Amid the controversies surrounding Richard III, we often lose sight of the man, the King who sought to rule England for the common good. Amidst the great, the dramatic, the historic events, the disappearance of his nephews, the rebellion of Buckingham, and his death at the Battle of Bosworth, ‘King’ Richard III is overshadowed. It is easy to champion his loyalty, or his piety or his military prowess. But with a crown comes a kingdom, and with a kingdom much responsibility. Annette Carson, author of the best-selling Richard III: The Maligned King, joins us today to discuss the reign of King Richard III.
What sort of kingdom did Richard III really inherit?
Looking at 1483, the social and political structure was characterized by conservatism and precedent. It was a society in which literacy was confined to the minority educated classes and printed books little known – where social rank was all-important, and authority was expressed in the languages of French and Latin – so it tended to be hidebound by the old ways of overlordship.
Sadly, as we know from the Paston letters, the availability of justice was severely limited. Juries and court decisions were routinely bought and sold, and the king (and other great lords) could ensure their protégés were never brought to book. The historian Robin Storey has calculated that Henry VI issued 12,448 general pardons during his reign, and ‘some of the crimes which Henry pardoned were atrocious’. 
Constitutionally England was ruled by a personal monarchy. The king was responsible for the government, and he handed out patronage, offices, lands and grants. Thus he was able to elevate favoured courtiers to positions of high eminence and power. But the downside of such favour, if used without sufficient care, was to generate resentment – sometimes even rebellion – from those who felt deprived and marginalized. This is remembered most notably during the reigns of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI, the first two of whom were removed from the throne by force. Henry VI suffered the indignity of having his dynasty disinherited by Act of Parliament.
I would love to discuss the developing role of Parliament because it’s so important, but I can only touch on it. In this connection perhaps you’ll be interested to hear about something I’m currently researching: the constitutional position of protectorates. Parliament in the 15th century essentially meant the peers of the realm: in these early days the commons were only just finding ways to exert a bit of influence. It’s fascinating to see how the great lords of 1422 dealt with the inheritance of the throne by the infant Henry VI, a constitutional dilemma which they were quick to turn to advantage. They decreed that the execution of the royal authority (i.e. the government) during the king’s incapacity belonged to the Lords in Parliament or Great Council, or when not so assembled, to the king’s continual council.  The care and guardianship of the young king himself was vested with his mother, the royal household, and a group of magnates headed by the Duke of Exeter. The uncles of the blood royal (Bedford and Gloucester) were given the title ‘Protector and Defensor of the Realm and Church in England and Chief Councillor to the King’. 
The same process (and title) was repeated in mid-century when Richard Duke of York, nearest adult male of the blood royal, was twice appointed Protector by the lords sitting in Parliament when Henry became mentally ill. Henry VI’s person, and his son, remained in the care of Queen Margaret and the royal household. Meanwhile the queen’s application to Parliament to be appointed Regent was denied. So by 1483 the constitutional position of the protectorship, what it entailed and how it was appointed, were all well established.
It is a common mistake made by some of our leading writers on history to suppose that Protectorate = Regency, whereas in reality the lords in council specifically reserved the right of governance to themselves. Edward IV was well aware of this when he made codicils on his deathbed. He had already placed the governorship of his heir, up to the age of 14, mainly under the control of the queen’s family together with Bishop John Alcock, all leading members of the Prince of Wales’s council. On the boy’s succession to the throne, according to precedent his personal guardianship would remain with the queen, her numerous family members and the royal household.
With the council in charge of governance, the Protector’s role was to look after security, both at home and abroad. It was a job which ideally suited Richard in 1483, especially as holder of three great military appointments at the head of England’s forces by land and sea (see later). Interestingly, the lords in council then drew up a proposal (which still exists in the form of the Chancellor’s draft speech to Parliament), outlining many more powers for him than had ever been given to his predecessors. Had he desired untrammelled power, this document would have conferred it on him. It’s in English, and it’s definitely worth reading. 
So I return to my theme of the kind of England Richard inherited as king in 1483, which was one where the lords of the realm, whether in council or in Parliament, took a leading role in the process of governance; a fact that explains their self-confidence in deciding the issue of the succession when they met as a kind of augmented Great Council in late June and offered him the throne. You can also find remarkable assertions of parliamentary authority in the Act of Succession, Titulus Regius. Knowing the business of government was in safe hands, Richard was able to embark on a progress around England lasting several months immediately following his coronation.
To me it’s interesting to examine the machinery of government that framed the events surrounding Richard’s accession, which is so often passed over compared with the seductive scenes of high drama conceived by the Tudor writers. But of course what they wrote reflected their own understanding of how the king they knew wielded his personal authority.
Richard Duke of Gloucester could not have been expecting to be in line for the succession with several heirs before him. Do you think that the offices he held during his brother’s reign helped him when he made the transition to king?
