THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD 111 (NOT BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE)
(some personal reflections on events in England between April and the autumn 1483)
Part 1: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’
“ …O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester,
And the Queen’s sons and brothers haught and proud;
And were they to be ruled, and not to rule.
This sickly land might solace as before.”
(William Shakespeare – Richard the Third)
‘Edward, my Lord, thy son, our king, is dead!
King Edward IV died unexpectedly at Westminster on the 9 April 1483 after a short illness; the cause of his death is unknown. It was expected that his eldest son Edward Prince of Wales would succeed to the throne as king Edward V. On his deathbed, the king appointed his brother Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector during Edward’s minority. Duke Richard was by common consent a loyal and devoted servant to the king, who obviously realised the worth of his young brother. Yet within a few months of Edward’s death, he had deposed the boy-king Edward V, bastardized his nephews and nieces, executed four leading magnates and imprisoned others, and crowned himself king. He fought no battles and there was relatively little bloodshed. On any view, the transfer of power was spectacularly effective. The events of 1483 have divided opinion ever since. There are those who reflect the traditional “Tudor” opinion of Gloucester as a bloodthirsty usurper and tyrant. There are others who believe that his reputation has been much traduced by his enemies after his death. And there is a new, emerging, opinion that judges him as being no better, nor any worse, than the standards of his time.
A major problem in interpreting the events of April-June 1483 is establishing what actually happened and when. As Professor Charles Ross points out, the source material is scanty, conflicting and uncertain. The two primary contemporary sources for this period are Dominic Mancini the Italian cleric who was in London during the relevant period, and the second continuation of the Crowland Chronicle written in the Lincolnshire Fens by an unknown hand. As we shall see, neither source is wholly satisfactory. They are unclear, uncertain and ambiguous on many of the major events, and on the chronology. They are also partial.
“ As soon as it was clear that King Edward was dying, the queen and the marquis (of Dorset) began to develop their hopes…. Paul Kendall’s comment emphasizes the opportunistic character of the Woodville clan but does scant justice to their prescience. Not only were they prepared to assume the reins of government and to dominate the council but also they were well placed to deal with any opposition there might be. In early March 1483, three weeks before Edward was even ill, Earl Rivers took steps to consolidate the Woodville’s control of the heir to the throne. He obtained a written copy of the king’s patent granting him power to govern the Prince of Wales and to raise troops in the principality. Rivers also delegated his authority as Deputy Governor of the Tower of London to his nephew, Dorset. It was a risky thing to do because Rivers had no authority to delegate his power, which was in the royal prerogative. However, the risk was justified because it put power and the king’s treasury into Woodville hands where it was most needed: in London. It looks as though the Woodville’s were preparing to strengthen their control of the king’s heir with military force and positioning themselves to assume the reins of government.
Within two days of the king’s death the decision was made to crown his successor on the 4 May 1483. It was a decision made in haste and apparently without reference to the Privy Council or the Lord Protector. It is indicative — to say the least — of a Woodville intention to gain unfettered control of the boy king and set-up their own regency government disregarding the dead king’s intention and Gloucester’s authority as the Lord Protectors. Although for form’s sake the date for the coronation would have to be confirmed by the Privy Council, neither the queen nor her son the marques of Dorset expected any problem in getting agreement from a docile council.
‘ Tis time to speak my pains are quite forgot’
Even though Gloucester was in far away Yorkshire, he knew of the king’s death and the events in London from William Lord Hastings, a council member. His reaction to Edward’s death is not indicative of a ruthless usurper. He wrote “…the most pleasant letters to console the queen…”, in which he pledged his allegiance to king Edward V. He also reminded the queen of his loyalty and service to the dead king and expressed the desire that his brother’s children “might endure in their father’s realm”. He added a request that the council should reach a decision, which his services to his brother and the state alike deserved, and reminded everyone that“…nothing contrary to the law and his brothers wishes could be decreed without harm” . Next, he journeyed from Middleham to York accompanied by “ … an appropriate company all dressed in mourning” Once in York, he “… held a solemn funeral ceremony for the king, full of tears. He bound by oath, all the nobility of those parts in fealty to the king’s son; he himself swore first of all”.
