Becoming Richard III

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of King Edward IV, began his reign as King Richard III on 26 June 1483, although he wouldn’t have his coronation until 6 July.


Richard III became king during one of the vicious times in English royal history. Seriously, it makes the fictional Game of Thrones look a bit Pollyanna in comparison. Ever since Henry of Bolingbroke usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II and become Henry IV, there had been sporadic outbreaks of civil war among the descendants of King Edward III. Richard had grown up in the thick of these intrigues, the youngest son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York and Cecily Neville. Richard was only 9 years old when his eldest brother became king in 1461, but the little boy had already been held as a political prisoner by the Duchess of Buckingham and the Archbishop of Canterbury (along with his next oldest brother, George (later Duke of Clarence), and had dealt with the aftermath of his father and teenaged brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland being killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, and being sent as a refugee for safety with George to the Low Countries by their worried mother.

After that first turbulent decade, he spent the next decade as a royal sibling and learning how to hold onto that position by force of arms. The actual king, Henry VI, was still alive (although mad as a March hare) and being held in the Tower, and the deposed Prince of Wales, Edward of Westminster, was plotting to try to regain his throne in France. Richard, newly made the Duke of Gloucester, went to live with his mother’s cousin, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, in Yorkshire to learn how to hold his own in battle.

Warwick was absolutely crucial to Edward IV’s reign. Without Warwick’s support, there was every chance the York reign would end. So Richard had every reason to be attached to Warwick, and was believed to have already fallen in love with Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville. Thank goodness Richard’s brother wasn’t stupid enough to jeopardize his shaky throne by alienating Warwick!

Ha! I jest. Edward, although he would remain a tremendous, unfaithful horn-dog throughout his marriage, fell in love with a relative nobody named Elizabeth Woodville and wed her in spite of the fact Warwick was negotiating a match for him in France.

Warwick was humiliated and pissed off, and the king handled it in the worst way possible. Instead of placating the Kingmaker, Edward became didactic and tried to cow Warwick with his royal authority. Worse, Edward was busy elevating his new queen’s family with lands and honors, some of which he had promised Warwick. Queen Elizabeth, knowing Warwick despised herself and her family, went out of her way to convince Edward to block Warwick’s policies. Needless to say, this didn’t go over a treat. Then, to put icing the whole cake of shit, Edward forbid the marriage of Warwick’s daughters to the royal siblings, George and Richard. This was pure spite, to teach Warwick who was really king. Richard obeyed his brother, but George married Warwick’s eldest daughter, Isabel Neville, in the summer of 1469 against the king’s orders.

Edward would pay for his arrogance, although Warwick would eventually pay even more. Warwick turned on Edward, as did his new son-in-law George. They defeated Edward’s army at the Battle of Edgecote Moor on 26 July 1469, and captured Edward himself at Olney. Warwick tried to be the monarch for a while, but when it became clear that no one was having that,  Warwick let Edward go free on 10 September 1469, with the condition that Edward play nicely with the other nobles and listen to Warwick more than the queen.

Edward, bright enough to realize he had caused most of the problems by being stubborn and too high-handed, tried to make peace with Warwick and George. In spite of everything the teen-aged Richard could do to encourage reconciliation between his brothers and his would-be father-in-law, Warwick and George rebelled again in March 1470.  This time Edward won, and Warwick ran away to France on 1 May to recover. There he teamed up with Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, and married Richard’s hoped-for bride Anne off Edward of Westminster. Backed by French royalty, Warwick came back to England with an invading army on 9 September 1470. Edward, who found out Warwick’s brother John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu, wasn’t going to remain neutral but actually back his brother up, knew there was no way to win so he high-tailed it to Flanders with the ever-loyal Richard by his side.

What did Richard think of the Readeption of Henry VI? It had driven one brother off the throne, made another brother turn traitor, pitted him against a father figure, and lost him the woman he loved. Why didn’t Richard turn on Edward too?

I think Richard did the very human thing and rationalized away the sins of those he loved by blaming a scapegoat for their behavior – Elizabeth Woodville.

You’ve noticed how wives blame the “other woman” for their husbands’ infidelity, or the parents of dug addicts will blame the drug dealer for their kids’ drug use rather than blame the drug user? Explaining away the errors of someone you love and blaming someone you don’t love is something 99% of all people do, and the 1% do it and are delusional about it. When your “team” does something there is ALWAYS a good reason for it (or it wasn’t THAT bad) compared to when the other “team” does it. I’ve heard people try to justify American torture in the Middle East and get completely enraged when it is compared to what Nazi’s did. That, they explain, is DIFFERENT. Just like hating Muslim refugees is DIFFERENT than hating Jewish refugees in the 1930s because Sharia-Law-Muslims-Really-Are-Bad-Not-Just-Racism. Pointing out similarities between the two things causes the person rationalizing things to experience cognitive dissonance and they will become very angry and usually get VERY angry at the person calling them out on it.

