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The enigma of Richard III

Posted in Famous battles, History, Royalty, War on Friday, 29 July 2011

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This edited article about Richard III originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 998 published on 25 April 1981.

Bosworth Field, picture, image, illustration

Richard’s crown was found at Bosworth Field and Lord Stanley placed it upon the brow of the new king, Henry VII, by Peter Jackson

Today Henry VII is looked on as the king who brought an end to the Wars of the Roses – but when he came back from exile, he was looked on as a rebel against the established authority of Richard III

“The venomous hunchback gained the throne,” says a famous chronicler, “after a succession of astounding crimes.” The subject of this uncompromising invective was Richard III, King of England, and there is nothing new in it. An evil man, a tyrant and a child-killer – Richard has been called them all. Yet scarcely any evidence exists to support a single one of these allegations.

The worst cross that the memory of King Richard has had to carry is undoubtedly the story that Sir Thomas More wrote about his reign. More, a man of great learning, was widely believed when he said that Richard killed his two little nephews, the princes in the Tower, in order to gain the throne.

When Shakespeare took up More’s story in his play Richard III, painting Richard blacker than black, everybody was ready to hate Richard.

It was not until our own century that scholars began to re-examine the case against Richard. They reasoned that because More and Shakespeare were writing in Tudor times they would be prejudiced: to have spoken well of Richard would have meant speaking ill of the Tudors, who wrested the throne from him. And in 16th-century England it was very dangerous to speak ill of the reigning monarch’s family.

They saw, too, a curious thing. Of all the charges levelled against Richard, the chief one – that of killing the princes in the Tower – was never mentioned by the king who succeeded him, his enemy Henry VII.

Why, they wondered, was that? Was it because Henry, rather than Richard, had something to hide?

Richard, born in October, 1452, was the brother of Edward IV, and was always extremely loyal to that king and his family. One writer of his time says: “He was small, with a short face and unequal shoulders, the right being higher than the left.” Another says: “He was tall, lean . . . and with delicate arms and legs.” It has always been hard to get at the truth wherever Richard is concerned.

He was happily married to Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick; their son, Edward, was nine when Richard came to the throne. During Richard’s two-year reign little Edward died “an unhappy death”, which suggests he was involved in an accident.

Sir Thomas More says that after the death of Edward IV, Richard, who was then Duke of Gloucester, called a Council meeting on 13th June, 1483. The Duke was in a terrible temper. He marched in and out of the meeting; then, pointing to his “withered arm”, he accused Lord Hastings of practising witchcraft upon it, called him a traitor and ordered his immediate execution.

While the unfortunate lord was being disposed of, Richard is said to have gone out and had a meal as if nothing had happened. In fact, Hastings was opposed to Richard’s plan to disinherit Edward’s children. Richard did have him executed, but the reasons were those of statecraft rather than witchcraft.

Later, says More, Richard accepted the crown with a false show of modesty. His coronation took place in July; in August, it was said, the princes were murdered in the Tower.

One would imagine that if this were all true, the reign of Richard would have been tyrannical. The reverse is true. His rule, though short, was one of the most just and the most progressive of all medieval English kings.

He ensured that the laws of the land were written in English for the first time, and they were printed, also for the first time, at William Caxton’s printing works. He made a truce with the Scots which ensured peace, at least for the time being.

The man who had done most to help Richard win his crown was undoubtedly his friend and ally the Duke of Buckingham. Suddenly, Buckingham decided to rebel, attaching himself to the cause of the boy King Edward V, who, he thought, was still alive in the Tower.

Buckingham was supposed to have been thunderstruck when he was told, in the middle of gathering other conspirators around him, that little Edward and his brother were dead. But the duke went madly on. He raised an army in Wales, intending to join up with his supporters in eastern England. But flooding on the Severn and Wye rivers barred his passage, and his army soon dispersed. After this the rebellion fizzled out.

