Ambiguous Image of Richard III – Tereza Bodnar [Write Up]

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And without further ado!

Ambiguous Image of Richard III
By Tereza Bodnar
Part 1

When Richard III’s name is mentioned, we almost unconsciously imagine a scheming, unprincipled individual with disagreeable appearance and determination to extinct his enemies (and even allies too) to get the power all to himself. Curious to discover what really stands behind this popular representation of Richard, I tried to collect wrecks of his reputation to see if he was such a universal evil as we are often told. Eventually, the more I read and reflected, the more fascinating and absorbing the research  become, clearing up many misconceptions, but also proving Richard’s personality the more intriguing and also frequently misjudged

The main problem with understanding Richard’s role and personality, in my opinion, is the fact that we are left to judge on then only according to the succeeding, often prejudiced witness – between us, Richard, and, perhaps, the truth, stands the period of carefully managed Tudor propaganda, which was, of course, not designed to praise Richard III, but rather otherwise. The best-known example of it surely is the Shakespearean description of cruel hunchback murdering his way to the throne. 

In other terms, there is always certain bias; when there is Richard III, there is always Henry VII to compare him with, and the comparison is not in the favor of the former. It is, however, not only to the Tudor myth that we owe the dark image of Richard III.


April 1483, when King Edward IV died in his prime, was the point when everything changed its course. Edward IV’s reign, like any other, had its merits and faults. On one hand, confident, charismatic and cultivated Edward managed to win the respect of his fellow-soldiers and subjects. His military success helped to force out the rival house of Lancaster and establish a new dynasty. The country got a chance to build a peaceful and prosperous realm with a powerful king as its head. On the other hand, his rule was also troublesome in its way. Marriage to widow Elizabeth Woodville opened the way for her large family to court advancement and other benefits. And they grasped at the chance willingly. This clan got to the heart of the king’s policy, became increasingly influential causing dissatisfaction of ancient nobility and getting a shower of privileges. As the years passed, Edward gradually lost interest in governance for both reasons of health decline and constant attendance to his own pleasures, rather than the needs of the realm. The corruption and injustice flourished.

This marriage, whatever contradictory it seemed to the king’s subjects, produced offspring in great number, making sure that the new dynasty will be continued to protect and develop the realm further.  Unfortunately, as it often happens with young promising descendants, they were just too young at a time to fulfill these hopes immediately. Edward’s son and heir was only twelve when it became clear that he was to be the next English king. The king’s youth presented certain danger – unable to rule in full authority, without guidance, he could easily fall under the influence of certain political parties – and there the next civil war was likely to present itself again. 

Loyalty binds and rewards

Richard, the youngest son of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, born in 1452, was created Duke of Gloucester in 1461. He adopted the white boar badge and the motto ‘Loyalty binds me’. 

There is no evidence of open feud between Gloucester and the Woodvilles; it is possible that he, like many others, disapproved the rapid advancement of this ambitious family. Whatever was his attitude towards brother’s new family, Richard was fairly busy residing chiefly in the North. There, during his brother’s reign, Gloucester won the reputation of an able warrior fighting on the Scottish border. He was also conducting masterful governance there so that the northern counties became the source of powerful support for Richard. He was appreciated there because of his good judicial sense and attempts to improve legislation and execution of justice. Besides his deep enthusiasm for law, Richard also took interest in heraldry; both of these interests will unfold in his later life. 

Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville, daughter of late formidable and influential Warwick the Kingmaker, had not only brought him lands and property but, more importantly, secured support of the Nevilles and other northern parties which could otherwise rebel against the Yorkist rule.

Unlike his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, notorious for his coup d’état attempts and shifting loyalty, Richard stood invariably on Edward’s side and helped him maintain order and successful administration as Constable of England, Chief Justice of North Wales, Lord High Admiral and Governor of the North.

So far performing loyal and good services (and receiving vast lands and other possession for it) to King Edward IV, enjoying good reputation and general approval, Richard unsurprisingly was valued by his brother. So far rewarded and active in the background, it was now time for Richard to step into the play of state politics as one of the leading figures. 

Mutual dislike

To secure his succession properly Edward IV had to appoint someone both powerful and loyal enough as Lord Protector during the minority of young Edward V. Naturally, his choice had fallen on trusted and capable brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard’s first task was to protect the new king and the state, to ensure proper administration, and to keep a balance between the major nobility and court factions. That balance was now fragile and tended to instability. 

