The Accession of Richard III


I’ve been waiting to do a post on Richard III for a few reasons. For one, he’s a controversial figure, as most recently evidenced by the furor over where his long-lost body would be buried. For another, he is one of the figures for whom you must do justice – there is little about him that can be referenced without context or further explanation and the Wars of the Roses was a complicated period, particularly for the uninitiated. And so, it’s taken time to get to him, but summer is as good a time as any to do so – it’s the season during which he assumed the throne and the season in which in he lost it.

We’ll return to him a few more times over the next few months, but today I want to discuss his accession – its legality and logistics, and the motivation behind it.

This will not be a discussion as to whether Richard murdered the Princes in the Tower, though we’ll get there in a few weeks. Nor will this be a history of his entire life, though I’ll provide a brief background for the unfamiliar. I would also preface all of this by saying I’m of the opinion it’s impossible to draw conclusions about Richard III with complete confidence – for everything we know, there is too much we don’t. So, let’s get into it.

Richard III reigned for just over two years (1483 – 1485) and was the last king in the House of York, a house founded by his older brother, Edward IV, in 1461 when he “won” the first half of the Wars of the Roses, defeating Lancaster and deposing Henry VI. Richard was eight-years-old at the time and 10 years younger than his brother. He was shipped up north to the household of his cousin and Edward’s leading councilor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, where he met and was raised alongside the girl who would later become his wife, Lady Anne Neville.

Edward IV

I’m distilling down about two decades of history, so bear with me, but the gist of Richard’s life between 1461 and 1483 was that he was extremely loyal to his brother in a time when there were many defectors. Warwick eventually turned on Edward, deserting him for Lancaster and bringing about the brief restoration of Henry VI for a few months between 1470 – 1471. Even more critically, he did so with the support of Edward and Richard’s middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence – a more thorough history of this time can be found here. There are three moments from this period worth bringing to the top:

  1. In 1471, when Edward was restored to his throne, he ordered the assassination of Henry VI to ensure there were no further calls for Lancaster during his reign. He had kept his relation under lock and key in the Tower of London hitherto, but the scare of almost losing his throne made that impossible once he regained it. There is some speculation as to what role Richard played in this assassination, an event that has been given extra weight in light of what later may have occurred with the Princes in the Tower. This speculation, however, is a bit ridiculous – Richard would not have killed him by hand or even by order. His involvement beyond that, to me, isn’t particularly notable one way or the other, though I understand the inclination to draw comparisons to Edward V later.
  2. In 1475 Edward led a disastrous campaign into France that ended in King Louis XI essentially buying the English off, a move which Richard reportedly found distasteful and perhaps even dishonorable. It is one of the few glimpses (assuming its veracity) of Richard critiquing his brother’s actions.
  3. In 1478 Edward had their brother, George, executed for treason. Some believe Richard was so displeased by this that he began staying away from court and the influence of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, and her family. Perhaps this is the case, though it’s worth mentioning Richard also stood to gain quite a bit financially from George’s death. And while it’s true he did spend more time in the north, he was also older, a father and often involved in quelling border wars with Scotland. There are also many who believe Richard was in favor of George’s execution, though I think it’s a reach to tie this to the succession given Edward had two sons and there was little evidence he would die so young.

And then 1483. On April 9th, Edward dies at the age of 40. His heir is his 12-year-old son, now Edward V. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have one other living son, Richard, Duke of York, and six unmarried daughters between the ages of 17 and two. Richard (our Richard) is his only living brother, but he has several brothers-in-law via the Woodville clan and his sister’s de la Pole marriage, two adult stepsons from Elizabeth’s first marriage and familial ties to the Burgundian court where his sister, Margaret, is the dowager duchess.

On his deathbed Edward IV names Richard the Lord Protector until Edward V is “of age,” typically around 18 years old, though there’s been some grey area as to when adolescent monarchs begin their personal rule. Problem is, Edward V isn’t in London with the rest of his family. He lives at Ludlow Castle near the Welsh border in the care of his maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers.

Thus, for a few days, the new king doesn’t know that he is king. It takes five days for Edward V and Rivers to learn the news and in the meantime, the government meets in London. There is a debate as to how soon Edward should be crowned, with Woodville relations arguing it should be immediately – they win the argument. There is also talk that Richard is not the sole regent (meaning, a direct stand-in for the king), but rather the head of a council – essentially, a watered-down role with less autonomous power.

But fun fact, Richard isn’t in London for any of this either. He’s up north and so the capitol is essentially a power vacuum where Elizabeth, her brothers and other relations and councilors loyal to the late king are making decisions. One such man is Lord William Hastings, arguably Edward IV’s best friend – he writes to Richard that he needs to gain possession of Edward V before he reaches London. Richard receives this letter within hours of Rivers and Edward V learning of Edward IV’s death.

