Might Richard have become Archbishop of Canterbury….?


Richard as Archbishop - WordPress

An oft-asked question arose again the other day. Had Richard been originally intended for the Church? He was the youngest son of the 3rd Duke of York, and the Church was the fate of most aristocratic youngest sons. It has been suggested to me that such early training would explain his beautifully precise handwriting. After all, his letters and signature make his peers look uneducated!

Yes, his piety is frequently remarked upon, but then they were all pious in those days. Outwardly, at least. Richard’s piety seems to be have deeper, because the purity of his private life is also remarked upon. He does not seem to have strayed from the marriage bed, which was surely very unusual. He was a young king, and good-looking. His scoliosis wouldn’t been seen because good tailoring would hide it, so none of the awful lies perpetrated by Shakespeare would have applied. He would have been a prime target for female advances. These advances do not seem to have been welcomed. At least, if they were, post-marriage he hid it well! Before marrying Anne, he fathered illegitimate children and acknowledged them all, so he was red-blooded.

Was he a reluctant temporal lord? Was his brilliance on the battlefield, enjoyment of sumptuous fashionable clothes and penchant for lavish festivities a smokescreen? Would he much rather have been Archbishop of Canterbury? That might have depended upon which point in his life it was decided he should not enter the Church after all. When might that have happened? What might have prompted it?

I do not know the finer points of such things, and for all I know the precise proof of it all is known to exist, but if so, I am ignorant of it. So, simply looking on the surface, I would guess a decision to change his destiny was maybe made after Wakefield. The deaths of his father and brother Edmund might have decided the eldest brother, Edward, Earl of March, who would become King Edward IV, that his youngest brother would be better employed as a soldier, “going forth and multiplying” for the benefit of the House of York.

Richard (then eight years old) and his slightly older brother George were children at that time, and exiled safely to their aunt in Burgundy. After the soon-to-be Edward IV’s subsequent victory at Towton, they were brought home. Is that when and why it was agreed that Richard and the Church should no longer be an item? Richard was thus created Duke of Gloucester, and George, for whom the Church was not a consideration, became Duke of Clarence.

So, is it possible that until being sent into exile in Burgundy, Richard had been trained and prepared for the Church? I can remember how, at that same age of eight, I absorbed education like blotting paper. I read books by the score, and everything that was drummed into me at school was taken on board, as modern parlance has it. In the 15th century, when strictness and volume of tuition would have far exceeded that of the 20th century, Richard (being studious by nature) would have been much higher quality blotting paper! For instance, if the Church was involved, he’d have been be well on the way to a thorough knowledge of Latin. It nearly happened to his nephew and did happen to his great-nephew.

I’m sure there are those who will read this and have more informed thoughts and explanations. If so, I hope they will share them.



  1. Josephine Wilkinson’s 2008 biography of Richard makes an interesting point about this. She was writing before he was found: i.e., before the fact of his scoliosis was established. In considering whether he had any physical condition (her speculations covered just about everything BUT scoliosis), she noted: “Had Richard indeed been destined for a church career, it would have been necessary to take into account the interdiction in Leviticus 21.16-23…Any physical deformity…would preclude entry into the church. Such a priest would be forbidden to approach the holy altar for he would profane the holy sanctuary. His very presence would be a blasphemy. Had Richard been deformed or ill, any ecclesiastic ambition would have been thwarted. He would have been ineligible for ordination and forbidden to officiate at services” (pp. 129-130) This seems very cruel to us today (to me, anyway), but it may be one possible explanation for why Richard’s career took a different path, assuming he ever had been intended for the church anyway. The scoliosis seems like it would have been easy to hide from sight, but the church may have decided that God would know and wouldn’t allow it. The Leicester scientists determined that the scoliosis would have begun developing at some point after his 10th birthday, so it’s interesting that just a few years later he was sent off to Warwick’s household for training as a knight. (Side note: In C. J. Sansom’s “Matthew Shardlake” series of historical mystery novels, set during the reign of Henry VIII, the title character had wanted to be a priest but became a lawyer instead because of the above interdiction.)

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  2. I am sure that it is likely that young Richards mother and father will have taken their youngest sons physical deformity and slight build into account and decided that he was destined for the church from a very young age. It is also likely that after Wakefield Richards Patriarchal brother Edward may have seen other qualities in his younger brother that may have changed Richards destiny. The fact that Clarence was an unreliable loose cannon would have been a big factor in revising and influencing Edwards plans for his loyal and comparatively reliable younger sibling.

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    1. “I am sure that it is likely that young Richards mother and father will have taken their youngest sons physical deformity and slight build into account and decided that he was destined for the church from a very young age.”

      From what I have read of scoliosis it does not generally manifest itself until the teenage years. (https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/scoliosis). His father was dead by then. He may have been small compared to his brother Edward but so was nearly everyone else in that day. The figures I have seen give his height at 173 cm ( 5 foot 8 inches) without the scoliosis but shorter than that with it. At or above average height of the time but again not a factor during his childhood.

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