Thomas More's murder accountThe Princes in the Tower were the two sons of King Edward IV of England. The elder of the two succeeded to the throne as Edward V on the death of his father in April 1483. Some six weeks later, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of the two boys, proclaimed himself king as Richard III. His nephews were at that time living in the royal apartments in the Tower of London where they were seen sporadically until about mid-July 1483. After this they were never seen again. Their fate was a mystery at the time and has been ever since.
Rumours about the disappearance of the princes and their uncle's part in it soon began to circulate on the continent, where those who were disaffected by the current regime had taken refuge. However, it was only after Richard's own death that the accusations became more substantive and they are still popularly believed.
The few facts that are known do not, however, support the traditional story, which was that they had been smothered by James Tyrell, Master of the Horse to Richard III, with the help of two men, Miles Forest and John Dighton. The bodies were then buried at the foot of a flight of stairs in the Tower. This story is well known from Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of King Richard III and from his major source for this story, Thomas More's The History of King Richard III.
The Bones from the Tower
The Tower of London
© Geoffrey WheelerThis story is often said to have been confirmed by the discovery of the bones of two children within the foundations of a staircase in the Tower of London in 1674. In 1678 some bones, said to be the same ones, were interred in an urn in Westminster Abbey as the bones of the princes by order of Charles II. In 1933 they were exhumed and, after examination, were declared to be the bones of two children of the right age and thus assumed to be the bones of the princes. Neither sex nor century of death could be determined, however.
With the advance of knowledge and with new techniques available, the conclusions of the 1933 examination are now disputed. The categorical statements made in the report which followed the examination would not now be made by modern forensic scientists, who would stress the uncertainties in the determination of age, sex, family relationship, date of death and so on. To take just one example, modern forensic techniques show that the ages arrived at for the two skeletons are highly disputable and they may both be younger than they would be if they were the princes. Furthermore, the age gap between the two children appears to be less than the three years that separate the births of Edward and Richard, the two princes. Assigning a date to the bones could not be done at all in 1933. Using radiocarbon dating, it would now be possible to at least assign a century to them, and indeed probably come as close as a date with a margin of error of plus or minus about 15 years. This would at least enable us to know whether we were talking about late medieval bones or Roman bones, for example. It is likely that in the future even more accurate dating will be possible.
The urn containing the 'bones' in Westminster AbbeyAnother major deficiency in 1933 was the lack of a reliable method for establishing a family relationship between the two bodies. In the report a relationship was largely assumed, and unreliable techniques then applied to prove it. No attempt was made to determine their sex. With such young children this is difficult, but new techniques being developed will soon make it possible. More reliable methods have been developed since 1933, particularly DNA testing. With this powerful new technique it is possible to determine whether the children were male or female, to show if a relationship existed between them and whether they were both descended from the same person. The drawback in this particular case is that for this test to work a comparison between the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in the bones and that in a person descended in an unbroken female line from Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the princes, must be made. This is because only mtDNA descends unchanged, through the female line, through the generations. No such descent from Queen Elizabeth Woodville, or her mother Jacquetta, is currently known. An alternative would be to disinter Queen Elizabeth's body and, to check their paternity, that of Edward IV their father. However, genealogical research is being undertaken by Dr John Ashdown-Hill to trace the Woodville mtDNA.
It is therefore apparent that a further examination of these bones could tell us much more than could be determined in 1933. However, in a few years it may be possible to find out even more and it is not desirable to disinter bodies just to satisfy our curiosity now. The Society will, however, welcome a re-examination if and when the authorities are prepared to give permission. We have to be content to wait for that and when scientific advances will have made the results much more meaningful.
The defining moment in Shakespeare's play of Richard III occurs in the first scene when the dramatic Richard declares 'I am determined to prove a villain'. Over the remainder of the play he fulfils his promise and at the very end, as he summons his supporters for the final assault, he acknowledges his fate:
'let's to it pell-mell,
if not to heaven, then hand-in-hand to hell'
During the course of the play the audience is made aware that Richard is responsible for the deaths of Henry VI and his son Prince Edward, Richard's brother the duke of Clarence, Earl Rivers, Richard Grey, Vaughan, William Hastings, the Princes, the duke of Buckingham and his own queen, Anne Neville. And if this catalogue of crime is not enough, he usurped the throne from his nephew. Collectively these are the 'crimes' of Richard III.
Let's look at some of these 'crimes' in their chronological order:
Edward, Prince of Wales (son of king Henry VI) '… twas I that stabb'd young Edward … '
Murder of Edward of Lancaster, by James Doyle 1864
© Geoffrey WheelerThis is the earliest 'crime' that can be attributed to Richard III. The murder of Edward, the last Lancastrian Prince of Wales, on the field of Tewkesbury on May 4th 1471.
The first direct reference to Richard's involvement came with Polydore Vergil who wrote in his Anglica Historia that Edward was 'crewelly murderyd' by Clarence, Hastings and Gloucester.
It is in the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed that Richard of Gloucester is cited as the principal culprit who strikes the first blow against Edward. Holinshed's Chronicle was first published in 1577 and it soon became a standard history of England. Shakespeare probably made extensive use of Holinshed as source material for his plays. Shakespeare developed the crime for dramatic purposes into one of the series of pre-meditated murders that paved the Shakespearean Richard's path to the throne.
All contemporary sources are unanimous in making no reference to Richard as the murderer of Edward of Lancaster.
The Arrivall of Edward IV, the official Yorkist account of the events of 1470/71 stated that '… Edward, called Prince, was taken, fleigne to the towne wards, and slayne in the fielde. '
Warkworth's Chronicle, more Lancastrian in sympathy, elaborated slightly, 'And there was slayed in the fielde Prynce Edward, which cryde for socure to his brother-in-law the Duke of Clarence.' Few serious historians today would consider speculating that Richard was responsible for the murder of Edward of Lancaster. Professor Charles Ross wrote that 'No shred of blame can fall on Richard …'
King Henry VI – '… for I did kill King Henry …'
Murder of Henry VI. Byam Shaw 1902
©Geoffrey WheelerHenry VI died in the Tower of London probably on 21 May 1471, the day that Edward IV returned in triumph to his capital after his victory at the battle of Tewkesbury. Polydore Vergil wrote that 'Henry the sixt … was put to death in the tour of London. The contynuall report is, that Richard Duke of Gloucester killyd him with a sword … but who so ever wer the killer of that holy man …' Not yet a firm conviction of Richard. Thomas More wrote that Richard '… slew with his own hands King Henry the Sixth, being prisoner in the Tower, as men constantly say.'
It was Shakespeare who threw away any doubts about Richard's involvement. For the litany of crimes to be complete Shakespeare's Richard had to have sole responsibility for Henry's murder, a task that he performed with apparent zeal.
The Arrivall of Edward IV stated that Henry died of 'pure displeasure and melencoly.' It may well have been that he did suffer a fatal stroke or fit after learning of the death of his only son and the eclipse of his cause at the battle of Tewkesbury. However it is probably too much of a coincidence that his death should have taken place so soon after Edward IV returned to London.
Warkworth's Chronicle stated that Henry 'was put to dethe … beynge thenne at the Toure the Duke of Gloucester … and many others.'
The fact that Richard is said to have been in the Tower is not as sinister as it may appear. Whilst it is probable that Henry VI was put to death the responsibility must lie with Edward IV. Only another monarch could legally order a regicide. It would have been Richard's responsibility as Constable of England to deliver the official warrant to the Tower. Since the Tower was a centre of government and a royal residence, Richard's presence there does not imply complicity with the murder. Edward may have viewed the murder as a political necessity.
It is now accepted that if Henry VI was murdered in the Tower he died on the orders of Edward IV. Charles Ross wrote that the accusation that Richard was personally responsible for the murders of Edward of Lancaster and Henry VI was 'quite unrelated to the mundane facts of historical evidence'.
George, Duke of Clarence – '… Clarence hath not another day to live …'
The drowning of Clarence.
©Geoffrey WheelerThat Richard, Duke of Gloucester drowned his brother George in a butt of malmsey wine is one of the most popular myths in English history.
It is Thomas More who first hinted that Richard might have been involved with Clarence's death: 'Some wise men also ween that his drift covertly conveyed, lacked not in helping forth his brother of Clarence to his death.' Whilst More did at least concede that this was only a rumour, the seed was sown. The charge was soon incorporated into the growing legend of Richard III, culminating in the Shakespearean Richard and the butt of malmsey in the Tower of London.
There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Richard was actively involved with the death of Clarence. The Crowland Chronicle stated '… the execution, whatever form it took, was carried out secretly in the Tower of London'.
Clarence had been in dispute with Edward IV for some time prior to 1478 over a variety of matters. Clarence had shown an interest in marrying the Burgundian heiress, Mary, following the death of her father Charles the Rash in 1477. Edward thwarted this plan and relations between the brothers became tense. Once Clarence began to take the king's justice into his own hands, he was challenging Edward's authority as king. With the precedent of Clarence's behaviour during 1470/1, Edward had no option but to take action. This was the background to Clarence's execution for treason. It is not possible to say if there is any truth in the story that Clarence had discovered details of the pre-contract between King Edward and Lady Eleanor Butler, although there is circumstantial evidence that does give rise to such speculation. Whilst it is true that the Woodvilles would not have been too distressed by Clarence's execution the evidence does not suggest that it was them.
Dominic Mancini reported that Richard '… was so overcome with grief for his brother … that he was overheard to say he would one day avenge his brother's death'. However, the Woodvilles made few material gains from the death and attainder of Clarence, and there is little evidence to suggest that Richard openly fell out with them. Indeed in some areas of his responsibility Richard must have co-operated with members of the family or their supporters.
Few would now doubt that George, Duke of Clarence, was judicially executed by Edward IV for treason. Jeremy Potter writes 'There is no evidence ... to connect Richard with the death of his brother Clarence, who was later executed on King Edward's orders after a public slanging match … '
Read more about Clarence.
The Usurpation – 'My thoughts aim at a further matter; I stay not for love of Edward, but the crown'
Richard III accepting the crown.
©Geoffrey WheelerThe sudden and unexpected death of Edward IV on April 9th 1483 set in motion the series of events that were to destroy the life and reputation of Richard III.
The picture of the events from April to July 1483 as seen through the eyes of the Tudor myth reveals a tyrannical Richard murdering his way to the throne of England. Richard's seizure of the crown, his long cherished ambition, being preceded by the executions of Rivers, Vaughan, Grey and Hastings.
Polydore Vergil wrote that when Richard first heard of the death of Edward IV he began 'to be kyndyld with an ardent desyre of soveraigntie'. Thomas More elaborated and had Richard eyeing the crown even before Edward had died '... he long time in King Edward's life forethought to be king in case that the king his brother should happen to decease while his children were still young'. Shakespeare used his dramatic skills to create a Richard who was aiming for the crown at least from his teens.
The main contemporary sources that we have for the period April to July 1483 are the Crowland Chronicle and Dominic Mancini's Usurpation of Richard III. Neither gives a complete picture and both are questionable as to their reliability. We have nothing that gives a complete picture of the confused and traumatic events leading to the accession to the throne of Richard III.
The Crowland Chronicle is not favourable to Richard and displays a distinct bias against the north of England, where of course the backbone of Richard's support lay. The Chronicle does not openly suggest that Richard aimed for the throne immediately he heard of Edward's death. However it does condemn him for the imprisonment and subsequent executions of Rivers, Vaughan and Grey. The execution of Hastings and the imprisonment of the Bishops of York and Ely moved the Chronicler to write 'In this way without justice or judgement the three strongest supports of the new king were removed ...' The Chronicle then goes on to speak of threats from the north and Richard's taking of the crown. It gives details of the pre-contract, which the Chronicler refers to as '… sedition and infamy.'s
Dominic Mancini, an Italian cleric visiting England during the first half of 1483, wrote his Usurpation of Richard III before the end of that year. Mancini would have relied almost completely on second hand reports and rumour. Mancini's reporting of events is coloured by his assumption that Richard aimed for the crown from the moment he heard of Edward IV's death. He does however retain a degree of objectivity, and there is no portrayal of Richard as a monster. Indeed of Richard's administration in the north he wrote 'The good reputation of his private life and public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers'.
Mancini is critical of Richard for ordering the execution of Hastings, which he considered came about '… on the false pretext of treason'.
Both Mancini and the Crowland Chronicler give crucial information on the events from April to July, but their interpretation of the facts and rumours they had access to can be questioned. Edward IV certainly specified in his will that Richard was to be Protector of the realm in the event of a minority. The initial period following Edward's death suggests that Queen Elizabeth and her supporters were aiming to crown Edward V before Richard could assume the role of Protector. The fact that no official word came to Richard from the Queen or the Council (then effectively in her control) informing him of Edward's death and his legal right to be Protector, must have raised some suspicion in Richard's mind about the Queen's motives. However Richard's behaviour once he had secured the person of Edward V and had arrived in London was exemplary. A date was set for the coronation of Edward V and writs and warrants were issued in the King's name. Summonses were sent for a parliament to meet after the coronation. Richard had the support of the Council and there is no reason to suspect at this stage that anything other than the coronation and reign of Edward V would take place.