Three more letters: one from Richard to Rivers suggesting they meet, another from Richard to the Council in London swearing his loyalty to the new king and a third from a man named Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham to Richard offering to travel together. Buckingham is one of the few dukes in England at this time, enormously powerful and wealthy and from a very old family. He is married to Elizabeth’s younger sister, Katherine Woodville, but is not necessarily within the Woodville “faction,” if you will.

Rivers departs Ludlow with Edward V and meets Richard in Northampton, where he has traveled south. Buckingham meets the party there later in the evening. The day that they meet, Rivers’ younger brother, Edward Woodville, sets sail from England with 10,000 pounds from the treasury. The next day, Richard and Buckingham take possession of Edward V against his will and have his attendants, including Rivers and Edward V’s stepbrother, Richard Grey, arrested. Rivers and Grey are sent to separate locations, all Richard’s strongholds in the north. Richard writes a letter to Council reassuring them everything is okay.

Elizabeth Woodville

The day after that, Hastings reinforces Richard’s message of peace in London while Elizabeth and her family try to raise an army against Richard. They fail and Elizabeth enters sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters and her younger son, York. On May 4th, Richard and Edward V enter London and Richard summons the lords of the realm to swear loyalty to their new king in person.

Importantly, on this same day, Richard’s cousin, George Neville, dies. Richard’s independent wealth is via his marriage to Anne Neville, Warwick’s younger daughter. Since Warwick died without a male heir, his titles and lands were divvied up in an out-of-the-ordinary way. Without getting too into the weeds, Richard’s stake in the Neville inheritance rested on George, the male Neville heir, living and having sons. His death, unmarried and childless, meant Richard’s interest was demoted to a life estate. Essentially, on the same day he entered London, a portion of Richard’s fortune and inheritance were put into jeopardy. That’s worth considering.

From this day on, there is confusion and many of the facts are open to interpretation. Council refuses Richard’s request to try Rivers and Grey for treason. Richard writes to the city of York asking for military support against a so-called Woodville plot. On June 13th, Richard has Hastings dragged out of a council meeting and beheaded on the spot without a trial – it is illegal, shockingly violent and sets the tone for Richard’s leadership.

Richard III and Anne Neville

Three days later Richard takes men and surrounds Westminster Abbey, demanding that Elizabeth give him custody of her younger son. She gives him up under the threat of violence. Edward V and York are now both residing in the Tower of London, which had perfectly comfortable, livable apartments at this time and was not an unusual place for the Royal Family to reside or for kings and queens to stay in before their coronations. The next day, on June 17th, Edward’s coronation is postponed from the 25th of that month to November without explanation.

So, what had happened? Well, to be clear, as of the postponement of the crowning and the removal of York from his mother, there had been no public declaration of Richard taking the crown himself. According to the Ricardian argument, in the interim of Richard arriving and the abrupt behavior of June, he had received news from Bishop Stillington that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal – that Edward was already been married to another woman at the time and therefore their children, including Edward V, were bastards. We won’t delve too deeply into the merits of this argument here, but suffice to say the vast majority of historians discredit it. Indeed, most contemporaries did too.

On June 22nd, a sermon is preached in London that Richard is the only true heir of the House of York, Edward V being a bastard. An older rumor that Edward IV was the bastard son of their mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is also perpetuated. This is the first time the former argument is put forth to the public and it lays the groundwork for Richard’s claim to the throne.

Three days later, Buckingham presents a petition to an assembled Parliament for Richard to be named king. That same day, Rivers and Grey are executed on Richard’s orders. The following day, Richard is formally asked to be king and he accepts. By some reports, six thousand men-at-arms enter London by the third of July. On July 6th, Richard is crowned king.

So, we stop there in our chronology and take a moment to consider what happened in just under three months. A sympathetic portrayal of Richard argues that he was a reluctant king. That the evidence shown to him about his nephews blindsided him and he believed it to be true. A more pragmatic, but still defensible, argument would be that he and his supporters were terrified about what would happen to England under a minority government. It had been little more than a decade since they had been embroiled in civil war and while the minority government of Henry VI in the 1420s and 1430s had been a success in that it had resulted in the peaceful transfer of power, another way of looking at it would be that it resulted in the loss of England’s French territories. Was his kingship, then, a sacrifice for the greater good?


A key part of the evidence that supports a sympathetic reading of Richard is that his entire career up until this point had been in support of his brother. There was no concrete evidence of him doing anything to undermine Edward IV’s rule, despite numerous opportunities to rise up against him alongside his brother, George, or Warwick.

This is a truncated argument, in a sense, because we are not considering the second half of all of this, which is: did he then murder his nephews? But I think it is worth separating out the issues – Richard’s motivations for seeking the throne, or accepting the throne, came first. A potential murder came later, for the murders likely didn’t happen immediately after Richard was crowned, though they had disappeared from public view by June.

