He was twelfth child (and eighth son) of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who was the great-great-grandson of King Edward III via Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence and Edward III’s grandson through Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York. The newborn Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, was also the great-granddaughter of Edward III through John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and his third wife Katherine Swynford. Little Richard, like his three surviving elder brothers, was arguably closer to the throne than the young man currently sitting on it — King Henry VI.
The eligibility of the Duke of York to be king, coupled with the mental instability of King Henry VI, led to the conflict known as the “Wars of the Roses“, a vicious battle to become monarch that would shape the infant Richard’s life. Those who supported the duke were called Yorkists, and those loyal to King Henry VI were called Lancastrians, and between them the country was nearly ripped into pieces.
Certainly families were decimated by the wars. When Richard was only 8 years old his father and his second eldest brother, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed at the Battle of Wakefield. Richard and his next older brother, 11 year old George (future Duke of Clarence), George were sent the Low Countries for safety by their widowed mother, while their eldest brother, the 18 year old soon-to-be King Edward IV, stayed in England to fight for the crown he was now claiming.
Edward was victorious at the at the Battle of Towton, and the new king brought his brothers back to Britain to be honored and trained in combat. George was created the Duke of Clarence and made a Knight of the Garter, and given the position of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, while Richard became the Duke of Gloucester, a Knight of the Garter, and a Knight of the Bath, and several other titles with ample lands attached.
Richard was also sent to be fostered by his mother’s nephew, Richard “Kingmaker” Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale. There Richard was trained in the arts of war, and met the lady he would eventually wed, Warwick’s youngest daughter, Anne Neville. The teenaged Richard also developed idiopathic scoliosis, giving him a curved spine as an adult, but NOT a hunched back. The scoliosis in no way prevented Richard from becoming an able warrior, and he matched his much taller and broader older brothers on the battlefield.
Trouble came to the Yorkist kingdom when Edward secretly wed Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful widow of John Grey of Groby, on 1 May 1464. Although Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, was of noble extraction, her father, Sir Richard Woodville, was a relatively poor knight before being given the title of 1st Earl Rivers by King Henry VI.
Edward’s marriage caused profound humiliation for the Earl of Warwick, who had been negotiating with King Louis XI of France in good faith to arrange a bride for Edward; the king’s hidden union made Warwick look like a fool or a liar to the French court. Edward compounded the insult to Warwick by refusing to allow his brothers, George and Richard, marry Warwick’s daughters, Isabel and Anne.
Edward also alienated his entire court by raising the whole Woodville family, often at the expense of followers who should have been rewarded for their support in his usurpation. Warwick capitalized on this dissatisfaction, and with the help of Edward’s brother George, overthrew and captured the king at Olney in 1469. The three men briefly reconciled and Edward was freed in 1470, but before the end of the year Edward had been deposed and was forced to take refuge in Flanders, which was then a part of Burgundy.
The 18 year old Richard, along with William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings, and Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, avoided capture and sailed to the Low Countries to join Edward in exile. Richard remained loyally by his brother’s side during the Readeption of Henry VI, even though the entire mess was Edward’s fault for getting up the nose of his chief allies.
Or did Richard blame Elizabeth Woodville and her ‘greedy’ family for that, rather than his brother?
The eldest and youngest of York’s sons hoped that their brother-in-law, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, would help them launch an attempt to retake Edward’s crown, but the duke wouldn’t commit to the cause until Louis XI of France declared war on Burgundy in 1471. Then, because Louis XI was Henry VI’s cousin, Burgundy provided £20,000, 36 ships and 1200 men to Edward so he could invade England and try to take the throne back.
In spite of his youth, during the invasion Richard proved himself to be an excellent military commander and fighter. At his first command, the Battle of Barnet, he outflanked the Duke of Exeter’s troops and – while fighting in the thick of the fray — helped win the day for his brother. Richard also held the vanguard for Edward at Battle of Tewkesbury and again fought manfully, although it was the Duke of Clarence, who had been recently reconciled to Edward and Richard, who murdered the disarmed Prince of Wales, Edward of Westminster. The sons of York then returned to London, where they discovered that King Henry VI died of ‘melancholy’ in the night, provided melancholy can be defined as smothered to death with a pillow.
After Edward had once more regained the throne, Richard was lavishly rewarded. He married Anne Neville and was given “all the Neville lands in the north of England, at the expense of Anne’s cousin, George Neville.” He was also made Lord President of the Council of the North and put in charge of guarding the northern counties from Scottish attack. As de facto King in the North, he “had the authority to summon the Border Levies and issue Commissions of Array to repel the Border raids. Together with the Earl of Northumberland he launched counter-raids, and when the king and council formally declared war in November 1480, he was granted £10,000 for wages.” Inasmuch as Richard tried to be a fair and just ruler of the north, he was beloved throughout the region, and in the city of York especially.
Richard quickly gained a reputation for decency and honesty. There is no evidence that he was aware of Edward’s plan to execute their brother George for treason in 1478 (although George had clearly been treasonous), so there was no hint that Richard was anything but loyal and loving to family members. That’s why when his brother Edward died 9 April 1483, allies of the new King Edward V urged Richard to hurry down from York and safeguard the new monarch as the Lord Protector of the realm. That’s why everyone was shocked to the back-teeth that Richard then took the throne for himself. That’s why the mysterious disappearance of his nephews, whom he very likely had murdered, rocked the kingdom on its foundations.
How could Richard, the noble and good, do such a horrible thing? Had he always been as power hungry as George, but hidden better? Or was there some powerful, personal, self-justification in his heart?
In 1484, the new King Richard III would march the Titulus Regius through Parliament, and it “revived the allegations of witchcraft against the dead Jacquetta when he claimed that she and Elizabeth had procured Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward IV through witchcraft.” Was this a ploy to make his nephews seem even more unworthy of the throne he had taken from them? Or did he really think the root of all the York problems grew in the fertile soil of the Woodville family, and thus it was God’s will that he usurp the crown of boys tainted by the blood of witches? Did he hate Elizabeth Woodville enough to think himself in the right to kill his nephews because they were HER evil little whelps?
Richard was “killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies” at the Battle of Bosworth Field a mere two years after taking the crown. Because his nephews had disappeared, nearly all of southern England had turned against a man once ubiquitously lauded for his loyalty and wisdom and courage. Instead of renown, now Richard would be covered with ignominy, as history and culture added slander to the truths of his misdeeds and forgot about his copious good qualities and plethora of honorable actions.
Worse, thanks to the death of his nephews and his son, he was the last Plantagenet king. The irony, the pervasive and terrible irony, is that if Richard had simply waited and been loyal to his nephews, not only would the Plantagenet dynasty probably still be extant, the odds are good that it would be HIS descendants on the throne today, and definitely not Henry VII’s.
You see, if Kell positive blood caused Henry VIII such profound reproductive issues, and the Kell positive gene came from Jacquetta of Luxembourg as speculated, then there is every likelihood that the sons of Elizabeth Woodville would have trouble begetting living sons as their maternal uncle’s did.
Richard, instead of being killed at Bosworth, would have had time to remarry and perhaps have had sons of his own. Those sons, or grandsons, would have come to the throne much like James V of Scotland, the great-grandson of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, eventually became James I of England. Richard, instead of being maligned as a hunchbacked, vicious murderer, would have become a footnote in history as a loyal brother rewarded by karma when his own grandson became king.