As well as ruling the north for ten years as a virtual viceroy, Richard was invested with the powers of three of the Great Officers or State by Edward IV: Great Chamberlain of England, Lord High Admiral of England and High Constable of England, the latter having a judicial as well as a military function. Unlike today, these officers of state carried heavy burdens of responsibility. Substituting for his brother in pursuing the war against Scotland earned him the further appointment as Lieutenant General of England’s Land Forces – so he was the active head of the king’s military. Richard, like Edward, not only strategized but fought personally on foot in the tradition of Henry V, shoulder to shoulder with his men. Interestingly, his military reputation is a significant factor with re-enactors who wear Richard’s colours today; it undoubtedly earned him personal loyalty in his own lifetime.
We know he was given appointments that placed him in control and governance over difficult areas. To paraphrase Dominic Mancini, who was in England in 1483, if a job was difficult or dangerous it would be handed to Richard. One of his early commissions was to subdue unrest in Wales stirred up by the Earl of Warwick’s rebellion. Add to this his engagement with the justice system, whether appointed to commissions of oyer et terminer or sitting as a judge or High Constable himself, and it seems Richard received from his brother a very complete training in the grim demands of governance.
What were some of Richard III’s primary concerns when he assumed the crown and what do you think he may have envisioned for his reign?
When Richard assumed the throne, England’s foreign policy was in a state of disarray akin to crisis. Edward IV had been thoroughly hoodwinked by the French king, Louis XI, who had lulled him into a false sense of security for the last 6 or 7 years by means of a treaty which he didn’t intend to keep. Making and breaking treaties was a routine policy of Louis XI, so it seems surprising that Edward didn’t realize what would happen. Suffice it to say that Louis provoked and financed the Scots in hostilities against the English, so that Edward’s attention and resources would be otherwise engaged when France reneged on the Treaty of Picquigny. Nor had Edward made the effort to cultivate allies who might have banded together with him against Louis; so his vow to Parliament in 1483 to wreak vengeance on the French may have been banging a somewhat hollow drum. Whether France was a primary concern of Richard III’s (or Scotland again) is difficult to know because he was juggling several balls in the air at the same time. It certainly should have been, because it was France that eventually brought about his downfall by setting up Henry Tudor’s invasion in 1485. But I say this in the light of hindsight, and it may well be that Richard’s primary concerns were elsewhere. He certainly took the wise course of trying to ensure that the Scots would cause no more trouble.
Although there was no Parliament to provide clues at the outset of Richard’s reign, one matter which I assume was of immense concern was money. Rosemary Horrox has shown that the Woodvilles’ expenditure of state treasure on setting up a fleet in April 1483 more or less cleaned out the reserves held in the Tower of London, not to mention incurring crown debt for the sum of £10,250 in gold coin which Sir Edward Woodville commandeered from a carrack lying offshore. Henry Tudor was doubtless very pleased to see this contribution from Sir Edward to his war chest, but the net result back home was that there were insufficient funds even to execute the late king’s will and Richard found himself subsidizing the government from his own pocket. When the French then financed Tudor’s invasion and Richard had to start making counter-preparations, he was forced to have recourse to unpopular loans. Nothing is calculated to lose more friends than unpaid debts. It seems to have been widely assumed at Edward IV’s death that he had a tidy surplus of funds, so this situation must have presented a sizeable problem.
Other concerns? Probably the job he had to leave unattended in the North, although it’s possible that it continued ticking over quite well because the only serious unrest which occurred during his reign seems to have been that stirred up by the October rebellion. But that didn’t arise until four months later. It’s an obvious assumption that he would have continued the process of trying to reach an accommodation with those of the Woodville faction who could be reached (reconciliations and pardons eventually ensued) … but it might not have been an actual concern so much as merely unfinished business. Significantly, no concern seems to have been sufficient to deter Richard from undertaking an extremely extensive royal progress immediately after his coronation.
If it’s possible to guess at what Richard personally desired to achieve in the longer term, this might have centred around the administration of justice, one of the principal duties of sovereignty. It can perhaps be deduced from his early and publicly repeated exhortations to his judges to dispense justice without delay or favour. In Parliament there followed an unprecedented list of reforms of processes that were lamentably in need of it. His improvements in the bail and jury systems, and the fact that he introduced legislation which brought advantage to those on the wrong side of the law and the receiving-end of corrupt practices, would logically indicate that he was aware of these shortcomings and sought to rectify them.
Some commentators have pointed out the obvious fact that his programme of legislation was not dreamt up entirely by Richard personally, but even so, it seems to me that he need not have taken measures so early in his reign that were designed so blatantly to curtail the powers of mighty lords who routinely practised the dark arts of bribery, intimidation and ‘labouring of juries’. If we assume, as do some historians, that he was seeking to bolster his shaky support-base by currying favour, then there was little logic in alienating those very magnates he depended on, who would be annoyed and alarmed by what looked like reformist tendencies.
Whether a 15th-century king had a vision for his reign is, I think, a rather modern concept; but if we reduce this to terms Richard himself would have embraced, such as core principles, then I would venture to guess that high on his list was the provision of fair dealing in justice and law, for which his ducal council was already respected in the North.
