Part Twelve: Regent or Lord Protector?

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Oookay, our timelines are behind us and we can now delve into Richard III’s reign. If you missed the last two posts, I highly recommend taking a look (here and here), and it may be helpful to have the rundown on 1483 handy as you read through the below. Today we’re going to focus on the first wave of Richard’s assumption of power.

As mentioned throughout this series, part of what’s tricky about Richard and this time period is that even if you agree on the basic facts, they can be read myriad ways. It’s incredibly easy to review the events of 1483 through a lens sympathetic to Elizabeth Woodville and see one narrative, and see an entirely different one if you are inclined to believe Richard’s innocence. And I pull Elizabeth out as the comparison because, in my opinion, when you dig into 1483, this really becomes a question of Woodville v. Richard.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now like to look on the reign of Edward IV and see the promotion of the Woodville family as wildly unpopular, a sort of “new money” social climbing at the expense of the Yorkist old guard, namely the Nevilles. And given that Richard was raised for a few years in the Earl of Warwick’s household, and two Woodvilles – Elizabeth’s father and brother – were among those killed when Warwick first rebelled in 1469, it stands to reason that 1) the Nevilles and Woodvilles hated one another and 2) Richard was exposed to that bias. You could take it a step further, and conclude that Richard blamed the Woodvilles for Warwick’s and George’s deaths.

That’s a fair assumption, but it’s an assumption all the same. There’s no real evidence for what relationship Richard and Elizabeth had while Edward IV was alive, save that they were certainly around one another on numerous occasions. And even if you believe that Richard had legitimate ground to resent the Woodvilles, there’s less reason to understand why the Woodvilles would dislike Richard, save that they saw him as an opponent to absolute power.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that prior to Edward IV’s death, the three main figures of the spring of 1483 – Richard, Anthony Woodville, and Elizabeth – all had relatively sound reputations. Richard and Anthony especially so, since their careers are better recorded. But on multiple occasions, Richard worked without issue with members of the Woodville family, including Elizabeth. And compared with some queens in English history, Elizabeth was hardly a notorious figure during her husband’s life. It’s also worth noting again that even if the Woodvilles disliked Warwick and George for their actions in 1469 – and their treason in 1470-1471 – Richard fought on their side.

And yet, Richard was crowned king within three months of Edward’s death and he systematically took down the Woodville family. You can very easily make the case that Richard, an arguably ruthless man, saw a path for the throne and took it, the Woodvilles being a necessary casualty, or their destruction the result of a long-harbored grudge. That makes sense, so long as you assume that the Woodvilles were innocent of everything with which they were charged.

But before we get there, it’s worth considering what Edward IV intended. After all, he’s the man who promoted the Woodville family through his reign thanks to his marriage to Elizabeth. And he’s the man who set up a situation in which Richard was left with authority over a boy raised in an effectively Woodville household. So, what was Edward thinking?

That answer is complicated (of course!) because we fundamentally don’t know, and the assertion that Edward provided a codicil to his will from his deathbed is just that – an assertion. But there are two important layers of context worth considering: 1) how minority governments had recently been handled in England and 2) the state of Edward’s court and council.

With regards to the former, the most recent minority government was that of Henry VI between 1422 and 1437. Now personally, I would name that situation a success simply because power was appropriately handed off to the king when he reached his majority, but it’s still worth noting Henry VI himself was hardly a successful king and that period of time saw such overt factionalism that civil war followed within two decades. It stands to reason that Edward considered that reality given the role his own father played in that scenario.

The structure of that minority government was one that relied on a division on power – and worth noting, it’s not what Henry V envisioned on his own deathbed in 1422. Personal authority over the king, Council, and defense of the realm were divvied up, and the entire situation was made more complicated by the fact that England still held vast – and new – territory in France that required day-to-day management. Such was not England’s lot in 1483.