Young Edward V’s upbringing and education were placed under the care of the queen’s brother, Earl Rivers. Naturally, the king’s allegiance was on his mother’s family part and the Woodvilles would grasp both the throne and principle power at first opportunity. 

The queen and her family, in their turn, feared the influence of Richard. The Woodvilles have gathered many titles, land, privileges, and supporters in the Parliament during the previous reign. They had equal reason to believe themselves highly important and at the same time dreaded lest the newly appointed Lord Protector should reduce their influence.

The other component of this tension was relations between the queen’s family and late brother of Edward George, Duke of Clarence. He disliked Elizabeth Woodville and is believed even to question her marriage and right of her children to the throne. In turn, it was rumored that Elizabeth had influenced her husband against Clarence to lead to his eventual downfall and execution. To say the truth, Clarence himself did enough to lose favor and trust of the king, as he actually committed treason. So, it is unlikely that Gloucester should blame the queen for his brother’s death and aim to revenge on her for it. However, both Richard and the Woodvilles were practical-minded enough to expect no much goodwill from each other. 

On hearing of his brother’s demise and his appointment, Richard set off to meet young Edward on his way from Ludlow to conduct the future king to London.

Before arrival of the king and Gloucester, the Council decided that execution of chief authority would be carried not by the Lord Protector himself, but by the group of officials led by Protector. The Woodvilles’ supporters claimed to be ‘so important’ as to take major decisions without the Lord Protector.  Richard was also informed that the queen and her relatives tried to capture the treasury and intended to crown Edward in urgency without waiting for Lord Protector. 

Gloucester cannot be expected to be pleased with such actions. He had his brother’s appointment, and right to be appointed too, and had already proven himself to be an experienced statesman. Is was only natural that he could not so easily let to trifle with his authority, to give up his rightful position just to feed somebody’s ambition at his expense. 

Both parties were equally inconvenient to each other.  Whatever Gloucester’s loyalty to his brother – and his brother’s son – was, it did not necessarily foretell cordiality to the Woodvilles. Edward was now dead and they – pretty much alive, and have already shown themselves dangerous in every possible way. Richard prepared himself to any kind of pre-emptive strike.

William Hastings, Lord Chamberlain and chief supporter of late Edward IV, also greatly mistrusted the Woodvilles. He urged Richard to revenge upon his enemies (Woodvilles, that is to say) and take the young king under his own authority. 

At the meeting with the king in Stoney Stratford, queen’s brother Rivers, her son from the first marriage Richard Grey, and chamberlain Thomas Vaughan were accused of the attempt against the life of the Protector and immediately arrested. In confusion, Edward tried to protect his relatives, but in vain. 

The turning point

Rapidity and seeming inconsistency of the following events make them even more mysterious. They may be explained in some way, however. Somewhere between 5 and 9 June 1483 Richard learned one thing that changed the plans dramatically. Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells told him that he witnessed the wedding ceremony of Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot long before the king married Elizabeth Woodville. He also confirmed the fact of the pre-contract made between them (which, unlike an engagement, was binding and making the succeeding marriage bigamous). This was kept in secret for obvious reasons during Edward’s lifetime. 

The Parliament later officially proclaimed the marriage between Edward and Elizabeth invalid on four grounds: 1) existence of previous marriage; 2) the said marriage was conducted without issuing banns which could otherwise reveal any existing previous marriage, therefore, against church canons; 3) it was conducted without knowledge and assent of the Parliament; 4) the king was induced into this marriage by sorcery, used by Elizabeth Woodville and her mother.

If the information revealed by Stillington was true, then the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth and offspring of this marriage were illegitimate; Edward V could not be the king.  With his devotion to proper organization and legally justified authority Richard could not overlook such a shocking fact even for his brother’s sake. 

The strange chain of events followed: on 13 June 1483 Lord Hastings was executed; on 16 June Elizabeth Woodville given in her youngest son and he was conducted into the Tower to make his brother company, it was said, for coronation; on June 22 Dr Ralph Shaa delivered a sermon, arguing that bastards shall not inherit, and informing the public of princes’ illegitimacy, so that the information that young Edward couldn’t reign was widely spread throughout the city. Richard managed to maintain communication with the city to make sure the Woodville’s alleged or real plot against him and Edward was generally known and remembered. 

