Richard III: Ruthless tyrant or maligned monarch?

The changing face of England's most divisive king

Words: Julian Humphrys

Richard III: Ruthless tyrant or maligned monarch?

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of History Revealed. Subscribe to get full access to features

Large crowds lined the streets as the coffin containing the remains of Richard III was taken to Leicester Cathedral for reinterment on 26 March 2015. The Archbishop of Canterbury led the service, members of the royal family were present, the Queen herself wrote a message for the order of service while the Leicester authorities made it clear that Richard was being buried not just with dignity but with honour. For many of those present Richard was a much-maligned king who was finally getting the respect he deserved. But not everyone saw it that way. Writing in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee bemoaned the fact that Britain ‘mourned a monster’ simply because he had been king. Even today this controversial monarch continues to divide opinions.

Born in 1452 at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, Richard was the fourth son of Cicely Neville and Richard of York, whose conflict with the Lancastrian Henry VI was a major cause of the Wars of the Roses. In 1460 Richard’s father was killed at the battle of Wakefield but in 1461 his eldest brother, Edward, defeated the Lancastrians at Towton. became Edward IV and appointed Richard Duke of Gloucester. Unlike his unreliable sibling, George, Duke of Clarence, whose machinations would see him executed in 1478, Richard appears the very model of a loyal younger brother. Living up to his motto of ‘Loyaute me Lie’ (Loyalty Binds Me), he joined Edward in exile after Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick had restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470. The following year, they returned to England and Richard contributed to the Yorkist victories at Barnet (where Warwick was killed) and Tewkesbury where he led Edward’s vanguard.

A medieval depiction of the Battle of Tewkesbury


Richard was well rewarded. He was given control of lands confiscated from the Nevilles and his marriage to Warwick’s daughter, Anne, gained him more territory in the north of England, which became his power base. As Edward’s lieutenant in the north he seems to have been an able administrator and the chronicler John Rous described him as a ‘good lord’ who punished ‘oppressors of the commons’. Richard’s importance was national as well as regional; in 1477 he was appointed both constable and admiral of England and in 1482 he commanded the invasion of Scotland that led to the capture of Berwick. Yet his position was not as secure as it might appear. The lucrative offices he held were dependant on the will of the monarch while the Act of Parliament which gave him those Neville lands that had formerly belonged to Warwick’s brother, Montagu, added to his insecurity. It stipulated that Richard and his heirs could only hold them while Montagu’s son George Neville or any heirs he had were alive. If that family line died out the lands would revert after Richard’s death to another branch of the Neville family.

Even so, had it not been for his brother Edward’s early death in April 1483 Richard might well have lived out his days as a successful regional magnate and instead of the innumerable books we now have about him we’d probably have to content ourselves with the odd biography and a few PhD theses. But the king’s death changed everything. Edward had named Richard as protector of his son and successor, the 12-year-old Edward V, but the problem was that the boy was at Ludlow in the care of his mother’s family, the Woodvilles, and Richard, like many in the kingdom. didn’t trust them. To secure his own position Richard had to act quickly. As Edward travelled to London escorted by his uncle Anthony Woodville and his half-brother Richard Grey, Richard intercepted them at Stony Stratford. Claiming there was a plot against him he arrested Woodville, Grey and a third knight, Thomas Vaughan, and took control of the young king. After sending his prisoners to his castle at Pontefract, Richard escorted Edward to the capital and lodged him in the Tower of London, to be joined later by his brother.

The princes await their fate in the Tower of London

There was nothing sinister in this - the Tower had yet to acquire its gruesome reputation and it was traditionally used by English monarchs prior to their coronations. The Woodvilles had never been popular and Richard’s actions seem to have been met with approval by other members of the late king’s household notably the Duke of Buckingham, who’d helped him at Stony Stratford, and Edward IV’s old friend William Hastings. Despite the claims of later Tudor writers, there’s no evidence that Richard’s actions up to this point were part of a plot to seize the throne and the preparations for Edward’s coronation went ahead as normal. But that would soon change. 

Read the full feature in the May 2017 issue of History Revealed, on sale now in all good newsagents and supermarkets, or subscribe and have every issue delivered to your door at 33% off the newsstand price

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