Biographies & Memoirs

Summary and Narrative

A Narrative of Eighty-eight Days

In the early days of April 1483, while still at his northern estates, Richard heard the distressing news that Edward the king had died. Although not completely unexpected, this news was naturally upsetting, especially to one who had been such a loyal supporter throughout his whole life of his idolised elder brother. Arranging for services of remembrance for the dead king, Richard pledged his allegiance to Edward’s son, and had his retainers do likewise. He sent comforting words to Elizabeth Woodville, the grieving widow. She was clearly not absolutely prostrate with grief since before he left the north Richard heard from William, Lord Hastings of various Woodville machinations. Perhaps aware that his brother had made him Protector, he would have certainly been apprised of that fact fairly quickly and the Woodville actions were thus not merely against him personally, but they also showed disrespect for the last wishes of his recently deceased brother and monarch. Such actions showed scant regard for Edward’s memory and it must have been a wary Duke of Gloucester who at last set out from Yorkshire for London.

Efforts had apparently been made to co-ordinate the respective journeys of Richard and his nephew. Not only known by written evidence but the simple geography of the respective routes, Edward’s retinue made an obvious and expressed effort to meet with Richard at a mutually agreeable site, which was evidently Northampton. Possibly Richard saw these arrangements as a litmus test of the intentions of the wider Woodville diaspora? Would Rivers and his companions follow the agreed arrangements to the letter? Would they do as they had promised? Whatever the reason, it appears that Rivers and members of the new king’s party deviated from the agreement. Spurred on by Hastings’ warnings1 and the now express antipathy of the recently met Duke of Buckingham, Richard interpreted the missed meeting at Northampton as evidence of Woodville double-dealing and he moved quickly to secure his situation. He assumed control of the person of the king and had Rivers, Grey and Vaughan sent to various strongholds in the north which he himself controlled. While I suspect that it might have been the desire of the king and those of the Woodville family to stay at the family home in Grafton Regis for the night that created this situation, it is evident that in failing to satisfy Richard about this Rivers had made a tactical mistake. It was one for which he and his colleagues would pay dearly.

With the young king safely in his charge, Richard now proceeded to London. Here, he assumed his rightful position as Protector and de facto leader, his actions negating the idea of a council of equals, which was never his brother’s intent. In this role he put in motion the preparations for his nephew’s coronation. The absurd date of 4 May, which the Woodvilles had argued for, was revised in light of the scale of the actual preparations needed. Despite his move to cement his position at Northampton, Richard was still aware of the efforts of other members of the Woodville clan to undermine his protectorate and overthrow him personally. In light of these dangers, he sent to those of his affiliation in the north for reinforcements. After all, he did not know his nephew very well and instability may well have followed the coronation when the new king would begin to have a much greater say in matters. The coronation, now scheduled for late June, was to have some form of parliament to follow. It was against these contingencies that Richard called for reinforcements. For surely, if Richard could have retained the reins of government for the few short years it would take his nephew to come to maturity, he could stabilise the country against internal conflicts while educating his young nephew in the role of royal leadership. This would give Richard time to emphasise his own role as bulwark of the northern marches and to see Edward V move beyond the status of Woodville puppet into a king in his own right. This strategy was put into place and, up to 13 June, proceeded accordingly.

The Fateful Day

Then, on 13 June, Catesby revealed the pre-contract to Richard, about which Hastings has previously sworn Catesby to silence. However, it was not too late to prevent the coronation and the assumption of the throne by a ‘bastard slip’. Catesby acted at this crucial moment almost completely for reasons of his own. The timing was indeed critical; only a few more days and the course of events would have been unalterably fixed. The revelation left Richard in a terrible quandary. I do not believe Richard would have taken Catesby solely at his word, but Catesby had documentary proof, saved from the time when he knew Eleanor Talbot very well indeed.2 It may have even been during this fateful hour that Richard solicited Stillington either to confirm or deny the validity of this pre-contract. In confirming what Catesby had revealed, Stillington became the living evidence of the pre-contract and subsequently the public face of its validity. Now events moved very quickly. Perhaps Buckingham was summoned and apprised of the situation; perhaps he was already present; but something had now to be done. Richard was livid with Hastings, and a party of armed guards was assembled. Richard must have also wanted to know who else was party to this information, who else had known? Catesby now moved to have some of his rivals removed or neutralised; primarily John Forster was arrested and others were implicated, including individuals Richard knew that he could not trust.