The atmosphere changed around 10 June when Richard wrote to the City of York urgently requesting reinforcements to assist him against the Queen's ' … blode adherentts and affinitie. This is a crucial point in the series of events leading to Richard taking the crown. If a plot had been discovered, who was behind it apart from the Queen's blood adherents? The most vexed question centres on the possible involvement of Lord Hastings - does this explain his sudden execution on 13 June? All answers to such questions must be speculative in the absence of definite evidence. The Crowland Chronicler certainly saw the plot as being invented by Richard as a pretext for executing Hastings, who had by then concluded that Richard was aiming for the throne. However there is no hint in Richard's behaviour that he was planning to be crowned in place of Edward V. Government was still being carried out in the name of Edward V - 'By the advice of our dearest uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, Protector of our realm during our young age …' As late as 5 June letters of summons were being issued to forty squires who were to receive knighthoods at Edward's coronation, and even the King's coronation robes were in preparation.
The climax came at the famous Council meeting on 13 June after which Hastings was executed. Hastings who had been Richard's erstwhile supporter against the Queen suddenly turned against him. It could be argued that he did indeed suspect Richard of aiming for the throne and that loyalty to Edward V made him ally with the Queen's party in order to thwart Richard. Whatever the reason Hastings' summary execution remains a blot on Richard's reputation, and was certainly out of character.
It was probably around this time that the pre-contract became a major factor in the course of events. Bishop Stillington's revelation that he had witnessed the pre-contract of Edward IV to Lady Eleanor Butler is one of the most contentious issues in Ricardian studies, dismissed by many as a hollow story. However, the matter of the pre-contract is fully set out in the Titulus Regius, which justified Richard's claim to the throne. This act of settlement was passed by Richard's only parliament, which met during January 1484. The act has led one modern historian to comment that Richard III '... has a claim to having been the only possessor of a genuinely parliamentary title during the entire Middle Ages.' Regarding the pre-contract as a basis for the legitimacy of Richard's title, another modern historian has written that the relevant law to judge the pre-contract by is '... canon law. Under that law the Parliamentary claim stated a legitimate cause of action.'
Richard's coronation on 6 July 1483 was very well attended. This fact alone might lead us to conjecture that Richard had considerable support amongst the nobility and City of London for the course of action that he had pursued. His motives throughout the April to July period will always be a matter of controversy and debate, failing the discovery of further contemporary evidence.
The dispute over Richard's motives continues today. Most modern historians would agree with the remark made by Professor Myers that '… the responsibilities and perils of an unexpected royal minority aroused in his nature the elements of fear, ambition, and impulsive ruthlessness which led him further and further along the path of immediate expediency …' However, to this should be added the view of many others that Richard took '… the crown with widespread support and little bloodshed. … Its constitutional validity apart, his assumption of the crown may be judged as sensible and perhaps even inevitable.'
The Princes in the Tower –'Shall I be plain? – I wish the bastards dead'
Queen Anne Neville – 'And Anne my wife hath bid the world goodnight.'
Anne Neville flanked by her two husbands from the Beauchamp Pageant
©Geoffrey WheelerShakespeare has Richard wooing the recently-widowed Anne Neville over the corpse of her father- in-law, Henry VI. Richard being responsible for both calamities - Anne's widowhood and Henry's death. Richard amazingly under such circumstances wins Anne and marries her. Of course the marriage does not last and Richard tires of Anne and has her poisoned. He then proceeds to bolster his throne by attempting to marry his niece Elizabeth of York.
Polydore Vergil openly suggested that Richard rid himself of Anne. He has Richard causing 'a rumor … to be spred abrode of the quene his wyfes death …' A short while later Anne '… whether she wer dispatchyed with sorowfulnes, or poyson, dyed …'
John Rous accused Richard of poisoning Anne Neville, and for good measure locking up Anne's mother, the Dowager Countess of Warwick, for the duration of his life.
Richard would have known Anne Neville from the days during the 1460s when he was under the tutelage of the Earl of Warwick, her father. It does not follow however that Richard and Anne were 'childhood sweethearts' and married for love. There is no way that we can determine the nature of their personal relationship. Marriages in the fifteenth century were first and foremost business arrangements. Richard had much to gain in material terms from marriage to Anne. She was co-heiress of one of the country's greatest landowners. The other heiress was Anne's sister, Isabel, married to George, Duke of Clarence. When Richard, Duke of Gloucester, sought to make Anne Neville his wife a bitter row developed between him and the Duke of Clarence. The Crowland Chronicle reported that 'so much disputation arose between the brothers and so many keen arguments were put forward on either side with the greatest acuteness in the presence of the king … even those learned in the law, marvelled at the profusion of the arguments which the princes produced for their own cases'. Whilst the acquisition of land, wealth and power was a factor in Richard's determination to marry Anne Neville it is reasonable to assume that their marriage was successful for there is no hint of scandal or mistresses. Richard's acknowledged bastards were both born before his marriage. A brief glimpse of Anne and Richard together is given by the Crowland Chronicler when he reported on the death of Edward of Middleham: 'You might have seen the father and mother, after hearing the news … almost out of their minds when faced with the sudden grief.'
Of the accusation that Richard poisoned Anne there is no contemporary evidence. Rumours were certainly spread by Richard's enemies after Anne died, along with the allegation that Richard intended to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. The latter accusation Richard publicly denied. There is no reason to suppose that his contemporaries took the accusation of poisoning seriously. It seems most likely that Anne was suffering from some debilitating disease, possibly tuberculosis. The Crowland Chronicle remarked that doctors had advised Richard to avoid Anne's bed.
Little credence is now given to the story that Richard poisoned Anne Neville and that the marriage was a wretched one from Anne's point of view. Paul Murray Kendall wrote 'It appears that Richard's marriage was happy, that he gave Anne Neville his heart as well as his name.' The evidence would seem to support this state of affairs, though the danger of over-romanticising the relationship should be avoided.
Much of the above comes from the Society's publication Speaker's Notes 1997 and which is available for purchase.
by Dr Anne F. Sutton
Richard III accepting the crown.
© Geoffrey Wheeler.Richard III's claim to the throne was set out in the document known as the Titulus Regius (The Title of the King) presented to his first parliament held in January 1484, and accepted by that assembly. The main points were that the children of his brother, Edward IV, were illegitimate, and that as the children of his other elder brother, the duke of Clarence, were disabled by their father's attainder for treason, Richard was the next heir.
The arguments specifying the illegitimacy have proved to be the most difficult for commentators to understand or accept. They were difficult to comprehend outside the circle of canon lawyers at the time, and modern unfamiliarity with the tenets of medieval canon law and a tendency of popular historians to over-simplify until the original arguments no longer hang together do not assist those who wish to understand the problem as it existed in 1483. The legal aspects were set out most clearly in 1986 by Professor Richard Helmholz, a modern authority on medieval canon law. The following explanation is greatly indebted to his work.
The argument in canon law was made up of two strands of evidence, both equally important. First that there had been a contract of marriage between Edward and Lady Eleanor Butler (born Talbot) before he married Elizabeth Woodville in May 1464. This would be understood to have consisted of vows exchanged in the present tense, 'I do marry you' -- no witness or priest was necessary -- followed by intercourse. The second fact of Richard's claim -- often forgotten by commentators -- was that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was clandestine, private, before only a few witnesses, with no banns called and no participation of the king's ministers.
Lady Eleanor Talbot
by Mark SatchwillThe fact of the pre-contract cannot now be proved, although it could have been known to many persons in 1483; but there is no doubt that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was clandestine. Eleanor Talbot-Butler was not available to testify to the precontract as she had died in 1468. She had in fact died before the boy children of Edward IV were born, and thus under modern law, the adulterous nature of Edward's second union would have ended before they were born. This did not help their legitimacy in the fifteenth century, however: 'adultery, when coupled with a present contract of marriage', was an impediment to the subsequent marriage of the two adulterers. Thus even after Eleanor's death, Edward could not have married Elizabeth under canon law. This harsh judgement could have been mitigated if Elizabeth had not known of Edward's prior marriage - in this case the two could have remarried after Eleanor's death.
Signature of Edward IV.
Redrawn by Piat DesignBut all possible mitigation was rendered irrelevant by the clandestine nature of Edward's and Elizabeth's marriage. Although a clandestine marriage was accorded validity in many circumstances and the children born of such a marriage might be considered legitimate, the clandestine nature of this particular marriage actually made the children illegitimate. Clandestine marriages were deplored because people, between whom impediments existed, might contract marriage in error or by fraud; the calling of banns was aimed to publicise a proposed marriage and prevent such misfortunes, and to proclaim the good faith of the contracting parties. Edward's hasty and secret marriage to Elizabeth proclaimed his bad faith: if the banns had been called and his councillors informed, the impediment of the pre-contract might have been revealed and circumvented.
The long time during which Edward and Elizabeth lived together openly as man and wife would have been in favour of the legitimacy of the children of their union, but only if their marriage had obeyed the church's laws and had not been clandestine. Canon law allowed questions of legitimacy to be raised after the parents' deaths -- wrong was not excused by the passage of time, and long continuance of adultery did not make it right. Medieval canon law allowed Richard, Duke of Gloucester to raise the question of the children's legitimacy as late as 1483.
The Great West doorway of the
Carmelite Priory Church in Norwich.
Lady Eleanor's coffin would have
passed beneath this archway.
© John Ashdown-HillIt has frequently been asserted that parliament was an improper place to try the issue of illegitimacy, as it was a secular assembly. It was still customary in late fifteenth-century England that questions of bastardy be tried in an ecclesiastical court, but the matter of inheritance was an entirely secular matter and canon lawyers of the day would have conceded this. In a case of less political and national urgency the issue of bastardy would have been raised in a secular court which would then have referred it to an ecclesiastical court, which in its turn would have delivered its finding to the secular court to take action upon. The Titulus Regius, composed by Richard's supporters, attempted to circumvent this problem of jurisdiction by emphasising the notorious nature of the entire case which obviated an actual trial. It was asserted that public opinion considered the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth to be invalid, the essential truth of that public opinion could be presumed and no trial was necessary. Parliament was aware that there was a jurisdictional problem and, according to the Croyland Chronicler, only reluctantly accepted the new king's title 'out of fear'. An ecclesiastical court should have pronounced on the issue of bastardy, and no one was allowed to speak on behalf of the children -- these were weaknesses in the arguments on Richard's side. Similarly, his claim did not relate to a minor matter but to the descent of the crown, and the highly debatable rules that governed its descent -- at no time did a full parliament debate this, although there may have been some debate, at an almost parliamentary level, in the highly charged atmosphere of June 1483. For Richard's claim to succeed he had to over-ride the potential authorities of an ecclesiastical court and parliament. This does not, however, negate the undoubted weight of his claim in canonical terms.
Whatever the view of modern commentators, an ecclesiastical court might well have pronounced in Richard's favour. His case depended on the truth of the facts: the existence of a precontract, which we cannot now prove, and the clandestine marriage about which there is no doubt. Bastardy was held in strong dislike and the parents' guilt was visited upon their children. Medieval canon law was highly sensitive to the idea of ultimate truth, apart from what facts might be proved in a court. Thus the canon law could accept that the precontract had existed solely on the word of the bishop of Bath and Wells or because it was notoriously accepted to have been a fact -- that it was ultimately true. Conscience meant that a canon lawyer could be far more convinced of Richard's claim than a modern common lawyer might be.
The political circumstances certainly affected the way Richard's claim was presented, for example in the use made of the issue of notoriety. It was urgent that there should be a king, and it was generally undesirable that a child should be on the throne, and opposition to the proposal that Richard should be king might coalesce if the matter was delayed. The importance of notoriety in the arguments emphasises the well-known predilection of Edward IV for amorous adventures. It was only too easily supposed that he might have seduced a well-born lady such as Lady Eleanor, daughter of the earl of Shrewsbury, with the words of marriage. Intimates of the king could have known of the liaison even if the words of contract had not been heard. His secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in a private house with only a few witnesses had shocked his council when he finally revealed it; the story was well known throughout Europe by 1483, along with the detail that she had preserved her virtue and held out for marriage against all his persuasions. Edward's reputation was well known and a public scandal, and Richard's supporters made full use of this: the argument of 'notoriety' was highly plausible. Once parliament had accepted Richard's claim and the Titulus Regius was enrolled, his title was as acceptable as those of Henry IV, Edward IV, or Henry VII.
