Richard III: A Life

Richard III: A Life

Richard III is a contradiction. His life inspired both hatred and adulation in almost equal measure with little in between to give us a deeper understanding of Shakespeare's great tyrant. Thomas More's biography of Richard allowed More a foothold into the Tudor court, but did it illuminate Richard or just cover him in so much villainy that the historical view of him has been blurred by it. Richard's reputation after his death at Bosworth has been tainted by the accusation that he killed his nephews in the Tower of London and that he usurped a throne he had no right to. But Richard's life was so much more than just the events following the death of his brother Edward IV and his brief reign as King of England. His life covers a bitter civil war and the end of a three-hundred-year dynasty.

The future King Richard III was born in 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Richard's mother, Lady Cecily Neville, was a descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Richard's father, Richard of York, was the leader of the Yorkist faction in the increasingly divided English politics following the end of the 100 year's war with France. York was the richest noble in England and his bitter rivalry with Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, was one of the driving factors behind the earliest battles of the approaching Wars of the Roses. The rivalry between York and Somerset began when they were both fighting in France in the 1430's and 1440's. York believed that Somerset had been incompetent in France in the way he'd handled military operations and publicly accused him of this. After the English defeat the feud between the two spilled over into English domestic politics and then disaster struck.

King Henry VI was not the man his father was. Henry V was a warrior and natural leader, Henry VI passions in life were religion and education. When Richard of York was recalled from Ireland to re-join the council, he raised an army and demanded the arrest of Somerset. Henry VI originally agreed but his Queen, Margaret Beaufort, intervened. England was dangerously close to civil war. By the summer of 1453 the English position in France was weak. After Henry VI received the news that his army had been defeated at the Battle of Castillion he suffered a nervous breakdown, possibly catatonic schizophrenia. Henry VI was now incapacitated and unresponsive. England was now essentially Kingless.

Henry VI illness plunged government into crisis. No constitutional mechanism existed for such an eventuality as a mentally ill King. By 1454 England desperately needed stability. York was appointed Lord Protector and Somerset was imprisoned in the Tower. York had also acquired a very powerful ally in his dispute with the King's faction, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. The Earl of Warwick had aligned with York after he became involved in a land dispute with Somerset. Warwick's father, the Earl of Salisbury, was already aligned to York and with the addition of Warwick York was now the de-facto King with a strong support network of wealthy backers who felt they hadn't been rewarded very well by Henry VI.

During Christmas, 1454, Henry VI regained his senses. This news was not warmly welcomed by nobles who had aligned themselves with York. Now the King had come back to life they would lose all the power and status they had gained as a result of York's Protectorate. Civil war was now a real possibility. By Spring, 1455, the King's faction was firmly restored to power. Somerset was released from the Tower and all of York's supporters had to resign the offices he'd given them. York, Salisbury and Warwick were summoned to Leicester but instead they raised an army. The King's faction realised too late what was afoot and didn't have enough time to raise a proper army to face down the Yorkist army.

Confrontation between the two sides was now inevitable and they met at the First Battle of St. Albans. The Lancastrian army of roughly 2,000 was commanded by the Duke of Somerset, the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Northumberland and Baron Clifford. Henry VI was also technically a commander at St. Albans but did little commanding of any troops. The Yorkist army of roughly 5,000 was commanded by York himself and the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Warwick. Just before the battle began Henry VI gave the command of his army to Buckingham over Somerset. Henry's decision was probably driven by Somerset's previous military failures. The battle began with the King's army attempting to defend the town. The King's army was surprised by the strength and speed of the Yorkist attack and the King's army soon disintegrated. Somerset himself was found and killed. Henry VI was wounded and taken prisoner. The Battle of St. Albans was a comprehensive Yorkist victory. York's hated enemy Somerset was killed and Henry VI exposed, if he hadn't been already, as a weak and ineffectual force.

