Treachery at Bosworth has long been cried, since King Richard was not supported by men he legitimately expected to fight for him. Foremost amongst this shadowy clique was Thomas, Lord Stanley. The reason for Lord Stanley's betrayal of his king is perhaps not hard to fathom; he was step-father to Henry Tudor and so had a right to expect a great deal of power in compensation for his actions, or rather, lack of actions.
Yet there is more to this story. Stretching back over two decades lies a dispute in which Richard, as Duke of Gloucester and then as king, took sides. Perhaps even more than becoming step-father to a king, this matter may have played on Lord Stanley's mind as he watched from the sidelines as the two armies prepared to fight to the death for the Crown of England. No doubt he also enjoyed being courted by both parties.
The dispute in question was between the Stanley family and the Harrington family. Both were gentry families in the north west, with the Stanley's increasing their wealth and influence under Thomas's grandfather, Sir John, and father, Sir Thomas, the first Baron Stanley. By the mid 15th century they owned great swathes of north west England and held many offices of power in the region. During the Wars of the Roses, Lord Stanley developed a reputation for staying out of battles until the result was clear and then joining, usually by sending his younger brother Sir William's forces into the fray, on the winning side, thus reaping the rewards of seeming to decide the battle. He fought variously for Lancaster and York and just as often failed to arrive at battles. Thus the Stanley's position had been won carefully, by ensuring that whether York or Lancaster prevailed, the Stanleys always stood to gain. For these reasons Lord Stanley is often seen as a fickle, conniving, self-serving man. If one were to seek to give him the benefit of the doubt, we may allow that he headed a family on the cusp of real greatness after several generations of hard work. One wrong move at this time could cost the entire family everything that they had. Perhaps he did not feel willing or able to take that risk.
The Harrington family are perhaps the very antithesis of the Stanleys. James Harrington was a friend and supporter of Richard as Lord of the North. His grandfather had carried Henry V's banner at the battle of Agincourt where Richard's great uncle had been slain. The two men were soaked in the chivalric memories of English glory on French soil. Throughout the Wars of the Roses, the Harringtons fought for York and never wavered. Sir James is one of the candidates for having carried Richard's banner at Bosworth, a fitting repeat of Agincourt as the king led a charge of his cavalry across the shuddering field. Certainly, Sir James died at the king's side that day.
The beginnings of the Stanley feud with the Harringtons lie at the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December 1460. Not because they fought on opposing sides; Stanley managed to miss this battle. Richard's father, the Duke of York and brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland were killed when the Yorkist army was destroyed. Also killed was James's father Thomas and James's eldest brother John. Initial reports stated that Thomas died in the fighting and John of his wounds shortly after the battle. This meant that Thomas Harrington's possessions passed on his death to John and on John's death to his heirs. Anne and Elizabeth Harrington were about four and five years old and the law stated that the inheritance would pass to whoever they married.
James Harrington and his brother Robert argued that John had in fact died before Thomas, making James the rightful heir. Lord Stanley immediately set about making the two girls his wards and marrying them to his son and nephew. The jewel in the Harrington family crown was Hornby Castle. A stunning property, it sat above the valley of the River Lune, firmly in Stanley country. Obtaining it would allow them to join territories together and thoroughly dominate the area.
Edward IV, measuring Stanley's might, feared upsetting him and granted him control of the Harrington girls and therefore possession of Hornby. James Harrington, who had been amongst those who captured Henry VI in 1465 and delivered him to Edward, must have felt somewhat betrayed after his loyal service. Anyway, he and his brother refused to surrender their nieces or the castle and dug their heels in behind the mighty walls of Hornby.
When the Earl of Warwick rebelled, Stanley seized the opportunity to try and drive the Harringtons out for good. He brought up a giant cannon named 'Mile Ende' from Bristol with the intention of blasting the troublesome Harringtons out of Hornby. Not a shot was fired however, and it is intriguing to find a warrant issued by Richard on 26th March 1470, signed 'at Hornby'. The seventeen year old Duke had chosen his side, and it was the loyal Harringtons that he backed, perhaps perceiving an injustice they suffered at his brother's hands that their service did not merit, in contrast to Stanley. In Richard, the north found 'good lordship' to check the advance of Stanley power. Lord Stanley found himself blocked by the king's own brother.
In 1483, when Richard became king, evidence suggests that he intended to re-open the issue of ownership of Hornby, no doubt to the joy of the loyal Sir James, but to the dismay and disgust of Lord Stanley, whose son and daughter-in-law now lived at the castle. Add to this the appointments of Richard Ratcliffe, the new king's friend and uncle of Robert Harrington's wife, as king's deputy in the West Marches and Sherriff of Westmorland, Robert's brother-in-law John Pilkington as Steward of Rochdale and Richard III's chamberlain and another Harrington family member, John Huddlestone, as Warden of the West Marches, Sheriff of Cumberland and Steward of Penrith and we see Stanley influence being strangled in the region.
No doubt this restriction of Lord Stanley's expansionism was intentional on Richard's part, but as Thomas Stanley surveyed Bosworth Field, this must have been playing on his mind. Should he maintain upon the throne the man who was seeking to destroy him, or replace him with a step-son full of gratitude with power to dispense accordingly? Richard III had appointed Stanley Steward of his Household and made him a Knight of the Garter, perhaps not entirely able to escape his brother's recognition of Stanley as a necessary evil given the huge force of armed men that he was able to call upon. But was this enough to compensate Stanley for the dismantling of his north western empire, or did he see an opportunity for more? Henry VII made him Earl of Derby, a title his family still hold today. Measured dispassionately, it was a good decision that has made the family in a way Thomas's father and grandfather could only have dreamed of. The Harringtons, for all of their unswerving loyalty, were wiped out, destroyed, along with the House of York they had fought alongside for so long.
