But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Richard III – Act 1, Scene 1
Don't believe Shakespeare – it's good, but it's not history.
Richard was born at Fotheringhay Castle, the fourth surviving son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York. His father was of royal blood being descended from Edward III on both his father and mother's side. He therefore had an equal if not superior claim to that of Henry VI.
Young Richard was probably not hunch-backed. He may have grown to be lesser in stature and build than some of his contemporaries but he was fully capable of bearing arms as he was to amply prove.
York Versus Lancaster
Richard was still a child when the Wars of the Roses began. Tensions between his father and the King had been growing for some time and finally burst out into open conflict in 1455. The parties involved became known as Yorkists after the Duke of York and Lancastrians after the descent of Henry VI from previous Dukes of Lancaster.
Richard spent much of his childhood under the tutelage of his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick "The Kingmaker". When his father and older brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland were killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, Richard, then only 8, was taken into the care of Warwick. He later married Warwick's daughter, Anne Neville.
Following the deposition of Henry VI in 1461, Edward IV created Richard Duke of Gloucester. Richard adopted the white boar as his personal badge and the motto "Loyaulte me lie" - loyalty binds me. It is possible that the choice of a boar or "bore" was because it is an anagram of the first four letters of Eboracum, the old Roman name for York, a reference to his father's descent.
Edward IV declared Richard's majority in 1468 when he was 16. Gradually he gained experience administering the lands that were initially granted to him by the king.
During this period relations between King Edward and his ally Warwick deteriorated and Warwick began to plot to replace Edward with Edward's brother George, Duke of Clarence. When their schemes failed they were forced to flee to France where Warwick made his peace with the former Queen, Margaret of Anjou and agreed to restore Henry VI. They invaded in late 1470 and Edward was forced to flee to Flanders. Henry VI was temporarily restored. Richard accompanied his brother into exile. But early the following year, they returned, landing in Yorkshire and gathering their forces to strike back .
At the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471, Richard, still only 19, was given command of one of the three divisions, or "battles" of the Yorkist army. Following the Yorkist victory he presided over the trials of the Duke of Somerset and other Lancastrian rebels who were then executed in Tewkesbury market place.
After Tewkesbury, the defeated Henry VI and Queen Margaret were brought to London. Richard was made Constable of the Tower and Henry was consigned to his keeping. Soon after the old king was murdered, probably on King Edward's instructions and possibly at Richard's hands.
During the reign of his brother, Richard demonstrated his loyalty and reliability as a military commander, justiciar and administrator. Edward rewarded him with large estates in the north, the palatinate of Cumbria and appointed him Governor of the North. This made Richard the richest and most powerful noble in England.
In the north, especially in the city of York, Richard was held in great affection. His administration was regarded as fair and just. He endowed universities and made grants to the church. Far from London he was a king in all but name.
King Richard III
King Edward died unexpectedly on 9 April 1483. The crown ought to have passed to his 12 year old son as Edward V. Richard could have supported him with the same loyalty and reliability as he had the boy's father, but instead he decided to take power himself.
Richard staged two coups d'etat to seize the throne. With the aid of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, he first took control over the young Edward V and his brother, executing their guardian Earl Rivers and other members of his faction, then he struck at William Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain. With Rivers and Hastings out of the way all serious opposition was eliminated. The two young princes were taken to the Tower and never seen again.
On 22 June 1483, outside St Paul's Cathedral, a proclamation was read out declaring that Edward IV's marriage had been illegal. It was claimed Edward had, at one time, been betrothed to a certain Lady Eleanor Butler, thereby invalidating his marriage to his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville. This made the two princes illegitimate and so left Richard as the only person eligible for the throne. The proclamation was supported by a bill “titulus regius” that Richard pushed through a loaded Parliament. With the prospect of his army from the north advancing south to “maintain order”, Richard acceded unopposed. On 6 July 1483, he was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Although Richard began his reign trying to rule with the same fairness and justice as he had in the north, he failed to convince the southern establishment of the legitimacy of his claim. Almost from day one, all of his good intentions were subsumed by the need to concentrate purely on security. He spent the whole of his short reign waiting for the inevitable rebellion.
Richard had smoothed his way to the crown by a skillful combination of propaganda, bribery and glad-handing. But he could never counter the perception of his usurpation as gross treason. As soon as he seized the crown, all of his propaganda and self-selling counted for nothing. He lost the propaganda war and henceforth was unable to counter the drift of support to his enemies.
