Today marks the 534th anniversary of Richard III’s coronation, an event that stands out from his reign as a moment of near-optimism. It was also an unusual ceremony in that it was a double crowning – Richard and his wife, Anne Neville, were anointed side-by-side in Westminster Abbey. The 12th century had seen the same with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, while the 13th century had seen Edward I and Eleanor of Castile and the 14th their son, Edward II, and his wife, Isabelle of France. That last coronation had taken place in 1308, 175 years before.
Recent history had seen rushed, bare-bones operations borne out of necessity. Edward IV had spun into the capitol after losing the Second Battle of St. Albans in 1461 while his rivals, Henry VI and Marguerite of Anjou, remained at large. Henry VI had come to the throne as an infant and his coronations pulled together years later was showboating in the wake of French gains and Joan of Arc. Henry V had a proper coronation back in 1413, but the day was marred by a surprise April snowstorm. And before him was Henry IV, who had usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, in 1399. None of the four had been married.
The next joint coronation would be in 1509 when Henry VIII was crowned alongside Katherine of Aragon. Following a low-key wedding, the event celebrated not only the dawn of Henry’s reign, but their marriage. It wouldn’t be repeated until 1603 when James I and Anne of Denmark were crowned after the death of Elizabeth I. The Stuarts and Hanoverians were hit or miss, though the coronation of George IV in 1820 is a standout in that it saw him barring his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, access to the Abbey.
Thus, even more than half a century later, the 1483 coronation is worth evaluating. A crowning had already been planned for that summer, of course, though the honoree was meant to have been Richard’s nephew, Edward V, eldest son of his deceased brother. What began as a whisper campaign on the legitimacy of Edward V and Edward IV had spun into a confident legal maneuver declaring Edward V a bastard and, thus, Richard the rightful king. Never mind, of course, the existence of yet another nephew with a stronger claim than Richard – Edward, Earl of Warwick was only a child and his father had died a traitor, so there were few voices calling for his reign.
And this brings us to an important point – the July 6th coronation was a short moment of peace. Richard had accepted a petition to name him king, not done as his father had done 23 years earlier by stalking through Westminster Hall and laying his hand upon the throne. Whatever role Richard’s ambition played in the events is debatable; what is not is that he had enough support from the lords of the realm – sincere or resigned – to say he had been a popular choice, however morally ambiguous the means taken to reach that point may have been.
So, the ceremony. Besides the King and Queen, the most important figure of the day was Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Like the Earl of Warwick before him, he saw himself as Richard’s kingmaker and, as such, he was insistent on a place of honor throughout the events. His familial ties would indicate a loyalty to the Woodville faction given his marriage to Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, Katherine, however given a dearth of information on their relationship and his prominent support for Richard in 1483, such was apparently not the case.
Red cloth was laid out through the city streets for the procession path. Richard and Anne walked along it barefoot, first to Westminster Hall and then to the Abbey. The line was led by a group of priests carrying a large cross, and the Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland bearing the sword of mercy; Lord Stanley with the Lord High Constable’s mace; the Earl of Kent and Francis, Viscount Lovell with the swords of justice; Richard’s brother-in-law, John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk with the sceptre; and then John Howard, Duke of Norfolk holding the jeweled crown that would be placed on Richard’s head.
Richard walked in a gown of purple, his train held by Buckingham, who also carried the white wand of High Steward. A group of earls and barons followed them, ahead of Anne, whose train was held by Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. They were followed by Richard’s sister, Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk, and behind her, the Duchess of Norfolk, at the head of about 20 ladies and a line of lesser knights, squires, etc.
As the procession reached the Abbey, singing began to mark the King and Queen’s entrance into the nave. This continued as the group filed in and Richard and Anne were escorted to their seats. From there they walked to the high altar, naked from the waist up, to be anointed on the head, hands and heart. They were then covered in cloth of gold and formally crowned.
Richard and Anne returned to their seats for High Mass. Buckingham and Norfolk stood on either side of Richard, while the Duchess of Suffolk and Margaret Beaufort flanked Anne. Once mass was complete, Richard offered up the crown of St. Edward and relics at the saint’s shrine. The music began again as the procession filed out of the Abbey, following the path of the red cloth to Westminster Hall.
A brief respite followed as court prepared for the coronation feast. The lords and ladies in attendance paid homage to the royal couple and feasted. After the second course had been served the King’s Champion rode into the hall on a horse and delivered the customary challenge – the response, of course, was a unified cry of “King Richard!” Per tradition, the Champion was then served red wine, which he took a swig of, threw out the rest and left with the cup as payment. Once final obeisances were over, Richard and Anne filed out of the Hall to the sound of trumpets.
So, what about this is notable? Well, for one, it is a well-documented coronation that captures the full potential of the ceremony in the Middle Ages. For two, it is particularly noteworthy with the benefit of hindsight. We know now how fleeting this moment of public harmony was and it begs the question, was it sincere?
Less than four months later Buckingham would be executed for treason and Margaret Beaufort placed under house arrest for participating in a plot to depose Richard in favor of Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor. And while the Yorkists may have been cheering for Richard, a more accurate snapshot of sentiment has to allow that many were hedging their bets. Was Richard a safer investment than a child king? Probably. But what would happen to the deposed Edward V and his brother, who were likely still alive at this point? And what about the Dowager Queen and her five daughters living in sanctuary within the confines of the very Abbey in which Richard was just crowned?
The argument that Richard could have adequately ruled given time to establish himself is possible, but it would have taken years and, frankly, it’s hard to imagine how it would have leveled out given how many other players, many of whom were within a stone’s throw of his crowning, would have had to have been felled. The coronation was a deceptively smooth moment, but it does offer a glimpse at what the reign of Richard III could have been.