Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me

BY MATTHEW LEWIS

It is unusual for a history story to be accorded the lead position on the British television news. This has happened on a number of occasions in recent years following the discovery of the mortal remains, under a car park in Leicester, of one of one of England’s most unpopular monarchs, Richard III.

First of all, we read of the search for the search for his body thought to have been buried near the altar of a medieval church. Next, the news that a skeleton had been found in the ‘right place’ and more sensationally that there was evidence of a spinal deformity — bearing out the tales of his being a hunchback. And, then came the clincher, the DNA evidence demonstrated that he was related to modern day collateral descendants of the King. That really did become the lead story on news bulletins — a combination of the attraction of royal stories and of exciting scientific breakthroughs.

Without the scientific evidence, the twisted spine would, though suggestive, would have been inadequate to clinch the identification. Finally, his second funeral brought central Leicester to a halt (and filled television news bulletins). As a long term-consequence, Leicester is now a tourist destination complete with a Richard III trail.

A couple of years ago, OUHS joined that tourist trail. We enjoyed a fascinating trip to the Richard III Visitor centre located in a former school, beside that car park and opposite the Cathedral in which he is buried. It tells the exciting tale of the perseverance of enthusiasts in pursuing the search and the use of cutting-edge science to confirm the speculation. No doubt, the existence of both a first-rate archaeological department and a pioneering department of genetics and genome biology in the local university played a significant role in the success of the project. During this visit, I was struck by the emphasis on the good aspects of Richard’s reign and in particular his good administration of justice. This seemed to fly in the face of accepted wisdom.

The chief purveyor of the standard view was, of course, that arch-publicist William Shakespeare. Living close to Stratford-upon-Avon, I have seen a number of productions of this play. The one that sticks most vividly in my memory is the one in which Anthony Sher played Richard as an out-and-out villain. As he advanced down to the front of the stage, a small figure dressed as I remember, all in black, made up to appear to have an extremely marked hunch back and using a pair of crutches to swing himself around the stage, he looked the very personification of evil as he delivered the opening speech, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried’ (The Tragedy of Richard the Third 1:1: 1-4.) The image of deformity was strengthened by, ‘Cheated of feature by dissembling nature Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them’ (1:1: 18 - 23) And in the same speech, Shakespeare completed this picture of evil, ‘I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days.’ (1:1: 30-31) Through the course of the play, Shakespeare attributed numerous premature deaths to Richard’s influence, most notably the Princes in the Tower, his nephews — the sons of his older brother King Edward IV, who disappeared without trace. This, then, was Shakespeare’s polemic against the last Yorkist monarch. He wrote it just over a century after the events, but it is important to remember that the reigning monarch was still the last of the Tudors, the granddaughter of Henry Tudor (Henry VII the victor of Bosworth). Therefore, the author’s view might not be unbiased. Is there another side of the story? Yes, this book provides a much more sympathetic view of Richard. One that is truly revisionist. Matthew Lewis is an ‘author and historian with a particular interest in the medieval period. His books include a history of the Wars of the Roses, a biography of Richard, 3rd Duke of York (father of Edward IV and Richard III), and two novels of historical fiction telling the life of Richard III and the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth’.

Lewis is commendably honest in stating that he is a Ricardian; his aim is to place ‘an authentic man in the complex context of his times’. One which requires seven pages of royal and noble pedigrees to demonstrate the interconnection of the principal characters in this ‘tragedy’. Descendants of Edward III intermittently disputed the succession for about a century from the late fourteenth century. Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince died before his father, who was succeeded by his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, an ineffectual ruler. He, in turn was usurped by his Lancastrian cousin Henry IV. His son Henry V died young leaving an infant to be crowned King, as Henry VI.

