The Tragedy of King Richard 111 (not by William Shakespeare)

Part 3 – Woe to that land that’s governed by a child!

“ I can add colours to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?

Tut, were it further off, I’ll pluck it down.”

(william Shakespeare)                                          


“ The reason why we are met is to discuss of the coronation…”

The lords who were summoned to London on the 10 May 1483 attended the first authentic regency council of king Edward V’s reign. Their task was to settle the governance of the realm during the young king’s minority. It was not — as some people think — the semblance of a constitutional body composed of slaves subservient to the will of Richard duke of Gloucester. Quite the contrary: the council was composed mostly of advisors who had served the previous king, Edward IV, including some very strong Woodville supporters such as Thomas Rotherham and Sir John Alcock[1].

Richard of Gloucester was the senior royal duke[2]. It was natural that the English political elite should look to him for leadership and guidance during these giddy times. It was in that capacity that he summoned a council that he believed could achieve his desire for continuity and conciliation.  I think it is fair to say that his desire to implement the dead king’s last will was shared by the whole council.   The Crowland Chronicle is specific: “Richard of Gloucester received that solemn office which had once fallen to Duke Humphrey of Gloucester who, during the minority of king Henry, was called protector of the kingdom. He exercised this authority with the consent and good will of all the lord, commanding and forbidding in everything like another king as occasion demanded.[3] It seems that at the very least, the lords were unanimous in their support for the Lord Protector. Nonetheless, “… a great cause of anxiety, which was growing, was the detention in prison of the king’s relatives and servants…[4]

The Lord Protector was also worried about earl Rivers and his associates. According to Mancini: “…he attempted to bring about the condemnation of those he had put into prison by obtaining a decision of the council convicting them of preparing ambushes and of being guilty of treason itself.   But this he was quite unable to achieve, because there appeared no certain case as regards the ambushes, and even had the crimes been manifest, it would not have been treason, for at the time of the alleged ambushes he was neither regent nor did he hold any other public office.”[5]

Given the well-documented shortcomings of Mancini’s narrative, it might be unwise to pay too much attention to his views on this particular episode. However, if his comments and those of the Crowland Chronicler are taken together we can accept the probability that the arrest of Rivers et al was discussed in council. Moreover, Mancini’s version of events is not inherently fanciful. Although he may be incorrect in some of the details, the general scenario he describes is plausible. There is no reason either jurisdictional, constitutional, legal, political or organizational why this council could or should not have discussed the arrest and detention of Rivers and his associates[6]. If Gloucester did seek the ‘condemnation and conviction’ of the conspirators it would have been uncharacteristic of him. Such an attempt to convict the prisoners unheard would have been a remarkable departure from his scrupulously correct behaviour so far. I don’t believe it. I think that either Mancini has misunderstood what happened, or he was misinformed[7].

My hypothesis is that Gloucester submitted his actions for the council’s consideration because he and they were anxious about what to do next. Gloucester was probably quite clear that he thought the conspirators should be indicted for treason and he may have been considering bringing proceedings. However, the council took the view that Rivers and Co had not committed treason in law since Gloucester was not Lord Protector at the time.   The council did not direct Gloucester to release the conspirators. Perhaps they thought there was a case to answer in respect of the allegation of planning an ambush. I don’t see their decision as a snub for Gloucester; it was a sensible and correct conclusion to the discussion. Gloucester certainly seems to have accepted it in good grace. In ant event this whole discussion confirms that the council was not subservient to the Lord Protector.

“Your highness shall repose you in the Tower”

There were, of course, other matters to discuss. The king’s accommodation in the bishop’s palace at St Paul’s was considered insufficient for his needs and it was proposed he move him to more spacious accommodation. The council considered the Hospital at St John and at Westminster; however, it was the duke Buckingham’s suggestion of the royal apartments at the Tower of London that was taken-up. The Tower of London was the obvious choice since it was a royal residence and far more suitable for the monarch than the either the Hospital of St John or Westminster. It was only during Tudor times that it earned its ‘Bloody Tower’ appellation.

“In God’s name speak. When is the royal day?”

The council also fixed the date for the king’s coronation. The Crowland Chronicle tells us that “…the Feast of the Nativity of St John [24 June] having been decided upon as the decisive day, without fail, everybody hoped for and awaited peace and prosperity in the kingdom.” There is some debate as to whether this is the correct date.   It seems from the writs issued summoning those who were to be knighted, that the actual date must have been the 22 June 1483. This is confirmed by the personal writs sent out on the 5 June, which refer to the coronation on the 22 June.   It was a watershed moment for Gloucester.