This was the world that the young Richard was being raised in. Violence was a necessity if you were to survive. Richard's elder brothers, Edward and Edmund, were now old enough to start actively taking part in the unfolding events. After a few years of uneasy peace following the battle of St. Albans, violence erupted again in England after Richard of York officially laid claim to the crown. Henry VI agreed to name York as his heir, but Margaret of Anjou was loathed to accept the disinheritance of her son, Edward of Lancaster. After battles at Blore Heath and Northampton, which were Yorkist victories, Henry VI was captured by the Yorkists after the battle of Northampton. With Henry VI as their prisoner the Yorkists appeared to be gaining the upper hand but then Richard of York was killed at the battle of Wakefield along with his son Edmund in a sweet tasting victory for the Lancastrians.

After the death of Richard of York, the Yorkists claim was taken up by York's eldest son and heir, Edward. Edward was a very different character from his father. Unlike York, Edward had an affable and easy going charm that won him, and kept him, friends. The first battle that Edward led against the Lancastrians was at Mortimer's Cross. The Lancastrians were led by Owen Tudor, grandfather to the future Henry VII. Edward led the Yorkists to victory and Tudor was executed after the battle in one of the earliest signs of Edward's ruthlessness. The next battle led by Edward against the Lancastrians was the second battle of St. Albans. This time the Lancastrians were victorious, and Henry VI was freed from Yorkist control.

After his defeat at the second battle of St. Albans Edward was determined to strike back. He'd suffered defeat and didn't like the taste. The next major battle of the Wars of the Roses was the battle of Towton. Towton was a decisive victory for the Yorkists and a crushing defeat for Lancaster. The Lancastrian elite were executed or had to flee abroad. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou sought refuge in Scotland. Edward of York was now King Edward IV and Richard was the youngest brother of the King of England.

Throughout the 1460's Richard's importance grew. He was made Duke of Gloucester and was given the education that a member of the Royal family could expect. Richard, since Shakespeare, has been portrayed as the troublesome brother, but this isn't the case. Richard's older brother, George, Duke of Clarence caused Edward IV nothing but trouble. Since the 1450's Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was the force behind the Yorkist cause. By the 1460's he was trying to arrange a marriage for Edward IV with a French Princess. He also wanted George and Richard to marry his daughters. Edward IV had a very different idea of marriage. In 1464 Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth was from a minor Lancastrian family and Edward had met her when she came to petition the King. Edward had married for love and lust. When Edward announced his marriage publicly Warwick was stunned. He'd been negotiating a French match for Edward whilst Edward was secretly marrying a relative commoner in England. This humiliated Warwick whose relationship with Edward rapidly deteriorated.

Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville led to old enemies becoming allies. Warwick and Clarence fled to France where they met the former Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and plotted to invade England. Whilst in France Clarence married Warwick's daughter, Isabel, against the wishes of Edward IV. Warwick and Clarence invaded England with the goal of putting Henry VI back on the throne. Edward was caught by surprise by the invasion and had no choice but to flee to Burgandy with Richard and his closest friend, William, Lord Hastings. Edward's sister was married to the Duke of Burgandy and the Duke was an essential ally if Edward was to recapture his throne. Edward was backed by wealthy Flemish merchants and managed to raise an army to invade England.

After Henry VI was restored, the same problems emerged. Henry was simply not capable of ruling the kingdom. His mental health problems were too severe, and his council rapidly descended into bitter rivalries, especially between Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Warwick. Beaufort held Warwick responsible for the death of his father and the two could never be reconciled. News of Edwards invasion reached the Council, and they immediately raised an army.

The battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury were the last decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses. Before the battle of Barnet Edward was reconciled with his brother Clarence who joined the Yorkist cause. Richard was one of the key commanders for the Yorkists at Barnet and was widely regarded as a skilled soldier even though he was only eighteen at the time of the battle. Warwick was killed at the battle of Barnet and his great dream of being king in all but name died with him. The Yorkist victory at Barnet was followed by the battle of Tewkesbury where Henry VI's and Margaret of Anjou's son, Edward of Lancaster, died. Only the life of Henry VI stood in Edward's way of becoming King of England for a second time.

Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London shortly after Tewksbury. Henry VI just couldn't be a medieval King. He had none of his father, Henry V's charisma. He couldn't control his leading magnates and his mental health meant he was incapable of doing the job he'd been born to do. It was widely rumoured at the time that Richard himself despatched Henry VI. Richard was now the younger brother of the King for the second time.