You said the Richard III may have been trying to make a deliberate break from the past, why do think Richard was taking pains to distance himself from his brother’s reign?
My suggestion of a break with the past reflected the terms in which Richard wrote to his bishops in 1484 pledging an open commitment to ‘encouraging virtuous living and seeking the reform of sinners’. This stems from the mediaeval concept of princely duty which can be found in the various improving texts or ‘mirrors’ that were popular reading among the ruling class. In accordance with the ideals of chivalry, a prince was exhorted to set a good example of morality and virtue – all part of the upbringing that someone like Richard would have received from childhood. We know that among his books was a copy of ‘the most influential of these texts, the De regimine principum by Giles of Rome’. 
Most modern historians acknowledge that he was genuine in his religious beliefs rather than merely paying lip-service. In former times there used to be a certain amount of pouring scorn on Richard’s ‘holier-than-thou’ proclamations in which he drew attention to moral turpitude as well as treasonous acts. There has been less scoffing of late, probably since the discovery of Mancini’s text where he speaks frankly about sinful and lascivious behaviour on the part of Edward IV and his courtiers, which suggests that those moral failings were not of Richard’s invention. At least two historians have also expressed the opinion that in his early life he might have been destined for the Church. When taken alongside Richard’s parallel insistence on justice for all, again expressed publicly and recorded contemporaneously, it occurred to me that these were evidence of priorities that would scarcely have troubled his brother … and that by making such very public commitments to them, perhaps Richard’s aim was to signal a deliberate break with the past … a past in which Edward’s reckless behaviour with women had rendered his children illegitimate. I am of course tentative in such suggestions – I don’t have a direct line to Richard’s thinking!
Richard III was the ‘last medieval King of England’. What are some of the positive aspects of his legacy?
Legacy is a very big word for a very brief reign. I suppose the most positive and beneficial thing he left was his legislative programme (he was remembered after his death for ‘making good laws’). Perhaps in particular the Court of Requests which provided access to justice for poor people, eventually developing into today’s Legal Aid system. Again Richard didn’t live in a vacuum and his legislation was built on work done by his predecessors … but it’s worth reflecting that none of his laws were calculated to persecute or make life worse for his ordinary subjects (unlike some kings one could mention!).
As a wordsmith myself I am particularly attracted by his promotion of the English language and by his support for the new art of printing, both of which fostered the impetus for rank and file English people to have a reason to learn the skills of reading and writing. When he went so far as to break with tradition and speak the Coronation Oath in English, I don’t think it was a random thing he did. He might be surprised to be remembered for that, but then he could scarcely have conceived of the revolution of the mind which the existence of books would bring about.
Sources for most of the things I’ve mentioned can be found in my book Richard III: The Maligned King (The History Press, latest edition 2013). I’m giving the following sources because they won’t be found there:
 R L Storey, The End of the House of Lancaster (Alan Sutton, 1986), pp. 215-6.
 S B Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1936), pp. 149-152.
 J S Roskell, ‘The Office and Dignity of Protector of England, with special reference to its origins’, English Historical Review, Vol LXVIII, April 1953, p. 222.
 Chrimes, pp. 168-78.
 A F Sutton & L Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books (Sutton Publishing, 1997), p. 105.
Annette Carson is a freelance writer with a preference for history and biography. She is an award-winning copywriter, has sold over 45,000 non-fiction books on subjects including music and aviation, and has contributed to Encyclopædia Britannica.
Her interest in Richard III has been lifelong. In 2008 she published Richard III: The Maligned King (The History Press) – with a revised edition in April 2013 reflecting the findings that ensued from his discovery. An examination of Richard’s reign, the book remains unorthodox, even 6 years later, in relying on evidence as recorded during his lifetime, while avoiding the ill-informed accounts of Tudor times. In July 2013 she published a short paperback (and e-book), Richard III: A Small Guide to the Great Debate, aimed at setting out the controversy for the general reader.
When Philippa Langley originated the quest for King Richard’s grave, she cited The Maligned King as one of her inspirations and asked Annette to join the team as historical consultant. Annette is still active in the Looking For Richard Project and has been working on text for the Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester.
Visit Annette Carson at her website annettecarson.co.uk
Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson. Published by The History Press 2013.
In 2012 Annette Carson formed part of the team that discovered King Richard III’s mortal remains, verified in 2013 by forensics including DNA matching. In response to the recent upsurge of interest, her 2009 paperback has been updated with details of the discovery plus new illustrations. Carson’s premise is that for centuries the vision of Richard III has been dominated by the fictional creations of Thomas More and Shakespeare. Many voices, some of them eminent and scholarly, have urged a more reasoned view to replace the traditional black portrait. This book seeks to redress the balance by examining the events of his reign as they actually happened, based on reports in the original sources. Eschewing the overlay of assumptions so beloved by historians, she instead traces actions and activities of the principal characters, using facts and time-lines revealed in documentary evidence. In the process Carson dares to investigate areas where historians fear to tread, and raises many controversial questions.