The legal aspect of the claim was always difficult to grasp by the average layperson and it was explained on several occasions. It was first explained to Londoners in a sermon at St Paul's on Sunday 22 June 1483 by Ralph Shaa, a fellow of Queens' College, Oxford, and brother of the mayor of London. Another speech was made by the duke of Buckingham at the Guildhall and presumably repeated the same facts. The original draft of what was to be embedded in the Titulus Regius was presented to those in positions of authority then in London in expectation of a parliament and a coronation (of Edward V), and it formed part of the petition to Richard to take the throne on 26 June. The details of the claim were then publicised during their formal acceptance by parliament in January 1484. But a few months later it was still thought necessary to explain the title carefully: in April the Ironmongers' Company of London recorded that they had paid for two wherries to take them to Westminster 'the which tyme the kyng tytylle and right was ther publyschid and shewid'. This exercise in public relations was directed at the citizen elite of London, who would then have explained it to their subordinates. It was supported by a sermon at St Mary's Hospital Bishopsgate by Thomas Penketh, the Provincial of the Augustine Friars, at Easter 1484, part of a sequence of highly prestigious sermons held each year in Easter Week in London at St Paul's and St Mary's; they were attended by the mayor, aldermen and all leading citizens and drew large crowds. The last two events testify to the efforts made by Richard to explain the intricacies of his title in canon law to his people, and probably also to his sincere acceptance of its validity.
The Bishop of Bath and Wells
Interior of Wells CathedralThe source of the argument that Edward's children were illegitimate is generally taken to have been John Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was certainly a noted authority on canon law and had been lord chancellor of England 1467-70, 1471-73. There is no need to assert that he had anything to do with or witnessed the original precontract between Edward and Eleanor, he only had to make the crucial connection between a precontract and a subsequent clandestine marriage under canon law and realise how they affected the legitimacy of Edward's children. It is also possible that Stillington had voiced his opinion at the time of the execution of George, Duke of Clarence, for he was imprisoned in the Tower and heavily fined shortly after in 1478 (Kendall, p. 217 and n. 10). Stillington's arrest was ordered by Henry VII on the same day as Bosworth and although the bishop was pardoned for unspecified offences, he joined the Lambert Simnel conspiracy, was recaptured, and remained in custody for the rest of his life.
by Wendy E.A. Moorhen
On a summer morning in 1483, the King's Chamberlain, William Hastings, was escorted on to Tower Green, ordered to lie on a makeshift block, then suffered death by decapitation. The arrest and execution of the popular Hastings, who was barely given time to ask for absolution of his sins, shattered the peace of the ancient palace and within a few hours that of the capital. In the ensuing confusion George Cely caught the mood of the people and noted the current rumours, facts and questions:
… there is great rumour in the realm, the Scots have done great [harm] in England, the Chamberlain is deceased in trouble, the Chancellor is desperate and not content, the Bishop of Ely is dead, if the King, God save his life, were deceased, the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril, if my Lord Prince, who God defend, were troubled, if my lord of Northumberland were dead or greatly troubled, if my Lord Howard were slain.
The action of Richard of Gloucester, the Lord Protector, in ordering the execution without trial of his brother's greatest friend and confidant, is one of the great conundrums of the period leading to Richard's accession a few days later. The execution's illegality has meant that Richard is vulnerable to criticism that is difficult to refute. Richard, in effect, gave his enemies and detractors the opportunity to vilify him, an opportunity that they have not failed to exploit. Many believe this was Richard's first action that publicly indicated his intention to become king. What is most startling, however, is that Hastings and Richard, although both capable of vigorously pursuing their quarrels, had never before been in conflict with each other but united in their love and loyalty to, respectively, their kinsman and brother, King Edward IV.
Hastings has been a victim, not just of Richard's swift retribution, but of history itself. Despite a long and successful career Hastings seems never to have been studied in his own right, but usually as an adjunct to Edward IV or part of the saga of Richard Ill's 'usurpation'. The date of his execution became the subject of a debate between Dr Alison Hanham and Professor Bertram Wolffe in the 1970s when theories went under the historical microscope to be analysed and rebutted. The biographies included in The Hastings Hours and Dunham's Lord Hastings' Indentured Retainers were, perhaps, inspired by the survival of the work of art and the indentures rather than to any particular interest in Hastings?
Born circa 1431, William Hastings was the son of Sir Leonard Hastings and Alice, daughter of Lord Camoys. Lady Hastings' mother was Elizabeth Mortimer, the widow of Sir Henry Percy (Hotspur) and the eldest great-grandchild of Edward III. Lady Hastings' uncle, Roger Mortimer, although never proclaimed heir presumptive to the throne of England, was undoubtedly considered a candidate due to Richard II being childless. Hastings' public career spanned over two decades, and encompassed the roles of politician, administrator, soldier, diplomat, businessman, landowner and great lord. He was a close friend and associate of King Edward IV, and undoubtedly filled a void in the young's king life following the premature death of his father at Wakefield.
April - May 1483
The Stall Plate of Lord Hastings, St George's Chapel Windsor
Courtesy: Geoffrey WheelerOn 17 April Hastings took part in Edward IV's obsequies in Westminster Abbey and on the 20th was present when his body was committed to the tomb in the magnificent Chapel of St. George that he had built at Windsor. Hastings must have experienced great sorrow at the loss of his beloved master and friend, all the more poignant as Edward was the younger man.
The business of government, however, had to continue and the pragmatic Hastings wasted no time in alerting Richard of Gloucester as to the events in London, urging him to join with King Edward V and to proceed south to take control. In the meantime Hastings was active in the council chamber. The council sent 300 men to Calais to reinforce the garrison and presumably to discourage the French from taking advantage of any possible political turmoil in England following the accession of a minor to the throne. Hastings effectively prevented the Woodvilles from providing the young king with an over-large escort on his journey from Ludlow. The Crowland chronicler records that the 'forsighted members of the Council' did not wish the King's maternal relatives 'to have control of the person of the young man until he came of age'. Such was the influence of Hastings that his threat to retire to Calais caused the Queen to capitulate and agree that the escort would be no more than 2,000 men. The chronicler goes on to make it quite clear that Hastings' motive for his objection was self-preservation as he was concerned that the Woodvilles would 'sharply avenge the alleged injuries done to them by that lord'.
Hastings' correspondence with Richard is described by Mancini who writes that it was on Hastings' advice that Richard secured the King and restrained Rivers. In similar vein to the Crowland chronicler, Mancini had Hastings say he was in great danger 'for he could scarcely escape the snares of his enemies' but added that this danger was also due to his friendship with Richard. According to Mancini it was common knowledge that Hastings had been in contact with Richard.
Ashby de la Zouche Castle.
The manor was granted to William Hastings in 1464
and he was granted the licence to fortify it in 1474.Richard, in the decisive fashion that was to be the hallmark of his future actions, left Yorkshire and met with Rivers, the King's maternal uncle, at Northampton. The arrest of Rivers and his immediate supporters led to the collapse of the Woodville machinations to rule England through the young King. When news of the day's happenings reached London, Queen Elizabeth took refuge in sanctuary at Westminster. Supporters of the Queen hovered around Westminster while those favouring Richard of Gloucester gravitated to the 'protection of Lord Hastings', The Queen's son, Dorset, who was deputy constable of the Tower, joined his mother in sanctuary.
On 4 May, the date originally set for the coronation, Richard and his nephew arrived in London accompanied by the new major player in the drama that was about to unfold, the hitherto political lightweight Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.
Buckingham was born in 1455 and was descended from the youngest son of Edward III, Thomas of Woodstock. Despite his rank the Duke had played no part in government although the same rank enabled him to be involved in the ceremonial aspect of court life. He contributed soldiers to King Edward's French campaign but returned home before the army's embarkation. Obviously not trusted, and probably not liked by King Edward, Buckingham saw an opportunity for a political career and increased wealth with Richard of Gloucester as Protector and he wasted no time in giving his support. Whatever reasons King Edward had for his exclusion of Buckingham from public office they would have been known to, and possibly endorsed by, Hastings.
At the time of Richard's arrival in London, Hastings was described by the Crowland chronicler as 'bursting with joy over this new world'. His relationship with the two dukes was good and he declared that the transfer of government had been effected with no more bloodshed than 'from a cut finger'. Polydore Vergil, on the other hand, later painted a very different picture. He wrote that Hastings was shocked by Richard's high handed actions at Northampton and repented his earlier support. According to Vergil, Hastings held a meeting at St Paul's with trusted friends to discuss the situation. Although they agreed that the young King was 'utterly oppressyd and wrongyd' by Richard, their policy would be to wait and see. It has been suggested that if Vergil was correct in his gauging of Hastings' attitude, then a 'tentative meeting of the minds' between Hastings and Dorset could have taken place shortly after the news of Richard's coup reached London on the evening of 30 April, possibly before Dorset went into hiding the next day. If, however, such an allegiance was formed after Dorset disappeared, the initiative must have been taken by Hastings, as Dorset would not have risked capture by approaching, by whatever means, his enemy.
During the weeks that followed Richard took control of the government and plans moved forward for the coronation, now to take place on 22 June. A government re-shuffle had John Russell succeed Rotherham as chancellor and John Gunthorpe succeed Russell as keeper of the privy seal.
On 7 May a meeting of the late King's executors, including Richard, Buckingham, Hastings, Stanley and leading prelates, took place at the home of Duchess Cecily of York at Baynards Castle when Cardinal Bourchier the Archbishop of Canterbury, placed Edward IV's jewels under ecclesiastical sequestration. The Archbishop performed this action as the executors of the late King had been hesitant to do so themselves. Following the sequestration, the Archbishop wrote to the executors, empowering them to sell goods of the late King to pay for his funeral expenses that had amounted to £1,496. 17s 2d. On 20 May Hastings was re-appointed to the office of master of the mint, the only grant he was to receive from Richard and one that paled into insignificance against the grants that were bestowed on the duke of Buckingham. A few days earlier the duke had been made chief justice and chamberlain of North and South Wales, constable and steward of Welsh crown lands - 'virtually the viceroy in Wales'. The historian, Paul Murray Kendall commented: 'seldom has a man so little known become so important so quickly'. Richard had acknowledged and rewarded the duke for his support with these spectacular grants. Hastings may have been apprehensive as to the ability and motives of the inexperienced Buckingham. He may also have been disappointed at Richard's qualified recognition of his own support. If Vergil was accurate in his reporting of Hastings' concern over the Northampton affair perhaps Richard was aware of this change in attitude, and this is reflected in his treatment of Hastings.
The chroniclers devoted few words to the last days of May and early June. Simon Stallworthe, in his letter of 9 June to Sir William Stonor, confirmed there was nothing new to report. The process of government had become somewhat fragmented with committees of councillors meeting in various locations within the capital: Westminster, the Tower, Baynards Castle and their own residences. In Richard's case this was Crosby Hall and it was here that he gathered his inner circle of supporters, Buckingham, Francis Lovel, Lord John Howard and William Catesby. The last two had strong connections with Hastings: Howard as his deputy in Calais and Catesby as a lawyer. The continued presence of these men about the Protector may well have affected Hastings' equilibrium.
Hastings' re-appointment to the mint had been tardy. Despite his duties and attendance at council meetings he could now begin to feel isolated from the real power base. Although he was far from being politically impotent, Hastings' rancour could have been shared by other officials of the late King's government, Rotherham, Morton and Stanley, the 'quadrumvirate of the dispossessed' (Kendall). They had taken to meeting in each other's houses and perhaps at such a meeting discontent turned to sedition.
Hastings was well placed if he wished to regain his position at the centre of political affairs. He represented continuity with the old regime. He had retained, if not increased, his offices and could presumably have looked for support from the moderate element of the council. Inevitably, the Queen would need to be aware of any plans. If Hastings succeeded in curtailing the power of Richard and Buckingham, the re-emergence of the Woodvilles as a political faction would, at some stage, follow. Hastings needed to ally himself with his estranged colleagues and with the Queen. The go-between may have been Mistress Shore.
Elizabeth Shore, known to later ages as Jane Shore, had been the mistress of Edward IV and was the divorced wife of the mercer William Shore. In October 1483 a proclamation in the patent rolls described her as 'the unshameful and mischievous woman called Shore's wife' and as being held in adultery by Dorset. This liaison, presumably, did not start before King Edward's death in April and within three weeks Dorset was in sanctuary. Elizabeth herself was arrested in June and was probably not released until sometime after the October rebellion when she married Richard's solicitor-general Thomas Lynom. There is no contemporary evidence that she was sexually involved with Hastings although she would have undoubtedly been well known to him.
It should also be remembered that there was another obvious connection between Dorset and Hastings in the person of the latter's step-daughter, Cecily, who was married to the former, who may well have visited her husband in sanctuary and could have acted as mediator with her stepfather.
On Thursday 5 June the Duchess of Gloucester arrived in London from the North and the same day Duke Richard wrote to the citizens of York a friendly letter advising them he did not have 'convenient leyser to accomplysh this your besnes', referring to their request for his support in alleviating a local tax. On Monday 9 June a full council meeting was held at Westminster lasting some four hours to discuss the coronation and Stallworthe reported that 'None spoke with the Queen'.