Throughout the 1470's Richard established himself as the ruler of the north. He was a highly effective military commander winning numerous victories over the Scots. In 1472 Richard married Warwick's other daughter, Anne. After the marriage Richard gained control of vast lands throughout northern England. Now that he and Clarence were both married to Warwick's daughters it led to conflict between the two over the divisions of Warwick's vast estates. Clarence had always been a troublesome presence in King Edward's life and when Clarence started to cause trouble again Edward's patience was over. The King had Clarence arrested and charged with Treason. Clarence was found guilty and, according to legend, was drowned in Malmsey wine in the Tower of London.

After Clarence's death and the death of Isabel, Richard was now the second most important person in the country. Edward IV now had two healthy sons and a loyal brother looking after affairs in the north. But then, in 1483, disaster struck. After going fishing Edward was taken ill. Edward died in April and stipulated in his will that Richard become Lord Protector.

After the death of Edward IV three competing power blocks emerged in England. Richard as Lord Protector, William, Lord Hastings and the Woodville's. As the weeks progressed after Edward's death, these competing power blocks became increasingly distrustful of each other. Richard had acquired a powerful but unstable ally in Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham who, throughout the spring of 1483, implanted dangerous ideas into Richard's mind. Richard decided to act against his enemies. Together with Buckingham Richard had Earl Rivers and his nephew arrested and executed. Rivers was the Queen's brother and was extremely close to Edward IV 's heir, Edward. This act was the beginning of Richard's grasp for power. Richard next moved against William, Lord Hastings. Richard accused Hastings of treason and had him beheaded without trial. Queen Elizabeth took sanctuary in London with her youngest son Richard. Edward was taken to the Tower of London and kept under Richard's protection. Only the lives of Edward IV's heirs stood between Richard and the Crown.

Richard needed to secure his position. His execution of Earl Rivers wasn't going to be forgotten by Edward who'd been raised by his uncle Rivers and the two were close. Richard decided to claim the crown for himself. Richard was crowned in July, 1483. Edward had been joined in the Tower by his brother Richard and the two Princes were seen less and less until they disappeared from public view. Suspicion was instantly directed at Richard with rumours rife that he'd murdered his nephews. There is no hard evidence that Richard killed his nephews, but he has been the prime suspect ever since.

Richard, in October, 1483 faced a major crisis as Henry Tudor attempted to invade with the support of the French King. His position was further threatened when his close ally, the Duke of Buckingham, joined the rebellion. Henry Tudor's attempted invasion failed because of bad weather and Buckingham was captured and executed. Richard had, by dumb luck, survived this threat to his throne.

By summer, 1485, Richard was more established on the throne. The looming threat of Henry Tudor still loomed large, and he'd lost his son and heir, Edward, but he had a new heir in his nephew, the Earl of Lincoln. Many in England had accepted his rule but two formidable women, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville were plotting against Richard. Through their shared doctor, Margaret and Elizabeth had agreed that Henry Tudor should invade England and marry Elizabeth of York. Henry, with support from the French King, landed in Wales with a force consisting mainly of French mercenaries. Richard heard of Tudor's invasion when he was in Nottingham and started raising an army.

The Battle of Bosworth was fought on the 22nd of August, 1485. The three main players were Richard III, Henry Tudor and Lord Stanley. Stanley had been a staunch Yorkist during the Wars of the Roses, but he was married to Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort. When Richard spotted Henry Tudor isolated with a small bodyguard he decided to charge. Lord Stanley had to take a side. His Yorkist loyalties were trumped by the temptation of becoming the father-in-law of the King and he intervened on Henry's side. Richard was cut down by Henry's Welsh Pikemen. The last Plantagenet King of England was dead. Tudor England had begun.

Richard III life has been shrouded in controversy ever since his death. Shakespeare and Thomas More's works portray him as a deformed tyrant and the image they painted of him has remained. He was a loyal servant of Edward IV fighting with him in good times and bad. He was a highly skilful soldier losing only one battle, Bosworth. He was a competent administrator of the north for his brother. But, when he seized his nephew's throne, he became something else, something ruthless. Something that destroyed the impressive record he'd established under the tutelage of Edward IV. Without the guiding hand of his brother, Richard made blunder after mistake. He became a usurper. He became a King who failed.