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Richard III of England

Richard III
Richard III

Richard III (October 2, 1452August 22, 1485) was the King of England from 1483 until his death and the last king from the House of York. After the death of his brother Edward IV, Richard briefly governed as a regent for Edward's son Edward V, but he imprisoned Edward and his brother Richard in the Tower and acquired the throne for himself (crowned on July 6, 1483). A rebellion rose against Richard and he fell in the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he faced the Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII). William Shakespeare's play Richard III has made his name particularly famous.



Richard was born at Fotheringay Castle, the fourth son of Richard, Duke of York (who had been a strong claimant to the throne of King Henry VI) and Cecily Neville. It is thought that the withered arm, limp, and crooked back of legend are complete fabrications, but if he did have a disability, it may have been the result of a bout of polio as a small child. It is said that he used a crutch in early youth, but sometimes stubbornly refused it for fear of looking "weak", and had abandoned it entirely by age ten. Richard spent much of his childhood at Middleham Castle, where he later made his married home. He was involved in ongoing battles between different alliances of the House of Lancaster and the House of York factions during the last half of the 15th Century. At the time of his father's death at the Battle of Wakefield, Richard was still a boy, and was taken into the care of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known to history as "The Kingmaker" because of his strong influence on the course of the Wars of the Roses. Warwick was instrumental in deposing Henry VI and replacing him with Richard's eldest brother, Edward. While Richard was at Warwick's estate, he developed a close friendship with Francis Lovell, a friendship that would remain strong for the rest of his life. Another child in the household was Warwick's daughter Anne, whom Richard would later marry.

Reign of Edward IV

During the reign of his brother, Edward IV, Richard demonstrated his loyalty, as well as his prodigious skill as a military commander, and was rewarded with large estates in the North of England, given the title Duke of Gloucester and the position of Governor of the North, becoming the richest and most powerful noble in England and a loyal aide to Edward IV. (By contrast the other surviving brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was executed by Edward for treason.)

Richard continued to control the north of England until Edward's death. In 1482 Richard recaptured Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Scots, and was noted as being fair and just, endowing universities and making grants to the church.


Following the decisive Yorkist victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, Richard married the widowed Anne Neville, younger daughter of the late Earl of Warwick. Anne's first husband had been Edward of Westminster, son of Henry VI. Following his death at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, she disappears from the records for a while, her whereabouts unknown. It is popularly believed that she had fallen under the dubious control of George of Clarence, who had an interest in preventing her from marrying again, because it gave him full control over the joint inheritance of Anne and her elder sister Isabel, George's wife. In a scene straight out of "Cinderella", Richard is said to have found Anne working as a scullery maid in a London chophouse and "rescued" her; but the truth is not known. Their marriage took place on July 12, 1472.

Richard and Anne had one son, Edward Plantagenet (also known as Edward of Middleham, 1473April 9, 1484), who died not long after being invested with the title of Prince of Wales. (Richard had two illegitimate children as well, John of Gloucester and a daughter named Kathryn.) Anne also died before her husband.

Accession to the Throne

On the death of Edward IV, in April 1483, the king's sons (Richard's young nephews), Edward V, age 12, and Richard, Duke of York, age 9, were supposedly next in the order of succession. Appointed Lord Protector of the Realm in his brother's will, Richard was warned by Lord Hastings that the Woodvilles were intending to isolate Richard from the position and to consolidate their power at Richard's expense.

When the boy king's retinue was on its way from Wales to London, for his coronation, Richard and Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, joined them at Northampton. He had the king's guardian, Earl Rivers (brother of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward's queen consort) and other advisors arrested and taken to Pontefract Castle, allegedly for planning to assassinate Edward V. Richard then took Edward to stay at the Tower of London (then a royal palace), a move widely supported since much of the country distrusted the former queen's family. Edward was soon joined by Richard, Duke of York. Richard called himself Lord Protector and was also made Chief Councillor (head of government).