The following day Richard wrote again to York but this time the tenor of his letter was very different as he was appealing for urgent help against 'the Queen, her blood adherents, and affinity'. He does not enlarge on her 'affinity' in the letter, leaving the messenger, Richard Ratcliffe, to provide the details of the plot. Further developments may have delayed Ratcliffe's departure, possibly intelligence that Hastings was implicated in the conspiracy. Richard's appeal for help is repeated in a letter to Lord Neville dated 13 June, the day Ratcliffe left London. Additional correspondence may have been entrusted to Ratcliffe soliciting support from Richard's northern friends. The troops were duly mustered but did not arrive in London until 3 July. They may have discounted the urgency of Richard's written appeal due to a verbal update by Ratcliffe that the situation had changed and the main danger in London would have been dealt with by the time the letters were received. Although a military force was still required it would be as a demonstration of strength rather than any direct action.
According to Thomas More the person who betrayed Hastings was the lawyer William Catesby, who had for many years served not only Hastings but also the duke of Buckingham. No mention of Catesby, however, was made by Crowland, Mancini or the London chroniclers. Perhaps More's vanity was such that he wished to assign a major role to a wily member of his own profession, who, like so many in this story, was long dead. More wrote that Hastings considered Catesby to be his ears amongst the Gloucester set and because of the trust he placed in him Hastings was indiscreet in his presence. The Protector, on the other hand, wanted Catesby to sound out Hastings to join his cause, in other words to take part in a usurpation, but Hastings' views were so strongly against such a cause that Catesby didn't even have to test Hastings' loyalty:
But … whether he assayed him or assaied him not, reported unto them, that he founde him so fast, and hard him speke so terrible woordes, that he durst no further breke.
Hastings may have displayed great naivety in still trusting Catesby, if More was correct, in view of the appointment Catesby had received from Richard in May, the chancellorship of the earldom of March, an office which reported directly to Buckingham. This appointment has been interpreted as soliciting Hastings' support to agree to the extension of the protectorate by the promotion of one of his affinity.
Two interesting points emerge from More's story of Catesby's tendentious enquiries. The first is that Catesby confirmed Hastings was not content and was suspicious of the Protector, though this contradicts the Crowland chronicler . Secondly, it appears that Catesby was not wholly impartial where Hastings was concerned. More admitted that Catesby urged the Protector to take action against Hastings 'and much the rather, for he trusted by his deth to obtaine much of the rule that the lorde Hastings bare his countrey'. It is feasible that Catesby could have deliberately misled Richard as to Hastings' attitude to the possibility of Richard assuming the throne. Catesby benefited directly from Hastings' demise with grants for the constableship of Rockingham Castle (with Francis Lovel), the stewardship of St Albans Abbey and Hastings' Exchequer offices. He indirectly benefited by removing a potential opponent to Richard's claim to the throne and the ultimate advancement of his new master.
John of Gaunt's Gatehouse, Tutbury CastleThe idea of Hastings being scrutinised as to his loyalties rather than betrayed in his conspiratorial activities is borne out by Mancini who wrote that this task was undertaken by Buckingham, who included Rotherham and Morton as well as Hastings in his enquiries. Like Catesby, Buckingham was to benefit from Hastings' death. He succeeded Hastings in the stewardship of the honour of Tutbury, an appointment he may have coveted for some time due to the standing of the Stafford family in that area.
Regardless of how Richard learnt of the disaffection of Hastings, he had chosen his course of action by Thursday 12 June when he arranged for two council meetings to take place the next day, one at Westminster with the Chancellor, John Russell, and the other at the Tower. The handling of the denouement was also well planned and careful consideration given to the wording of the subsequent proclamation, as suggested by More. Such preparation, however, need not be interpreted as contrived but merely essential to an important operation. Richard was determined to act swiftly and decisively in this latest crisis and although the hostile chroniclers and historians have implied he acted with feigned spontaneity, hindsight has perhaps affected their judgement of the situation.
13 June 1483
During the night of 12/13 June Lord Stanley had a nightmare in which he and Hastings were both attacked by a boar which 'with his tuskes soraced them both bi the heddes, that the blood ranne aboute both their shoulders'. So disturbed was Stanley when he awoke during the night that he immediately despatched a messenger to Hastings suggesting they flee the city immediately. Hastings dismissed Stanley's fears with 'we might be as likely to make them true by our going' and sent the messenger home, saying, he was sure of Richard.
In the morning Hastings rode to the Tower but on two or three occasions his horse stumbled, in 'olde rite & custome' a portentous occurrence. While he was steadying his horse in Tower Street Hastings spoke with a priest. A knight, sent by Richard to ensure Hastings attended the council meeting, merrily asked why he was spending so much time talking to a priest when he had no need; he laughed in the knowledge that soon Hastings would require the services of a priest. When Hastings reached Tower Wharf a double coincidence occurred as he met another man called Hastings whom he had last seen at the same place during the period when he had been accused by Lord Rivers and fallen from King Edward's favour. While reminiscing Hastings told how well things were with him at the present as he knew that his enemy and author of his former trouble (Rivers) would that day die at Pontefract. That is how Sir Thomas More, vividly but speculatively, recounts Hastings' eventful last hours before entering the Tower for the council meeting.
The Arrest of Lord Hastings. By James Doyle
Courtesy: Geoffrey WheelerThe accounts of 13 June, some more brief than others, basically agree, More of course providing the most colourful and detailed version. Crowland merely reported: 'On 13 June, the sixth day of the week, when he came to the Council in the Tower, on the authority of the Protector, Lord Hastings was beheaded'. If Chancellor John Russell was the anonymous continuator of the Crowland Chronicle, he was probably involved in the other council meeting taking place at Westminster and, therefore, not an eye witness. This may account for his brevity or possibly reflect a disapproval or dislike of Hastings which resulted in his failure to provide a fuller commentary on what was a significant event. The London Chronicle, known as Vitellius A XVI, is also brief:
And the xiij day of Jun the Duke of Glowcetir, sodeynly w' oute Judgement, cawsid the lord Hastynges, Chamberlayne of England, to be beheded w'in the Tower. And forthwith sent the Bisshoppis of Ely and York in to Walys, there to haue been prysoned.
The 'historical notes of a London citizen' also gives the date as 13 June and confirms the arrests of Rotherham, Morton and Oliver King 'with other moo' [more], the same day. The Great Chronicle of London states that, apart from Hastings and the 'Earl of Derby' , most of the councillors attending the Tower were supporters of the Protector and continues:
Upon the same [day] dyned the said lord hastynges with him [Richard] and afftyr dyner Rode behynd hym or behynd the duke of Bukkyngham unto the Towyr. When all were assembled a cry of treason was uttered and the usher burst upon 'such as beffore were appoyntid' and arrested Stanley and Hastings, the latter being executed without 'processe of any lawe or lawfully examynacion'.
Mancini portrays the events as beginning with Hastings, Rotherham and Ely making a customary call upon Richard in the Tower at ten o'clock. The Protector at once accused them of arranging an ambush upon him 'as they had come with hidden arms' and again, by pre-arrangement, soldiers entered the room, this time accompanied by Buckingham, and despatched Hastings forthwith. 'Thus fell Hastings, killed not by those enemies he had always feared, but by a friend whom he had never doubted.'
Vergil's version refers to the two council meetings: one at Westminster given the task to proclaim the date of King Edward's coronation and the other within the Tower to debate the whole matter of the coronation. The date of the coronation had, of course, been set for 22 June and was well publicised, which rather makes a nonsense of Vergil's agenda. The Tower meeting was convened early, but Gloucester launched into a tirade against the Queen whose witchcraft was wasting his body and he showed the assembly his arm as proof. More's version starts the meeting at nine o'clock with Richard's small talk of strawberries. He withdraws for an hour or so and when he returns his mood is completely changed, exhibiting 'angrye countenaunce, knitting of brows, frowning and froting and knawing on hys lippes.' At this stage More's story resembles Vergil's, similarly recounting Richard's accusations against the Queen and his conversation with Hastings, who agreed the lady should be punished for her actions. In More's account we also find Richard's rejoinder '… and I will make good on thy body tratour' and 'What then, William, yf by thine owne practises I be brought to destruction' immediately before guards entered the chamber to make their arrests. During the scuffle Stanley received a blow that knocked him under a table, with blood about his ears, then with Rotherham and Morton, he was arrested and they were taken to separate rooms while Hastings briefly made his confession, the Protector having declared he would not eat 'til I se thy hed of'.
It is noticeable after reviewing these different accounts that Thomas Stanley only appears in the Tudor versions. Perhaps his fame was not so great in 1483 when Hastings, Morton and Rotherham took centre stage, but it is worth noting that although he is included with the plotters retrospectively, yet less than three weeks later he carried the constable's mace at Richard's coronation. Did Stanley, as the step-father of King Henry VII, need to be seen, in retrospect, as acting against Richard?
Whichever version the reader wishes to accept as the 'true' account, the outcome was the same: the respected and popular Lord Hastings 'who chiefly amongst all the nobylytie was, for his bountifulness and lyberalytie, much beloved of the common people' was dead. Events moved quickly with further arrests, including Mistress Shore, the King's secretary Oliver King and John Forster, the co-steward (with Hastings) of the Abbey of St Albans and son-in-law of Sir Thomas Cook. Forster was taken to the Tower from his home in Hertfordshire on 14 June and others may also have been arrested. Dorset escaped from sanctuary and supposing that he was hiding in the adjacent neighbourhood, he [Richard] surrounded with troops and dogs the already grown crops and the cultivated and woody places, and sought for him, after the manner of huntsmen, by a very close encirclement: but he was never found. (Mancini)
The question remains unanswered as to whether there was a genuine plot against Richard and, if this was the case, whether Hastings was personally involved. Before considering this problem it is relevant to review the situation from Richard's perspective and to follow subsequent events.
The decision to become King
It has been argued that Richard kept his options open, and that his actions, generally, can be interpreted as not following a premeditated and determined path to usurpation. His policy was forever under review and changing to meet the needs of the current situation. In other words Richard was merely reacting to new situations.
It should be remembered that Richard's situation was not particularly secure at the beginning of June. His role of Protector may be regarded to some extent as nominal: he had failed to obtain the Council's agreement to the executions of Rivers and Grey; the Queen remained in sanctuary with her youngest son and daughters, to Richard's embarrassment; and there was an independent party of magnates and prelates led by Hastings who could wield considerable influence and power. Richard badly needed to extend his protectorship and he would certainly have been aware of the fate of two earlier dukes of Gloucester who had both held high office and died under suspicious circumstances. To this end he had gained the Council's approval for an extension of his powers after the coronation as is evidenced in the draft address to parliament prepared by Russell. How long Richard could have held the office was and is open to speculation and no-one was more acutely aware of this than Richard himself.
As the date of the coronation drew near, events gathered momentum and the first indication of the ensuing turmoil was the virtual suspension of normal government: grants ceased to be recorded by 11 June. Richard probably learnt of the conspiracy on the 9th or l0th, applied for military aid within forty-eight hours and proceeded to take corrective action on the 13th and 14th. Richard was no longer prepared to brook any obstinacy from the Queen and on Monday 16th she relinquished Richard, Duke of York. At what stage Stillington told his story to Richard about King Edward's pre-contract with Eleanor Butler is unknown but undoubtedly Richard was in possession of the revelation by this time and now had three options open to him: ignore the pre-contract and continue with the coronation on the 22nd; postpone the coronation; or assume the throne on the grounds of the illegitimacy of his nephews.
On 16 June Richard took the second option, he issued the writs of supersedeas cancelling both the coronation on the 22nd and parliament on 25 June and he named a new coronation date of 9 November, The deliberations by which Richard came to his decision to become king had now begun in earnest and the decision was made by the Saturday. On Sunday 22 June the issue of the pre-contract was made public and within four days he was acclaimed King Richard III. The postponement of Edward V's coronation was, in part, an expedient act designed to give Richard time to think and decide where his duty lay, following several days of intense activity culminating in the exposure of the conspiracy, the existence of which had demonstrated Richard' s vulnerability. The revised date for the coronation, however, was common knowledge in official circles and beyond. Many Londoners were involved in the preparations for the coronation and the new date was recorded in the College of Arms chronicle. None of Richard's actions in June (the plea for aid, arrest of the conspirators, transfer of Richard of York and the postponement of the coronation) need be regarded as sinister or pre-emptive if reviewed in chronological order and without hindsight, In the words of Isolde Wigram, who wrote about the dating of Hastings' death: 'If one starts with the assumption that what Richard said was the truth, everything falls into place'.
Conspiracy or Canard
The only documentary evidence that the plot existed are the two letters, written by Richard to the city of York and Lord Neville, together with the report of the proclamation issued within a few hours of the execution declaring Hastings a traitor. The opinion has been expressed that if there was no conspiracy, Richard would have waited to take action against Hastings and his friends until after the arrival of the troops, but in the event, the situation was sufficiently threatening to Richard to preclude delay.