Unfortunately, he like his grandfather Charles VI of France, Henry VI suffered from mental illness; for about a year he became catatonic meaning he was unable to look after himself. His cousin, the Yorkist Duke of York, attempted to take over the throne. Later, the IV. Henry VI regained the throne for a short time his death in 1471. As though the relative frequent change of monarch was not enough, some of the nobility changed their allegiance from time to time. The best known of these is Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker. As his nickname suggests he was responsible for some of these changes in occupancy of the throne. At first, he supported the Yorkist cause; he then changed to support Henry VI. He died during the Battle of Barnet. The complexity of the links between the competing families is further shown by the background of Henry Tudor who was to be Richard’s nemesis at the Battle of Bosworth. Better known as Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, had a complicated background. His paternal grandmother was Catherine, a daughter of Charles VI, whose first husband was Henry V — their only child was Henry VI. The father of her subsequent six children was Owen Tudor, whose son married Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of John of Gaunt. Henry Tudor after gaining the crown married Elizabeth the daughter of Edward IV so uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York. Lewis provides seven pages of pedigrees to demonstrate these relationships. It can be seen that Richard III grew up in turbulent times. He was youngest of the four surviving sons of Richard, Duke of York and Cicely Neville, the aunt of the Kingmaker. Edward, the future King Edward IV was the eldest. Edmund who was to die at the Battle of Wakefield with his father before Edward gained the crown was the second born. George was born in Dublin when his father was serving in Ireland. The Duke, was at times in favour, with Henry VI, acting as Lieutenant Governor in both Ireland and Calais. Richard was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 2 October 1452. By this time, the ten-year-old Edward and Edmund aged were installed with their own household in Ludlow Castle one of their Father’s possessions.

The fighting continued with the First Battle of St Alban and Lewis comments ironically; ‘Despite Shakespeare’s later dramatic reimagining of the battle, it was not the two-and-a-half-year-old Richard who killed the Duke of Somerset, however amusing the thought of a toddler swinging a mace at a grown man might be.’ When Richard was seven years old, the wheel of fortune turned again for the family. Parents, sons and the youngest daughter were all at Ludlow. Henry VI’s troops were threateningly to lay siege to Ludlow and a number of Yorkist leaders changed sides. Edward and Edmund together with their father and Warwick fled from the castle into exile -one son to Ireland and the other to Calais.

The three youngest children (George, Richard and the youngest daughter, Margaret) together with their mother were left behind to be captured by the Lancastrians. Their father’s decision was perhaps justified when they were placed under the care of their mother’s sister and her husband the Duke of Buckingham. Lewis suggests that this desertion ‘must have felt like a terrifying desertion.’ Worse was to come. At the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, a superior Lancastrian force won the day and both Richard Duke of York and Edmund his second son were killed — the nadir of the Yorkist’s fortunes. When Richard was aged eight, his mother packed him and George off to Burgundy without either her or their sister. Did it feel like another rejection? The wheel of fate kept turning. Edward and Henry (or perhaps it should be his supporters notably Warwick) vied for the throne. The death at Tewkesbury of Prince Edward, Henry VI’s only child, ‘all but ended the House of Lancaster with Henry VI in no fit state to bear the mantle of responsibility for its continuation.’

Warwick had been killed a month before in April 1471 during the Battle of Barnet. Edward IV reigned from 1471 to his death in 1483. During this period, Lewis shows how Richard undertook greater responsibility in what might be termed local or even regional government both in the North, where he had spent some of his childhood at Middleham in Warwick’s household and in Wales. Richard, according to Lewis, strove to root out corruption and valued ‘legitimacy’; at times supporting social inferiors against the nobility in their struggles for justice. And, what of the person? Richard married Anne Neville younger daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker in 1472. They had one child, a son, who died in 1484 to be followed by his mother’s death in 1485.

Lewis suggests several times that Richard would have always suffered pain from his back problem. In an age, when monarchs still had to show prowess on the battlefield, Richard’s physique would, in contrast to his oldest brother, not have impressed. Edward was a giant of a man — six feet, four inches in height. Lewis portrays George, Duke of Clarence as troublesome and easily led. He joined Warwick in rebelling against Edward. Even during Edward’s reign, he continued on an erratic course and so the attainder, 1479, said, ‘the king might … have forgiven George his efforts to raise revolt if he had not already shown himself to be incorrigible by his previous betrayals.’ This final act in his life, opened when he accused a lady-in-waiting of having poisoned his wife (Warwick’s older daughter).

