Was Richard III a good king or a bad king, and what do we mean by that?

What is a king or a queen? There is no simple answer to this question – or, rather, there are several answers and they are constantly changing. It is important to keep this in mind when forming judgements of individual rulers. They can only be fairly assessed in the light of contemporary beliefs and ideas. Two fundamental questions we need to ask are, ‘What did this ruler think he or she should be doing?’ and ‘What did his/her subjects think he or she should be doing?’

It is ironic that some of the fiercest arguments about what constitutes a good king have, for centuries, raged around the reputation of the monarch who had the shortest reign in the last thousand years of English history (excluding Edward V, Lady Jane Grey and Edward VIII, who were proclaimed but never crowned). No reputation has suffered more than that of Richard III from the romantic adulation or vituperative condemnation of commentators viewing it from the moral high ground of later ages. Richard has been labelled an ambitious child-murderer, as well as an enlightened ruler viciously libelled by his enemies. Yet this is a man who ruled for a mere 777 days. There is not enough evidence for us to conclude whether the last Plantagenet was a good king or to even decide what kind of a king he would have been given more time. However, his chequered, sanguinary and tragic career might enable us to throw light on a more important question: what did rulers and their subjects understand by ‘kingship’ in those last years of Medieval England?

Richard was born in 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, a location with an ominous air. It was here that Henry VIII’s discarded queen, Catherine of Aragon, would be obliged to live out her last years and, later, it witnessed the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Such events were far in the future, but England’s royals had problems of their own in the mid-15th Century. Richard was still an infant when the Wars of the Roses began. He would never know an England fully at peace. By the time of his death 33 years later, 16 major battles and skirmishes had been fought between partisans of the House of Lancaster (claiming the throne through descent from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt) and the House of York (representing descendants of Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund, Duke of York). Theoretically, the conflict was about legitimacy, and England’s major landholders took sides in support of the candidate they regarded as having the strongest claim. In reality, of course, the reasons for this series of baronial wars were more complex. They involved family and feudal affiliation, economic grievances, land ownership and territorial ambition. Many participants changed sides in pursuit of personal advantage. The battles of these dislocated years cannot be thought of as heroic, manly clashes of men-at-arms disporting themselves on spirited chargers and brandishing bravely fluttering heraldic banners. England was ungoverned and ungovernable and its people, at all social levels, suffered mightily.

…in divers parts of this realm, great abominable murders, robberies, extortions, oppressions and other manifold maintainences, misgovernances, forcible entries… affrays, assaults, be committed and done by such persons as either be of great might, or else favoured under persons of great power, in such wise that their outrageous demerits as yet remain unpunished, insomuch that of late divers persons have been slain…

So complained the House of Commons in the Parliament Rolls – the Rotuli Parliamentorum – 1459, deploring the failure of the royal courts of justice to resist the pressures brought to bear on them by the nobles and their bully boys. England needed strong leadership – and that was precisely what it did not have.

A panel showing Richard III, painted around panel was painted between 1504-1520
A panel showing Richard III, painted around panel was painted between 1504-1520

When Richard was seven, his father was slain at the Battle of Wakefield and one of his brothers was executed in its aftermath. He was spirited out of the country to a haven in Burgundy. The Lancastrian victory had been won in the name of Henry VI, a poor feeble-minded man more fitted to be a monk than a king. Yorkist hopes now centred on Richard’s eldest brother, Edward. But would he make a better job of kingship than Henry? Only time would tell. Another 11 years of fluctuating military fortunes would pass before Edward of York was able to take his place securely on the English throne. He had his rival locked in the Tower of London, where he was killed. Since Henry’s heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, had been killed in battle, Edward IV could claim that God had vindicated the Yorkist cause, confirming the legitimacy of the dynasty by victory in battle. Edward was king by divine right and popular acclamation. Richard, now Duke of Gloucester, was second in line to the throne after his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence.

The Lancastrian cause was kept alive but its claim to legitimacy hung by the slenderest of threads. The Lancastrian nominee, Henry Tudor, was not of the blood royal, being descended from the widow of King Henry V, and he was now in precarious exile in Brittany.

But just when it seemed that the long dynastic conflict was reaching its bloody conclusion, another family entered the lists. In 1464, defying the advice of his advisers, who counselled him to make a matrimonial alliance with a suitable foreign princess, Edward had married in secret Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful 27-year-old widow of the Lancastrian knight, Sir John Grey, Lord Ferrers. This love match with a woman who was not from the ‘top drawer’ provoked “great displeasure to many great lords, and especially to the larger part of all his council.” It cast doubt on Edward’s political judgement; he seemed to be “led by blind affection and not by rule of reason” (according to the letter of the diplomat, Lord Wenlock). Not only was Edward marrying beneath himself, he was forming an alliance with a notoriously ambitious family. Elizabeth’s father, Richard Woodville, had been raised in the household of the Duke of Bedford. On that nobleman’s death, he had secretly married the widowed duchess. The couple went on to produce no less than 14 children, all of whom expected to share in the good fortune of the eldest sister. They did not hope in vain. Titles, lands and honours were lavished on the queen’s relatives. The very expansion of this upstart clan was a threat to the political status, quo and resentment by the Yorkist establishment did not diminish with the passage of time.