Secondly, Edward’s court was fast devolving into its own form of factionalism. Edward’s stepson, the Marquess of Dorset, and his closest friend, William, Lord Hastings appear to have genuinely disliked one another. Behind Dorset stood – presumably – the entirety of the Woodville family, and behind Hastings, who was married a Neville, stood members of the Yorkist old guard. By birth alone, Richard naturally had more ties to Hastings and co., but he was also a slightly separate entity given that his career had kept him physically separated from the daily machinations of court. Edward also trusted him implicitly.

Thus, is it possible that Edward made a last-minute decision to empower Richard not as a Lord Protector figure (governing Council, but still dependent on its support) but rather as a Regent (king in all but name)? Yes. But even if that was his intention, he knew well that Council could overturn his preferences after death – as happened in 1422.

One narrative trajectory is that Edward named Richard regent, the Woodvilles immediately began working to block his promotion, and Hastings summoned Richard south in response. If that was the case, then it’s worth underlining that Richard would have been dependent on Hastings’ intel, and that his request to meet his nephew, Anthony Woodville, and Richard Grey on the road before entering London together would have been his way of gaining physical custody of the king, yes, but also assessing what was truly going on from the source (Anthony being the senior male Woodville).

It is also worth noting that before he left Middleham, Richard reportedly wrote a letter to Council expressing concern that anything should happened in London that was contrary to his brother’s wishes. The source for this letter is Mancini, a chronicler not predisposed to sympathy for Richard, so it carries some weight. If that letter was indeed sent, then it stands to reason that as of mid-April, Richard wasn’t planning to usurp the throne. Instead, his concern was likely staving off a Woodville coup, or any attempt to oust him from whatever position his brother intended him to serve. (The reality of a Woodville coup being, of course, debatable…but we are concerned here with what Richard believed possible.)

Finally, we must zoom in more closely on the figure of Lord Hastings. While married to a Neville, his career and wealth were entirely based on his relationship to Edward. His rivalry with Dorset meant that a Woodville supremacy almost certainly spelled the end of his influence, at best. Thus, aligning himself with the anti-Woodville circle was strategic, and his quick summoning of Richard and his encouragement to gain custody of Edward V as soon as possible derived less from objective advice and more from self-service. What Richard thought of Hastings is unclear, save that he had given him no reason to suspect his loyalty to the House of York.

The first aberration of this period – or rather, the first concrete breaking point of reported tension – came when Richard ordered the arrest of Anthony Woodville and Richard Grey on the road to London. Given his eventual accession to the throne and the disappearance of the “Princes in the Tower” this of course reads as the first step in a calculated power grab. And that may be so. But another view of it is that if Richard truly thought that the Woodvilles were attempting to shore up power for themselves, in which case their arrest was cautionary.

The plan was for Richard to meet up with Anthony, Richard Grey, and Edward V, but what actually happened was that Anthony, Richard Grey, and Edward V went to Stony Stratford and then Anthony rode back to meet Richard at Northampton. We don’t know whether the plan was for Richard to meet them at Stony Stratford and Anthony surprised him, or whether Anthony diverted the plan at the last minute and then rode back. Whatever the case, it was strange enough logistically that it was likely significant.

The Woodville explanation for Anthony’s behavior was that he sought to leave room for the retinues that accompanied Richard and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who had already met up with Richard. And that may be true…without applying malignant intentions on Richard’s part. If he suspected a Woodville plot and then saw a last-minute change of plans, he could simply have been spooked.

Regardless, Anthony wasn’t immediately arrested. He joined Richard and Buckingham for dinner in Northampton that night, and come morning his arrest – and that of Richard Grey – was promptly ordered. The thing about that dinner is that it paints a very distinct picture of a friendly meal and then Anthony being caught unaware. In fact, we know nothing about what the men discussed – whether they argued, or whether the rumors swirling in London at that point finally came to a head.

Both men were taken north – Anthony to Sheriff Hutton and Richard Grey to Middleham. A third man in their entourage was taken to Pontefract. News of their arrest reached London the following day, at which point Queen Elizabeth went into sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her remaining children, including Dorset, and another brother, Lionel Woodville, Bishop of Salisbury. It’s worth underscoring that none of these men were swiftly executed – a move that Warwick and George employed with the two Woodvilles in 1469, and Richard himself would use later that spring against Hastings. As Constable, it was absolutely within his power to condemn all three men as traitors and execute them then and there, but he didn’t. You could argue that he understood the negative optics, but if that was the case, then why didn’t that same concern stop him from executing Hastings weeks later?