Kirby Muxloe, the fortified brick-built manor house
which Hastings began building in 1480 but was never completedCircumstantial evidence exists in the form of the arrests, not only of the high-ranking prelates, Rotherham and Morton, but of Mistress Shore, Oliver King and John Forster. What was the purpose of their arrests unless they were part of a genuine conspiracy? Elizabeth Shore's introduction to her future husband, Thomas Lynom, was probably made while he interrogated her in his capacity as Richard's solicitor-general, Forster, Queen Elizabeth's treasurer and receiver-general, was held in prison for almost nine months and he was sufficiently frightened to surrender his stewardship of the liberty of St, Albans within forty-eight hours of his arrest 'in the hope of obtaining remission of his punishment'. Further testimony to the seriousness of the charges against him was supplied by Stallworthe in his 21 June letter to Sir William Stonor when he reported that men feared for Forster's life. Stallworthe also reported that the London residences of Rotherham and Ely were occupied, and possibly their country homes as well, by Richard's men. Richard was obviously taking no chances and was extremely thorough in the mop-up operation, presumably searching the prelates' homes and interviewing staff, servants and visitors.
Finally, there is one further indication that the conspiracy was real. The register of Abbot Wallingford of St Albans, which recorded Forster's arrest and imprisonment, also records 'that it was said Hastings deserved his fate'. Perhaps the phrase 'it was said' indicates a certain scepticism on the part of the chronicler but unless it was generally accepted that Hastings was involved in a plot against the Protector, why bother to make the statement at all?
Historians who adopt the traditional anti-Richard stance have drawn their own conclusions about the events of 13 June: primarily that the execution of Hastings was a second pre-emptive act by Richard and one that removed the most powerful magnate who would remain loyal to the son of his former master. Due to the paucity of the evidence they argue no conspiracy existed except in the minds of Richard and Buckingham and rely on Mancini's gossip 'that the plot had been feigned by the duke so as to escape the odium of such a crime'. It was true, of course, that the existence of a conspiracy did provide Richard with an excuse to rid himself permanently of the Woodville prisoners. On 25 June Richard took the initiative: Rivers and Grey were executed at Pontefract.
The two major arguments against Hastings' involvement in a plot are his relationship with Richard and the unlikelihood of his rapprochement with the Queen. Both Crowland and Mancini referred to the good will Hastings bore Richard, and More wrote: 'undoubtedly the protector loued him wel, & loth was to haue loste him'. Presumably Hastings was aware of the content of Russell's parliamentary address confirming Richard's continuance as Protector after the coronation and thus he endorsed this extension to the protectorship. Further, Hastings retained his offices and 'his interests were respected' so, it has been argued, why should he conspire against the Protector? To what could he possibly have objected?
It could also be argued, however, that this scenario is confirmed by Richard himself: his complete astonishment at Hastings' betrayal that was manifested by his violent and swift response. Richard acted while his anger was still hot. If he had hesitated and waited to consider what he was about to do to an old friend and comrade he would probably have been unable to order the execution. Further confirmation is provided in the form of Richard's treatment of Hastings' family. In the normal course of events, Hastings' death would have been followed by his attainder, and the subsequent confiscation of his lands would have placed a considerable amount of patronage at Richard's disposal. Richard chose not to follow this course of action but to honour Hastings' wishes in being buried near King Edward at Windsor, and on 23 July while at Reading on his royal progress, he officially assured Lady Katherine Hastings that she would in no way suffer from her late husband's conduct. Are these the actions of the wicked, power-crazed monster of Tudor legend or the calculating land-hungry duke, as he is currently represented by modern historians?
Hastings' relations with the Woodvilles spanned many years. Although there were undoubtedly causes for dissension, and these have already been discussed, this did not preclude them from working together during King Edward's reign.
Dorset was Hastings' deputy at the battle of Tewkesbury .They served together on commissions of oyer and terminer, were part of a group of feoffees for the Mowbray estate and certainly worked together on other occasions at the behest of their master King Edward. Rivers and Hastings seem to have shared a common interest in the collection of books. Hastings and the Queen's kin may well have jostled for King Edward's favour but compromise was essential between those who so prominently served their king. In June 1483, however, Rivers was under arrest and Dorset was in no position to become actively involved in a conspiracy.
Hastings' 'animosity' against Queen Elizabeth is not as well documented as that between Hastings and the Queen's immediate relations. The view has been expressed that 'there were less well-advertised examples of cooperation, or at least of agreeable co-existence' Only More and Mancini record the hostility that stemmed from the Queen's resentment of Hastings being 'secretelye familyer with the kynge in wanton coumpanye' and 'the accomplice and partner of the sovereign' s privy pleasures' If More and Mancini are to be believed it seems strange that Queen Elizabeth should single out Hastings as the sole object of her wrath without apportioning some blame to her own son and brothers for encouraging her husband in his infidelities. The possibility of some degree of discord within the Woodville family, despite their unity , should not be overlooked. The view has been expressed that Elizabeth and Hastings each bore the other a grudge dating back to the 1464 marriage agreement that was signed just seventeen days before she married King Edward. Elizabeth, on her part, because of Hastings' tough negotiations, and Hastings because the agreement lapsed after her royal marriage. In the event Elizabeth did agree to the contract, her common sense probably telling her that one hundred per cent of nothing is nothing and that at least with Hastings' backing she stood a chance of achieving a settlement from her in-laws. What is tantalising, however, is the hypothesis that Hastings, in attempting to obtain a favourable solution for Elizabeth from the King brought her to Edward's attention. In such circumstances Elizabeth may well have retained a certain regard for her husband's closest friend.
Apart from a possible spell in the Tower, Hastings did not seem to lose too many points to the Woodvilles. Few ladies were more pragmatic than the Queen and her later association with King Richard bears testimony to her ambivalence. Richard was responsible for the death of one of her sons, Richard Grey. The argument that Hastings and the Queen could not have formed an alliance because of their much vaunted hostility, however, is obviated by the precedent set by the Earl of Warwick and Queen Margaret. The forceful personalities of the latter pair are well known and if they could come to an alliance in 1470 so could Hastings and Queen Elizabeth a few years later. The ultimate question is why William Hastings would want to become involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Richard of Gloucester?
Hastings' Monument at the Tower of LondonThe present author believes that the answer to that question is to be found in two aspects of Hastings' character: his loyalty and his ambition. Taking his status from his father, Hastings combined his background of landed gentry with the pride of his maternal ancestry. Although lacking the vast acres and wealth, in his early years, of a 'great magnate' he possessed the intelligence, developed the skills and, from his cousin King Edward, acquired the land to become one of the most important men in England for over two decades. Edward's trust in 'Hastings was repaid by a lifetime of personal devotion' and Mancini describes him as the 'author of the sovereign's public policy' Confident in his own wealth, position and abilities, Hastings was perhaps unconcerned at his lack of higher rank.
More's description of Hastings is of '… a good knight and a gentle … plaine & open to his enemy, & secret to his frend: eth to begile, as he that of good hart and corage forestudied no perills, a louing man & passing wel beloued. Very faithful, & trusty ynough, trusting to much'.
Although this accords with the loyal aspect of Hastings' character that kept faith with the Yorkist cause throughout his life, worked tirelessly on behalf of his country and inspired confidence in all levels of society, it is perhaps more a eulogy for a 'victim' of the 'ambitious' Richard of Gloucester than a complete and accurate reflection of Hastings' character. Time and again Hastings proved himself successful and to achieve success on this scale he had to be strong, competitive, astute, resourceful and acquisitive. Hastings' ability as a diplomat alone negates More's 'trusting to much'. How 'gentle' was the young Hastings in the Pierpoint affair? How 'plaine and open' to his enemies in the John Edwards incident? How easy 'to begile' when he negotiated with the widowed Elizabeth Grey (subsequently King Edward IV's wife). How innocent to have 'forestudied no perills' when Elizabeth speedily sought to crown her son and control the government? Perhaps the measure of William Hastings was his popularity and good reputation in spite of his success.
With King Edward's death change was inevitable and each of those closest to the late King quickly assessed their own priorities. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, wanted to attain control. His surviving brother, Richard of Gloucester, saw his role as protector of the realm until the young king could govern for himself. His greatest friend, William Hastings, wanted a smooth transition of power to a council dominated by the old nobility. Immediately Queen Elizabeth was in conflict with Richard and Hastings and within three weeks her faction was neutralised.
On the periphery there were a number of people who recognised an opportunity to promote their own interests, Margaret Beaufort, John Morton, Robert Stillington, William Catesby and Henry of Buckingham. It was perhaps the combination of their ambitions and machinations that now brought about the strife that began with Hastings' conspiracy and was to end at Bosworth over two years later. In April, Hastings and Richard shared common goals and Hastings was content to work with Richard during the period of the protectorship. Initially Richard's friendship with Buckingham may not have concerned Hastings but by May, after Buckingham's promotion in Wales, Hastings could begin to feel uneasy as he saw Buckingham usurping a role he had dominated for over twenty years. Excluded from Richard of Gloucester's inner circle, perhaps regarded as old fashioned and belonging to another generation, it would have taken a humbler man than William Hastings not to resent this change in the status quo. Hastings' ambitions were not diminishing with age and he was still capable of vigorously asserting his authority as he had demonstrated in the council chamber in April.
It is very likely that Hastings was aware of the threat posed by Robert Stillington and his knowledge of the pre-contract with Eleanor Butler. It is entirely possible that Hastings' own 'intelligence' or an interview with Catesby alerted him that Richard was already in possession of the facts. Hastings' fears would have been for the reputation of King Edward IV and the future of the boy, who for twelve years had been destined for the throne of England. Although there had been differences with the Woodvilles it was inconceivable for Hastings to stand by whilst Queen Elizabeth was exposed as Edward's paramour and their children declared illegitimate. To Hastings, such a scandal would destroy the honour of Edward IV.
In late May, Hastings faced the unpleasant fact that his political influence was declining and the possibility that his beloved master's son would not be crowned. Despite his fifty-three years Hastings was not prepared to retire to his estates and abrogate his position, especially as it was being usurped by Buckingham, 'Power once obtained is very seldom voluntarily relinquished' (Caroline Halsted). Far from being the naïve dupe presented by More, Hastings took the initiative and made peace with the Woodvilles. The conflict between Richard and Hastings was inevitable but, rather than a display of antipathy towards his former colleague, Richard, Hastings' conspiracy was simply a matter of expediency for his own political survival and that of his young master, King Edward V.
 A dispute over land may have been the cause of the incident that demonstrates ruthlessness in Hastings' character. Hastings' brother Thomas and Henry Ferrers were questioned by Henry Pierpont regarding the murder of his brother Robert and the matter was referred to Richard, Duke of York. Hastings was not accused of the actual murder but was clearly held responsible and together with his brother, Ferrers and Pierpont, was ordered to 'keep the peace with each other'.
 On 8 August 1482 a John Edwards made a confession at Westminster which rescinded allegations he had made against Dorset and Rivers that he had made in Calais when he was 'in fear of his life' and of being put in the 'breke'. Hastings, as Captain of Calais, if not directly involved in the questioning of Edwards, would have been aware of the allegation.
 Elizabeth Grey approached Hastings for help with regard to inheritance matters with her late husband's estate. Hastings complied but negotiated a high price with him, taking the wardship of her son, Thomas Grey, afterwards Marquis of Dorset, and marrying him to one of his daughters.
[This assessment has been adapted from an article originally published in The Ricardian Vol. IX, Nos. 122 and 123, September and December 1993.]
by Lynda Pidgeon
[See the pedigree of the Woodvilles (Wydevile) family.]
It is generally assumed that because of Richard's actions in 1483, there was a history of distrust and dislike between Richard and the Woodvilles. This would not have been surprising: after all this was true of the attitude between Clarence and the Woodvilles, and most people of the time disliked the Woodvilles. Or did they?
There is a large element of myth about feelings towards the Woodvilles, and much of what is written is with the benefit of hindsight. If the family were not so universally unpopular, and if Richard did not distrust and dislike them, how else could the events of 1483 be explained? What evidence exists to suggest that Richard and the Woodvilles did not get on and even disliked one another?