“My Lord Protector needs will have it so”

In the reign of Henry VI, the Lord Protector (Humphrey duke of Gloucester) resigned his protectorship immediately after the young king was crowned in November 1429. Thereafter a regency council governed the realm until the king ‘came of age’. If that precedent were followed, Gloucester’s protectorship must end within a few weeks. It was a prospect that neither the Lord Protector nor the regency council viewed with equanimity. It revived the prospect of the Woodville’s ruling through a compliant boy-king. If that happened, there was a serious risk of civil war. It was in response to this threat that after the council meeting, proposals were bought forward to extend Gloucester’s protectorship until Edward V was of an age to assume the mantle of personal rule. It was also proposed to appoint Gloucester as a ‘regent’, being tutor to the king and protector of the realm.

This was a significant increase in the protector’s power and precisely the type of regency that the Kings Council had repudiated in 1422. There are two ways to construe this development: one negative, the other positive. Professor Kendal espouses the positive view that the council — like everybody else — was fearful of the consequences of a Woodville take-over. Hence, they were unanimous in their support for the extension of the protectorship. It would, of course, have to be put before the Three Estates sitting in Parliament; however, they were just as keen for peace and stability, and were not expected to disagree. In Kendall’s scenario, Gloucester was acting in the national interest to take on this supreme protectorship. Professor Ross adopts the negative view. In his opinion, it was all part of Gloucester’s plan to hold on to power. The council was willing to support him only so long as he acted honourably. However, by the end of the May it was clear to contemporaries that Gloucester aimed for the throne[8].

There is undoubtedly an element of ambiguity about the reasons for this proposal. The threat to the lives of Gloucester and his supporters from a resurgent Woodville affinity was obvious, as was their (Woodville) unpopularity.   But more significantly, there was the overriding fear that the reign of a Woodville dominated child-king might herald a return to the breakdown of law and order that characterized the later part of Henry VI’s reign and was the catalyst for the Wars of the Roses. I believe there is some merit in Ross’ point that the council’s and parliament’s support for Gloucester was conditional on him behaving honourably and, in fact, that is precisely what I believe he did. Ross’ general accusation that Gloucester was deceitful and had a dissembling nature is not borne out by the evidence; especially, his spotless record of service to the late king, but also his efforts to crown king Edward V.  In the absence of evidence of wrongdoing he is entitled to be judged on his good character[9].

[1]. Paul Murray Kendall – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin, 1955) at page 183; see also note 2, page 466

[2]. Annette Carson – Richard III: the maligned king (The History Press 2013 edition) at page 74; Carson’s argument that Gloucester was the ‘senior royal male’ and “entitled to consider himself in loco protectoris from the moment of Edward IV’s death” is doubtful on two points. First, he was not the senior royal male: the king was. Second, as Gloucester’s father discovered in 1454 and again in 1455, no matter how incapable the king was, nobody else could exercise royal authority. And in the period immediately following the king’s death, Gloucester had no constitutional or legal authority as protector (see note 6 below).

[3]. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox – The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (R3 and Yorkist History Trust, 1986) at page 157

[4]. Crowland at page 159

[5]. Dominic Mancini – The Usurpation of King Richard III (AJ Armstrong editor) (Oxford, 1969 edition) at page 83.

[6]. Charles Ross- Edward IV [BCA 1975] at page 402; I do not think that Mancini misunderstood the nature of this meeting (Carson page 74). Even if it was a meeting of the King’s Council, Gloucester was entitled to raise the question of Rivers criminality with them. I accept the point that in its judicial capacity, the Kings Council was not a major law enforcement agency. However, it is clear that “ It retained a residual authority derived from the king himself to do justice where other means were lacking, especially where persons of great might were involved”. I would suggest that the possible impeachment of the king’s uncle and governor was a fit issue for the King’s Council. However, if this was not strictly the Kings Council but the ‘ Regency Council’ as I suggest it was, Carson’s objection doesn’t arise.

