Nature or Nuture? The Influence of Richard III’s Wardship Under The Kingmaker Earl

Putting aside the disappearance of his nephews, probably the gravest accusation leveled at Richard III is the execution of William Lord Hastings in June, 1483, following an infamous meeting with his council. For centuries, debates have continued over whether it was an act of due process following the discovery of treason, an act of an unrestrained paranoid and panicking mind, or an act of a determined usurper who had jettisoned any pretense of respect for the rule of law.

Most curious is the almost modern-day pop-psychology argument that Richard was merely following the ways of his “mentor” – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (aka the Kingmaker) who himself was notorious for ordering several extra-judicial executions in 1469, including that of the Queen’s father, Earl Rivers. The argument goes: Warwick’s brand of political conquest found no need to observe the niceties of due process or judicial procedure. In other words, if you have an enemy in your possession, then applying the “Law of Padua” is an acceptable way to dispose of him.

It brings to mind a similar character study presented by Shakespeare:


Indeed, I was their tutor to instruct them:
That codding spirit had they from their mother,
As sure a card as ever won the set;
That bloody mind, I think, they learn’d of me,
As true a dog as ever fought at head.

(Titus Andronicus, Act V, Scene I)

So, was Richard following in the footsteps of his “mentor” in ordering an extra-judicial execution following the notorious council meeting? A closer examination reveals this to be a wobbly theory, at best.

Warwick, without any shred of legal or other authority, ordered the summary executions of William Herbert, Herbert’s brother, Earl Rivers, John Woodville, William Stafford, Humphrey Neville, and Charles Neville between July and September 1469. By this time, Richard had already separated from Warwick’s house upon turning 16 in 1468. And, it is quite possible that he had departed even earlier, given the acrimony that was brewing between Warwick and Edward IV since 1467. That year, Warwick refused to come to court to refute the charge that he was conspiring against the king, and instead sent Edward IV a letter denying the charge. Edward IV then abruptly dismissed Warwick’s brother George Neville as his chancellor, a position occupied by that illustrious prelate since 1461. It would seem odd that Edward would permit his youngest brother to remain in Warwick’s household following a charge that the Earl was reportedly dabbling in possible treason. Or, perhaps Edward kept him there as a “spy,” but that would have been a transparent ploy to someone of Warwick’s political astuteness. It is more likely that Richard moved to the king’s court, to an Inn of a Law Court, or resided temporarily with the Archbishop of Canterbury, until he came into his own affinity of lands and associated offices. Edward awarded him that affinity in 1469.

Therefore, unless Richard was gifted with the power to see into the future and his mentor’s executions, it is irrational to think that Richard would have been impressioned with them as a developing adult. If anything, given that they were committed when Warwick was openly in revolt against the Yorkist regime, I would think Richard viewed such acts as being committed by a political traitor and as serious transgressions against the King’s rule of law.

Also questionable is how much time Richard and Warwick actually spent together during the wardship. Historians Charles Ross, Michael Hicks, and David Baldwin contend Richard was Warwick’s ward from 1465-8. During that time, not only was Warwick likely moving between his estates at Middleham, Sheriff Hutton and Warwick Castle, but was also sent to the Continent to negotiate a treaty and the marriage of the Duke of Burgundy to the king’s sister Margaret. And it is likely Warwick attended Edward IV’s third parliament (summoned June 1467/dissolved June 1468). Given these known activities, and considering that Warwick was considered the greatest magnate (“Warwick,” wrote the Milanese ambassador in 1461, “seems to be everything in this kingdom.” “They have but two rulers, M de warwick and another whose name I have forgotten,” wrote the Governor of Abbeville to Louis XI), it is highly doubtful that the Earl could even find time to lavish on the wards in his care.

Warwick’s management of Richard’s education was likely modeled on that conducted at the royal court. Sir John Fortescue, in his De laudibus legum Angliae (c. 1468-70), describes education at the royal household as “the supreme academy for the nobles of the realm, and a school of vigour, probity and manners”. There was a focus on military training, instruction on the laws of the country, and holy scripture. Phillipe de Mezieres (1386-89) described what should be read by young nobles, with an emphasis on reading Latin, and the writings of Aristotle, Livy, Valerius, Maximus, Seneca, and Boethius. Edward IV’s Black Book (1478) provides a glimpse into the variety of subjects that were taught, ranging from sundry languages, to harping, piping, singing, dancing “and other honest and temperate behaving and patience”. Richard would have been instructed by a team of tutors who offered expertise in Latin grammar, penmanship, history and law, mathematics, horsemanship, handling weaponry, jousting, hawking, hunting, music, and dancing. Surely, no one could seriously contend that Warwick would have been individually involved in these lessons.

Even when the Earl was present in the household, the nature of wardship did not necessarily afford Richard the opportunity to witness any of the meetings between Warwick and his household staff and councilors. In such a great household as Warwick’s, there would have been legions of retainers, officers of the wardrobe, grooms, esquires of the household, ushers, chaplains, ladies in waiting, and servants, and it is highly unlikely the ward would even sit at the same table with the lord during meals. With detailed codes of duties and privileges, the wards were impressed with the importance of etiquette and courtly manners.   They were usually assigned to serve at table as young squires, and enjoyed very little privacy. As Caxton wrote in his Book of Curtesye, the boys were directed:

Soil not your cup, but keep it clean…

Blow not in your drink, nor in your soup,

Nor stuff your dish too full of bread.

Bear not your knife toward you face

For therein is peril and great dread…

Loosen not your belt sitting at the meal…

Take care also that no breath resound from you,

Whether up or down.


Even when the privilege of sitting at table was offered to the ward, he was usually placed with the ladies of the household. In fact, Richard was placed with the chief ladies, not the lords, when he attended George Neville’s enthronement as archbishop of York in 1465. If anything, Richard probably spent most of his free time in the company of the Countess and her ladies in waiting. Warwick’s wife, Anne Beauchamp, was known to be kind and gentle, certainly not much of a schemer. And, having risen at dawn, gone to Mass, taken exercises in the tiltyard, and studied scripture and treatises on knighthood, one can only imagine Richard might have stifled a yawn here and there, taking care not to let any breath resound from him, whether “up or down”.

I always find it fascinating when people ascribe Richard III’s conduct to another personage of his day. While it is certainly true that Richard was a product of his times, as we all exist within the influences of our community, there is something quite remarkable about the tenacity of the Warwick-Richard argument. I will leave with this question: In 1460, Henry VI disinherited his own son from the line of succession to the throne. Was Richard, then, following the steps of this “saintly” king when the nephews were similarly declared ineligible in 1483? Or do we prefer to see a villainous Aaron lurking in every Ricardian closet?




  1. At the time Richard executed Hastings he was still Constable of England so it would not have been illegal. Richard did not copy Warwick nor was he paranoid. Richard would only have executed Hastings if Hastings had been involved in a plot to kill him. The proof would be how fair and just Richard was when he was king. He introduced juries of one’s peers and the system of bail, as well as, establishing the publishing of legal documents in English so the average literate Englishman would be able to read the document.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Agree, Elizabeth. The fact that Warwick committed several extra-judicial executions does not mean – logically or factually – that Richard as Constable or Lord Protector – followed suit and committed the same action.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Warwick probably bought Richard’s wardship; it was a legal arrangement and if Edward had tried to take Richard out of his household Warwick would probably have had recourse to law – and one more weapon against the king.


  4. The Warwick argument is even less convincing in light of the recent isotope analysis which showed that Richard didn’t spend much of his youth in the north after all.


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