He didn't have to wait long for the backlash. The first rebellion came the same year. It was an unlikely alliance of die-hard Lancastrians and previously staunch Yorkists. That's how bad the situation had got. It was led, surprisingly, by the Duke of Buckingham. The revolt collapsed and Buckingham was executed at Salisbury. Unrest rumbled on for the next 26 months, forcing Richard to ever more extreme measures to keep order.
In 1485, another rebellion began, this time headed by Henry Tudor, 2nd Earl of Richmond.
Death in battle
On 22 August 1485, Richard met the forces of Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field. But despite Richard's overwhelming superiority in manpower and artillery, all was not well. On the eve of battle the King was uneasy. The smell of treachery hung in the air. Some wag pinned a note on the tent of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Richard's staunchest supporter.
When battle was joined Norfolk stayed loyal to Richard and was killed, but Richard was abandoned by Thomas Lord Stanley and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Percy's retinue stood aside and took no part in the battle. Stanley, that arch trimmer, held his troops back and only threw them in on the side of Henry (his stepson) when it seemed that Henry would be overwhelmed.
Richard was deserted by almost everyone, but he went down fighting like a true king. His final words were "treason ,treason, treason".
There is also a tradition that Richard consulted a seer in the town of Leicester before the battle who foretold that "where your spur should strike on the ride into battle, your head shall be broken on the return". On the ride into battle his spur struck a stone of the Bow Bridge and so it was that, as his corpse was being carried, naked, from the battle over the back of a horse, his head struck the same stone and was broken open.
Richard was the last Plantagenet king and the last English king to die in battle.
Henry Tudor succeeded Richard to become Henry VII, and cemented the succession by marrying the Yorkist heiress, Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV.
Richard's death at Bosworth was the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, that had ruled England since Henry II in 1154. The last male Plantagenet, Edward, Earl of Warwick (son of Richard III's brother Clarence) was executed by Henry VII in 1499.
In the exercise of power he attempted to be fair and just, but the pressures upon him during 1483-85 drove him to tyranny as he attempted to impose order on the disaffected south. The fact that he never carried the whole country in a large part led to his ruin.
Henry Tudor's title to the throne was slender to say the least. But by claiming to represent the Lancastrian cause as the late King Henry's heir he presented an image of continuity vital to consolidating his position. Yorkist rule, even the decade of peace and good government under Edward IV had to be discredited by all means.
History, as they say, is written by the victors. It was not in the interest of Tudor historians to paint Richard in a good light and so every evil was duly attributed to him. The more he could be smeared, more it buttressed the initially shaky Tudor regime.
The real Richard, however, is more interesting and complex than Shakespeare's monster. Prior to his usurpation he served his brother competantly and with never a hint of disloyalty. He was an effective and just administrator and a good if not brilliant soldier. Even his enemies admit his military qualities.
He was loyal and generous to his retainers and could in turn inspire loyalty in others. Some of his retainers continued to fight in his name long after his death. He was also pious by the standards of his day. But there were signs of a ruthless streak before the events of 1483. In his attempts to build a patrimony prior to the extensive grants made to him by his brother after Tewkesbury, he showed a steely determinination bordering on the grasping as well as aggresion and an intolerance of being thwarted.
But none of this made him extraordinary. It was the usurpation and subsequent murder of the boy king Edward V, which in all likelihood he was indeed guilty of, which rightly stunned his contemporaries and in large part led to his downfall. Such was the degree of his alienation from the Yorkist establishment that they were prepared to back a replacement with only the slenderest of claims to the throne. Henry VI was descended from Edward III but only via legitimised bastard stock.
In all likelihood, Richard determined to seize the throne immediately on the premature death of his brother. It was the clever and devious way that he went about it that makes him stand out. He revealed himself only to those he could count on to help him and to the rest presented an image of rectitude and propriety. His enemies were smeared and discredited. As his biographer Michael Hicks states:
But from the moment the princes were taken into the tower, all his planning and preparation fell apart. Had he settled for the role of Lord Protector to the young king, he could have disposed of his enemies and yet carved out a great reputation, but instead he took a gamble, somewhat uncharacteristically, and lost.
This is just a potted history. For anyone interested in Richard III, I would recommend Michael Hicks' incisive biography. ISBN 978-0-7524-2589-4.