In this respect, Lord Stanley's betrayal of his king at Bosworth appears foreseeable and even understandable. Hornby Castle, he must have mused, was finally his. The mighty Richard had stood against him, but Stanley had won in the end.
This line from Shakespeare's King Richard III defines the portrayal of the King that endures in the consciousness of many. Doubtless history is written by the victors but no other King was so vilified by his successors as Richard. The first cause for the desire to discredit him was Henry Tudor's own weak claim to the throne. Tudor went to great lengths not to take the Crown by right of conquest. He could not impugn Edward IV too far as he intended to marry his daughter and had relied heavily on his supporters. Richard, then, was a convenient middle man. Henry could craft an image for himself as uniting the warring Houses, ending the strife, standing as a Lancastrian heir in his own right and of having rescued the country from King Richard. In order for the last impression to stick, the country needed to feel as though it had wanted and needed to be saved from Richard.
Henry VII suffered at the hands of Richard's good reputation. York minuted the King's death in defiant term: 'King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us ... was piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city'. Two months after Bosworth the city still referred to him as 'the most famous prince of blessed memory'. Those who had not died at Bosworth, including Francis Lovell, rose twice over the next two years in an attempt to place the Earl of Warwick on the throne. Henry was plagued by Pretenders claiming to be one of the sons of King Edward IV. Although the nobility came to terms with the new regime, as they must to protect themselves, the north in particular remained attached to the dead King in the country at large. Popular unrest as late as 1491 had Ricardian connections. Henry, then, needed to undo this.
Bishop Morton, an old foe of Richard's, eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury and had little good opinion to offer of the old King. Sir Thomas More early in the next century drew heavily upon Morton's stories for his famous History of King Richard III. In turn, these tales were immortalised by Shakespeare in his depiction of scheming, malevolent evil. Bishop Morton had begun a propaganda war upon Richard's memory with none to defend against it. King Henry had a vested interest in blackening Richard's character yet in at least one fascinating aspect he did not do so.
Richard is accused of a plethora of crimes by Shakespeare, the most famous of which is the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. The detail of this is dealt with in a separate book in this series and the general historical consensus, though far from proven, is that Richard probably did have the sons of Edward IV murdered in 1483. Certainly they disappeared whilst under his care. It is fascinating, then, that as the fledgling Tudor regime sought to paint the old King as the embodiment of evil, they never once accused him of this crime. Henry VII did not accuse him. Elizabeth Woodville never pointed the finger. In fact, Sir James Tyrell who famously did the deed in Shakespeare's tale, never confessed to the murder, though his admission has become legend.
So the new King did not attach this crime to Richard. What of Sir Thomas More? He tells the story of Tyrell's murder of the boys along with a man named John Dighton. The entire tale is, however, couched in rumour with terms such it 'it was rumoured' and 'men said'. More could not bring himself to commit to Richard's guilt. The work that More began was never finished. His nephew completed and published it after Sir Thomas's death. Did More find that there was no evidence for what he wrote? Or even that with but a little searching, the evidence pointed in a different direction?
William Shakespeare definitively and positively identifies King Richard as the murderer of his nephews, among many others. He adds the murder of Henry VI's son who died on a battlefield where Richard was present though he was not attributed with the act by contemporaries. Richard also murders the hapless Henry VI and tricks Edward into executing their brother George, a sentence which Richard appears less than pleased with in reality. Shakespeare also picks up the rumours that Richard poisoned his wife in order to marry his niece and makes them fact. What did Shakespeare have to gain by this? Royal favour certainly, but another interpretation is available.
Shakespeare paints Richard as a hunchback with a withered arm, which would have symbolised the outward manifestation of his inner corruption, and his crimes doom the nation to darkness until Henry Tudor (the current Queen's grandfather) rescues the country from disaster. The play was written early in Shakespeare's career, probably in the early 1590's. At this time the Secretary of State, later to take over his father's mantel as Lord Privy Seal, was a man called Robert Cecil. Robert's father William Cecil had been the closest advisor to Elizabeth I throughout her reign. Robert was groomed to succeed him. The Cecils were growing unpopular and Robert was later to enter secret negotiations to secure James VI of Scotland's accession to the throne as Elizabeth's successor. As she grew older, the Queen refused to name an heir and there must have been concern about what would follow the end of her illustrious reign.
In this context, Richard III's story becomes a moral tale, a warning. Robert Cecil was a hunchback. In 1588 Motley's History of the Netherlands describes Cecil as: 'A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature' and later spoke of the 'massive dissimulation (that) ... was, in aftertimes, to constitute a portion of his own character'. A scheming, dissimulating hunchback? Sound familiar? Suddenly, Shakespeare's play uses the stories of Richard III to warn the Queen of the perils of relying on Cecil's council and of the problems that can beset a country when the succession is not secured. Edward IV did not fully secure his and it resulted in a dynastic change. Was Shakespeare warning Queen Elizabeth that she risked plunging the country into a repeat of the Wars of the Roses? If she was Edward IV, Robert Cecil was Richard III scheming to replace her.
William Shakespeare was also in the entertainment game and his play is a masterpiece in the observation of evil, of fate versus free will and of the depiction of an anti-hero. We shall never know to what extent Shakespeare planned to cast in stone King Richard III's reputation or whether that was a side effect of his more current political observations.