Lewis suggests that George saw Edward, as King, ‘at the centre of plots to deny him a fair place in the world’. This was followed by other provocative acts, including suggesting that Edward was illegitimate. Parliament, at Edward’s behest sanctioned George’s execution. Lewis addresses the legend that George died by drowning in Malmsey (a sweet wine from Greece) saying ‘a legend sprang up that he had been given the honour of selecting the method of his execution himself and that, in a last act of petulant defiance, he chose to be drowned in a vat of Edward’s favourite wine. Lewis admits ‘there is no record of this, though it does not seem beyond the realms of George’s rebelliousness.’ Certainly, there is no suggestion that Richard was involved in any nefarious action to remove his brother, George, from the line of succession. And, finally Edward died in 1483 which brings us to a discussion of the ‘crime’ for ever associated with Richard — the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

At this point Lewis summarises the three existing versions of Richard. Firstly, the traditional ‘Ruthless Richard’, plotting for the throne before his brother’s death, killing everyone who got in his way; secondly, a ‘Romantic Richard’ viewed as a victim of events, ‘dragged to his own doom or a ‘Reactive Richard’ ‘lurching from one enforced decision to the next as crises swallow him’. The coronation of Edward V, the Edward IV’s son was set for 22 June 1483. On 16 June issued a wit to postpone it until 9 November and cancel the opening of Parliament due on 25 June. Why? One story claimed that Edward IV’s father was not Richard, Duke of York but an English archer, a giant of a man, with whom Cicely had had an affair. Lewis argues that ‘the predisposition to great height was held in the Plantagenet genes (Edward I being such example). He gives greater credence to the claim that Edward had committed bigamy.

His marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a love match, had be kept secret for several months. The accusation was that prior to that union Edward had entered into a marriage contract with another widow, Eleanor Butler, daughter of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. At that time, a marriage contract could be contracted by a simple promise to marry someone. The lady had died in 1768. Up to this point, Richard was preparing to act as Regent for his nephew. Lewis cites various possible sources of the rumour and suggests that by 22 June, the evidence must have been overwhelming’. On 26 June 1483 a delegation from the city and nobility petitioned Richard to take the throne.

At the same time, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the uncle of the ‘Princes’ was executed at Pontefract. Richard’s coronation took place on 5 July 1483. It was the first joint coronation of a king and queen in 175 years and only the fourth since the Conquest. Lewis discusses the possible fate of Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, but concludes what happened to them, ‘must, for now at least, remain an unsolved mystery.’ Richard reigned for just over two years during which, according to Lewis, ‘he was a forward-thinking reformer who tried to tackle the real problems he saw in society.’ He instituted three legal reviews which righted miscarriages of justice. ‘The correct application of the law had been an obsession of Richard’s’. He created the College of Arms to investigate the legitimacy of knights or lords. He charged the bishops to improve the state of the nation writing, ‘our principal intent and fervent desire is to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced, increased and multiplied’ and that he wished, ‘vices and all things repugnant to virtue, provoking the high indignation and fearful displeasure of God to be repressed and annulled.’ He re-established the Council of the North ‘as an extension of his ducal council, and a mechanism to ensure a robust royal presence.’

On the downside after his wife’s death, probably from tuberculosis, he was rumoured to show an interest in marrying his niece Elizabeth of York, later to marry Henry Tudor. It was that Henry Tudor who posed the threat to Richard’s position. He gathered a force made up of disaffected Englishmen and French mercenaries and sailed from Harfleur with a fleet of thirty ships to Milford Haven in south Wales. At the battle of Bosworth, Richard, at the age of thirty-two was killed.

Lewis provides a helpful epilogue summing up his intentions in writing the book. He certainly manages ‘to examine Richard’s life as a whole, not just two years of it in isolation.’ He admits that he does not believe that, ‘Richard was a saintly figure incapable of doing wrong, only that he was a human being making his way in a complex and brutal world. He did good things, including sparing the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, who had been convicted of High Treason in Parliament.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking book which has made me think again about one of the traditional villains of English history. It is an easy read and is well-referenced. As well as being of great interest to specialists in the period it provides an excellent, reasonably priced volume for the non-specialist.

Ruth Barbour
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2019