Why Did Buckingham Turn on Richard III?

Henry Stafford was only six years old when he became the 2nd Duke of Buckingham.


He was born on 4 September 1454, the only son of Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Stafford and Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Stafford, (a cousin of Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother). When his father died of the injuries he sustained fighting for the House of Lancaster at the First Battle of St Albans in 1458, the four year old Henry became the Earl of Stafford and the Yorkist King Edward IV of England snatched little Henry up and made the child his ward.

The little boy then became the Duke of Buckingham in 1460 following the death of his grandfather, Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham, in the Battle of Northampton, where the elderly duke was slaughtered while defending King Henry VI with his life. Henry Stafford was now an incredibly valuable ward for the king. He was also a significant bargaining chip, vis-à-vis his future marriage. Many noblemen wished to eventually wed their well-dowered daughters to Henry, and thus ally themselves with some of the greatest peerages in the land.

But then Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of John Grey of Groby, in a secret ceremony on 1 May 1464 and Buckingham was taken off the marriage mart not long thereafter.


Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were sincerely in love, but their union was completely asinine from a political standpoint. Edward and his bride then further alienated almost every one of the king’s allies by advancing the entire Woodville/Grey family at the expense of men he should have been lavishly rewarding. A lot of this was blamed on the Woodville’s themselves, especially the beautiful new bride, who was suspected of literally ‘bewitching’ the king to make him marry her.

One of the things that irked Edward’s courtiers was that the king married Henry Stafford, now eleven years old, to Queen Elizabeth’s six year old sister, Catherine Woodville, in a clandestine ceremony sometime before the queen’s coronation in May 1465. He had, from their point of view, “thrown away” a duke to make that strumpet he married happy.

Dissatisfaction with the king’s behavior lost him the crown in 1470, during the Readeption of Henry VI, but Edward he won his throne back in 1471 and made it quite clear that his wife was not going to be separated from him.

Buckingham, in spite of rumors, doesn’t seem to have minded the marriage. There is no indication that he and Catherine were more or less happy in marriage than any other Medieval couple. They had four surviving children, two boys and two girls, and never had a major falling out.

Nevertheless, Buckingham’s first loyalty was always to the York family. Even though the Yorks had killed his father and grandfather, Henry was devoted to both King Edward and particularly to the king’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard was born on 2 October 1452, so he was only two years older than Buckingham and they would have been raised together practically as brothers in Edward’s court.


When Edward IV died in 1483, Buckingham appears to have whole-heartedly believed Richard when the duke told him that there was evidence that Edward’s sons were, in fact, illegitimate due to a precontract between their father and Eleanor Talbot Butler. Buckingham backed Richard to the very hilt when Richard declared himself King Richard III. Not only did Buckingham argue in favor of Richard’s noble intentions to the Privy Council when they named Richard the under-age King Edward V’s protector, when Richard made his move for the crown the duke spent 24 of June 1483 urging “the citizens at the Guildhall to take Richard as king”. Buckingham convinced them, and Thomas More would later say the duke was “of nature marvellously well spoken”. Buckingham also sweet-talked the mayor and the most important men in London on behalf of Richard, as well as exhorting a pseudo-Parliament to declare Richard the rightful king in the place of Edward V.

London chroniclers would later maintain that “it was Buckingham’s golden oratory that persuaded the citizens of London to offer Richard the crown.”

Henry_Stafford 2nd duke of buckingham

Richard clearly valued Buckingham and considered him one of his closest friends, as well as a trusted ally. It was Buckingham who carried Richard’s train in the coronation procession on 6 July, and it was Buckingham who and led the lords in homage to their new king. In return for his loyalty and devotion, Richard made Buckingham the Constable of England, as well as Chief Justice and Lord Chamberlain of Wales. He also gave Buckingham the stewardship of more than four dozen castles in Wales and the Welsh Marches.

So why, just a few weeks after Richard was crowned, did Buckingham join a conspiracy to dethrone Richard in favor of Henry Tudor?

Henry Tudor in France

An Italian who was in London during Richard’s rise to power named Dominic Mancini claimed that Buckingham turned on Richard due to the fact he “resented” that he had been forced to wed Katherine Woodville (in The Usurpation of Richard III, edited by C.A.J. Armstrong, 2nd edition, 1969). This, however, is weak cheese since Richard would have had nothing to do with their union, being only thirteen years old himself at the time. Various writers have theorized that Buckingham, “hoped to win yet more power and perhaps the crown itself” or that he was repulsed by “the rumour that Richard had had the Princes done away with” or that his prisoner, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, talked him into it.