Buckingham was captured, taken to the market place in Salisbury and beheaded. His request to see the king before he died was refused, for already Richard was aware that there was a bigger rebel than Buckingham to be dealt with.

The danger came from Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and standard-bearer for the defeated House of Lancaster. This earl had withdrawn to Brittany when the Yorkists emerged triumphant, fearing for his life. Now, invoking his ancestry back through to John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, Henry Tudor decided that he should be King of England.

During the Buckingham rebellion Henry had attempted to land in England from Brittany, and failed. Richard knew he would come again. The ports were watched and potential rebels were sought out, but still the king governed with wisdom and moderation.

Throughout this era of doubt and insecurity – which encompassed most of his brief reign – Richard governed from Nottingham Castle, from where he expected he could make fast time to any point at which Henry Tudor might land. Every 20 miles from Nottingham to the coast, scouts on horseback were posted to bring the news.

In Wales a signalling system was set up on the hills; the fleet was assembled at Scarborough; the south coast was fortified, and the king sent word throughout the land that Henry Tudor was an outlaw and a traitor.

At last Henry came. He left the River Seine on the last day of July, 1485, and landed at Milford Haven in Wales on 7th August. His 3,000 men and his few pieces of artillery were disembarked without challenge, and still unimpeded they marched swiftly inland to the English Midlands.

So it was that on 22nd August, in the fields near the little Leicestershire town of Market Bosworth, the stage was set for a drama that was to change the course of English history.

At sunset on the eve of the day before Bosworth, Richard rode into Leicester on his white courser. He slept the night at the Blue Boar Inn and next day left for Bosworth by the south gate at the head of his cavalry.

An old blind man sat begging outside the gate and, hearing the king coming, prophesied Richard’s doom. As Richard rode out his foot struck a post. “His head shall strike against it as he returns,” intoned the blind beggar.

Even before the two armies were at their battle stations, Henry was sowing doubt in the minds of Richard’s supporters. The king’s staunch friend, John, Duke of Norfolk, had been receiving anonymous letters advising him to desert his master, and others were tempted by offers of lucrative posts.

As the sun rose over Bosworth Field the trumpets sounded the call to arms. The clank of armour, the cough of horses, the words of command broke the stillness of the dawn.

Richard posted his forces at the top of a small incline, his cavalry wings on either side of the main line. Henry grouped his army on level ground some hundreds of yards away.

On a small hillock to the right of the field stood the treacherous Sir William Stanley. He professed to be one of the king’s allies, but he was actually waiting to see which side was likely to win before committing his small force.

For an hour or more after the battle began, neither side gave way to the other. Then, seeing his men hard-pressed, Richard urgently signalled Stanley to bring reinforcements. At first Stanley flatly refused to stir. When he finally did, he brought his men charging towards the flank of the king’s army.

When Richard saw this act of treachery his heart filled with despair. But from that despair grew courage seldom seen on the field of battle. Gathering his staunchest supporters, he charged towards the centre of the fray, wielding his sword with all his might, slaying right and left, and even reaching within striking distance of Henry Tudor himself.

Suddenly he was unseated. Hacking desperately about him he continued the fight on foot. Now he struggled like a man who knows the end is near. A dozen Lancastrians cornered him near a tree. He fought them single-handed and, it is said, slew them one by one. But, mortally pierced with many wounds, he was overcome with exhaustion and fell to the ground breathing his last.

As Richard, King of England, fell on that bloodstained field, the crown of England tumbled off his helmet and rolled along the ground into a hawthorn bush. There it lay, glinting brightly in the sunlight, until a Lancastrian picked it up and carried it to the Lord Stanley. To the roars of the victorious army, he put it on the head of Henry Tudor, the new King Henry VII.

Richard’s body was stripped, thrown across a horse, and, hanging head downwards, taken back to Leicester. As the horse approached the city the dead king’s head struck against a post. The beggar’s prophecy had come true.

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