‘…the guilty kindred of the queen…’
The decisive meeting took place at Westminster as soon as Edward IV was buried. The Woodville aims were twofold 1) to secure Edward V’s speedy coronation and 2) to settle a regency government in their favour. The Lord Protector was a notable absentee. There are two accounts of this meeting. One is from Mancini; the other is from the Crowland Chronicler. Neither was written contemporaneously with the event or is a verbatim note of the discussion. Their value is further diminished by the fact that each author recorded only those discussions that interested him. Nonetheless, despite these handicaps, it is possible to re-construct a reasonable explanation of what was said and done at this meeting
According to Mancini, the first order of business was to settle the governance of the realm during the king’s minority. Two possibilities were discussed: first, that Gloucester should govern personally as Lord Protector in accordance with Edward’s wishes and second, that a regency government, of which the Lord Protector would be the chief member, should govern during the minority. Mancini emphasizes the queen’s fear that if Gloucester ruled alone he would usurp the throne. The Crowland Chronicle ignores this discussion, and emphasises the serious opposition to the queen’s family holding the reins of government and controlling the young king. This split in the council was a reflection of the Woodville’s unpopularity amongst some of the old Yorkist courtiers.
At some point Gloucester’s letter was read. It is important because it conveys his position quite clearly to the queen, her family and supporters and the remainder of the Privy Council. It is fully in accord with Gloucester’s reputation for integrity in public life, his duty to the realm and to his deceased brother. There is nothing here except a timely warning about the risk if the law and his brother’s wishes are ignored. The letter is doubly important because even Mancini acknowledges that it was well received by the council in general. Many members who already favoured Gloucester now openly supported his claim to govern personally as Lord Protector. Nevertheless, the Woodville dominated council rejected his request. It was another overt sign of Woodville ambition and a clear indication that they intended to exclude the senior royal duke from any serious role in government during the king’s minority. As alarming as this undoubtedly was to many members of the Privy Council, there was worse to come.
The Marquess of Dorset proposed that the king should be crowned as soon as possible. He suggested Sunday the 4 May 1483: scarcely three weeks away. The discussion turned to arrangements for bringing the king from Ludlow to his capital for the coronation. The Woodville’s and their supporter favoured a large armed escort for the king. Hastings was so disturbed by this proposal that he openly declared that he would retire to Calais unless the king’s escort was more modest. This was a threat the queen and her family could not ignore. The prospect of the Captain of Calais retreating to his stronghold from where he could command an effective fighting force to oppose them was not something they could face with equanimity. Queen Elizabeth proposed a compromise, which was agreed. A force of only two thousand soldiers would escort the King. Hastings only agreed to this because he believed that Gloucester would not bring less. The Crowland Chronicler’s description of events highlights the division within the council and touches on Woodville unpopularity: “ All who were present keenly desired that this prince should follow his father in all his glory. The more foresighted members of the council, however, thought that the uncles and brothers on the mother’s side should be absolutely forbidden to have control of the person of the young man until he comes of age. They believed that this could not easily be achieved if those of the queen’s relatives who were most influential with the prince were allowed to bring his person to the ceremonies of the coronation with an immoderate number of horse. The view of Lord Hasting, the captain of Calais, was sound and prevailed for he protested he would rather flee than await the arrival of the new king if he did not come with a modest force”.
When it was suggested that it may be more sensible to await the Lord Protector’s views, Dorset is said to have replied scornfully: “ We are so important that even without the King’s uncle we can make and enforce these decisions.” Thus was the date of the coronation set, and also the arrangements for bringing the king to his capital.
‘They do me wrong and I will not endure it!’
The temptation to see this as a Woodville coup d’état backed with force is almost irresistible. Nonetheless, the Privy Council meeting was not itself unlawful, as suggested by Kendall. It made sense after the death of Edward to ensure that the business of the realm continued as normal. Some practical decisions were necessary. The appointment and reappointment of Judges was needed to keep the wheels of justice turning and the defence of the realm against French privateers was an urgent necessity. Furthermore, it was not unlawful to ignore the dead king’s wishes. It had happened in 1377 and again in 1422. On this occasion, the whole country expected the Prince of Wales to succeed his father on the throne. Certainly, Hastings and the anti-Woodville faction expected that to happen. Gloucester in Yorkshire thought that was what would happen, and he saw it as his duty to work towards that end. What was of concern to the more forward thinking members of the Council was the amount of control that the Woodville’s would exercise over the boy King. It is fair to assume that the Lord Protector had his own views on this as well.
Even if these actions did not amount to a conspiracy against Gloucester (itself an doubtful thesis), he would undoubtedly have seen them as a threat to him personally, and an attempt to overrule the law and his dead brother’s will. There is little doubt that he feared the Woodville’s; he would have been acutely aware of the unhappy fate of the last protector, Humphrey duke of Gloucester and other ‘protectors’ who did not always live long once the king reached his majority. It is Gloucester’s perception of the threat that is the key to his actions hereafter. The suggestion by some historians that even at this early stage he was actively trying to overthrow the young king and his government does not bear close examination. There is no doubt from the facts, as we know them, that it was the queen and her family who were the aggressors by mounting a coup. Their actions in proceeding with arrangements for a hasty coronation and settling the form of government without waiting for Gloucester to reach London suggests they wanted to achieve a fait accompli before he was in a position to stop them. Moreover, their seizure of the royal treasury and the fleet, and their provision to raise troops in Wales speak loudly for their intention to use force if necessary.