Personally, I think it is because he found out Richard III had ordered the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

death of princes in the tower

People were already plotting to rescue the princes and give the throne back to the rightful king, Edward V, by the end of July. The Croyland Chronicles claim that, “In order to release them [the princes] from such captivity, the people from the South and the West of the Kingdom began to murmur greatly and to form assemblies and confederacies, many of which worked in secret, others openly, and with this aim.” There was an attempt to free the boys in July, but it failed. The princes were seen less and less, until they eventually disappeared altogether. 

Before Buckingham joined the rebellion (although it is called Buckingham’s rebellion, the revolt was well underway and being orchestrated principally by Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, Bishop Morton and Reginald Bray), the object of the insurrection was to restore Edward V to the throne. Margaret Beaufort wanted nothing more than to secure her son’s inheritance as an earl, as was already being discussed during Edward IV’s lifetime. After Buckingham became involved, the goal post shifted to crowning Henry Tudor. According to “Richard’s own parliament of 1484”, it was Buckingham who wrote to Henry Tudor on 24 September to propose that Tudor “should return from exile, take the throne and marry Elizabeth of York, elder sister of the Tower Princes.” There would have been no reason to seek an alternative king to Edward V unless both he and his little brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, were dead.

Princes in the Tower

By September, the rumor that the boys had been murdered was spreading like wildfire, stirring up the populace against King Richard. The king did not reveal the boys to anyone to refute the claims, not even after the revolt against him in October. Why not show the world his political enemies were liars, making him out to be a monster? The continued absence of the princes is why I think they were already dead by the time of Buckingham’s rebellion.

Some people suggest that Buckingham himself participated in or ordered the murder of the princes. “According to a manuscript discovered in the early 1980s in the College of Arms collection, the Princes were murdered “be [by] the vise” of the Duke of Buckingham. There is some debate over whether “vise” is meant as “advice” or “devise”. The motive may have been to either assist Richard (in that case, why rebel?) or to get to the throne himself, since he had a better claim to it than Henry Tudor. But then why was he the one that supposedly changed the aim of the rebellion from rescuing the princes to giving the throne to the exiled Tudor? Why not declare that Richard had killed them, and point out that he [Buckingham] was the closest available person to topple Richard. Why bring up Henry Tudor, especially since Buckingham’s decent from Edward III was technically more valid than Tudor’s? What, other than disgust that Richard had murdered his nephews, could have made Buckingham turn on the king that had given him so much, and now support a Welshman with an inferior claim to the throne than his own?

At any rate, Buckingham’s rebellion in October 1483 was a bust.

Buckingham raised a substantial force from his estates in Wales and the Marches … [but] Henry Tudor’s ships ran into a storm and were forced to return … Buckingham’s army was troubled by the same storm and deserted when Richard’s forces came against them. Buckingham tried to escape in disguise, but was either turned in by a retainer for the bounty Richard had put on his head, or was discovered in hiding with him. He was convicted of treason and beheaded in Salisbury, near the Bull’s Head Inn, on 2 November.

With Buckingham dead, King Richard III’s throne was no more secure. Accusations that he killed the princes continued, so that Henry Tudor was greeted by rebellious nobles in support when he invaded England in 1485.

After Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485, the new monarch, King Henry VII, made Buckingham’s seven year old son Edward the 3rd Duke of Buckingham. He also made the little boy a Knight of the Order of the Bath and participated in Henry’s coronation. Buckingham’s widow, Catherine Woodville, married Jasper Tudor, the king’s uncle. Both Edward and his little brother, Henry Stafford, were made wards of the King’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and were given distinguished places at court.

7 thoughts on “Why Did Buckingham Turn on Richard III?