After this fateful hour, the Protector returned to the council chamber. What should happen to those whose actions would cause the death of the Protector? Unaware of his danger, since his act was one of omission, Hastings was the only one to speak up and declare that they who countenanced such an action deserved death. In Richard’s eyes, he condemned himself out of his own mouth. No wonder Richard was so incensed. This was a man he had fought alongside, a man who was his brother’s best friend and ally, a man he trusted to the utmost and now his pejorative silence concerning the pre-contract had put Richard in peril of his very life. Richard’s anger was palpable; so much so that he called for Hastings’ immediate execution – a hasty, and eventually ill-advised, act. The other ‘conspirators’ were rounded up. Despite a blow being aimed at Stanley during the melée and indeed finding its mark, he was not seriously injured and Catesby spoke up for him. Catesby’s reassurance returned Stanley to favour and three weeks and two days later he would attend Richard’s coronation. Ever suspicious of Morton, Richard had him removed and imprisoned, but he was much less harsh with Rotherham than the other cleric suspected of betrayal. As well as Foster and Oliver King, Richard’s anger fell upon Jane Shore, an intimate of the now-dead king, and the now-dead Lord Hastings as well. She was another thought to be cognisant of the pre-contract and its implications and her own silence was deserving of some punishment. However, calm again quickly reasserted itself and her guilt was palliated but not dismissed. Richard was now king by right of succession, but not by acclamation or by general recognition. Somehow, his legitimacy must be established in the mind of the nobility, the public and its most influential members. The coming weekend must have been one of great thought and of strategy as to how to achieve this. Of course, regime change would not be easy.

On Monday 16th, Richard looked to secure the young Duke of York from Westminster Abbey. What was important was the control of all of the critical pieces on the political chess-board, and the young boy in the Abbey was the key element currently beyond Richard’s influence. Having achieved this, his first aim, Richard must now have planned his steps carefully. Revealing the evidence of the pre-contract to the Council was only one step. Many individuals were already very aware of Edward IV’s propensity for the ladies and his pattern of behaviour in seducing women must have been generally known. The testimony of Stillington must have been very influential, but as to exactly how and when this testimony was rendered is still unclear. Perhaps the vacillations over the stating of Richard’s various rights to the crown are evidence of the uncertainty at this time, although by January 1484 the reason was clearly stated. However, it is evident that by late June, Richard and those of his persuasion had begun to convince the greater public of the veracity of his claim. Worried by a minority rule, it was not unlikely that this news was acceptable to many who feared the instability that a child king would create. Others must have been wary of a Woodville-dominated administration and so favoured Richard accordingly. Indeed, Richard was much more of a known quantity. A proven leader in peace and in war with a reputation for fair government, he must have looked a fairly appealing candidate to a neutral observer, especially the good burghers of the capital, ever-mindful of their profits. It was thus unsurprising that the blandishments of Shaa and Buckingham met with somewhat receptive ears and at least tacit if not acclaimed acceptance.

The degree of subsequent acquiescence is reflected in the attendance at Richard’s splendid coronation on 6 July, by which time the whole transition had been accomplished. Richard himself lived by his motto and, with the notable exception of his brother Clarence, he seems to have found it very hard to forgive any form of direct betrayal. Hastings was dispatched because of his implicit betrayal. Rivers, Grey and Vaughan paid a similar price for a similar but more active offence; this when Richard realised that their treachery at Northampton had been against their rightful king and not just the Protector (although they owed their allegiance to Richard as Protector in any case). It is indeed sad then that two years later, in the moments of his critical need at Bosworth, he was in the hands of men like Stanley, for whom the idea of loyalty was ever servant to expediency; word and oath always being sacrificed to benefit and gain. The impression of Richard with which we are left with is a man in whom trust and loyalty were very strong motive forces. That he was undone by men of lesser integrity remains one of the tragedies of history.

A Final Conclusion

When one looks to distill any pattern or causal sequence in history, it is inevitable that one features the actions, motivations and inferred intentions of some individuals while at the same time minimising the role, influence and effect of others, even if only by omission of detail and emphasis.3 In what I have presented here, I have certainly featured a small group of people while not emphasising the role of significant others such as Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Lord Stanley, Bishop Morton, Elizabeth Woodvillle, Edward V and Archbishop Rotherham, all of whom were key players, and whose actions I have recorded but not brought to the fore. Of course, this means that the actual tapestry of events is somewhat distorted, since, for the individuals noted above, their own motivations and concerns were to the fore of their own consciousness and they would have reacted according to these different lights.4 Thus, I ask the reader to see my account as an embedded one and whose primary observations are still immersed in the panoply of life as lived during the tumult of the summer of 1483.

Richard’s brother, and arguably the centre of his loyalty and allegiance, died in early April 1483. Less than three months later, Richard himself wore the crown of England. During that time, a named king had been deposed, four influential lords had been executed and prominent individuals arrested, imprisoned and removed from the centres of power. Yet no battles had been fought and no major uprising had occurred in this spectacular transfer of power. Was Richard thus the ultimate in cunning and heartless ambition? Or, was he a man of his times, reacting to the uncertainties of events which faced him from April to early July? The eventual answer will always belong to history, but I see him in the latter light, a basically loyal and honourable man caught in theRealpolitik of his times. From this vantage point his actions are logical and, for him, reasonable. History should render on him, if not a favourable, at least a fair judgment.

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