Unfortunately there is no juicy gossip in the Paston Letters to shed light on their feelings, so we only have official records to rely on. These mention occasions when the paths of Richard and the Woodvilles crossed, but they cannot indicate any feelings upon the part of either. This has not stopped some historians from trying. Kendall's biography of Richard III is full of purple prose, his description of Richard and the Woodvilles being no exception
In the Woodville court Richard could not have been at ease … he could not bring himself to enjoy the company of the Woodvilles, whose arrogance shone as bright as the newness of their fortunes… Sir Thomas Grey … was already in training to become a boon companion of the King … In the tilt-yard the talk was all of Anthony Woodville … The Queen, beautiful and rapacious, … viewed the King's two brothers only as rivals of her family for the favours of her lord. Woodvilles surrounded Edward like a glittering hedge …
It is important to bear in mind that when Edward married Elizabeth Woodvilles on 1 May 1464 Richard was only eleven years old, and he spent the years 1465 to 1468 in the care of Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick ('the kingmaker'). It might thus be argued that while in the Warwick household he learnt to dislike the Woodvilles as much as Warwick and his brother Clarence did. Yet he did not join them in their rebellion of 1469 but joined Edward against them. His loyalty to his brother may have led to an acceptance of, if not a liking for, his new in-laws. There is nothing to suggest that he came into contact with the Woodvilles before 1469.
In May 1469 Richard may have attended the Garter ceremony at Windsor and he was with Edward in June on a pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds. Also present on both occasions were Lord Rivers, Anthony, Lord Scales and other Woodvilles. It was during the pilgrimage that Edward heard about Warwick's rebellion. Edward went to Nottingham to raise troops; presumably he sent Rivers to Northampton while Scales remained in East Anglia. Richard's whereabouts are unknown. In July Rivers and his youngest son, John, were captured and executed by Warwick. Edward himself fell into Warwick's hands and was taken north, but by September he had been released, and went back to London. On 17 October he created Richard Constable of England. This may have produced the first reason for conflict between Richard and the Woodvilles. The elder Lord Rivers had previously held the office of Constable; it had been made an hereditary title and Anthony, now Lord Rivers, could have expected to assume the office. Perhaps Edward came to some arrangement with Anthony to waive his claim in Richard's favour.
When rebellion broke out again in 1470 Edward was forced to flee the country. With him were Richard, Anthony Woodvilles and William, Lord Hastings. They headed for the coast at Lynn where they took ship for the Low Countries. Richard and Anthony were together on the same ship, sharing exile and an equal desire to return Edward to the throne.
Rosemary Horrox has suggested a 'family' link between Richard and the Woodvilles. Richard held lands in East Anglia, and in the receiver's accounts for these lands is an annuity of £5 payable to Katherine Haute. The Hautes were related to the Woodvilles through the marriage of earl Rivers sister Joan to Sir William Haute. The suggestion is that Katherine was Richard's mistress, as his illegitimate daughter was called Katherine. (Katherine married James Haute). Richard Haute junior, was also associated with Richard, serving with him on the Scottish campaign and being knighted by him. There were therefore links with the wider Woodvilles family.
There are other links between Richard and the Woodvilles in East Anglia. In 1471 Richard had been granted the confiscated estates of Lewis FitzLewis. On 16 March 1475 Richard granted these lands to Elizabeth Woodvilles and others, possibly at Edward's request? This would have bolstered Woodvilles holdings in the region. In March 1483 Anthony asked Richard to act as an arbitrator in a dispute he had with Roger Townshend over property in Norfolk. This suggests co-operation between Richard and the Woodvilles and at least an element of trust.
In February 1472 Elizabeth had granted Richard 'a stewardship worth £100 a year'. This was during the dispute between Richard and Clarence over the Warwick lands. Elizabeth was clearly demonstrating who she was giving her support to, but this should perhaps be viewed in the light of her hostility towards Clarence rather than any deep affection for Richard. In January 1478 Richard was in London to attend the marriage of Prince Richard, Duke of York to Anne Mowbray. In the previous November he had paid homage to the young prince for his Norfolk lands, attended the council held at Westminster and the events held to celebrate his young nephew's marriage. The execution of Clarence in 1478 is often cited as the reason for Richard's withdrawal from court and his hatred for the Woodvilles. Mancini, writing in 1483, thought so. He claimed Richard 'avoided the jealousy of the queen from whom he lived far separated'. He speaks of 'long-standing hostility' between the Queen and Clarence. Sir Thomas More explained Clarence's death as being brought about 'by the Queene and the Lordes of her bloode which highlye maligned the kynges kindred'. Mancini goes on to claim that 'At that time Richard duke of Gloucester was so overcome with grief for his brother that he could not dissimulate so well, but that he was overheard to say that he would one day avenge his brother's death'. More makes a similar comment, though he believed Richard's grief was 'simulated'. Credence is given to these stories by the case of the earl of Desmond. Elizabeth was held responsible for the death of Thomas Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond, in 1468. When Richard was king he gave instructions for those responsible for Desmond's killing to be prosecuted and sympathised with his son, claiming particular understanding because '… of his brother the duc of Clarence, as other his nighe kynnesmen and gret frendes'. This is seen as referring to Elizabeth's share in the responsibility for their deaths, although the document does not name her.*
It is important to remember that these statements all relate to 1483 and later. Richard benefited from the death of Clarence, and there is no evidence to indicate that he went against Edward and put in a good word to try and save Clarence.
Between 1478 and 1483 Richard was busy in the North, especially in the war against Scotland. His absence from the court can therefore be easily explained. It was the speed with which events unfolded in 1483 and his change from loyal brother and supporter of the crown to usurper that has caused most speculation and the need for a satisfactory explanation. Distrust and hatred of the Woodvilles seems the best solution. Certainly Mancini and More felt this to be a satisfactory explanation. It is certainly true that the action of Hastings in April 1483 in support of Richard was motivated by a distrust of the Woodvilles and the fear of a Woodvilles-dominated king. But then Hastings had fallen foul of the Woodvilles over his appointment as captain of Calais. Also there were a number of nobles who had been deprived by the Woodvilles of their due inheritance and they looked for an opportunity for redress. The council too was uneasy about a Woodvilles-dominated king, again according to Mancini they had voted against a Woodvilles regency because Dorset had claimed '… we are so important, that even without the king's uncle we can make and enforce these decisions'.
Richard's actions once he had control of the young king seem to enforce this line of reasoning. He did not hesitate to execute Antony Woodvilles or his nephew Richard Grey. According to More, during a council meeting in the Tower Richard claimed Elizabeth had used witchcraft against him. On June 10 Richard sent an urgent message to York asking for help 'against the queen, her blood adherents and affinity, which have intended and daily doeth intend, to murder and utterly destroy us and our cousin, … by their damnable ways …'.
However, these were exceptional times. It is perhaps too easy to read something into the past to explain these events. Did Richard's actions in 1483 really require him to have a longstanding hatred of the Woodvilles? His loyalty had been to Edward, and while his brother lived a balance was maintained between the demands and desires of the Woodvilles and the ambition and desires of Richard. The unexpected death of Edward and the prospect of a young Woodvilles king changed the status quo heavily in the Woodvilles' favour. Richard's primary loyalty now was surely to himself and his family and protecting them and his interests. He did not really need to like or dislike the Woodvilles to carry out this aim.
References and further reading:
* The execution of the earl of Desmond has been the subject of an article by John Ashdown-Hill and Annette Carson, in volume 15 (2005) of The Ricardian.
by Dr Lesley Boatwright
The Tudor writers saw to it that the prevailing view of Richard III in their time was of a man and king deformed both physically and morally, who met a very proper end. Historical truth counted for nothing; the moral lesson of crime and punishment was much more satisfying, especially to those who created it.
The man in the street was not quite so sure. In 1525 the mayor and aldermen of London protested to Wolsey about his demand for a benevolence – something Richard's statutes had forbidden. 'I marvel that you speak of Richard III,' said Wolsey, 'which was a usurper and a murderer of his own nephews.' The mayor and aldermen stuck to their point, saying 'Although he did evil, yet in his time were many good Acts made.'
Sir William Cornwallis
No defence of Richard appeared in print in Tudor times, but at least one appears to have been circulating privately in the 1590s. It was a rather ambiguous defence, which could even be regarded as an attack: The Encomium of Richard III, by Sir William Cornwallis the younger. Jeremy Potter regarded it as dubious. 'Its real effect is to denigrate Richard,' said Alison Hanham, reviewing its modern edition (by J.A. Ramsden and A.N. Kincaid, 1977) in The Ricardian in 1978.
The Cornwallis family were Roman Catholics, who had been too active in the reign of Mary to do well under Elizabeth. People were expected to attend Sunday services in the Church of England at least once a month, and were fined for non-attendance. At first these fines were small, a shilling or so, but in 1580 Pope Gregory XIII issued his fatwa saying that to kill Elizabeth would not be a mortal sin, and the next year the fines jumped to an astronomical level, hitting recusant families very hard: they either had to pay up or go to Protestant services. William Cornwallis was therefore probably no admirer of Elizabeth Tudor. Nevertheless, he was not unpatriotic. Part of his justification for Richard's killing of Hastings is that Hastings (who could not be innocent because he was 'a Pentioner of the ffrench king Lewis the 11th … he of all others that moste affected Tirranie, and was naturally the mortall and most vndermininge enimie of this kingdom') had been bribed to dissuade Edward IV from assisting Mary of Burgundy against Louis, so that she had to seek help elsewhere, which led ultimately to the Spanish domination of the Netherlands.
Cornwallis, like many prominent Elizabethans, liked to write. He wrote paradoxes. This is a literary form in which rhetorical skills are used to defend something which everyone believes clearly indefensible; the motivation is not so much to prove to people that they have been wrong, but to prove how clever you are at manipulating words. It seems that Cornwallis also wrote a paradox in defence of the French pox, an interesting thought. Paradoxes did not often find their way into print: they were circulated among friends, who might add to them and pass them on to others. The earliest extant manuscript, which forms the basis of the 1977 edition, contains a dedication by Cornwallis to John Donne.
The Encomium (Praise) is a paradox of an unusual form, according to its editors. Rosalie L. Colie, who wrote a study of paradoxes, says it fails because it does not 'surprise or dazzle by its incongruities' and strikes the reader as an all-but-serious defence, 'sincere but lame'. It seems to be written in answer to an attack on Richard in a chronicle. Cornwallis speaks of that chronicle's author as 'thow Recorder of untruthes', 'thy malitious spirit', 'our corupte chronicler', and of 'the partiall writinges of an vndiscreete Cronicler, a fauorer of the Lancastrian familye'. Naturally, this has led some people to postulate that a work by John Morton, or Thomas More's account, is meant. Alison Hanham in her review thought it must refer to Hall's chronicle, or its revisions by Grafton or Holinshed. Ramsden and Kincaid agree that there is a bitterness in Cornwallis's work, a sense of personal involvement, but think it might have come from a 'purely intellectual stimulus'.
Cornwallis told John Donne that he had lately been reading the life of Richard, and could not suffer 'soe maney vertues (wherwith his Enemies coulde not denye him to be adorned) to be dusked, and drowned by vices …' He begins his defence with the comment: 'That historians are Corupted, that they rather confirme, then Conuince errours, noe man neede doubte, since knowinge the affaires of our owne time, and readinge theire Relations therof will make anie discreete man knowe theire partiallity …'.
With Cornwallis as advocate, we may think, who needs a prosecution? Richard was born with teeth – that was his good luck, because nursemaids tell us that teething is painful. Richard had a crooked body – but that was Nature's generosity, because she put a straight mind in him, and anyway it didn't stop him doing 'actions most perfectly valiant'. That he killed Prince Edward at Tewkesbury and Henry VI in the Tower simply confirmed his love for his brother Edward. He executed the Woodvilles to save himself. Hastings could not have been innocent because Commines tells us he was a pensioner of Louis XI. By killing the Princes, Richard may have offended God, but as their deaths freed the people from sedition – 'the least Color of right provokes Innovatinge humors to stirre uppe sedition' – this showed his love for his people: 'he adventured his soul for their quiet'.
As to the manner of Richard's claiming the throne, Cornwallis has an answer to everything. First, concerning Shaa's sermon, he says that no-one will think 'this prince soe indiscreet as to have wittnesse that he comanded that Sermon … it is rather like that Shawe being more ambitious than his callinge required … was boulde to publish his fancies in hope of preferment', but Shaw's hopes vanished 'in to smoake', and he languished and died. On the other hand, if Richard did command the sermon, to charge Cecily with adultery was 'a matter of noe sutch greate moment, since it is noe wonder in that sexe'. Anyway, 'he had more reason to aduenture her fame, then his kingdom, because of two euells we must allwayes choose the leaste'.
For a man who can approve such cavalier treatment of women, Cornwallis is surprisingly tender towards Richard's relationship with Anne. 'It is Constantly affirmed (saieth our Corupte Cronicler) that he firste noised after deuised the death of his wife', and Anne heard the rumours. 'This reporte made a greate impression in the Queene deeminge (as weomen are euer fearefull) this propheticall relation to be the forerunner of her end, which bewailinge to her Husbande he sought with all kindnesse to remoue that malancholick fantasy'.
