It was the most dreadful moment of his life. The slight figure wielding a battle-axe with the strength of Hercules was death itself; yet he dared retire not a foot farther lest his army see and lose heart from its leader’s cowardice…
Paul Murray Kendall on Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth
In 1955 Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III was published. It was a ground-breaking biography for its time. His revisionist biography of Richard III portrayed him as a brave, loyal warrior, and a just and gallant king. It is the doctrine for many of those who call themselves Ricardians. It is a flowery and amorous portrait painted by a love-struck beau. Heavy on the purple prose and light on facts and sources. It helped shape a new Richard III by not only portraying him in a new light but by discrediting all of his enemies.
Henceforth there grew in Richard’s heart an anger against Henry Tudor, who used an arrow which flies by night to attack his honour and flung poisoned barbs to prick the skin of England’s peace…
Annette Carson claims that the Tudor denigration of Richard III truly began in 1484, when Henry Tudor’s communication from France dubbed him that homicide and unnatural tyrant which now unjustly bears dominion over you, and that prior to this there were no such sentiments. 1. But Michael Hicks points out “there is no argument, no justification, no evidence. Richard’s tyranny is presumed, can be taken for granted, and needs no discussion.” 2
Richard III the Usurper
As David Baldwin notes “seen with hindsight, Richard’s coup was a series of decisive, brilliantly executed manoeuvres which completely wrong-footed his sometimes bewildered opponents.”3 We can speculate that no one was expecting Richard to depose his nephew and execute three of his advisers, including his two uncles, Anthony Wydeville and Richard Grey. Despite some of the contemporary attitudes towards the deposition, with Mancini noting that some ‘always suspected whither his enterprises would lead’ it is almost universally agreed that it was out of character for a man who had spent his life as his brother King Edward IV’s loyal servant to slander his brother and to destroy his brother’s wife, their children, and her family. Annette Carson excuses the executions of Grey and Rivers as Richard acting in his office as High Constable of England, 4 Michael Hicks points out that however politically justified, the acts were sinful, a consideration more important in Richard’s day than our own.5
Titulus Regius is the statute passed by Richard III that declared his brother Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville invalid, and subsequently bastardised all of their children, including their two sons, Edward V and Richard of York. Richard produced a testimony of an alleged pre-contract between his brother and one Lady Eleanor Butler. David Baldwin points out if Elizabeth knew in 1464 that Edward was not free to marry her then their marriage was invalid, but if she did not know she could have married the King legally after Lady Eleanor died. 6 Eleanor had died in 1468, two years before the birth of Edward and Elizabeth’s first son Edward. We can assume Edward did not tell her, or the couple would have remarried, and that Edward did not think that what was probably a casual liaison would return to haunt his family after his death.
Technically a marriage needed only the couple to exchange vows and then to consummate it, therefore it can be argued that Edward was pre-contracted. Canon law also stated that marriages made in good faith, if found technically invalid at a later date, did not automatically make the children illegitimate. But canon law, or any law, is arbitrary. Realistically the case would have needed to be tried in an ecclesiastical court, but it never was. Whatever claims are made now about their legitimacy are invalid, the matter was prudently cleared up by Henry VII a few centuries ago with the assist of a Papal bull.
The Third Prince
With the children of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth now deemed illegitimate, Richard still had a small problem to contend with, and that was the young Earl of Warwick, George Duke of Clarence’s son, who could be viewed as having a stronger claim to the throne than Richard himself. This was dealt with by using his father’s act of attainder to bar the young earl from the succession, but in reality, had a rebellion broken out, neither legitimacy nor attainder would have made much difference. We can see the proof of this when Mary Tudor marched into London with twenty thousand men, both Catholic and Protestant, at her back to claim her throne after her father and her brother had both tried to bastardise her. As for the attainder, as Alison Weir points out, attainders were reversible. Nearly 80% of all acts of attainder passed during the period of 1453-1509 were later reversed 7
Despite the legal flaws, or moral flaws, Richard III passed Titulus Regius with little opposition and his accession was smooth.
