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Richard, Duke of Gloucester: the Man Who Wouldn’t be King

Anti-Ricardians often partly justify their dislike of Richard III on account of his unattractive crown-hunger, claiming that he was always desperate to be king, spent his life plotting to this end and ruthlessly eliminating anyone who stood in his way, and cite as proof the prompt “usurpation” of his nephew Edward V in 1483.

I’ve always found this arrant nonsense. At the time of Richard’s birth in 1452, the throne was squarely occupied by the House of Lancaster; and while many people felt that his father Richard, Duke of York would make a better king than Henry VI, the Yorkist claim was not at this point being actively pursued. Moreover, having three healthy older brothers above him in the pecking order for titles, as a child Richard was but a minor princeling – and when Queen Margaret produced a Lancastrian Prince of Wales in 1453, neither he nor his brothers were remotely serious contenders for the crown.

The situation didn’t change until 1460, when Richard of York’s short-lived stint as heir-apparent raised young Dyckon to fifth in line to the throne. Then he edged a step closer when the Duke’s death at Wakefield was avenged at Towton in 1461 and his eldest brother confirmed as King Edward IV; but thereafter, his loyalty was absolute and his own best interests served by maintaining Edward’s position. I say this not as a ‘bride of St Richard’ who can believe no wrong of him, but because it doesn’t seem to square with the evidence. Think about it: their relationship made Richard of Gloucester the second most powerful magnate in the country, effectively king of the North, able to enjoy all the wealth and prestige without the dangers and burdens of wearing the crown. Edward was Richard’s protector and guarantor, his bulwark against Woodville ambitions; had he lived for another ten or twenty years, (by no means unlikely, given the robust health of their parents), his two sons would have been grown men with their own affinities, no doubt raised by their father to view their uncle as an indispensable political ally, and Richard would not have been king.

Ah, you say, but that didn’t happen – the black-hearted villain pinched his nephew’s crown practically before his brother’s body was cold! So he must have started planning his coup the moment he heard of Edward’s death – mustn’t he? Actually, no. Proceedings at the recent Richard III Foundation Inc. conference make it seem highly unlikely that Richard’s actions in the spring of 1483 were simply designed to lull the Woodvilles into a false sense of security while he laid his plans for usurpation. Susan Troxell, in her discussion of Richard’s heraldic emblem, showed the image of a gold angel naming Edward V as king and bearing a boar’s head mint-mark, dating it to the short period of the Protectorate. Surely issuing coinage is a step too far in terms of subterfuge; surely the implication is rather that Richard did indeed acknowledge his nephew as king, while simultaneously asserting his own intention to be firmly involved with the reign. Subsequently, he might have been satisfied with the role of Protector if he could have felt confident that the young king’s family would accept his pre-eminence. However, considering the dread fates of recent Protectors (Henry VI’s uncle Humphrey, the previous Duke of Gloucester, and his own father Richard), he had good reason to lack this confidence – especially as Professor Peter Hancock has now demonstrated, by an ingenious piece of historical detective work, that William Lord Hastings was not in London on 25th April 1483, but at his castle of Ashby where it seems likely that Richard met him as he travelled down from the north. There he would have received the unwelcome news that the Woodvilles thought they could rule very nicely without him – hence his precipitate actions in arresting Earl Rivers, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughn and securing the person of Edward V at Stoney Stratford on 30th April.

Taking these two pieces of evidence together, I think it’s safe to say that in the immediate aftermath of Edward IV’s death, Richard of Gloucester had no thought of taking the throne for himself; this idea did not develop until the emergence of the pre-contract story and the dawning realisation that, just like his father, he had no choice but to press his own claim to the throne if he wanted to safeguard himself and his family’s future.

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10 thoughts on “Richard, Duke of Gloucester: the Man Who Wouldn’t be King

  1. I think that we need to stop using the somewhat misleading term “pre-contract of marriage.” It just confuses many people and many of the Cairo dwellers prefer to think it just a betrothal. Dr. John Ashdown-Hill has shown that it meant “previous contract of marriage” and was used to describe the first marriage in bigamy cases. Edward IV married Eleanor Talbot Butler and we need to call it that.