On 24- 25 June the three estates, the lords spiritual, the lords temporal and the commons of England, led by eloquent Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s chief supporter, discussed ‘the evils done to the realm by the Woodvilles’ and the falseness of Edward’s marriage, and finally offered the crown to the closest blood relative of the late king. After performing due reluctance Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector, accepted the offer. He was to be the next king of England. It was only on June 26 that previously arrested Rivers, Grey and Vaughan were executed. The Woodvilles’ resistance was suppressed. 

The revelation of Edward’s supposed previous marriage may explain the events from 22 to 26 June, but what about the previous?

Execution of Lord Hastings on 13 June 1483 without trial almost immediately after his arrest thickens suspicion against Richard. It may be said (and so it was) that Hastings was charged for participation in the Woodvilles’ plot against Lord Protector. There were others involved. Morton, Rotherham, Stanley were arrested the same day, meanwhile, Hastings was the only one of them to be executed. The others were not only released soon but also later defeated Richard (Stanley), plotted against him and helped blacken his reputation in the future (Morton).

On the other hand, Hastings and the Woodvilles kept mutual hostility, and so he was not very likely to rebel on their behalf. Hastings used to be a loyal friend to late Edward IV and now transferred his loyalty to Edward’s son and would have him immediately crowned. Could it be that it was not for the Woodvilles’ plot that Richard decided to get rid of Hastings, but because he could, despite all, put serious opposition to disinheritance of young Edward V?  

Reign of rumor

The rumor that Edward IV was not a son of his father, but of a certain archer, was invoked firstly by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick when he tried to dethrone Edward in 1469, and since that time the gossip circulated over the French court. Richard is also often accused of having declared his own brother a bastard. 

Let’s put the matter simply: if Richard should attain the crown, then someone must be declared bastard. The first option: if Edward IV is proclaimed born out of wedlock, his children eventually cannot inherit the crown which was not rightfully his father’s. The second option: Edward IV is not illegitimate himself, but his marriage is, and the children are bastards anyway. Each of the options is powerful enough, but there is no use applying to them both. As we know precisely, the second way was chosen ultimately to be the grounds of disinheriting Edward V, and was later ratified by the Parliament in the Titulus Regius in January 1484. 

In fact, the Titulus Regius is the basic legal confirmation of Richard III’s claim to the throne. There is no word in this document of Edward IV’s illegitimacy, instead, the stress is put on the invalidity of his marriage to Elizabeth Grey (Woodville) (Warwick the Kingmaker would have liked it at a time!). The other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, is also mentioned, as he had committed high treason, and his children were eventually disinherited and barred from the throne by the Act of Attainder. Therefore, in the Titulus Regius Richard appears not as ‘only’ rightful heir of Richard, Duke of York, but his only remaining rightful heir.

The whole business is dismal enough, but to accuse his own mother of adultery, isn’t it too cruel even for an astute medieval politician? Furthermore, to do such thing was not at all necessary to pursue his claim and could make him generally hated. Richard was not fool. 

Declaration of Edward’s marriage invalid could much easier pave Richard’s way to the kingship, it was much safer as could gather more weighty evidence. Instead, to call his brother a bastard with hardly any reliable proof than that Edward looked not much like his father and that his baptism was modestly arranged, was to bring disgrace on his own family (we remember that Cecily Neville, their mother was still alive and could easily disclaim the accusation and condemn her son who inflicted it). Why would Richard do such thing? To show his malicious temper, as his fierce opponents may say? If so, this argument may stand. But I do not personally believe that this was the case. 

The problem is with no record of what was really said in Shaa’s sermon on 22 June 1483 about illegitimacy and whose exactly was mentioned. Vergil insists that it was exactly about Edward IV, not Edward V, but this is based chiefly on hearsay. It is more probable that sermon announced illicit marriage, the fact of which was discovered several days before. Rumors of Edward IV’s bastardy and Cecily’s infidelity indeed may have been spread, but it’s not likely that they came from Richard himself.

I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

2 thoughts on “Ambiguous Image of Richard III – Tereza Bodnar [Write Up]

  1. Very interesting to read the background to Richard III’s coronation, and though not all the information can be verified, there is much food for thought. As the link between the Plantagenets and the Tudors, Richard has become famous, mostly for his supposed mis-deeds, but it has been fascinating to learn more about him as Duke of Gloucester and the plots and acts of treason which surrounded him, especially after the death of Edward IV. Tereza, I am now looking forward to the next part as I am sure it will be as enightening as this write-up, as was your account of the fall of Anne Boleyn.

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