Possibly he worried that killing Edward V’s caretakers would irredeemably tarnish him in his nephew’s eyes…but then again, if he was planning on usurping the throne then why would he care? It’s absolutely possible that Richard was simply behaving erratically that spring, but I would also argue that it’s equally possible – and more in keeping with his recorded behavior – that he suspected treason, arrested them, and was waiting to see what awaited him in London.

Between April 30 and May 4, Richard, Buckingham, and Edward V were en-route to London together. Matthew Lewis notes in his biography of Richard that a scrap of paper dating to this window of time shows all three writing signing their names and writing out their mottos. Richard’s was then “Loyalty Binds Me,” which he’d been using since the 1470s. Sadly much of anything regarding Edward V’s personality or point of view has long been lost, but the image of the three fiddling around with the scribbles doesn’t paint a portrait of the boy being held in duress or resenting either man. Still, we don’t know.

Immediately after arriving in the capital, Edward V was installed in the Bishop of London’s Palace, while Richard set himself up in his personal residence of Crosby Place. It’s notable that Richard allowed physical distance between himself and Edward V, even if he had the means to still monitor and guard him. Furthermore, he ordered all the assembled noblemen and officials to swear homage to his nephews – an odd move if he was attempting a usurpation not long after. Then, before Council, Richard repeated his own oath of loyalty to Edward V and swore to protect Queen Elizabeth if and when she left sanctuary. I have a separate post planned on Richard’s relationship with Elizabeth, so I’m not going to wade into the significance of this event, but we’ll certainly get to it.

Three days later, Richard and Buckingham met at Baynard’s Castle to review Edward IV’s will with nine bishops and other executors. The residence was in fact owned by Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, but it’s unclear whether she was in London at the time. Historians are divided on that point, and we’ll circle back to that too 😉 Regardless, what we know of the will indicates that Queen Elizabeth was given significant executive power and her absence would have made executing the document difficult.

On May 10, Council met for the first time. Richard retained a good number of Edward IV’s members, including Hastings, Lord Stanley, Bishop Stillington, and Archbishop Rotherham, who had been removed as Chancellor. Buckingham was one major addition. During this meeting the men discussed where to house Edward V in the lead up to his coronation and landed on the Tower of London. Reportedly, the suggestion came from Buckingham, however as a reminder, the Tower didn’t then have the reputation it would later garner in the Tudor era. The Tower included a comfortable royal residence that many monarchs enjoyed, including Henry VII in later years. It was also tradition for the monarch to spend the night before their coronation there, so it made a certain amount of logistical sense.

A new date for Edward V’s coronation was also set for June 22nd. The Woodvilles had in fact been pushing for a May 4th date, but Richard obviously delayed that via the logistics of their journey to London. Parliament was then scheduled to open on June 25th.

The final matter on hand was confirming Richard’s position, which as we’ve discussed above is tricky given we don’t know what the original intent was. The Crownland Chronicler describes Richard as being given the same power that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was during Henry VI’s minority. In other words, Council governed while Richard was both a prominent member of Council and in charge of defending the realm. But no one was charged with protecting the King’s person, and Richard is then described as having the powers of a king. In other words, a regent. So, it’s possible that Richard was given the title of Lord Protector, but equipped with the office of regent in practice.

Thus, Richard beat the Woodvilles in whatever game each was playing and a course was outlined for the events of the summer. We’ll pick up there next time. A final logistical note: this is the third post in as many days, so I’m going to give everyone a breather tomorrow to catch up if you’re following along. Monday through Thursday of this week will be devoted to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s South Africa visit (plus an engagement for the Cambridges on Thursday), and we’ll pick up again with history on the weekend. I have Part Thirteen scheduled for Saturday, but I may bump it up to Friday depending on how things shake out with the tour.

In the meantime, Happy Weekend!

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