I know about this. I am nearly always the woman who has caused someone to become livid with my refusal to accept (or at least remain politely quiet about) an illogical rationalization. Men who call bullshit out are disliked enough, but for a woman to do it is nearly a cultural crime.

But I digress.

The point is, there was a turning point in Edward’s life that nearly cost his little brother everything – and that was Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Then there is the fact that neither Edward or Elizabeth were properly contrite about makings such an unpopular, destabilizing marriage … blame that on Elizabeth too. People angry because the Woodville’s were getting such benefits? Elizabeth to blame! Father figure Warwick driven away? Elizabeth egged Edward on to ignore Warwick! Even Richard’s mother hated Edward’s marriage, and yet Edward chose his wife! Elizabeth Woodville is to blame for all Edward’s mistakes!

Richard wasn’t alone in doing it (if my theory is right). Even historians have traditionally tended to blame Elizabeth Woodville for Edward’s mistakes, just as many have condemned Margaret of Anjou for causing the War of the Roses by “antagonizing” the 3rd Duke of York.

By early May of 1471, Edward and Richard and their reconciled brother George had put Edward back on the throne and killed all the major Lancastrian enemies (except Harri Tudur). Richard, in a truly romantic style, fought hard to and gave major concessions to his brother George to finally be allowed to marry Anne Neville in 1472. In June of the next year he talked his mother-in-law into coming to live with them, probably more for Anne’s comfort than any other reason.

Nor did Richard hold a grudge against George, even though George was acting like a total brat. When George finally got himself executed for treason, there was little or no evidence Richard had encouraged it.

Richard forgave Edward for killing George, as well. No matter what Edward did that Richard disapproved of, he remained loyal to his big brother. The “worst” Richard would do against Edward was to refuse to compromise his honor even when his brother did it. For example,

Although well known to have publicly been against the eventual treaty signed with Louis XI at Picquigny (and absent from the negotiations, in which one of his rank would have been expected to take a leading role), he acted as Edward’s witness when the king instructed his delegates to the French court, and received ‘some very fine presents’ from Louis on a visit to the French king at Amiens. In refusing other gifts, which included ‘pensions’ in the guise of ‘tribute’, he was joined only by Cardinal Bourchier. He supposedly disapproved of Edward’s policy of personally benefitting—politically and financially—from a campaign paid for out of a parliamentary grant, and hence out of public funds.

In 1472 Edward IV set up the Council of the North and, as Governor of the North and Constable of England, Richard was in charge of it. Although he signed everything in the king’s name, he was pretty much de facto king in York. He did a hella good job of it. He was fair, honorable, and gave even lower class citizens a crack at actual justice.  He also defended England from a Franco-Scots invasion, with excellent results. Everything got better for northern England with Richard in charge, and the people there loved him dearly. If Edward IV hadn’t died young on 9 April 1483, history would have remembered Richard as nothing other than one of the best, most loyal, and honorable royals ever to grace the English nobility.

Alas, Edward did die, and his twelve-year-old son, Edward V, became king. On his death bed, Edward IV had made his beloved and trusted brother Richard the Lord Protector of the realm, so he could help and guide young King Edward V as he learned to govern. The queen, a mere woman, was shut out of power, but the new king’s maternal uncles were not, especially since they were so influential with their nephew.

Richard headed south to London to crown his nephew and assume his role as Lord Protector. As had been agreed upon with the new king’s maternal kin, Richard and his cousin, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, met the king’s uncle Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers at Northampton on 29 April so they could all ride together with the king toward London. Shortly after joining, Richard caught Rivers,  Richard Grey (the king’s half-brother by Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage), and Thomas Vaughan totally off guard by arresting them and charging them with plotting against the Protectorate. They were shocked to hear about this, since it was almost certainly bullshit. Nonetheless, they were imprisoned and Richard headed off to take Edward V to London.