This was a power struggle in which Gloucester was at a distinct disadvantage. He had not received any official notification concerning the late king’s death or his own appointment as Lord Protector. What little he knew of events in London he got from Hastings, who was inciting him to assert his authority as protector. Second, from where he was all he could do was to react as best he could to events being driven by the Woodville agenda, as and when he heard about them. Finally, he neither controlled nor even knew the boy King Edward V. A Plantagenet in name only, Edward was raised as a Woodville by his uncle Rivers on the Welsh border. Gloucester was not a fool; he knew the danger to him if his authority as protector could not be upheld. This was the conspiracy that bedevilled his whole protectorship. What began as a political takeover aimed at marginalising him soon became an all out attempt to destroy him. He realised that for his own safety and to prevent another civil war, he must secure the person of the King. Factors in his favour were: Woodville unpopularity and their apparent over confidence. They believed they were untouchable.
. The mayor and citizens of York had received a (apparently false) message that the king had died on the 6 April 1483. A dirge was held for him on the 8 April 1483. See Robert Davies (editor) – Extracts from the York City Records (Nichol & Son 1843) at page 142. Davies points out that there is no reason to disbelieve the authenticity of the message. It was sufficiently convincing for a dirge to be arranged.
. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (editors): The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986). According to the Chronicle (page 151) the king died “…though he was not affected by old age nor by any known type of disease which would not have seemed easy to cure in a lesser person”. See also R E Collins: ‘the death of Edward IV’, published in ‘Secret History: the truth about Richard III and the Princes’ by the Rev John Denning (Laversham Press 1996) and Annette Carson – Richard III: the maligned king (History Press 2013) at pages 15-28 for discussions about the ingenious, though untested and unproven, theory that king Edward was murdered by the Woodville’s so they could rule England through a compliant boy-king.
. Charles Ross – Richard III (Yale 1999) at page 63
 Paul Murray Kendall Richard the Third (George Allen and Unwin 1955) at page 133.
. See Dominic Mancini – the Usurpation of King Richard III (G J Armstrong trans) (Oxford 1969 edition) note 42 at page 114. Professor Armstrong speculates that the queen and her family were attempting to recreate the regency government of 1475, when king Edward was in France. The Prince of Wales (an infant) was declared Keeper of the Realm and lodged in Elizabeth Woodville’s house.
. Sir James Gairdner – The Life and Reign of king Richard III (Longman 1878) at pages 56 and 57; see also, Professor Michael Hicks – Richard III (The History Press 2009 edition) at pages 159 and 160. I have followed Gairdner and Hicks in dating this decision no later than the 11 April 1483, possibly earlier. We also have Edward V’s letter to the town of Lynn (where his uncle Rivers had connections) dated the 14 April 1483, announcing his decision to come to London for his coronation as soon as practicably convenient. Given the timing and the distances involved, it seems logical for the queen to have written to her son with the news of his fathers death and the proposal for his coronation no later than the 11 April,
. Crowland at page 155
. Mancini at page 73
. I have quoted extensively from Crowland because he makes the point better than I could. It is indeed fortunate for historians that Crowland is recording Richard’s movements at this time. Mancini, who never left London, had no idea what was happening outside the capital unless his sources told him.
. If it is seriously suggested that a force of two thousand soldiers is a modest escort for the king, one wonders how many men the queen and her family had in mind: an army?
. See Mancini at pages 74 and 75; see also Kendall at pages 168 to 171.If the King could be crowned by 4 May 1483, Richard’s protectorship would be shorn of all power and the future for him personally would be very bleak
. E F Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford University 1961) at page 483. Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was appointed Lord Protector to the boy-king Henry VI during his minority. As soon as the king reached a suitable age, Humphrey was discredited and arrested on a trumped-up charge. Three days later he died of a stroke. There is no evidence he was mistreated, much less murdered, but people were suspicious. See also Ross at page 71: he shows a shrewd understanding of Gloucester’s situation, especially in view of the fact that the judicial murder of Clarence at the urging of the queen had occurred only five years prior to Edward’s death. Ross readily acknowledges that Richard’s decision to take control of the king was understandable.