Edward IV was ‘big’ both in stature and personality. He was almost two metres tall with the build to go with this prodigious height. If his vices were obvious, so were his virtues. The characteristic that seems to have most struck those who met him was affability. In him, the ferocious warrior king and the cultured sensitive monarch came together in a rare combination. The brave military leader who never lost a battle was also the cultured collector of books and the patron who left as his architectural legacy the Gothic masterpiece of the chapel of Saint George at Windsor. The writer of the Croyland Chronicle eulogised the Edwardian regime:

…you might have seen in those days, the royal court presenting no other appearance than such as fully befits a most mighty kingdom.

The Woodvilles set much of the tone, establishing dominant fashions in music, dress and literature. One early vernacular book to come from William Caxton’s Westminster press, Sayings Of The Philosophers, was translated by the queen’s brother, Earl Rivers.

An illustration showing the death of Richard Plantagenet
An illustration showing the death of Richard Plantagenet, father of Richard III

After 1475, the king had little to fear from the Lancastrians. His campaigning days were over and his health deteriorated. Security did not bring out the best in Edward. He allowed his passions full rein, becoming at once a voluptuary and a tyrant. His athletic frame ran to fat. He spent his time between the sumptuous residences he had built or extended close to the capital. These splendours were largely financed out of the property confiscated from his enemies and taxes and fines he imposed both to fill the treasury and deter potential opposition. The prudent monarch who had prided himself on his willingness to pardon the offences of opponents now reinforced his authority by manipulating the law as he stamped out the last embers of opposition.

His most notorious act was the impeachment of his brother George for treason. There is no doubt Clarence deserved his sentence. He had repeatedly plotted with Edward’s enemies and made no secret of his hostility towards the queen and her family. But Edward personally and fiercely browbeat parliament to condemn the duke by Act of Attainder (against which there could be no defence) and then had him executed privately within the confines of the Tower (traditionally by having him drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine). The Croyland Chronicle changed its verdict on the regime:

After the perpetration of this deed, many persons left King Edward, fully persuaded that he would be able to lord it over the whole kingdom at his will and pleasure… The king… appeared to be dreaded by all his subjects while he himself stood in fear of no one.

This was the pattern of kingship with which the teenage Richard of Gloucester grew up. In his earlier years, the bond between the royal brothers was strong (and made stronger by their shared mistrust of Clarence). Richard was groomed to participate in the political and military activities of the government. Edward bestowed upon him lands, titles and responsibilities. Before he reached the age of 20, he was constable of England (commander of the royal armies), lord high admiral and governor of the North. Grants of property and – crucially – castles beyond the Humber made him the biggest landowner in the potentially troublesome shires far from the capital, and by property deals and exchanges, he added consistently to his northern holdings. Richard fought valiantly and effectively, not only against Lancastrian forces at home, but also in France and Scotland (it was he who, in 1482, won the border town of Berwick-on-Tweed permanently from the Scots). His commitment to the Crown was total. There can be no doubt that without his support, Edward would have been unable to bring all England under his sway, and it is worth pointing out that, until the death of Clarence, Richard had not the slightest prospect of inheriting the Crown.

But he and his brother were cut from different cloth. Richard was small of stature and (if the skeleton recently discovered at Leicester really is his) with a slight spinal deformity. He could scarcely impress friend or foe with his physical presence. He was of a serious cast of mind, self-disciplined, hard working and more than usually pious for his times. A later age might have dubbed him ‘puritanical’. Shakespeare came close to the truth when he made his stage Richard display contempt for “sportive tricks”, “the lascivious pleasing of a lute” and the vanity that craves “an amorous looking-glass”. He was a man of action rather than a contemplative. He was sparing in his appetites. Observers noted that he ate and drank little at feasts. When he became king, he did not emulate his brother by establishing a glittering court, representing all that was best in cultural refinement. On the continent, the Renaissance was dawning. Enlightened princes, nobles, churchmen and merchants rivalled one another in their patronage of painters, musicians, poets and scholars. This was not Richard’s style. It could reasonably be argued that, during his brief reign, he had no time or leisure to cultivate the arts of peace but he had had a long preparation in the years before when he ruled most of northern England as a quasi-monarch. It is legitimate to include an assessment of his activities there in any overall picture we may form of his exercise of power. No contemporary chronicles claim for him any artistic sensitivity or deep interest in scholarship. This does not mean he was an empty-headed boor. On the contrary; one foreign diplomat to discerned “so great a mind in so small a body”. He was particularly well versed in the law and could argue cases with skill. He was profoundly interested in heraldry and founded the College of Arms by royal charter in 1484. This concentration on legal process and heraldic detail reveal Richard’s essential motivation: he was focused on the responsibility to rule – and rule effectively. Armorial panoply and the splendour of royal ceremonial gave visual expression to the authority of the monarch and the loyalty he demanded of his magnates, firmly founded on law.

