“Loyalté me lie” (Loyalty binds me)
Early Life: Richard was the youngest of four sons to Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville. Both his parents had valid claims to the British throne but his father was killed along with his eldest brother at the Battle of Wakefield. His eldest brother Edward then seized the throne following the brutal Battle of Towton to become King and Richard was created Duke of Gloucester at the age of 8. It was then that his education began, moving into the household of his cousin Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, a man who history would remember as the Kingmaker. Richard’s education in politics was early and swift. He accompanied his brother into and out of exile and by age 17 had his own command. His military prowess was undeniable.
Early Career: Richard was well read with a strong and diverse collection of books spanning religion, military and chivalry, romance (Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale), and a great number on history, including ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth. A book which inspired many thousands of writers, including Shakespeare. Every book in Richard’s library bared his name, a practice that was not the norm in his time. Learned and honourable, Richard married the daughter of his mentor, Anne Neville. Richard and Anne had met very young and there was genuine affection between them while for Richard there was also the added incentive of becoming heir to the Earl of Warwick’s estates. Richard served the majority of his career under Edward IV’s rule in the North of England where he was highly regarded and had military successes against the Lancastrians and the Scottish.
Princes in the Tower: Edward IV died in 1483, leaving his younger brother as Lord Protector of the Realm until Edward’s 12 year old son Edward V came of age. No doubt Edward named Richard not only on account of his family loyalty but also because of his martial prowess and proven skill as an administrator; which makes what happened next most curious. One of Richard’s first actions was to round up many of his political rivals, many of whom would be summarily executed without the opportunity for defence. The young Edward V and his 9 year old brother were imprisoned in the Tower of London and never seen again. The former King’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was declared illegal and his children bastards, thereby making Richard the rightful heir to the throne. Richard was formally invited to become king in June of that year and he readily accepted. The mystery of the Princes in the Tower has become one of English History’s most famous cases with Richard unsurprisingly a prime suspect in their murder. Even by the standards of the day, Regicide was an extreme act and one that seemed out of character with Richard’s reputation of chivalry. Yet if Richard thought his reputation and purges would be enough to secure his kingship, he would not have to wait long to find out how wrong he was.
Rebellion and Death: Richard’s ascension to the throne made him many enemies. While some such as Francis Lovell were unwavering in their loyalty, many of his old allies were now conspiring against him in light of his actions against Elizabeth Woodville and the young Princes. In the autumn of 1483, a rebellion of members of the gentry, called Buckingham’s Rebellion, was overwhelmingly defeated and its leaders either executed or forced into exile. Despite its defeat the rebellion all but extinguished support for the King. Noblemen flocked to support the Lancastrian claim of Henry Tudor who was biding his time in Brittany. Henry’s invasion took place in August 1485 in Wales where he knew his status as a descendent of the Welsh Princes would guarantee the loyalty of the Welsh nobles. Advancing east, both sides met for a decisive battle at the site of Bosworth Field. Richard, the warrior king had an army that outnumbered that of the Lancastrian pretender two to one and he must have felt confident that victory was within his grasp; but this was the period of the Wars of the Roses and loyalties were never as sure as they seemed. As Henry Tudor’s forces advanced, Richard ordered his vanguard to meet the oncoming army. One of his chief allies, Sir William Stanley, held his forces in place. Stanley was an astute politician but he did not like Richard and Richard knew it, taking Stanley’s eldest son as hostage to prevent Stanley’s desertion during battle. Incensed by Stanley’s non-committal stance, Richard threatened to execute Stanley’s son to which Stanley reputedly replied “I have other sons”. With battle commenced the execution was put on hold. The Lancastrians were harassed on all fronts but when Richard ordered the deployment of the Duke of Northumbria’s forces, there was hesitancy as the layout of the ground was not favourable. At this moment, Richard saw a clear line of sight with Henry’s banner men. Livid at the indecision of his allies and sensing an opportunity for quick victory, Richard took his Corps of Knights and made a charge for Henry Tudor. He hit the Lancastrians at force killing several of them in the process. The melee was intense and at this moment, Stanley made his move. He turned on his master, leading his men on a charge into the rear of Richard’s forces. Desperate and outnumbered, Richard ordered a retreat but it was too late. Despite getting to within a swords length of Henry, the Plantagenet King was ruthlessly cut down, his helmet being smashed into his skull by repeated blows from Henry’s bodyguard, Rhys ap Thomas. Richard was dead and soon after, his army fled the battlefield.
Legacy, Excavation and Exhumation: Richard’s life was one of contradictions and as such, it is difficult to fathom his personal motives although many have tried. The villain of Richard III was created essentially during the Tudor period that followed Henry Tudor’s victory and came to the fore with Shakespeare’s famous play, Richard III, complete with hunchback and ruthless cunning. Despite many societies and individuals who have sought to un-tarnish his reputation, the Shakespearean image of Richard remains the one that seems to continue to capture popular imagination. Richard died aged only 32, a fact often overlooked and indeed, Shakespeare portrayed him as older in order to attribute a number of crimes to him that happened before he was even born. So should we look to completely exonerate Richard? In 2012, Leicester University excavated the site of the former Greyfriars Church in Leicester. On the 5th of September, a skeleton was found that lay beneath the site of a memorial to Richard lasting until the 17th Century. Analysis of the remains showed that the skeleton belonged to an adult male, with one shoulder higher than the other and multiple wounds to the head as described at the Battle of Bosworth. DNA analysis confirmed what most suspected; the remains of Richard III, until then resting place unknown, had been uncovered. The archaeological evidence confirmed much of what we knew of Richard but also showed that some of what we thought to be Tudor propaganda was also true. With a debate about whether his remains should be re-buried at Leicester or go to York, Richard is a figure that continues to divide historians as much today as he did his contemporaries, more than 500 years ago.