richard must have been aware of the straightened position his family were now in. Nine months later, his oldest brother Edward, along with Salisbury and Warwick, landed on the south coast. Salisbury took control of London and Edward and Warwick defeated Henry’s forces at the Battle of Northampton on 10 July 1460. York returned in September (the delay is inexplicable unless he was truly torn about what he was doing) and in early October laid claim to Henry’s throne by virtue of his descent through a female line from the second son of Edward III, which he claimed had precedence over the Lancastrian descent from Edward’s third son John of Gaunt.
The Act of Accord passed by parliament on 25 October 1460 kept Henry on the throne for the remainder of his life but made York and his descendants heirs to the crown. Freed from his aunt’s household, Richard, just after his eighth birthday, had become a royal prince, fifth in line to the throne. Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, was less than pleased at the disinheritance of their son and began gathering an army in Scotland. York and Edmund travelled north to meet them as Edward went west to gather reinforcements. York stopped at Sandal Castle, not least because it was clear the Lancastrian force outnumbered him. What happened next is complex and open to interpretation, but York sallied out of Sandal on 30 December 1460 and was roundly defeated by the Lancastrians. He was killed, as was his seventeen-year-old son Edmund. Richard lost a father and a brother, but with the queen moving south, his troubles were far from over.
Cecily took the decision as the queen’s army neared London that she could no longer trust in her youngest sons’ age to protect them. The conflict had altered drastically in a year and she had lost her husband and second son, as well as her brother Salisbury. George and Richard were now second and third in line to the throne and in danger from Queen Margaret’s attempt to assert her son’s rights. The boys were hidden in London, placed in the care of Alice Martyn in a secret location, but as the Scottish army neared the capital, even this was too risky for Cecily. Eleven-year-old George and eight-year-old Richard were put into a boat with a few of their mother’s servants and sailed to Burgundy. It was by no means a safe destination, but Burgundy was a natural enemy of Margaret’s French homeland. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy didn’t want to openly welcome the boys, so left them Utrecht for several weeks.
During that time, Edward claimed the throne for himself and won the decisive Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461. His family’s fortunes transformed again, Richard was rushed to Philip’s court. George was now Edward’s heir and Richard second in line. Philip suddenly saw the benefit of making a fuss of them. It is possible the boys met the printer William Caxton here. He was governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London in Bruges and would have been a suitable representative of England in Burgundy at the feasts Philip laid on. In a whirlwind, Richard was returned to England for his brother’s coronation. George was created Duke of Clarence and Richard became Duke of Gloucester.
Richard, along with George and Margaret, were installed at Greenwich Palace (then called the Palace of Pleasaunce) and their brother was careful to visit them every day, a presence that must have been a comfort and made Edward into a paternal figure to his youngest sibling. It’s no wonder that Richard became so loyal to Edward in adulthood. Rather than lands, Edward gave his brothers offices of national importance. Aged ten, Richard became Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine. He was given the castle and fee farm of Gloucester to go with his dukedom. Payments were also later made to Thomas, Lord Stanley and Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury for their services in caring for the king’s brothers.
The young duke would spend some time in the care of his cousin the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick in the north, learning his lessons, the art of soldiering and of being a successful lord. Richard was given clutches of land around the south-west, with a potential seat at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, which suggests this was where Edward planned to place his brother, in a traditionally Lancastrian region where Edward had little authority. Warwick’s disintegrating relationship with Edward soon made him an unsuitable guardian for the king’s brother. By the time Warwick, joined by George, rebelled in 1469, Richard was back with Edward and remained loyal to the king despite what must have been a tempting prospect of throwing in his lot with his former mentor and the brother to whom he had been closest all of his life. When Edward was driven from England in 1470, Richard remained loyal still and joined his brother for his second spell in exile in Burgundy, now aged eighteen.
After six months, Richard returned with Edward to reclaim the throne, fighting at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471, where Warwick was killed, and the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May, when the Lancastrian Prince of Wales died. Henry VI died (or, more likely, was killed) when Edward returned to London and Richard has long been suspected to doing, or at least organising, the deed, though either could only have been done with Edward’s express order, and there is no conclusive evidence that either are true.
Over the following decade, Richard married Anne Neville, the younger daughter of Warwick, whose sister Isabel had married George. The brothers squabbled over the inheritance, but Richard ended up with the Neville lands in the north and George with those in the Midlands. The couple had a son, named Edward. Richard developed a reputation for good lordship that rocked the boat, defied the accepted norms of the system of livery and maintenance. For example, in 1472 parliament dealt with a case, probably sponsored by Richard, relating to the murder of Richard Williamson near York. Three brothers were accused of the cutting off both his hands, further cutting one arm off above the elbow, hamstringing him, robbing him, and leaving him on the road to die. The brothers went to their father for shelter and he, aware of what they done, entered the four of them into Richard’s service. They expected this to provide them with protection, but instead, as soon as he heard the accusation against them, Richard sent the father to jail in York and ordered the arrest of his sons. This was far from the only example, with another of Richard’s retainers sent to York to face accusations of violence and the cause of common men promoted by Richard against their social superiors.
In 1483, this was the man who was called south to deal with trouble in London – because despite the traditional story that Richard caused trouble, all the contemporary chronicles are clear that in the immediate aftermath of Edward IV’s death, the Woodville faction of the queen had armed men in the streets, engaging in running spats with armed men loyal to Lord Hastings. On top of that, French ships had begun attacking English shipping an even coastal ports once they heard Edward was dead. When Richard left his home in the north, it was to try and resolve an already anarchic situation. He didn’t cause chaos. He was seen as the solution to it. A man whose childhood had been a lurching rollercoaster of insecurity who knew how quickly those who had risen high could fall, and those pressed down low might rise like shooting stars. By now, Richard had learned of the perils of the kind of inaction his brother had indulged in in 1470 and beyond. He was the last surviving son of Richard, Duke of York, responsible for the security of his royal house. Before he was asked to take the throne, he appeared to have secured Edward V’s crown with the death of four men. Compare that to the thousands who had died to put it on Edward’s head, twice.
It is impossible to be certain of Richard’s motives in 1483. The evidence simply does not exist to prove the truth of the accusations he made about Hastings, the Woodville family or the bigamy of Edward IV. It existed in 1483, and chronicles tell us it was reviewed and accepted, but we can’t see it now, so historians tend to dismiss it as farcical, labelling those who saw and believed it cowards or fools, or both. Understanding Richard’s life more fully helps to fill in the gaps. Where hard evidence is missing, we must be led by the human actions and reactions of those living the events. Appreciating the childhood and adult life that formed Richard over thirty years helps explain why he behaved the way he did, and casts doubt on the traditional story of lying, murdering and potting. Richard did not spring out of the ground in 1483, a fully formed man desperate to be king. History has been unkind to him and should offer him a second look with a deeper understanding of the man behind the myths.