In fact, interspersed among these wayward justifications, there are passages in which Cornwallis firmly points out Richard's good qualities. 'His edictes are extant, what can be founde in them not becominge a Kinge, what not befittinge the Religious worshipp of god, and the seruice of his Countrye … He was noe taxer of the people, noe opressor of the Commons … noe Suppressor of his Subiectes &*hellip;' and 'his humilitye they terme pride, his liberality prodigallity, his vallour crueltye, and bloodthirstines'. He also puts his finger on one of the reasons for Richard's downfall: 'had not his mercye exceeded his Crueltye, his saffety had bene more assured and his name (peraduenture) not soe mutch subiect to obloquy' – in that Richard cut off the head of 'a mighty Conspirator, yet he suffred the Conspiracye to take soe deepe Roote' by not punishing the Countess of Richmond, but simply 'comittinge her to the Custodye of her husbande'.
Cornwallis signs off 'as a Charitable wellwisher to an opressed & defamed kinge', but he never revealed himself as this to a wider public. Circulated among his friends, the Encomium was not published until 1616, after his death.
No-one would include William Shakespeare among Richard III's defenders, but his Richard III (1592) does include a very interesting passage about hearsay evidence – which is often cut out when the play is produced. It comes in Act II, Scene 4. Cecily, duchess of York, is talking to her little grandson Richard (the current duke of York) in the presence of the Archbishop and Queen Elizabeth Woodville.
York: Marry, they say my uncle grew so fast that he could gnaw a crust at two hours old.
Duchess: I pray thee, pretty York, who told thee this?
York: Grandam, his nurse.
Duchess: His nurse! Why, she was dead ere thou wert born.
York: If 'twere not she, I cannot tell who told me.
Duchess: A parlous boy: go to, you are too shrewd.
Is this an indication that Shakespeare himself was perfectly well aware that at least some reports about Richard circulating in his own day were fabrications? In the 1590s Shakespeare was, after all, in the orbit of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Ramsay and Kincaid suggest that Southampton was the 'Hen.W.' who procured a copy of Cornwallis's manuscript, adapted it – awkwardly – as 'a tract for his own times' (i.e. the earl of Essex's rebellion in 1600) and dedicated it to Sir Henry Neville. Did Shakespeare ever talk to Southampton about Richard III?
Sir George Buck
Engraving of Richard III from Buck's History
© Geoffrey WheelerSir George Buck was born in 1560 into a family which – he claimed – had served the Yorkist kings and then the Howard dukes of Norfolk. He said that his great-great-grandfather John had been killed fighting for York at St Albans in 1455, and his great-grandfather John had served both Edward IV and Richard III as Gentleman of the Privy Chamber; and also Richard III as Controller of the Household (though he later retracted this last claim, and it is manifestly wrong). The Johns are not mentioned in the Patent Rolls, or in BL Harleian ms. 433, and it has been surmised that Sir George was presenting himself with ancestors more prominent than those he actually had. He also said that the second John had been taken prisoner at Bosworth, and executed two days later, and there certainly was a John Buck who was attainted after the battle.
He and his more immediate forebears served the Howards. His grandfather Robert was at Flodden Field with the second duke in 1513, and his father Robert had fought (under the duke of Somerset) at Musselburgh in 1547. Sir George himself served under the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, his patron, on the Cadiz expedition of 1596.
He was educated at Cambridge and the Inns of Court, and was a man of many parts: scholar, diplomat, translator, poet and antiquarian. He was MP (for Gatton in Surrey) in 1593 and 1597, esquire of the body to Elizabeth I in 1599, and appointed Master of the Revels to James I in 1607. This sounds swashbuckling, but was not the same as a Lord of Misrule. In fact one of his tasks was to license plays for performance, and he seems to have been somewhat prudish, removing some references to lust and cutting out passages denigrating women.
He had an interesting circle of friends. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, manuscripts as well as monks emerged from the cloisters into the world at large. A number of Tudor gentlemen delighted in collecting these manuscripts, and in 1596 founded the Society of Antiquaries. Among its members were William Camden, whose antiquarian excursions round England led to the publication of his Britannia in 1586, John Stow, a London merchant who wrote the Annals of England and A Survey of London, and Sir Robert Cotton, the great collector of manuscripts, who had a copy of the Crowland Chronicle. Members lent each other books and manuscripts, researched topics, and gave papers on them at meetings. We don't know if Sir George Buck was a member or not, but it seems very likely. He certainly knew many members and had access to their collections. By his day, the eye-witnesses to the fifteenth century were all dead, but documents of the period were becoming available.
Buck wrote his History of King Richard the Third in 1619, three years before his death, but it was not published until 1646, in the dying stages of the Civil War. The manuscript, heavily revised, had been almost ready, but not quite. It was his great-nephew, another George Buck (but 'esquire', not 'Sir') who took it over and revised it further. Some of his revision was good, simplifying Sir George's rather turgid style, and cutting out some philosophising digressions, but he also cut out some of the personal references and toned down some of Sir George's plain speaking. 'Discussions of Morton are very drastically cut, since the original had very little good to speak of Morton … [Henry VII's] responsibility for destroying the Yorkist heirs and the emphasis on the Yorkists' right are minimized as far as possible … Henry becomes confident, pure, and manly … and [there is an] adherence to Henry VII's own device of backdating his reign to make Richard appear to have been the traitor against the true king at Bosworth.'. The 1646 version of the History was all that was in print until as late as 1979, when A.N. Kincaid edited it and rescued Sir George's original account. This fact invalidates a lot of the criticism levelled at the work through the centuries by writers who did not bother to check the original manuscript to see what Sir George had actually written.
Title page from Buck's History.
© Geoffrey WheelerThe History is in five books. The first two deal with Richard's life. Book III refutes various accusations made against him, including his deformities, and puts the case for Perkin Warbeck's being Richard, Duke of York. Book IV deals with the bastardy of Edward IV's children, and the mooted marriage between Richard and Elizabeth of York. Book V discusses Richard's virtues and good works – and the fate of the remaining Plantagenets.
The importance of Buck's work cannot be over-estimated. He was a man who did not just accept what he read – he did extensive research to see if it was acceptable. He points out that the case against Richard is merely based on suspicion, and that 'suspicion is in law no more guilt or culpableness than imagination'. He says he will 'clear and redeem him from those improbable imputations and strange and spiteful scandals, … and make truth … present herself to the light … And Morton and More and their apes shall be delineated and painted in their true colours.'
Kincaid's assessment is that Buck '… deals with Richard's reputation by shrewd analysis rather than emotional harangue. Upon dispassionate examination, one finds not a heated emotional defence of a hero but a surprisingly cool examination. Buck's passion appears to be rather for accuracy than for Richard III. He shows the same regard for minor historical inaccuracies as for Richard's reputation … His final assessment of Richard is balanced and judicious. "Although this prince was not so superlative as to assume the name of holy or best, you see him a wise, magnificent and a valiant man, and a just, bountiful and temperate; and an eloquent and magnanimous and pious prince; and a benefactor to the holy church and to the realm. Yet for all this it hath been his fortune to be aspersed and fouled and to fall into this malice of those who have been ill-affected towards him …".'
Buck not only made use of documentary sources, he cited them so that others could evaluate their validity. He was the first to use the evidence of the Crowland Chronicle, and of Titulus Regius, a very different approach from the 'men say that ...' gossip which peppers the moralising fabrications of the Tudors. From Crowland and Titulus Regius he discovered that it had been Lady Eleanor Butler (née Talbot) whom Bishop Stillington said he had married to Edward IV, not the lower-born Elizabeth Lucy of More's account. This put a totally different slant on the story of the pre-contract. As Buck says, when the Duchess of York exhorted and urged her son to acknowledge his first wife and not marry Elizabeth [Woodville], Lady Grey, she was not speaking of 'the daughter of one Wayte, of Southampton, a mean gentleman, if he were one' but 'the daughter of a great peer of this realm, a man of most noble and illustrious family', 'a fair and virtuous lady'. It was altogether more plausible that Lady Eleanor had insisted on a contract of marriage than that the king's 'witty concubine' had done so.
Buck is the sole source for the existence of the letter from Elizabeth of York concerning the death of Queen Anne. He saw it himself; it was in the possession of the earl of Arundel, then head of the Howard family. 'He keepeth that princely letter in his rich and magnificent cabinet, among precious jewels and rare monuments'. But because later ages thought that it cast vile aspersions on English womanhood, writers said, in a parade of mounting absurdity, that it was a forgery, that Buck had misread it – or made it up. He explained it (somewhat ingenuously) as written because Richard obtained Elizabeth's goodwill to divert her affection from the earl of Richmond 'to whom Morton and the seditious barons had promised her', but he also repeated Crowland's story of how Richard summoned all the notables to the Great Hall of St John's near Smithfield and flatly denied the story. The modern suggestion of Portuguese spouses for both Richard and Elizabeth, discussed in recent Bulletins, provides a much better explanation for this letter, and would certainly have interested Sir George.
We may imagine Buck and his circle of friends discussing Richard at their meetings. He tells us, 'I like the plain and honest dealing of John Stow ... who affirmeth confidently that those greatest crimes, as namely the slaughter of his nephews, etc., were never proved against him, neither by witness and lawful evidence nor so much as by the oaths of the knights of the post'. Stow also declared that Richard was not deformed. Camden, although stating that Richard murdered his nephews and usurped the throne, added that 'in the opinion of the wise, he is to be reckon'd in the number of bad men, but of good Princes'.
Alas, Buck's defence did not prevail, nor generate a passionate debate. In 1655 Bishop Fuller was regarding it as a whitewash. He asserts as fact that Richard was deformed (additionally presenting him with 'a prominent gobbertooth') … 'yet a modern author, in a book by him lately set forth, eveneth his shoulders, smootheth his back, planeth his teeth … [and] … proceeding from his naturals to his morals, maketh him as virtuous as handsome'. Yet Buck did have his followers, including William Winstanley in 1684: 'this worthy Prince's fame [hath] been blasted by malicious traducers.'
Horace Walpole by JG Eccardt
© Geoffrey WheelerHorace Walpole was born in 1717, the youngest child of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first real Prime Minister. He was small and frail, but intellectually energetic, interested in all the pursuits of the thinking aristocrat of the Enlightenment: literature, painting, history, architecture. Like Cornwallis, he was an MP (for Callington in Cornwall), but devoted his time to writing. He lived at Strawberry Hill, beside the Thames at Twickenham, in a house he had rebuilt in his own version of the Gothick style, with his own printing press, cultivating the arts of conversation and letter-writing, and ultimately died as the fourth earl of Orford in 1797.
Walpole was not just a cultured aristocrat; he was also a man who hated injustice wherever it was to be found. He lobbied unsuccessfully to save Admiral Byng from the firing squad after the loss of Minorca in 1756. Jeremy Potter says, 'Many recognised that he was a scapegoat for the incompetence of the government, but it was the dilettante Walpole who took action.' Being an MP, he was able to get an emergency debate on the matter in the House of Commons, but he could not save Byng, who was court-martialled for negligence. The guilty verdict carried a mandatory death sentence and Byng was shot at Portsmouth, on the quarter-deck of the Monarque, in March 1757.
Opening Page of Historic Doubts
© Geoffrey WheelerIn 1768, Walpole published his Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third. He thought that Richard's name had been blackened so that Henry VII, 'a mean and unfeeling tyrant', should appear in a better light. He was less scholarly in his approach than Buck, but he too spent time castigating historians – and Sir Thomas More. Paul Murray Kendall found him 'a far more redoubtable controversialist' than Buck, 'in the style of his day, subjecting the Tudor myth to the scrutiny of "enlightened reason"'; but his work suffers 'from two great handicaps: he was not a scholar and he lacked source materials'. Thus he was forced to attempt to break down the tradition from within.' That is, he had to argue that the accusations contained within themselves the seeds of their own refutation. Keith Dockray calls Walpole's line of argument 'superficially plausible' and 'he concluded that many of the crimes attributed to the king were not only improbable but contrary to his own interests and clearly at odds with what can definitely be deduced about his character'. He might well have been very interested in the modern techniques used in the catching of criminals, where profiles are created of the sort of person who might be likely to commit a particular crime.
It is sad that Walpole, who was (naturally) a member of the Society of Antiquaries (whose early members had pioneered the rehabilitation of Richard III), resigned his membership because the Society had attacked his Historic Doubts 'with old Women's logic'. He wrote that he was 'leaving them in peace' to discuss such things as 'Whittington and his Cat'. It is even sadder that Walpole later had doubts about his Doubts. In 1793, after the outbreak of the French Revolution, he wrote 'I must now believe that any atrocity may have been attempted or practised by an ambitious prince of the blood aiming at the crown in the fifteenth century'.
Sharon Turner was a Yorkshireman, a professional historian who in 1830 published his History of England in the Middle Ages. Kendall judges that he created the 'moderate' position: 'he is the first professional historian to take his stand outside the Tudor tradition and to make use of its evidence in a detached and critical spirit as he is the first historian to view Richard's career in terms of its times.' This last is important. Richard's times were violent, and Turner insists on this, saying '[he] did not live in an age of modern moral sensibility'. He used BL Harleian manuscript 433, that important source for Richard's reign, and claimed that this enabled him to see Richard 'more in the real shape and features than has yet been done'. He believed that Richard had taken the crown 'with the approbation of most of the great men, both of the church and the state, then in London' – but also that he had murdered the Princes to clear his way to do so.