  1. There is evidence that it was Buckingham who had the boys murdered … although in whose interests is unknown. The behavior of both kings (Richard and Henry — neither of whom immediately proclaimed someone else’s guilt; Henry waited a decade before publicizing that “Richard dunnit”) is explained by Buckingham’s guilt, in that an immediate accusation is likely to bite either king in the ass. Elizabeth Woodville’s behavior also indicates some doubt as to who really killed her sons … or in whose interests. (Not just leaving sanctuary, but also , Vergil says she wrote to her one surviving son — in France with Henry Tudor — and asked him to make peace with Richard …. with no mention of force. )

    For example, an article by Richard F. Green, “Historical notes of a London citizen, 1483-1488,” English Historical Review 96 (1981), pp. 585-590 notes n entry for 1482-83 (the mayoral year ending 28 October) in a London commonplace book: “this yer King Edward the vth…and Richard duke of Yourke hys brother…wer put to deyth in the Towur of London be the vise of the duke of Buckingham.” There is debate if the word “vise” means “advice” or “device”. I think it means “device”

    Two writers have noted that Buckingham had a claim of his own to the throne that would be helped by the boys death (especially if Richard was suspected.) One is J. Molinet, Chroniques, found in Collection des Chroniques nationales francaises, ed. J.A. Buchon, vol. 44, 1828, p. 402; mentioned by Kendall, p. 460.) The other is Vergil, who claimed that Buckingham also encouraged Richard to take the throne, with a view to blaming for “so many mischievous deeds, upon that intent that he afterward, being hated both of God and man, might be expelled from the same, and so himself be called by the commons to that dignity, whereunto he aspired by all means possible…” P. Vergil, Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, ed. Sir Henry Ellis, Camden Society, o.s. 29, 1844, p. 195.)

    1. But why would Buckingham turn on Richard so quickly, and why support Henry Tudor instead of making a run for the throne himself? And why didn’t Richard try to ameliorate the rumors of the boys’ deaths by allowing them to come out on a balcony and wave?

      1. Richard certainly couldn’t have the boys waving from a balcony if Buckingham had killed them. Furthermore, if it was so widely believed at the time of the 1483 rebellion that Richard had killed them, why didn’t it get more support? But, again, Richard’s failure to produce the boys is analogous to Henry’s inaction concerning Richard’s guilt immediately on taking the throne (like, for example, holding a requiem mass in their memory) Also, on the theory mentioned by Vergil, Buckingham would need Tudor to take on Richard; if this theory is correct, Buckingham probably planned to turn on Henry if the 1483 rebellion had worked. After all, the evidence against Buckingham is similar to that against Richard (contemporary accusations; motive), it is only to be expected that the cases in their favor should also have some similarities (such as a few flaws).

  2. I don’t understand why Richard wouldn’t have taken action against Buckingham in the death of the Princes? Why didn’t he publicly accuse and execute Buckingham for this? If Buckingham had advised, then there would be need for secrecy, because Richard was culpable, but if not, and Buckingham had devised, then it should’ve been brought out.

    1. The theory is that Richard realized he wouldn’t be believed when he said that Buckingham did it without his knowledge; he hadn’t been on the throne long, and the south of England didn’t know him all that well. After all, Henry Tudor delayed in accusing Richard (by commissioning historical works, etc) until he had been on the throne long enough to insure that his word would be accepted.

  3. My theory is that the boys were secreted out of the tower by Brampton, who was a loyal friend to Richard. He went back to his native Portugal by the fall of 1483, he was trusted implicitly by Richard to secure their safety. There had to have been many cabals during such a politically insecure summer. I also believe there was a Woodville cabal to kill Richard and his family, Which hardened Richards heart against his enemies. Robert Brackenbury was constable of the tower at that time. He faught for Richard at Bosworth. He would not have if he knew Richard was responsible for his nephews death. The tower was a very busy place, a royal palace. People coming and going all the time. Children resided there. We can argue and speculate all day, but nothing proven either way on the fate of Edward and Richard Plantagenet.

  4. Perhaps Buckingham didn’t turn on Richard. Perhaps it was Richard who turned on Buckingham because of the murders. That would explain why Buckingham then needed to support Henry rather than make a claim to the throne himself. He couldn’t do it as the truth would out. Richard wouldn’t deny anything, as at that time, he wasn’t being blamed, he was bust pursuing Buckingham. On Edward the 4ths death, had the Woodville’s not gone immediately about securing their position against the wishes of the dead king’s will, would Richard 3rd have needed to do any of the things he did? Perhaps it was they who had more to do with Edwards death than history is able to prove.

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