[7]. See Carson at pages 71-75 for a different opinion of what occurred at the council meeting. Carson is skeptical about the reliability of Mancini narrative. She suggests that it is ‘unlikely and uncharacteristic’ and contains significant errors. First, he is wrong to say that Gloucester held no public office at the time of the arrests and second, he misunderstood the English governmental and justice systems (see note 6). Moreover, his account is unique; nobody else mentions this discussion. My interpretation of Mancini differs from Carson. I think there may be some merit in his account of the council meeting, though not much. He is correct to state that Gloucester was not the Lord Protector at the time of the arrests. Following the 1422 constitutional settlement, Edward IV could not appoint his brother as Lord Protector; he could only recommend that he be so appointed. At the time of these arrests, therefore, Gloucester had no constitutional authority as Lord Protector. It is also unclear whether he had any other legal power to arrest Rivers and his company. His position as Lord High Constable of England was not hereditary; it, was in he king’s gift, as were his other offices. It is at least arguable that his tenure expired with the death of the king. Obviously, the new king or the regency council could renew the appointment but there is no suggestion that that happened here. Furthermore, Mancini is not giving his personal opinion that Gloucester held no public office; he was simply stating what he was told.   If what he was told is correct (and it is not implausible) then it strongly suggests that the Gloucester’s vires to arrest Rivers et al in any official capacity was discussed in council, and his authority was found wanting. It is noteworthy that Gloucester accepted the council’s decision gracefully.

[8]. See Kendall at page 419. The assertion by historians’ hostile to king Richard is that the Tudor writers did not invent their view of him; they simply reflected peoples’ opinion of him during his life. This is a cornerstone of the Tudor traditionalists’ case against king Richard. However, that assertion is not strictly correct. Only Mancini of those in England who were ill disposed towards king Richard wrote of these suspicions during his lifetime. Everybody else wrote about their suspicions after the king was dead and at a time when Henry VII was actively promoting Richard III’s black legend so as to enhance the brilliance of his own white legend (and tampering with the evidence). Kendall’s opinion is worth noting, “ in the court of king Henry VII…there existed amongst men who had conspired against king Richard III and brought his overthrow a body of opinion, continually enlarged by tales and conjecture concerning the past, which they had conquered. It was out of this amorphous mass of fact, reminiscence, hearsay growing ever more colourful and detailed with the passing years, that the authors of Henry VIII’s day fashioned the (Tudor) tradition”.

[9]. Mancini at pages 63-65 provides a remarkable description of the contemporary opinion of Gloucester’s character prior to king Edward IV’s death, which is often overlooked by traditional historians: “He kept himself within his own lands and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favours and justice. The good reputation of his private life and public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers. Such was his renown in warfare, that whenever a difficult or dangerous policy had to be undertaken it would be entrusted to his discretion and his generalship. By these arts Richard acquired the favour of the people, and avoided the jealousy of the queen, from whom he lived far separated.”


  1. Thank you, zenonian, a really clear, sensible and wise assessment of events immediately after the death of Edward IV. Richard behaved impeccably in everything, but was ultimately brought down by the shenanigans of the brother and king he had always served so loyally. What was Richard supposed to do? Pretend he had never heard of Eleanor Talbot? Pretend that it was OK to crown an illegitimate nephew as the new king? On every front, Richard had to do what he did, and his honesty cost him his life.


    1. I agree. Richard was on the back foot throughout the protectorship and his reign. All he could do was react to events as they occurred. For most of the time his responses were correct, measured and thoughtful, but he did lose his cool twice. The treasons of Hastings and Buckingham provoked brutal responses. I am going to deal with some aspects of the pre-contract in my next post, but would say that I think the story, when he heard it, came as a bolt from the blue. Of course, he could have ignored it or ‘brushed it under the carpet’ etc; but that would just be storing up trouble for the future: for himself and for the country. E5 was a sexual predator, particularly of other mens’ wives and I doubt he even realised there was a problem with his ‘marriage to Eleanor Butler. He was just using his prestige as king to get into bed with her: that was his MO, which never failed. Its just a pity that he seems to have had his brains between his legs.


  2. Even if Richard had suppressed Stillington’s revelation he could never have been certain of it not resurfacing again and someone (I’m looking at you, Margaret Beaufort) using it as a pretext for attacking any government led by one of the boys, so deep-sixing the information wasn’t really an option if he was serious about bringing about a definitive end to civil war. And the Woodvilles couldn’t have done better if they had actually intended to goad Richard into doing what he did, which was everything necessary to deal with the mess his brother left him with. I should suppose Richard would have found it very hard to realize just how irresponsible Edward had been.


    1. I have often wondered what R’s opinion of his brother was after he heard about the pre contract. I suspect he realised that his boyhood hero had feet of clay by about 1475, which is why he kept himself to himself in the north, doing the kings business. He did his best to serve the dead king, but frankly his task was impossible after May 1483.


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