It is half a millennium since Richard III (1483–5) was king. He is traditionally regarded as the last of England’s medieval monarchs – 14th and last of the great house of Plantagenet (1154–1485) and third of the Yorkist kings (1461–85). He terminated both dynasties. He has been bracketed with King John as the worst of English medieval rulers. England’s greatest playwright William Shakespeare depicted Richard III as an evil, power-crazed tyrant whose crimes fully justified the accession of the Tudors. Certainly Richard was one of the most disastrous monarchs ever to occupy the throne of England. Not only had he one of the shortest of reigns – a mere 26 months – but it terminated in complete defeat, with his deposition and death on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485. Bosworth was long accepted as the decisive moment that divided English medieval history from the modern history presided over by the Tudors (1485–1603), the Stuarts (1603–1714), the Hanoverians (1714–1837), and our own house of Windsor. That chronology no longer works. Centuries have passed since this divide was first acknowledged. It is no longer easy to lump Tudor England together with our own post-industrial, post-colonial, democratic, and digital age. 1500 no longer appears modern.
Richard lived during the Wars of the Roses, three civil wars that lasted with decade-long breaks roughly from 1450 to 1500. It was an era of turbulence when the people and continental neighbours intervened repeatedly in English affairs and when all governments were weak. Civil war broke out when the ruling Lancastrian King Henry VI (1422–61) was challenged by the Yorkists, whose descent in the female line via the Mortimers from an elder son of Edward III (1327–77) was argued to be superior. The First War of 1459–61 brought Richard’s eldest brother Edward IV (1461–83) to the throne. As the new king’s youngest brother, Richard (b. 1452) was created duke of Gloucester. He engaged in politics from 1468–9. Actually King Edward reigned twice. His First Reign of 1461–70 was interrupted briefly by the Second War (1469–71) and the return of the defeated Henry VI (1470–1). This upheaval was orchestrated by Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and Salisbury (Warwick the Kingmaker, 1428–71), Queen Margaret of Anjou, and the French King Louis XI. The teenaged Richard featured prominently. Edward IV won again: his Second Reign of 1471–83 was more successful. Domestic politics was dominated by the titanic struggle of the two royal dukes, Gloucester and his elder brother George Duke of Clarence, which ended in 1478 with Clarence’s execution. They contended over the great Warwick inheritance, to which their duchesses – Warwick’s two daughters – were heiresses. Richard had married the younger sister Anne Neville, and on the strength of her inheritance he came to dominate northern England. He was ‘Lord of the North’. The culmination of Richard’s first 30 years was his victory against the Scots in 1480–3. While Duke Richard was undoubtedly as self-interested and ruthless as other great noblemen, he has been revealed as an effective operator who may have been genuinely popular in the North. He was destined nevertheless to feature only marginally in the history books.
All this changed in 1483, when Richard’s eldest brother King Edward IV died a natural death (9 April 1483). At this point what is known of Richard moves from a couple of events or documents per year to almost a day-by-day narrative. Edward IV was succeeded by his underage son Edward, but only for 10 weeks. The boy’s uncle Duke Richard made himself first Lord Protector and then king. Two coups d’état mark his advance to the throne: in his First Coup in early May he seized control of Edward V and in his Second Coup (13 June) he eliminated the young king’s most committed supporters. Richard III’s accession followed on 26 June 1483. Richard argued that Edward V was illegitimate and therefore that he himself was rightful next heir, but his claim was not generally accepted. He aspired to be a good king who was devoted to the public good, but his accession brought not stability but division, the Third War of the Roses. Richard was strongly criticised and indeed reviled for his usurpation, for the disappearance and probable killing of Edward V and his brother (the Princes in the Tower), for the poisoning of his own queen in 1485, and for planning incestuously to marry his niece Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and elder sister of Edward V. His two-year reign (1483–5) was coloured by attempts to depose him, unsuccessfully in 1483 (Buckingham’s Rebellion), but ultimately successfully, when Richard was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor (Henry VII, 1485–1509) at the battle of Bosworth (22 August 1485). This was the end of Richard, but the Wars of the Roses puttered on with a series of other claimants into the reign of King Henry VIII (1509–47), in whose veins ran the blood of the warring houses.
The facts of the Third War after 1483 and Richard III’s part in it are not disputed, but what it all means – how it is to be interpreted – is contested.
Michael Hicks is emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Winchester and has been described as “the greatest living expert on Richard” by BBC History Magazine. His previous publications include The Wars of the Roses.