Some of this begs the question of what Richard truly thought about Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth and his dealings with George. What had he thought about the fact that Edward married a woman believed to be wholly unsuitable, so much so that it was a driving cause for an irreparable break between Edward and Warwick, the latter of whom was a second father/older brother figure to Richard? Richard was 11 at the time Edward’s marriage was announced and 16 when Warwick led the first rebellion against his brother. But there is no sign of Richard ever disliking or arguing with Elizabeth. The only definitive response on the table is Richard’s refusal to turn against Edward.

As for George, we don’t know what Richard made of his treason or Edward’s execution of him. We do know that there was no love lost between George and Richard – they had fought bitterly over Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville because George was married to Anne’s sister, Isabel, and wanted control of the entire Neville estate. In the end, Richard gave up a significant chunk of it, married Anne and moved north. But that does not firmly draw the conclusion that Richard was motivated by love or disinterested in money – the brothers ensured that their mother-in-law, whose home they had grown up in, was legally declared dead so they could tap directly into her fortune. She ended up living with Richard and Anne for a time, but it is not certain to what extent that was her will. It was certainly against her wishes to be denied access to her money and she fought them to the extent that she could, which was not a lot.

And what of Buckingham? This friendship seems to have come out of nowhere. Yes, they knew each other and yes, perhaps they were friendly. But the two acted with alacrity the moment Edward IV was declared dead. They either moved quickly or some of this had been discussed before – the potential need for a minority government or Richard’s path to the throne is anyone’s guess.

So, was there a time when Richard truly intended to serve as Lord Protector? Some of this comes back to the meeting in Northampton with Rivers and what you think of the Woodvilles’ behavior. There is no firm evidence of an actual plot in development and, if you believe Richard was planning to steal the throne, then Elizabeth’s actions make sense. But from where did that suspicion rise? Or was it purely ambition on her part – a desire to override her late husband’s edict and rule with her brother through Edward V?

If you presume Elizabeth’s motives to be suspect then you could argue Richard acted in good faith by arresting Rivers and Grey. That he then ferried his nephew to London, bid the lords to pay homage to him and then, when presented with evidence that he was a bastard, changed course. Or, was presented with the information that his own inheritance via George Neville was in jeopardy. But this last argument doesn’t carry much water – in theory he could have legally addressed the issue with the support of Parliament once in power as Protector.

And it’s hard to argue Elizabeth’s motives were suspect when her sons were taken from her, disinherited and then disappeared. How can she honestly be called power-hungry when she wasn’t the figure in London orchestrating illegal executions, slandering one’s mother and claiming the throne? Her worst fears were realized – how can she be called paranoid?

Of all of Richard’s faults, impatience wasn’t one of them. Consider that he accepted the weaker end of the inheritance negotiations with George and then benefited from his death seven years later. Consider that after 20+ years of loyal service to the throne, a path opened up for him to take power. He wasn’t a man to act erratically or out of anger. He understood loyalty, public service and how to efficiently run a government. He had all the makings of a good king, save for the fact he wasn’t born to be one. Even so, he became one.

So, was that karma or the long-game?

Personally, I have always found it telling that his motto was “Loyalty Binds Me.” “Binds” does not mean “sustain” or a variation thereof. Now, it could be meant that it “grounds” him – that it is from where he derives his direction. But a classical interpretation of “binds” is not positive – it’s hold you back, it keeps you prisoner. If we take the motto literally then Richard’s loyalty is a hindrance from his true desire – to rid himself of the Woodville family? To keep peace with Warwick? To rule England in an honorable way?

If we accept that Richard’s loyalty was to his brother, then can we take it one step further and posit that his death freed Richard?

Well, not with certainty we can’t. There’s far too much grey space, not the least of which is truly understanding the personal dynamic between Richard and the Woodville family (an impossibility, though many have their theories). But I fall back to a simpler human explanation – if we believe that Richard was a man of principle and we consider the depth of his experience with battle, law and governance then it stands to reason that he would have known how to navigate the landscape as Protector and keep his nephew on the throne if that is what he wanted. He didn’t. Instead, with ruthless and quick efficiency, he relied on violence, propaganda and threats to ascend the throne.

Was this sacrifice? A true belief that his nephew was a bastard? To argue that is to make Richard an anamoly among his peers, an angel unlike any other prince handed the same opportunity. A leader who somehow became the victim of his supporters’ actions.

Separate and apart from the issue of the Princes’ murders, ambition is not a mark against one’s character. Usurping a throne is not the worst crime committed in history and God knows others did it before him. That Richard wanted the throne, to me, is evidenced by the fact that he got it. To argue anything else requires too much mental gymnastics, too much ignoring of human nature and every precedent that came before.

A certain reading of the historical record may indicate these actions were out of Richard’s character, but it bears remembering the historical record cannot, in fact, show us his true character.

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