A page from Richard III's Book of Hours
A page from Richard III’s Book of Hours

At the root of Richard’s public and private life was a genuine, if conventional, piety. He made more religious endowments than any other Medieval king. He regarded York as his ‘capital’ and the Minster was the major recipient of his generosity. Among his lavish gifts were silver and gilt altar ornaments, decorated copes and a bejewelled processional cross. He planned to build in the cathedral complex a college (a religious guild, not an educational establishment) where 100 priests would daily say masses for Richard and his family. Similar, smaller institutions were proposed for Barnard Castle and Middleham. The king also bestowed land and money on Wilberfoss Nunnery among other religious sites. One educational establishment to become a recipient of Richard’s bounty was Queens’ College, Cambridge, which received endowments in 1477 and 1484. The college still has the right to a badge displaying Richard’s boar’s head emblem on a cross and a crozier.

The accumulation of disastrous events that marked the last 28 months of Richard’s life began with the death of Edward IV in April 1483. The security his strong rule had provided went to the grave with him. The immediate reaction was to set the political and kindred networks among the nobility quivering. That threatened a return to dynastic intrigue and military conflict. The late king was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Edward V, and had decreed that Richard was to act as protector of the realm until the boy’s coming of age. But thereafter, uncertainty loomed. The young king was very attached to his mother and uncles, so the smart money was on the ascendancy of the Woodvilles. Several of the realm’s movers and shakers were alarmed at the prospect – and Richard was one of them. To add to the precarious situation, Lancastrian hopes received a boost. Henry Tudor, from his long-term exile at the court of Duke Francis II of Brittany, was in touch with supporters across the Channel, some of whom now visited him to pledge their swords.

Amid the swirling fog of rebellion, murder and treachery that spread over the land (not to mention the obfuscating clouds of romanticising partisanship contributed by later writers) two facts stand out clearly. The first is that Richard grasped the initiative, behaving with ruthless logic to maintain stability. The second is that, despite this, events developed their own momentum that he was unable to halt.

The old king’s death was followed by days of confusion. The divided royal council was uncertain to whom custody of Edward V and his younger brother should be granted. Richard was in no doubt. He claimed the protectorate without waiting for it to be confirmed. He intercepted Earl Rivers, who was en route for London with the new king, and had the royal brothers installed in the palace quarters at the Tower. Rivers and his associates were taken north to Pontefract Castle where, two months later they were executed for treason against the protector. It was a pre-emptive strike, the sort made by a practiced military strategist, and there may well have been reason for it. Though unlawful, it was prudent. The Woodvilles must also have been taking stock of the political situation and deciding how best to secure their position. Unfortunately for them, Richard acted first.

Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and mother of Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and mother of Elizabeth of York

Once committed, there was no going back. Richard embarked on a process of eliminating all opponents – real and assumed. He had entered a dangerous game in which the consequences of losing would be fatal. England’s political elite were faced with a clear choice: they could be ruled by Richard or the Woodville faction or the Lancastrian claimant over the water. The protector’s prompt manoeuvres had secured his position in the short term but his bloodthirsty deeds frightened former friends. By late June, he had brought military resources down from the North, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Duke of Brittany to surrender Henry Tudor and made the shocking ‘revelation’ that Edward V was not, in fact, king, because Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was null and void by virtue of his pre-contract to another woman. Little Edward and his brother were, he claimed, bastards. The only rightful heir to the throne was himself. A well-drilled assembly of London notables petitioned him to take the Crown and his lavish coronation took place on 6 July.

By the autumn, pockets of disaffection were appearing in several areas. Richard’s one-time supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, had made a pact with Henry Tudor, which only failed because storms prevented the Lancastrian from landing on the south coast. By now it was being widely rumoured that Richard had murdered the princes in the Tower. It seemed to many like poetic justice when Richard’s only son and heir died the following April. Within a year, his wife was also dead. Still the king continued to do what he conceived to be his duty. He travelled the country, keeping court, administering royal justice. The contemporary chronicler, John Rous, wrote of Richard that:

he ruled his subjects in his realm full commendably, punishing offenders of his laws… and cherishing those that were virtuous…

The Croyland Chronicle tells us that the king welcomed the invasion of Henry Tudor. All would now be settled in manly combat – something in which he was well versed. He doubted not that God would vindicate him in battle and that thereafter he would – according to the Chronicle – be able to “comfort his people with the blessings of unchallenged peace.” He did not deviate from this conviction and was cut down at Bosworth only yards from his adversary. The rest is history.