When Henry Tudor challenged Richard III for his throne, he brought an army of 5000 men. They were all willing to fight for his cause. 28 peers and 22 of the gentry chose not to answer Richard’s call to Bosworth. Richard’s army of ten thousand perhaps included only six of his peers. Northumberland stayed watching on the hill while Stanley brought a force of two thousand down on Richard’s army as Richard attempted to bring down Tudor himself. Perhaps as David Baldwin notes “his deposition of Edward V would alienate so many people that widespread acceptance as king would always elude him.” 8. Stanley, however, being the step-father of Henry Tudor had a personal interest in which side he would take.
The significance of the victory was not lost on Tudor, now Henry VII. Polydore Vergil wrote that ‘King Richard alone was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies’, Richard’s epitaph is even more telling. This is part of the inscription on the epitaph near the tomb Henry VII had erected for Richard III.
I, here, whom the earth encloses under various coloured marble,
Was justly called Richard the Third.
I was Protector of my country, an uncle ruling on behalf of his nephew. I held the British kingdoms in trust, [although] they were disunited. Then for just sixty days less two,
And two summers, I held my sceptres.
Fighting bravely in war, deserted by the English,
I succumbed to you, King Henry VII. 9
Michael Hicks points out the the fact that Titulus Regius seemed to enjoy widespread approval at the time reveals him as a “skilful propagandist” himself. However much of Richard’s black legend is attributed to so-called Tudor propaganda. Just how much of this propaganda can be attributed to Henry VII himself? Henry, unlike Paul Murray Kendall, clearly saw the disadvantage of trying to portray his opponent as craven. Therefore his epitaph called him “justly named”, a protector and a brave soldier. In other words a mighty and worthy foe to have defeated. Kendall’s treatment of Henry Tudor cowering in battle behind his men hardly does Richard any justice, it in fact creates the perception that Richard was defeated by an army of rag-tag soldiers, smaller than his own army, blundering about the battlefield in front of their trembling leader until Richard was desperate enough to break free of his guard and someone had a lucky swing.
Richard III was never accused by Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort or Elizabeth Wydeville of having murdered Edward V and Richard Duke of York. Margaret Beaufort in fact had a York loyalist in her household, one Sir Ralph Bigod, who Lord Morley once reported would challenge anyone who ‘dispraised’ Richard III in his presence. David Baldwin notes that “He had been wounded fighting for Richard at Bosworth and would have died if Henry had ‘taken him in that heat’ of battle; but his good fortune in being able to continue his career under the new dynasty had not changed his opinions.” Margaret Beaufort approved of his stance. Why? Perhaps she approved of loyalty, even if ‘misplaced’. 10 Were they Tudor’s really intent on destroying Richard’s memory? Cardinal Wolsey was heard to praise him as a former Warden of the March, saying Richard and Northumberland both ‘took effectual means to punish and repress offenders’.11
That his own people thought him capable of murdering his nephews is another matter entirely, and the rumours were circulating prior to the Tudor reign. The death of Richard’s own son, Edward of Middleham, was enough to convince some he was being punished for murdering his nephews, which is in line with religious beliefs at the time. But it was not a wholesale belief. Some thought that Edward IV’s sons lived.
It was later historians that began exaggerating Richard’s crimes. Just as it was Richard’s later revisionists that began to spread Ricardian propaganda, or anti-Tudor propaganda, as early as the seventeenth century. John of Gloucester, Richard’s illegitimate son, was removed by Henry Tudor from the position of Captain of Calais, but not persecuted further, and was granted a small annuity. His later death is a mystery, although Richard’s first revisionist George Buck claimed Tudor had done away with him. Evidence is lacking where Buck is usually reliable. There were no signs Richard was ever planning on naming him an heir and the was probably no real threat to Henry VII. Henry had bigger problems, in the forms of Lambert Simnel, claiming to be Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, and later Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the lost Richard Duke of York, one of the “Princes in the Tower”.
