A Brief History
At the time of Richard’s birth, no one could have foreseen that he would one day be king for he was the 12th of his parents’ 13 offspring and only the fourth son to reach adulthood, with two of his elder brothers having children of their own.
So how was Richard able to become king? Actually quite legally and surprisingly peacefully. Unlike his kinsmen who attained the throne through battle, conquest or even murder, Richard was asked by the citizens of London to assume the throne after they had drawn up a petition. His right to reign was then confirmed by Parliament. Why would he be so welcomed?; probably because he was an adult who had proven himself loyal to his brother, the former king, and an able military commander.
Two months before his ascension to the throne, his brother, Kind Edward IV, had died. He was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Edward V, and Richard became the young boy’s Lord Protector, or rather regent who would rule the kingdom in his name til he reached maturity. It was initially believed that Richard would be as loyal to his nephew as he had been to his brother; however, the Wars of the Roses still loomed very much over the land and there were other contenders to the throne lurking in the countryside and on the continent who would gladly take the first opportunity to steal the throne away from the child. Children monarchs were generally viewed as weak. The reign of the last child-king, Henry VI, just twenty years before had been a disaster and allowed Richard’s family, the House of York, to gain the crown. Most likely Richard did not want to be on the losing end this time. In addition there was some question over Edward V’s legitimacy as his father may have been pre-contracted to another woman before he married his mother, Elizabeth Woodville. In those days, a pre-contract, something like a legal betrothal, was deemed as valid as a marriage. Edward VI seems to have used this ploy to bed women.
Little did he then know what consequences this would later have. An illegitimate king would have jeopardized the right of the House of York to stay in power. To maintain that right, Richard had to take the throne from his nephew who together with his brother and sisters was officially declared a bastard and his parents’ marriage null and void in an act of Titulus Regius. No one contested this because contrary to his later reputation, Richard III was initially liked and deemed the best man to rule the country at the time and to provide it with stability. There was, however, another nephew and niece ahead of him in the pecking order, but their father, Richard’s older brother, George, the Duke of Clarence, had committed treason, thus removing his children from the line of succession (this did not stop Henry VIII from later hacking (literally) the girl’s head off when she was an old woman as she was chased around the chopping block by the executioner). So, by process of (legal) elimination, Richard III was the head of the House of York and rightful king.
Now it is generally assumed that Richard III had his nephews, today known as the Princes in the Tower, murdered. The author of this article is going to put forth another, less-known, theory.
Richard had been helped to the throne by this cousin, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham who had acted as a type of “Kingmaker”. In the 15th century, kingmakers were generally members of the royal family who had a lesser claim to the throne but who managed to consolidate money and power by backing the right “horse”, often supplying the troops the would-be king needed. Even Edward IV owed his reign to his cousin, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, the most famous kingmaker of them all. However, kingmakers are also known to change sides when their horses prove less than cooperative. It is generally assumed that the Duke of Buckingham led the rebellion against Richard III in late 1483 because he was enraged over learning that Richard had murdered the princes in the Tower. However, this was not how leading figures in the Houses of York or Lancaster “ticked” at the time.
The Wars of the Roses were known within the houses as the Cousins’ Wars, because the wars were fought within the family with little regard to familial ties. Murdering one’s cousin or even brother was not uncommon. It was all about power, one’s own proximity to the throne and managing to stay alive. Therefore, the murders of the young princes would probably not have phased Buckingham in the slightest, but rather and more likely Richard III’s unwillingness to elevate him to an even greater position of power. To what does one then do in such a situation? One backs the next best horse with a claim to the throne better than one’s own. And who was this other horse? Henry Tudor. The Earl of Richmond, as his title then was, was however descended from an illegitimate branch of the family.
To strengthen his claim, he would have to marry a Plantagenet princess, but the most suitable ones had just been declared illegitimate as well. The corresponding act of Parliament, would of course, have to be reversed, which would also restore their brothers’ claim to the throne, making a huge mess of the entire plan. The easiest solution would be to just make the princes in the Tower “disappear”. Whether Buckingham was responsible for their murders or not, will probably never be known with certainty, and of course one might ask, why would not Buckingham just try to oust Richard in Edward V’s name himself? The answers are quite simple. To do so, he would need the support of another powerful male family member and Henry Tudor was the last of them. In addition, even if he had managed to relieve Richard of the throne on his own, he still would have had to contend with Henry Tudor. The easiest solution was to form an alliance with Henry and to do so, the princes in the Tower had to go because they would only have compromised Henry’s position.
At any rate, Richard III was too powerful, and Buckingham’s rebellion failed. Storms had prevented Henry Tudor, who was exiled on the continent, from taking part in it. In keeping up with the family tradition, Buckingham lost his head, which was probably for the better, but soon two more family members began plotting to seize the throne – this time two women.
Lady Margaret Beaufort, of the House of Lancaster and Henry Tudor’s mother, who had spent the majority of her life biding her time, knew it was only a matter of a little more time before her son would take the throne from Richard. Like Buckingham, she knew that her son’s hold on the throne was dependent on strengthening the ties with the Yorkist side of the family. She entered an agreement with Elizabeth Woodville that their children would marry once Henry assumed the throne. Elizabeth Woodville, who had lost her position as Dowager Queen, was only too happy to comply. It was due to the plotting of these two women and their ties to other powerful families in England and sympathizers that Henry Tudor was finally able to defeat Richard III in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth where Richard died fighting, the last English king to do so.
Soon after becoming king, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, had the Act of Parliament which declared his future wife Elizabeth of York illegitimate revoked, and the two married, finally uniting the two most powerful branches of the family into the new House of Tudor. Henry, however, made sure that everyone knew that his reign was by right of conquest and not by right of marriage, as his wife had upon relegitimization become the rightful heir to the throne.
So what about poor, maligned Richard? As the loser, his memory had to endure tarnishing and a loss of its reputation, because in order to validate his hold on the throne, Henry VII had to convince everyone that it was in their best interests to have removed Richard from power. This propaganda was especially and effectively spread by William Shakespeare in his historical play on his rise to power and short reign.
And so nowadays, Richard III is viewed not only as an envious, evil, and murderous cripple but also as a coward whose final words were ,“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Although suffering from scoliosis, he was in fact a brave, fair and just man. When he died, he was only 32. This story is probably one of the best examples of the victor re-writing history.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Richard really the villain he is depicted as by Shakespeare and others? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please read…
Kendall, Pauk. Richard the Third. Norton, 2002.