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    • It is difficult. As Ashdown-Hill himself explains (Eleanor, p.109 iirc), it only becomes a previous contract when a subsequent one is made, but that is the contemporary term. We shall try to use the phrase “previous marriage”.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Kalina on said:

    I have to be very, very surprised when I read about the “arguments” of anti-Ricardians against legitime anoited King. Souspitions that he eliminated his nephews? What happened with King Richard II? He was murdered by his cousin, future Henry IV. Who is doting upon English historiography. What happened with King Henry VI? He was murdered by his rival and successor Edward IV. Who was and is considered as the very good ruler. Richard Gloucester obviously did not planned as a young man to take crown for himself, he could not do it, it was impossible. But it was possible on April 1483. And what was strange or bad with it? This double measure of historical valuations is the weakest point of anti-ricardian historiography

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    • Kalina on said:

      I forgot about the main: Henry Tudor considered as a political genius and saviour of England was simple foreign “nobody” who invaded the country with foreign troops and murdered legitime King. And it is possible to accept him and refuse Richard III so many years after their death…I cannot understand it.

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  3. Kalina on said:

    I have just returned from London where I visited Tower Castle. When I was there a few years ago I could read the note: here the Princes were prisoned and murder by their uncle Richard III. Their bodies were discovered etc…. To day this absurd note does not existe any more. Something is changed :))))

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  4. David on said:

    So Kalina, your posts appear to be saying “so what if he did eliminate his nephews? What is wrong with this? Other kings have done it and been considered good rulers.” You could add King John to the list and Robert the Bruce in Scotland.

    On the original post, I am not a Ricardian but broadly agree with the article. There is no evidence that before leaving for his meeting with Edward V, Richard was plotting to take the throne.

    However, this admission has a subsequent influence on how we view what happened next. Richard accused the Woodvilles in Edward’s entourage of plotting against him and as everyone knows of the executions. I will repeat a question I posed to another Ricardian writer…

    If Richard was not planning to take the throne, and the Woodvilles were plotting to eliminate him, how did the events at Stony Stratford occur? How could a force that outnumbered Richard’s by ten to one, led by experienced people, that was on ‘home ground’, had the person of the king willingly in its custody be overcome without a battle and surrender its leaders and the king to Richard?

    Clearly, something happened at either on the way or at Stony Stratford to change Richard’s mindset. But the weakness of his military position and the fact that the Woodvilles did not keep Edward away from him, makes the Woodville “plot” extemely dubious.

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    • bloodofcherries on said:

      Actually, the above article – based on the evidence presented at the conference – suggests a very different scenario, ie that it was Hastings who prompted Richard to arrest the Woodvilles at Stony Stratford and that Richard had no intention of taking the throne until a month and a half later. Incidentally, this ties in with other historical evidence.

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    • Kalina on said:

      I will try to answer for your question. In first – the moment of surprise. Anthony Woodville and his accomplices did not expect Richard there and so fast. They tried to lead him into error simulating his friends and sending young Edward to Stony Stratford. The unexpected presence of Henry Buckingham as I think was additionally stressing. I suspect that the next step would be to use this 2000 soldiers and to end the matter finally:)) But Richard was faster. After arrest of plotters this great force was paralysed. It was not the problem of these soldiers. It was the problem of Anthony Woodville and young Grey.

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  5. David on said:

    Thanks for attempting to answer my question. You are absolutely correct, the retinue of Edward V must have been taken by surprise, and it is reported that on the first day of the meeting, the atmosphere was amicable.

    If you look at Earl Rivers’s biography – a military commander and tournament champion – it seems to me improbable IF his family had evil intent towards Richard. Of course, the council initally were of the same opinion and refused to allow the executions.

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  6. Kalina on said:

    I think that we cannot conclude about the intentions of somebody after the reputation of his relatives. There was the hostility between Woodvilles and Richard who concidered that they prevailed in kingdom and accused them for the death of George Clarence. They are after all the rivals in trend toward a power. After the death of Edward IV the situation was: either Richard will eliminate Woodvilles or they will kill him. Arresting Anthony and Dorset Richard defended his life. He feared people of Woodville even in London when he asked his friends from North for military help.

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