The Pretenders and The Prince
There is no point attempting to absolve Henry VII of the executions of Edward Plantagenet and Perkin Warbeck. It was judicial murder. But was this truly his attempt to bury the House of York for good? In 1485, after Henry VII took the throne, the young Earl of Warwick was sent to the house of Margaret Beaufort, then the Tower. Henry VII clearly had no desire to execute a child. Imprisonment was not an ideal solution for a ten year-old boy, but we can speculate that Tudor thought it better than death.The Irish rebellion around Lambert Simnel forced Henry to bring the Earl of Warwick out of the Tower and prove that Simnel was a fake. The rebellion was squashed, but Simnel was not punished. He was given a job in the kitchens, worked his way up to Falconer and it is assumed he stayed with the Tudors until his death, sometime between 1525 and 1535. That story has a happy ending.
Unfortunately Warwick and Warbeck did not. In 1499, the choice of keeping Warwick alive but imprisoned was no longer entirely Henry’s. His early reign had been far from settled, and the presence of one Perkin Warbeck, a pretender claiming to be one of the missing Princes in the Tower, the young Richard Duke of York, posed a serious threat. The fact that neither Richard III nor Henry VII sought to at least find a scapegoat, if not an answer, led to the former’s downfall and the latter unintentionally giving his rivals a focus for rebellion. With no bodies ever having been buried, Yorkists could imagine that at least one of the Princes lived.
But why did Henry VII execute Edward Plantagenet who was, at this point, allegedly mentally impaired and certainly emotionally damaged after a long imprisonment, that had never posed an actual threat to the throne himself? It was in fact the impending nuptials of Henry’s heir, Arthur Tudor, that forced his hand. Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille, the “Catholic Monarchs” and parents of Katherine of Aragon, sent Henry a message implying that if the marriage were to go ahead, all rival claimants to the throne must be removed. This meant both Edward Plantagenet and Perkin Warbeck. It is not certain that Henry had seriously considered executing even Warbeck at this point; he had in fact taken a Spanish ambassador to the tower to visit Warbeck in the hopes of reassuring the Spanish that he was no threat. It was to no avail. If Tudor wanted to secure an alliance for his heir with one of the greatest dynasties in Europe, this was the terrible price he had to pay. Henry mourned Edward along with the people of England, while the Spanish ambassador gloated that “there does not remain a drop of doubtful royal blood”, and the blood remained on Tudor’s hands.
A Sinner or a Saint?
The fact is there is no point in trying to apply our modern moral sensibilities to the kings of the middle ages. It was the responsibility of the king to maintain the stability of his kingdom, whatever the cost. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Richard deposing his nephews had, at least, some justification when we look at the reign of Edward VI. As Leanda de Lisle points out “Edward VI ended up living out the exact fate that Richard III had feared for his own nephew Edward V: that of being dominated by non-royal relations, with dangerous consequences for any members of the royal family who threatened their power.”12 But Richard’s deposition of his nephews has forever stained his legacy with blood. We can see that Henry VII’s desperate act to preserve and further his fledgling his dynasty was in vain as the alliance was destroyed by his son Henry VIII, and the Tudor line ended by the choice of his granddaughter Elizabeth I. She left a legacy that her grandfather would no doubt have been proud of, the legendary Gloriana of the Golden Elizabethan Age. But Henry VIII and his daughter, the daughter of the Spanish alliance, left an enduring black mark on the Tudor legacy.
- Carson, Annette: Richard III: The Maligned King, The History Press, 2009, p. 245 ↩
- Hicks, Michael: Richard III, Tempus, 2000, p. 172 ↩
- Baldwin, David: Richard III Amberley 2013, pg 104 ↩
- Carson, Annette: Richard III: A Small Guide to the Great Debate, Imprimus 2013, p. 48 ↩
- Hicks, Michael: Richard III, Tempus 2000, p. 118 ↩
- Baldwin, David: Richard III Amberley 2013, p. 102 ↩
- Weir, Alison: The Princes in the Tower, Bodley Head, 1992 p. 124 ↩
- Baldwin, David: Richard III Amberley 2013, p. 213 ↩
- Ashdown-Hill, John: The Last Days of Richard III and the fate of his DNA The History Press 2010 p. 104 ↩
- Baldwin, David: Richard III Amberley 2013, p. 20 ↩
- Baldwin, David: Richard III Amberley 2013, p. 217 ↩
- De Lisle, Leanda: Tudor: The Family Story Vintage Books 2013 p. 394 ↩