The Plantagenets: Richard III (1483-1485)

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York…”

(Shakespeare’s Richard III, spoken by Gloucester regarding the kingship of Edward IV)

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III (c. 1520)

The sudden and unexpected death of Edward IV at age 40 left the crown of England in the hands of his 12-year old callow son, Edward V. However, shortly before his death, Edward IV appointed his brother, Richard duke of Gloucester, to serve as Lord Protectorate in the unexpected event of Edward IV’s death. That moment would come sooner than anticipated. Up until that point, Gloucester had been a loyal Yorkist ally to his older brother, however Edward’s death marked a chance for Richard to seize power.

In late 15th century England, the fresh scars from the Wars of the Roses were felt all over the country. At the same time broad skepticism grew toward the Queen (Elizabeth Woodville). She was a commoner who had secretly married Edward IV -a marriage that ignited rebellion and infighting during Edward IV’s reign. Among the nobles there were rumblings about the Woodville family being given preferential treatment -they were quickly married into England’s most powerful families. Among the common people wild rumors swirled about Woodvillian sorcery and dark magic.

The kin of Woodville had a strong hand in raising the boy who would be king, as well. As a young boy, Prince Edward was taken away from London to Ludlow (Western England) to be taught and raised by his uncle, Lord Rivers (the brother of his mother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville). However, following the death of his father, Edward IV, all eyes turned toward Ludlow and the prospect of a future king. The decision was made to anoint him. Under the guidance of Rivers, Prince Edward left Ludlow and set out for London with a huge cavalry to claim the succession of the crown (he was to be named Edward V), but when they reached Stony Stratford the future king’s cavalry was intercepted by Richard duke of Gloucester and his ally the duke of Buckingham. Gloucester announced his Protectorship to the men and he accused Rivers of usurping the late king’s wishes. None objected and so Richard fatefully took control of the prince. He brought Edward (and later his younger brother Richard) to London. Richard lodged the boys in the Tower of London under the auspices of safety and security, all while planning something far more sinister. At the same time, Richard cried treason to the Council and Parliament, his charge rendered against certain powerful nobles, including Lord Hastings and Rivers. A particular mania took hold, and certain nobles were purged, beheaded, or otherwise hastily executed. And if that was not enough, Richard proceeded to discover ‘evidence’ that the late king Edward IV had secretly been married to a different woman: Lady Eleanor Butler. A newly discovered secret marriage rendered Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and their offspring unlawful. Perhaps as a result of the unpopularity of the Woodville family, many on the Council agreed. Both boys in the tower were immediately stripped of their royal inheritance and on June 26 1483 Parliament accepted Richard’s claim to the throne: he was proclaimed King Richard III that same day. Of his coronation, Winston Churchill writes: “Thus the whole design seemed to have been accomplished. Yet from this very moment there began that marked distrust and hostility of all classes towards King Richard III which all his arts and competence could not allay” (212).

As Richard acceded the throne he made every effort to stamp out challenges to his leadership, not least of which were the surviving sons of the late Edward IV. After the boys were locked in the Tower they were never heard from again. It is widely believed the boys were murdered, perhaps at the behest of Richard III. Years later, in 1674, two incomplete skeletons were found in the Tower when a staircase to the chapel was altered. Charles II, believing these to be the bodies of Edward and Richard, ordered them to be buried at Westminster Abbey. In 1933, the remains were examined but experts could only suggest the skeletons once belonged to two young boys of about the right age (one skeleton was slightly larger than the other). The contemporary Great Chronicle of London writes: “had he [Richard III]…. suffered the little children to have prospered according to his allegiance and fealty, he would have been honourably lauded over all, whereas now his fame is darkened.”

Of the murdered children, Winston Churchill writes: “So we come to the principal crime ever afterwards associated with Richard’s name. His interest is plain. His character was ruthless. It is certain that the helpless children in the Tower were not seen again after the month of July 1483 A modern dictator with the resources of science at his disposal can easily lead the public from day to day, destroying all persistency of thought and aim, so that memory is blurred by the multiplicity of daily news and judgment baffled by its perversions. But in the fifteenth century the murder of the two young princes by the very man who had undertaken to protect them was regarded as an atrocious crime, never to be forgotten or forgiven” (215).