Bishop John Morton is thought to be the source of most of the Tudor propaganda against Richard III. According to Morton's History, Lord Hastings (a regular visitor to the young Edward V in the Tower of London) was arrested for alleged treason on June 13, 1483 at a meeting of the Royal Council, at the Tower. A few minutes later, supposedly, he was beheaded on Tower Green. It has been argued that Hastings, whose execution was the first recorded at the Tower of London, was indeed arrested on June 13, but later formally charged with treason, tried, convicted and sentenced, and legally executed on June 18; no record of such proceedings survives.

It is thought that Hastings had allied himself with the dowager queen because of the rise in influence of Buckingham and what he saw as Richard's usurpation of the throne. Morton claimed to have been in the council room when Hastings was arrested, and may have been one of several men who were detained for participating in the conspiracy with Hastings.

Three other members of the alleged conspiracy -- the queen's brother Lord Rivers, her second son Richard Grey, and another chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan -- were also convicted and executed elsewhere. Jane (or Elizabeth) Shore, who had been a mistress of King Edward IV, and then of his step-son Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset (who avoided prosecution in the conspiracy by going into sanctuary at Westminster with his mother), and was now Hastings's mistress, was convicted of only lesser offences and was made to do public penance and briefly imprisoned.

John Morton is also thought to be the source of other accusations against Richard, notably

* the murder of the Princes in the Tower * the murder of Henry VI himself
* the private execution of his brother George, Duke of Clarence * the murder of his wife's first husband, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales
* the murder of William, Lord Hastings * of forcing his wife, Anne Neville, to marry him against her will
* of planning an incestuous marriage to his niece Elizabeth of York *  (and maybe killing his wife so he could)
* of accusing his own mother of adultery * his late brother the king of being illegitimate
* of accusing Jane Shore and Elizabeth Woodville of witchcraft in withering his arm * of being illegitimate himself

Each of these stories first appears in writing either in Sir Thomas More's The History of King Richard III, based on Morton's account (although historians are divided on whether More substantially rewrote it or essentially copied his mentor's accounts) or in the writings of someone else who had heard the story from Morton. The question of whether these stories were true was not of great interest to either Morton or More, history then still being regarded as a branch of literature. Not only that, but Morton, having been arrested by Richard III had fled to exile in Flanders. He only returned when Henry VII was on the throne and was quickly promoted. It was customary for histories to also serve as propaganda on both sides, to support and strengthen one's patron's cause.

On June 22, 1483, outside St Paul's Cathedral, a statement was read out on behalf of Richard declaring for the first time that he was taking the throne for himself. When the members of Parliament met on June 25, it apparently heard evidence from a priest that he had conducted a marriage or betrothal between Edward IV and one Lady Eleanor Talbot (or Butler) before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Since even a betrothal was a legally binding "pre-contract" in the customs of the time, Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been bigamous, therefore all their children were bastards. Some of the proceedings of that Parliamentary session are believed to survive in a document known as Titulus Regius, which Parliament issued some months later explaining its actions and of which a single copy escaped the destruction of all copies of the Titulus Regius later ordered by Henry VII. The identity of the priest in question - thought to have been Edward IV's sometime Chancellor, Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells - is known from only one source, the French political commentator, Philippe de Commines.

Despite rumours that Richard's claims were true, evidence was lacking, and until recently it has generally been accepted that Richard's chief motive for taking the crown was that he felt that his own power and wealth would be threatened under Edward V, who was presumably sympathetic to his Woodville relatives. However recently discovered evidence has reopened the question of the additional claim that it was Edward IV who was illegitimate -see was Edward illegitimate? for details.


Richard's three elder brothers were all dead. The children of George, Duke of Clarence were attainted because of their father's treason and not eligible to inherit the throne. With Edward IV's children having been declared illegitimate, Richard was next in line for the crown.

On July 6 1483, Richard was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Except for three Earls not old enough to participate and a few lesser nobles, the entire peerage attended his coronation. He was the last Plantagenet king.


By the time of his last stand against the Lancastrians, he was a widower without a legitimate son. After his son's death, he had initially named his nephew, Edward, Earl of Warwick, Clarence's young son and also the nephew of Queen Anne Neville, as his heir. After Anne's death, however, Richard named another nephew, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, as his heir.


