A Plantagenet primer on the last English king to die in battle.
Although he only ruled for two years – from 1483 to 1485 – Richard III stands out among his peers as one of the most famous (or infamous) Kings of England. But who was he? And why does he continue to inspire such interest?
Richard was born in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire on 2 October 1452 – about 30 miles from Leicester and only about 50 miles (two days’ ride) from Bosworth where he met his end a third of a century later. Richard and his older brother Edward were the great-great-grandchildren of Edward III, a line of descent which was used to justify the claim to the throne by the House of York during the Wars of the Roses (the House of Lancaster was also descended from Edward III, via a different route).
Edward ruled as King Edward IV from 1471 until his death in April 1483, when his 12-year-old son succeeded as Edward V, with Richard named Lord Protector. Young Edward and his brother moved into the Tower of London (which was then a royal palace, not a prison) but in June their parents’ marriage was declared invalid, making the princes illegitimate and hence their uncle became the heir apparent. Richard lost no time in being crowned King Richard III and the two boys were not seen again.
Thus began the legend of ‘the Princes in the Tower’ and a long-standing popular belief that Richard had his nephews murdered in order to remove any competing claim to the throne. This has been widely debated for many years, with passionate arguments made both for and against Richard.
After defeating an unsuccessful rebellion in October 1483, Richard led his army to Bosworth in Leicestershire two years later to face Henry Tudor (whose somewhat tenuous claim to the throne was also through descent from Edward III). On 22 August 1485, Richard was killed at Bosworth Field, the last English King to die in battle, thereby bringing to an end both the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.
Richard’s body was brought back to Leicester, publicly displayed and then given for burial to a group of Franciscan friars. An alabaster tomb monument was constructed over the grave in 1495, paid for by the new King. With the dissolution of the monasteries (by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII) that friary disappeared and along with it any clear record of Richard’s grave. Stories and rumours about where Richard’s mortal remains lie – or what happened to them – have circulated over the ensuing centuries, but most of these have subsequently been shown to be tall tales.
History, they say, is written by the victors. Tudor writers and artists had no qualms about depicting Richard III as an evil tyrant and child-murderer, as well as a crippled hunchback. Shakespeare’s eponymous play, written 106 years after Richard’s death, cemented the King’s bad reputation (and appearance) among the general public for centuries, although scholars including Francis Bacon and Horace Walpole sought to re-evaluate his reign.
In 1924 the Richard III Society was founded, aiming to challenge accepted beliefs and assumptions about ‘the last Plantagenet’, not least the accusation of murder and the popular depiction of Richard as having a crooked spine. Among the inarguably good works of this popular King, they pointed out, were a number of significant changes to English law, including the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and a reformation of the jury system.
With a controversial claim to the throne, accusations of blood on his hands, a violent and gory death, and a bad press (largely derived from a classic of English literature) – not forgetting serious debate about his physical appearance – it is no wonder that Richard III continues to fascinate historians, scholars and the public in the 21st century.
Richard is born at Fotheringay Castle, Northamptonshire on 2 October 1452 to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and Lady Cecily Neville. He is the 12th of 13 children, seven of whom survive to adulthood.
Richard's father is killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Eight-year-old Richard becomes a ward of his eldest brother Edward, who has recently turned 18.
On 4 March 1461, Richard's brother is proclaimed Edward IV by the Earl of Warwick (known as ‘The Kingmaker’), ousting the Lancastrian Henry VI. Edward strengthens his claim to the throne by defeating Henry’s army at the Battle of Towton on 29 March. Richard is made Duke of Gloucester on 1 November.
A rift grows between Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick after the King marries Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian widow (exact date unknown, traditionally cited as 1 May 1464).
Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick's disagreements finally break out into open conflict, with Warwick supporting the claim of a third brother - George, Duke of Clarence (seven years younger than Edward, three years older than Richard). Edward’s army is defeated at the Battle of Edgecote Moor on 26 July 1469 and the King is captured shortly after. However Warwick releases Edward when it becomes clear that he cannot rule alone.
Warwick leads a second revolt against Edward which forces the King – and Richard – to flee across the channel to Burgundy. Henry VI is restored to the throne on 30 October 1470 although real power rests with Warwick and Clarence.
Edward and Richard return to England to reclaim the throne, with a proclamation of Edward’s sovereignty on 11 April 1471. Richard, now 19, takes command of the vanguard of Edward's army, defeating the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet on 14 April (where Henry’s son is killed) and the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May (where Warwick is killed). Henry VI is captured and dies in the Tower of London.
Richard marries Anne Neville, daughter of ‘The King Maker’, and takes up residence in the north of England, effectively ruling that region on behalf of his brother.
Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales, is born, probably in December 1473 although some sources say 1476. Richard may also have had two or three illegitimate children, but little is known of them.
Edward IV declares war on Scotland, with Richard appointed Lieutenant-General of the North. Battles are fought for two years until Richard recaptures Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Scots.
Edward IV dies unexpectedly on 9 April 1483 and Richard is named Lord Protector of twelve-year-old Edward V. However, Richard is informed that his brother’s marriage was invalid and the children illegitimate. On 22 June a sermon preached outside St Paul’s Cathedral names Richard as the King, ratified four days later by a commission of nobles and commoners. Richard III is crowned on 6 July. The two Princes are never seen again.
Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, leads an attempt to depose Richard in favour of Henry Tudor (in exile in Brittany) on 18 October but this is swiftly quashed and Buckingham is executed.
Richard and Anne's only child, Edward of Middleham dies, probably of tuberculosis, exact date unknown. The royal parents shut themselves away to mourn their loss in Nottingham Castle.
Richard’s wife Anne dies of tuberculosis on 16 March. Henry Tudor sails from France, landing at Milford Haven on 7 August. Gathering forces around him, Henry marches eastward to engage Richard III in battle, the two armies finally meeting at Bosworth Field on 22 August where Henry is victorious and Richard is killed. Richard’s body is taken to Leicester and interred in the church of the Greyfriars.