More is the pity. For of all English monarchs, none has had his reputation more raked over by historians, biographers and romanticisers. Bias and distortion started immediately. John Rous, who had so warmly endorsed Richard’s style of kingship, reversed his judgment as soon as Henry Tudor ascended the throne, excoriating Richard as a deformed monster who had murdered his own wife. Thomas More and Shakespeare built on this legend. With the passage of time, other writers became witnesses for the defence or the prosecution in the trial of the last Plantagenet. In 1768, Horace Walpole cried “a plague on all your houses”. Referring to the works of Thomas More and Francis Bacon, he wrote in Historic Doubts On The Life And Reign Of King Richard III:

two of the greatest men in our annals have prostituted their admirable pens, the one to blacken a great prince, the other to varnish a pitiable tyrant.

It is a judgement I warm to.

When dealing with such a complex character who lived in such complex times, we must put away the pots of white and black paint – unless it be to create shades of grey. If we make moral judgements based on some timeless standard, we get things hopelessly wrong. If we try to see Richard in his contemporary context, we shall stand a chance of understanding the man and his times.

A map of England at the time of the Wars of the Roses
A map of England at the time of the Wars of the Roses

So, where do I believe Richard III stands in the development of English monarchy? He lived in a fractured nation and knew he had the responsibility to establish peace. He was responsible to the people, who wanted to get on with their lives within a framework of just laws and security. He was responsible to God, whose agent he was and, like the King of Kings, he had to inspire love and dread. To meet these responsibilities, he had to do things that, in other mortals, would be described as cruel, capricious and diabolical. In 1484, he wrote this mission statement for his bishops:

…our principal intent and fervent desire is to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced, increased and multiplied, and vices and all other things repugnant to virtue, provoking the high indignation and fearful displeasure of God to be repressed and annulled…

This was not hypocritical hogwash. Richard was a clear thinking and industrious ruler who understood what needed to be done. Kingship was a solemn charge from God and its purpose was the wellbeing of the people. The divinely anointed Medieval monarch had to have the conviction that he knew what was best for his subjects and the courage to pursue what he believed was right. To be irresolute, like Henry VI, was a disaster. To be distracted by personal vices, like Edward IV, was a betrayal of trust. To be a child, like Edward V, and therefore under the direction of advisers with their own agendas, was a sad misfortune. Thus Richard believed and thus he justified to himself the seizure of the Crown.

When I think of King Richard, I am sometimes reminded of the poet Wordsworth’s eulogy of ‘Duty’ as the “stern daughter of the voice of God”. If the fragments we can collect about his character allow us to draw up a psychological profile, what they suggest is a man with ice in his veins; a man with a sacred calling, a vocation, demanding tireless effort, unflinching determination and self-sacrifice. Richard Plantagenet was a disciple – and a victim – of duty. He had the enormous problem of keeping the peace achieved by his brother. Of course, he was part of that problem. His high ideals could only be realised through acts, many of which were base.

But what did the people think of their new guardian and defender? Apart from the nobles and their retainers who were voting with their feet, the only body whose reaction we can consider is parliament. This national assembly met only once during the brief reign, from 23 January to 20 February 1484. Lords and Commons dutifully endorsed the Titulus Regius, setting out the reasons for Richard’s usurpation. About the attainders of the king’s leading enemies they were more nervous, though eventually compliant. The most compelling reason for any king to summon parliament was his need for money. Richard was no exception. The people’s representatives granted him the customary rights to levy customs and excise duties. But they demanded quid pro quos. Richard graciously conceded reforms in matters of taxation, trade regulations and the operation of law courts. The remarkable fact about all this is that it is not remarkable. The tug-o’-war between king and parliament was no different than it had been in earlier reigns. As far as the representatives of the people were concerned, it was ‘business as usual’.

That helps us to see the reign of Richard III in perspective. Had he not been ‘the last of the Plantagenets’ and had 1485 not come to be regarded as a turning point in English history, the events of the previous few months would have merged into the narrative of what was a turbulent century. Richard would have been seen as a king struggling to contain the ambitions and rivalries of his barons – as his predecessors had done. He would have been recognised as a ruler whose legitimacy and divine vocation sanctioned bloody acts – just as they had for his forbears. He would have been known as a monarch who believed that what he willed was pro bono publico – in common with those who had occupied the throne before him. He was not an innovator. He was a man of his times, and it is as such that we must judge him.

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