Richard was, at least outwardly, a devout man and an efficient administrator. However, he was a Yorkist and heirless, and had ruthlessly removed the Woodvilles and their allies; he was therefore vulnerable to political opposition. His apparently loyal supporter, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, turned against him and was executed late in 1483.

Richard's enemies united against him. According to local tradition in Leicester Richard went to see a seer in the town before heading off for the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22 1485 to meet Lancastrian forces led by Henry Tudor. She told him "where your spur should strike on the ride into battle, your head shall be broken on the return". On the ride into battle his spur struck the bridge stone of the Bow Bridge; as he was being carried back over the back of a horse his head struck the same stone and was broken open. Tudor succeeded Richard to become Henry VII, and cemented the succession by marrying the Yorkist heir, Elizabeth of York. Legends notwithstanding, Richard was abandoned at Bosworth by the Lords William Stanley and Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland, Stanley switching sides, which severely depleted his army's strength.

It is said that Richard's body was dragged naked through the streets before being buried at Greyfriars Church, Leicester. According to one tradition, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries his body was thrown into the nearby River Soar, although other evidence suggests that this may not be the case and that his burial site may currently be under a car park in Leicester. There is currently a memorial plaque in the Cathedral where he may have once been buried. A body dragged from Soar and initially believed to be Richard was later found to be an Anglo-Saxon warrior who died nearly 500 years before Richard was killed. This conclusion was made through both carbon dating and the size of the body and the thickness of the bones- Richard is described in contemporary accounts as being rather short and stocky.


Since his death, Richard III has become one of England's most controversial kings. Modern historians recognise the damage done to his reputation by "historians" of the next reign, and particularly by William Shakespeare. Amongst other things, Richard was represented as physically malformed, which in those days was accepted as evidence of an evil character. However, it has been demonstrated that he could not have carried out most of the crimes attributed to him. The major exception is the question of whether he was responsible for the deaths of his nephews, the "Princes in the Tower".

The Richard III Society was set up during the 20th century in an attempt to rehabilitate Richard, and has gathered considerable research material about his life and reign. Its members, known as "Ricardians", hold events, raise monuments and attempt to preserve the king's memory.


Richard appears in the 2002 List of "100 Great Britons" (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public), alongside such others as David Beckham, Aleister Crowley, and Johnny Rotten. The BBC History Magazine lists him under "doubtful entrants, based on special interest lobbying or 'cult' status", and comments: "On the list due to the Ricardian lobby, but a minor monarch".

Fiction about Richard III

A lasting mystery surrounding the accession of Richard was the disappearance and presumed death of Richard's nephews, known as the Princes in the Tower. One of the most readable accounts of the evidence on all sides of the question is Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, written in 1951 (when some of the sources now available had not yet come to light). Another extremely rich view of the reign of Edward IV and Richard III is The Sunne in Splendor, by Sharon Kay Penman. An award-winning novel published in 2003, The Rose of York: Love & War by Sandra Worth, also presents the account of Richard III from the Ricardian viewpoint. Worth argues that Richard III's contribution to shaping a just society by improvements to the legal system was buried by the Tudors because it conflicted with the image of a villainous and hated monarch that they wished to present.

The American Branch of the Richard III Society carries out its own review of all the suspects in the case of Richard III, in "Whodunit?" in the online library at (external link).

Another fictional representation is the 1939 film Tower of London, where Basil Rathbone is Richard and Boris Karloff his evil henchman. Interestingly, while this Richard is clearly the monster of Tudor legend, most of his deformity appears to be transferred to Mort, who almost resembles "Igor" of Frankenstein legends!

Additionally, a secret history of Richard III is presented in the British sitcom Blackadder.

Further reading

Source material on all aspects of Richard's reign is neatly and impartially brought together by Keith Dockray in Richard III: A Reader in History (Sutton, 1988).

External links

For the play Richard III by William Shakespeare, see Richard III (play)

Last updated: 08-02-2005 00:35:14
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