Turner had a strange, almost perverse take on Richard's character, seeing him as 'an intellectual coward' who preferred to prevent danger by committing crime, killing the Princes because he lacked moral courage. The cowardice did not, of course, extend to the battlefield, where he was 'brave to the utmost edge of peril', but not even Richard's worst enemies denied him that type of courage. Fifteen years after the publication of his History, Turner added to it a 274-page poem on Richard III in iambic pentameters, in which Richard loses his moral struggle and succumbs to ambition. This dismal production obviously added nothing to Richard's defence.
Caroline A. Halsted
Engraving of the Rous Roll frontispiece
to Halstead's Life of Richard III
© Geoffrey WheelerIn 1844 the first woman to defend Richard published a two-volume biography, Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England. Caroline A. Halsted, being a pioneer female scholar, is inevitably described as a blue-stocking, but this epithet cannot invalidate her scholarship. She used many original sources, including BL Harleian ms. 433, and printed many of those sources as appendices. Her avowed aim is justice; and justice can only be achieved 'by taking the unerring voice of truth as a guide' and judging by 'well-attested and indisputable facts ... derived from contemporary authority, and the unbiassed testimony of eye-witnesses'. She wishes to rescue Richard's memory from 'unfounded aspersions'.
Kendall and Dockray find her prose style virtually unreadable; Jeremy Potter, on the other hand, calls it clear and crisp, and readable. Here is a sample. One of the most famous passages in her work is that in which she discusses Richard's behaviour in seeking out the widowed Anne Neville, whom, according to the Crowland chronicler, Clarence had 'caused to be concealed':
'What, however, was the part pursued by Richard of Gloucester – that prince who for three generations has been held up to scorn and contempt for every base, unmanly, treacherous, and vindictive feeling? Let his conduct be once more contrasted with that of Clarence, who had betrayed and perfidiously deceived every near relative and connection, and who was indebted to the very brother whom he was now injuring for his reconciliation with the king, and for his restoration to his own forfeited honours and possessions. Gloucester, says the Croyland narrator, "discovered the maiden in the attire of a kitchen girl in London;" instead of conveying her secretly from her concealment, instead of compelling her by force or by stratagem to become is wife, instead of outraging her already wounded feelings and taking advantage of her powerless situation, he removes her immediately from the degrading garb under which Clarence had concealed her, and with the respect due to his mother's niece and to his own near kinswoman "caused her to be placed in the sanctuary of St. Martin," while he openly and honourably seeks from the king his assent to their marriage'.
There is more in the same vein. Undeniably, Miss Halsted is long-winded, but her rhetorical devices are not too obtrusive and her narrative moves forward. Other faults have been found in her: Dockray (152) says, 'she became a victim of her own determined revisionism and her characterisation of Richard III borders on hagiography'. Kendall is reminded of 'one of the nobler figures in the Idylls of the King'. Yet she did not approve of the usurpation: Richard 'in an evil hour, yielded to the worldliness of a corrupt age and a pernicious education'. He forgot his moral and religious duty, so could not be held up as an example of 'rigid virtue and self-denial'.
When she wrote the dedication of the work (to the memory of Viscount Sidmouth, gratefully remembered because the work had 'excited in him a warm feeling of interest') she was living in Lymington. Later, she married the Rev. William Atthill, Canon and Sub-dean of Middleham, in Yorkshire, whose work on the Collegiate Church of Middleham, founded by Richard III, was published by the Camden Society in 1847. In this volume he thanks 'the talented and zealous' Miss Halsted for her help: '[she] has adduced a host of authorities, apparently proving that [Gloucester's] personal deformity existed but in the libels of an opposing faction … her researches seem to throw such light over the darker shades in his chequered career, as to induce the strongest presumption that he was not guilty of, or accessory to, those startling crimes which have been charged to his account.' A pity about the 'apparently' and the 'seem to'; otherwise, one might say, here was a marriage of true minds.
Sir Clements Markham
Royal Geographical Society's bust of Sir Clements Markham
© Geoffrey WheelerAnother Yorkshireman, Clements Markham was born at Stillingfleet in 1830 into a family whose traditions were academic and ecclesiastical. He personified the restless, adventurous, rebellious side of the nineteenth century, leaving Westminster School at the age of 14 to join the Royal Navy and see the world. Markham never did anything by halves: he became passionately devoted to the study of geography, and exploration, and raced round the world; he went to Tahiti, where he championed the people in their opposition to French rule; on the expedition to Baffin Bay which failed to find Sir John Franklin; to Peru to collect cinchona plants in the teeth of opposition from the locals; to southern India to oversee the replanting of the cinchona so that quinine should be readily available. He was appointed Honorary Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. He went as geographer with the Indian Army on the Abyssinian war. He was knighted, and given honorary degrees by Cambridge and Leeds. He was enthusiastic about the Arctic expedition of 1875, and the Antarctic in 1901. He was instrumental in raising the funds with which the Discovery was built, and choosing Captain R.F. Scott as expedition leader. He stood godfather to Scott's son, Peter Markham Scott, of Slimbridge fame.
Like Walpole, Markham hated injustice. He took up the cause of a young sailor who had struck a superior officer and been sentenced to five years' penal servitude for it, and he kept up a determined campaign – he wrote to the Admiralty, the Home Secretary, every MP, and the press, and he organised a petition to the Prime Minister. He won. The sailor was released from jail.
And he wrote books. He seems to have started with a family history in 1854. This was followed, amongst others, by histories of the Incas, Persia and Peru, and Lives of Lord Halifax, John Davis the Navigator, Christopher Columbus – and Richard III.
Markham put as much energy into researching and writing about Richard as he did into every other project he undertook. 'He left no stone unturned in his efforts to arrive at the true state of affairs … He probed and sifted every incident connected with the king. He would write and rewrite chapters already completed in order to make them as faithful as possible … He consulted the most eminent historians in England, most of whom were inclined to agree with him …'.
Probably many an eminent historian took the line of least resistance when confronted with so much passion and energy, even if they had private reservations. One who did not was James Gairdner, whose war of opinions with Markham, fought with the fearsome weapon of learned publication, enlivened fifteenth-century studies at the end of the nineteenth century. Markham first published his conclusions in a long article in the English Historical Review in 1891. Gairdner's book Life and Reign of Richard III, had appeared in 1878, a very anti-Richard book indeed, which held sway until the 1950s: even Markham could not demolish it, but merely dented it.
The title page of Markham's Richard III
© Geoffrey WheelerHe published his book Richard III: His Life & Character Reviewed in the Light of Recent Resarch, in 1906, 'the most fervent and thorough vindication of the king ever to appear in print'. The first part recounts Richard's life and times, and the second part tackles the accusations made against him. These stories were 'an outrage on common sense'. His main theses were that Henry VII had had the Princes killed, and that Archbishop Morton wrote the account now attributed to Sir Thomas More. Although Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time used these ideas as the framework of her story, neither is generally accepted today.
Gairdner said that 'to whitewash Richard III is an utterly hopeless task'. Markham said that he was simply removing Tudor mud from the portrait. Jeremy Potter commented, 'both distinguished gentlemen were overstating their case'. Kendall thought it difficult to take Markham's work as seriously as it was intended, and remarked, 'Richard is mantled in the airs which blow upon the playing fields of Eton and the glorious reaches of the nineteenth century British Empire'.
This, then, was the state of Ricardian studies in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Common sense, intellectual curiosity, passion and documentary research had led to the availability of decent evidence for an alternative reading of events and motives. Antagonisms had been aroused and battles joined. Yet the availability of evidence had not led to a widespread academic or public acceptance of the new research. Scholars and public alike were, in general, content to allow the stereotype of Richard the Bad to continue. Such is the dreadful power of the status quo. A new Enlightment was needed.
by Dr Rosemary Horrox
The following paper was first published in the programme of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Richard III during the 1998/99 season, which starred Robert Lindsay as King Richard.
Shakespeare's Richard III is not history. So much is now a commonplace. It was written within the context of the 'Tudor myth' – a reading of the past designed to demonstrate the providential nature of the Tudors' accession to a throne to which they had no legitimate claim. Initially the myth involved blackening the Yorkists, whom the Tudors succeeded, but from the outset this blackening was partial, targeting Richard III rather than his brother Edward IV. This distinction was, in origin, largely pragmatic. Henry VII had taken the throne with the support of former servants of Edward IV alienated by Richard's regime. Blackening Edward IV, except in the most general terms, made no political sense, especially as a crucial plank in Henry's attractiveness to the political community was his promise to marry Edward's daughter Elizabeth – a promise fulfilled in January 1486. It was after the accession of the child of that marriage, Henry VIII, who was heir of both Lancaster and York, that the myth reached its most elaborate form, with the Tudor victory now presented not simply as divine vengeance on an evil ruler, but as the resolution of almost a century of political conflict flowing from the deposition of Richard II by Henry IV in 1399.
It is that longer view which Shakespeare's two historical tetralogies as a whole embody. From that perspective Richard of Gloucester is the gangrene in a deep wound in the body politic, and his murder of Henry VI at the end of Henry I Part 3 signals that the Yorkist triumph was not, after all, to be the end of the story begun in 1399. But within Richard III itself the emphasis is inevitably on the earlier aspect of the myth: on Richard's own wickedness as the justification for Henry VII's seizure of power. To this end the play piles up the murders: of kings, of family, of friends – all done without scruple, even with enjoyment.
In presenting this version of the past Shakespeare was not producing 'propaganda'. The reading was a commonplace; far from needing selling, it had already been sold. Its very familiarity, indeed, allowed Shakespeare to emphasize the inexorability of events by streamlining the chronology. In historical time, the play opens in May 1471, with the murder of Henry VI after the return to London of the victorious Edward IV. Over the dead king's corpse, Richard wins Henry's widowed daughter-in-law Anne Neville, but before this he has already met his brother Clarence en route for the Tower (1477). Clarence's murder (January 1478) hastens the death of the ailing Edward IV (April 1483). It is a breathtaking telescoping of events, and although nothing later in the play quite compares with it, events continue to move far faster than they have done in reality.
The historical Richard III ruled for twenty-six months. His usurpation in 1483 had evidently taken the political community by surprise and was accomplished without overt resistance, although a conspiracy to rescue Edward IV's sons from captivity was uncovered almost immediately after his coronation. This demonstration that the princes could still pose a threat probably triggered their murder in the summer of 1483. Certainly by the autumn it was assumed that they were dead, and Richard's opponents had found another figurehead: Henry Tudor, descended through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, from the illegitimate Lancastrian line. The rebellion in his favour in October 1483, which had by now drawn in Richard's erstwhile ally the Duke of Buckingham, was however, a failure, and Tudor returned to Brittany without landing in England. The totality of the rebellion's collapse won Richard a breathing space, and although unrest was beginning to resurface in the second half of 1484, it was not until the following year that Tudor invaded with French backing and defeated Richard at Bosworth on 22 August 1485. In the play, Richard's accession is followed immediately by the murder of the princes and by the consequent alienation and rebellion of Buckingham. Tudor's invasion is represented as the successful climax of that rebellion, although Buckingham himself is captured and executed. In effect, Richard is deposed within five or six months of his accession.
Such ruthless telescoping inevitably brings distortions. Tudor's failure to land in 1483 is mentioned, although we then almost immediately see him safely ashore. Minor characters crop up without explanation, like the 'good captain Blunt' in Richmond's company: Richard's former esquire of the body James Blount, who had deserted to Tudor in 1484. But on the roller-coaster of crime and retribution none of this really matters. Few productions even name Blunt in the cast list. The charge of ahistoricity levelled at the play generally has less to do with such details than with the central character of Richard himself.
It goes without saying that Shakespeare's cacodemon is not the historical Richard III, although for a time it came close to being taken as such. But nor is it pure fiction. When the Tudor myth-makers got to work, they had a foundation upon which to build, although the very extravagance of the resulting edifice has rather hidden the fact. Richard's seizure of power had generated opposition in his own lifetime – Tudor would have been a non-starter otherwise. His critics could thus begin by rewriting rather than composing, and their central piece of rewriting was seductively simple. In 1483 Richard's underlying justification for taking the throne had been that he, rather than a child king, could best ensure the continuation of the hard-won stability of Edward IV's closing years; that, in effect, the end (political order) justified the means (usurpation). He probably believed it himself. In the event, his failure to deliver the promised stability damned him out of his own mouth. It also allowed for the easiest, and most obvious, of political rewritings by his enemies: the claim that Richard's actions had not been prompted by the public weal, but by private ambition. Once that had been accepted, any number of crimes could plausibly be laid at this door.