When she heard about the arrest of her older brother’s and second son’s arrest on 30 April,  Elizabeth Woodville quickly took her eldest son by her first marriage, Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset, and the children she had with her (five daughters and her youngest son Richard, Duke of York) to Westminster Abbey to claim sanctuary. There was, at this point, no hint that Edward V wasn’t going to be crowned on 22 June as expected; the Dowager Queen was probably more afraid of herself and Thomas Grey being arrested than any of them being murdered. She probably assumed Richard was consolidating his singular influence over Edward V by removing any of the pro-Woodville faction from court. She certainly didn’t seem afraid when the Archbishop of Canterbury convinced her to let him take her youngest son, Edward V’s brother Richard, Duke of York, with him to court so the boy could attend the coronation.

Richard, Buckingham, and king entered London on 4 May to the cheers of the crowd. At the suggestion of the Duke of Buckingham’s suggestion, Edward was moved into in the Royal Apartments of the Tower, where royalty traditionally stayed before they were crowned.  Although some of the Woodville loyalists were being locked up or were nervous, no one thought the throne wouldn’t have Edward V’s butt on it in a few weeks. Also, no one thought that Richard – loyal, honest-to-a-fault, justice-loving, religiously devout Richard – would kill his nephews.

Meanwhile, Richard let it be known he thought the Woodvilles were trying to murder him so THEY could rule through the new king. During the second week of June, Richard wrote to wrote to several of his allies warning them he needed their help because “the Queen, her blood adherents and affinity” were plotting against him and would kill him if they could. Since the family had made themselves insanely unpopular by rising too high, too fast upon Elizabeth’s marriage to King Edward IV, this fear seemed plausible to many people. Who knew what those Woodvilles were up to! Buckingham’s agreement with Richard helped bolster the accusations. Buckingham may have been one of Richard’s closest friends and allies as well as his kinsman, but he was married to Catherine Woodville, one of Elizabeth Woodville younger sisters, so there was no reason for him not to want his nephew to be king (his children were Edward V’s first cousins, after all!) or to have a personal grudge against the Woodvilles.

On 13 June Richard accused several members of the Privy Council of conspiring against him. One of the accused, William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings had been Edward IV’s Lord Chamberlain and the man who had urged Richard to come to London ASAP when Edward IV died. Even though Hastings was one of the richest and most powerful men in the country, Richard had him dragged outside and beheaded without trial on the spot. Other members of the Privy Council were simply arrested and placed in the custody of Richard’s most trusted friends.

In hindsight, it is hard to see this as anything other than Richard’s excuse to purge the Privy Council of people loyal to the son of Edward IV and/or who might protest when Richard declared them illegitimate. At the time, however, people were prone to believe Richard even though they were nearly shell-shocked by Hasting’s execution. Richard had been so loyal, and so honorable, for so long that people gave him the benefit of the doubt. Richard, the adored and righteous brother of King Edward IV, the duke who had made Yorkshire safe and prosperous, the man who had always put country, justice, and family first, would NEVER lie and use the law to murder a nobleman!

This belief in Richard’s inherent, to the bone goodness also shielded him from initial suspicion when, on 22 June, instead of a coronation the people of London got to hear a sermon on the steps of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral declaring Edward’s children by Elizabeth Woodville were bastards because their father had been precontracted to Eleanor Butler, and because the king had died without legitimate issue, his brother Richard had to be the rightful king. Again, the universal surety that Richard would never lie about something so important came to his aid. If Richard believed it, it had to be true. Thus, “the citizens of London, both nobles and commons, convened and drew up a petition asking Richard to assume the throne. He accepted on 26 June and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 6 July 1483.”


Even when it became known that Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn had been executed on 25 June for treason, Richard’s reputation for honesty and judiciary fairness supported him. The men had been given a chance to defend themselves to a tribunal led by Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland, so their beheadings were all legal and aboveboard. It was only when no one could get in to see Edward IV’s sons, the “bastards” kept in the Tower, that the tide began to turn against Richard.

Richardians’ greatest defense of Richard III lies in the argument that he was too deep-dyed noble of spirit to kill two young boys for power (let alone the sons of his adored big brother!) and their explanation for the Prince’s disappearance is mostly SODI (some other dude did it). SODI is the technique used by defense lawyers all the time, and it often works regardless of the accused criminal’s means, motive, opportunity, and lack of alibi … as anyone who remembers the OJ Simpson murder trial can tell you.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the the most glaring and obvious indication of Richard’s guilt in the death of the Princes is the way people turned against him by the autumn of 1483. He was an excellent king from the get-go, applying the same standards of decency and fairness throughout England that he had implemented in the north as governor, so there had to be a damn good reason his subjects started loathing him enough to rebel before the trees had lost their foliage.