The Two Princes in the Tower by Sir John Everett Millais (1878)

The image of Richard’s fidgety, homunculus character has been formed in our minds by the latter-day Tudor chroniclers. In all truth, Richard III was surely a ruthless and ambitious man, however perhaps not the deformed, hunch-backed, withered-armed monster we have come to know (thanks to unflattering portrayals by Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More). Richard was the youngest son of Richard Plantagenet duke of York and Cecily Neville. Following the death of his father as a boy, he was raised by Richard Neville “the kingmaker” -the powerful earl of Warwick who fought against the Lancastrians and instated Richard’s elder brother, Edward (a.k.a. Edward IV) on the throne. Richard was raised at Neville’s Middleham Castle in Northern Yorkshire. When his brother Edward became king in 1461, Richard became duke of Gloucester and he married the kingmaker’s daughter, Anne Neville. They only had one son together who died during Richard’s short reign along with Queen Anne, Richard’s sickly wife who died in 1485 likely of tuberculosis (rumors abounded as to foul play on Richard’s behalf).

Late 16th century portrait of Richard III

“The Cat, the Rat
and Lovell our dog
Rule all of England
under a hog”

-a popular couplet coined by William Collingbourne, an enemy of Richard III. The Cat refers to Sir William Catesby; the Rat refers to Sir Richard Ratcliffe; the dog refers to Lord Lovell (whose crest was a dog); and the hog refers to King Richard III (whose crest was a wild boar).

In continuing the conflicts inherited from the Wars of the Roses, it did not take long for rebellion to return once again to England. In September 1483, just a few short months after Richard was crowned king, a rebellion broke out in southern England in the name of Henry Tudor, ear lf oRichmond -the Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Henry was joined by his ally, Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, however the rebellion was quickly doused and Henry Stafford was executed (leading to Shakespeare’s famous line: “off with his head!”) Henry Tudor was exiled in Brittany as opposition continued to mount against Richard particularly in the southern England. Meanwhile, Richard was struck with tragedy as his only son, the Prince of Wales, died in 1484, followed by his wife Anne in 1485. In this moment Henry seized his chance. He mustered a force of Englishmen along with 3,000 French mercenaries and landed at Milford-Haven in Southwest Wales on August 7, 1485. As he marched through England, Henry garnered ever greater support. Henry was joined by his uncle, Jasper Tudor.

The French and English forces of Henry Tudor met on the battlefield against Richard III at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on August 22, 1485. Despite Henry’s army being greatly outnumbered, it was a long and seemingly stalemated battle until Richard spotted Henry Tudor from across the battlefield. Henry appeared to be increasingly isolated and surrounded. Richard charged over with his brigade, while mounted atop his favorite horse, White Surrey, however the conflict soon turned ill for Richard. According to the Burgundian Chronicler, Jean Molinet, Richard was betrayed by his loyal ally: Sir William Stanley, earl of Northumberland. He was chased into a bog and cut off from his main force while outnumbered three-to-one. The king refused to surrender, fighting until the end when he was eventually cut down by a Welsh halberd. His body lay strewn upon the ground and the crown of England was left hanging on a nearby hawthorn tree. Richard was the last of the English kings to die in battle.

Richard’s body was mutilated and hacked. According to the Great Chronicle of London it was “despoiled to the skin” and “besprung with mire and filth” and it was paraded from the back of a horse through the streets of nearby Leicester until being laid to rest unceremoniously at Greyfriar’s Abbey (his body has since been reburied at Leicester Cathedral as recently as 2015). Thus ended the final reign of the House of York in the Wars of the Roses. Richard was the third and youngest York brother; his death signaled the end of the Plantagenet line warrior-kings who had ruled England for 400 years since the time of Henry II.

“England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,
The father rashly slaughter’d his own son,
The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire;
All this divided York and Lancaster”

(Shakespeare’s Richard III, Henry Tudor declaring victory at the end to the Wars of the Roses at The Battle of Bosworth Field)


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III, The Great Chronicle of London, the Burgundian-French Chronicles of Jean Molinet.

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