Then there is the matter of WHO was out to get him. It makes sense that the Woodvilles would be conspiring against him; they would naturally want to put Edward V back on the throne. But why did one of Richard’s most devoted friends, the Duke of Buckingham, suddenly change sides and work to overthrow Richard? Why would, as reputable historians insist, the “whole Yorkist establishment” made up of those who were “overwhelmingly Edwardian loyalists” have turned so violently against such a good king?

The failure of Buckingham’s rebellion due to weather did not stop the conspiracies, either. Richard tried to minimize the effects by having the Parliament pass the Titulus Regius, which assured everyone that Richard was the true and lawful king, but grumbling continued and rumors that he had murdered his nephews continued to spread. If Richard hadn’t murdered the boys by then, why in the hell didn’t he trot them out to prove his innocence. It would have gone a long way toward quelling the public unhappiness. Richard wasn’t stupid; why didn’t he show them if they were still alive? Even if the boys were murdered without his orders by someone trying to “help”, why didn’t he pull a Henry II, repent, and set up a shrine? God knows Richard was pious (his gifts to charity and the church were lavish), so why didn’t he just wail and moan and have people forgive him for the accidental murder of his nephews, which (considering his good works in all other areas) they probably would have?

Or was it that Richard had given the order for the deaths of his nephews, and would lie so badly and publically that God might not forgive him. It was one thing to ask forgiveness in a confessional, it was another thing entirely to make a fake atonement for real sin publically. And could he truly repent? What if he was only sorry it HAD to be done, for the good of England?

If, as is most likely, Richard killed his nephews, how did a man so devoted to doing good bring himself to do such an immoral act? I submit both the aforementioned rationalization (they had to die; it was for the best) and the common psychological phenomenon of self justification. Self justification “describes how, when a person encounters cognitive dissonance, or a situation in which a person’s behavior is inconsistent with their beliefs, that person tends to justify the behavior and deny any negative feedback associated with the behavior.” Everybody does it, and everybody thinks they AREN’T doing it. It’s how nice people excuse becoming a Nazi, leaders commit genocide, religious men condone hideous violence or terrorism, how John Doe makes cheating on his wife seem reasonable, and how an otherwise honest person reconfigures taking a second cookie from a basket saying “one free cookie per person” as not really doing something wrong because it is only a freaking cookie.

From Richard’s point of view, he might have convinced himself that overthrowing the boys was justified because 1) everything knew their was an evil witch who tricked/bespelled Edward into marriage so they were really legitimate in the first place and 2) a Woodville on the throne would be a nightmare for England. He could have then justified their murder by assuring himself it was the only way to guarantee stability. So many more people would die if his nephew’s lived to cause another civil war! Their mother was in league with the devil so it was safer to make sure they could never be freed to wreck havoc. He had a fine son, a boy who was everything good and wonderful, who could inherit and would make a better king than either of Elizabeth Woodvilles little bastards. (Richard’s son didn’t die until 1484.) There could have been so many reasons to justify their deaths, and any residual or long-standing hatred for Elizabeth Woodville would have richly fed those thoughts.

Regardless of Richard’s motives, everything festered and the situation became ripe for Harri Tudur, who otherwise would have had a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming king, to invade to depose Richard.

On 22 August 1485, Richard met the outnumbered forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field … the Royal army ‘substantially’ outnumbered Tudor’s. The traditional view of the king’s famous cries of “Treason!” before falling was that during the battle Richard was abandoned by Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, [his brother] Sir William Stanley, and [maybe] Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland … Despite appearing “a pillar of the Ricardian regime”, and his previous loyalty to Edward IV, Lord Stanley’s wife, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was Henry Tudor’s mother, and Stanley’s inaction, combined with his brother’s entering the battle on Tudor’s behalf was fundamental to Richard’s defeat … Either way, Richard led a cavalry charge deep into the enemy ranks in an attempt to end the battle quickly by striking at Henry Tudor himself … King Richard fought bravely and ably during this manoeuvre, unhorsing Sir John Cheyne, a well-known jousting champion, killing Henry’s standard bearer Sir William Brandon and coming within a sword’s length of Henry Tudor before being surrounded by Sir William Stanley’s men and killed … contemporary Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn implies a leading Welsh Lancastrian Rhys ap Thomas, or one of his men, killed the king … The identification in 2013 of King Richard’s body shows that the skeleton had 11 wounds, eight of them to the skull, clearly inflicted in battle … Polydore Vergil, Henry Tudor’s official historian, recorded that “King Richard, alone, was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies”.

Thus ended the reign of the last Plantagenet king, a great man with what I believe to be one massive stain on his otherwise exemplary record.



My latest book, Mansfield Parsonage: A Mansfield Park Regency Novel, is available online or at a book store near you!

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