Post-classical history



The Suicide – Richard III

The story is not a long one, for the shadows begin from the moment of his accession to deepen round the last king of the great house of Anjou

William Stubbs1

A long-term plan?

According to Sir Thomas More, on the night Edward IV died a member of the royal household, William Mistlebrook, ran to the house of a City attorney called Richard Pottyer, who lived in Redcross Street without Cripplegate. Rapping urgently on the door, as soon as he was let in, he gave Pottyer the news of Edward’s death. ‘By my troth, man’, said the attorney, ‘Then will my master the duke of Gloucester be king!’2

More adds that some thought Gloucester had designs on the throne even when his brother was alive, ‘whose life he looked that evil diet should shorten’, but admits he cannot be sure about this. The Mistlebrook–Pottyer story is plausible, however. Sir Thomas says he heard it from his father, who at the time was living near Redcross Street, while both William Mistlebrook and Richard Pottyer have been identified by historians. Mancini commented in 1483 that there were people aware of Richard’s ‘ambition and deceitfulness, who never had any doubt where his scheming would lead’.3 It led to the dynasty’s suicide.

Until a hundred years ago everybody (apart from cranks like Horace Walpole) believed that Richard had murdered the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Stubbs spoke for almost all Victorians when he wrote, ‘Brave, cunning, resolute, bound by no ties of love or gratitude, amenable to no instincts of mercy or kindness, Richard III yet owes the general condemnation, with which his life and reign have been visited, to the fact that he left none behind him whose duty or whose care it was to attempt his vindication.’4 However, since the emergence in 1924 of the Fellowship of the White Boar (now the Richard III Society) he has found partisans who see him as another King Arthur. (One product of their point of view was Josephine Tey’s enjoyable if misleading novel The Daughter of Time.)

In 2012 Richard’s skeleton was found at Leicester, in a Franciscan friary demolished at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Its spine is curved by scoliosis, which made one shoulder higher than the other. Far from being Tudor propaganda, as defenders have claimed, his nickname ‘Crookback’ was justified.


Richard was born on 2 October 1453 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, the Duke of York’s seventh and youngest son. Stories of his coming into the world with hair and teeth are plainly hostile propaganda, while his scoliosis probably only developed during boyhood. After his father’s death in 1460 he was sent to Flanders for safety with his brother George, returning after Edward IV’s victory at Towton to be made Duke of Gloucester. He spent 1465–8 in the Earl of Warwick’s household at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale – which no doubt was how he acquired his attachment to the north country.

Unlike Clarence, Richard did not intrigue with Warwick, going into exile in Flanders with Edward and fighting for him at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Tudor chroniclers allege that he had a hand in killing the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, but there is no evidence for this (even if Stubbs thought it was true). We know from a Yorkist source, however, that he commanded the vanguard at Tewkesbury, where he presided over the drum-head court martials that condemned the captured Lancastrian commanders. He also hunted down the Bastard of Fauconberg. Some chroniclers heard he was in the Tower when Henry VI died, and a strong element of suspicion remains about his complicity.5

Richard’s appointments as Great Chamberlain and Lord High Admiral of England on 18 May 1471 was clearly a sign of Edward’s trust. In addition, he was given the Earl of Oxford’s estates with all Warwick’s lands north of Trent. Having prised Warwick’s daughter, Anne (the widowed Lancastrian Princess of Wales) out of the Duke of Clarence’s keeping, he first placed her in sanctuary at St Martin’s, then married her at Westminster Abbey in spring 1472 after the necessary dispensation from the Church – they were first cousins. He also obtained control of her mother, Warwick’s widowed countess, who was confined at Middleham for the rest of her life so that he could keep her dowry.

Clarence refused to hand over anything and the two young dukes argued their cases before the king at Sheen in February 1472, astonishing lawyers by their grasp of legal argument. Eventually an act of parliament divided the Warwick inheritance between them, Gloucester receiving the lion’s share. During the contest, ‘Clarence proved the more petulant and unaccommodating of the two’, writes Charles Ross (1981) – still Richard’s best biographer – ‘but both brothers showed a greed and ruthlessness and disregard for the rights of those who could not protect themselves which shed an unpleasant light on their characters’.6

At Christmas 1472 Richard sent sixteen men to Bromley Priory at Stratford-le-Bow, and they abducted the Dowager Countess of Oxford – confined there by King Edward as the mother of a leading Lancastrian. The old lady was dragged through the snow to Stepney where the duke was waiting in a house owned by a member of his household. He told her she must give him her estates or be taken to Yorkshire and imprisoned in one of his castles. Lady Oxford, ‘considering her great age, the great journey and the great cold which was then, of frost and snow, thought that she could not endure to be conveyed thither without great jeopardy of her life and [was] also sore fearing how she should be there entreated’. Terrified, she was brought to another house in Walbrook where she signed the deeds. ‘I thank God’, she cried, ‘I have those lands which shall now save my life.’ Her trustees were then bullied into accepting the transfer.7 The tale hints at a certain lack of chivalry in a young man of twenty.

Richard accompanied Edward IV to France in 1475, bringing the largest armed retinue of any English nobleman. Eager to fight, he stayed away from the meeting at Picquigny between his brother and King Louis, refusing Louis’s bribes. However, after seeing other magnates pocket them, he changed his mind and accepted rich presents.

Some observers thought he was behind his brother George’s destruction in 1478. Even if they were wrong, he certainly profited from it. Three days before Clarence was killed, Richard’s small son was created Earl of Salisbury, one of his uncle’s former titles, while three days later Richard became Great Chamberlain again, an office that had been taken from him in 1472 and given to Clarence.

Richard in the North

After 1478 Gloucester was seldom at his brother’s court, but in the North. Middleham and Sheriff Hutton were his favourite houses, but he owned many others, used on frequent progresses to York, Carlisle and Durham. Effectively a viceroy, he governed England down to the River Trent, anticipating the Council of the North.

Scottish privateers, operating from Leith, were a menace to English shipping. (It was not just a matter of losing cargoes; captured crew were thrown overboard.) However, fitting out ships and using Scarborough as a naval base, Richard swept the sea-lanes free of them. He must have sailed on board his patrols, since the Croyland writer mentions his ‘skill in naval warfare’.8 In 1474 one of his vessels captured a Scottish ship called the Yellow Carvel owned by the King of Scots and an embassy had to be sent to apologize. With a harbour guarded by an impregnable castle, the little port of Scarborough was ideal for his purpose, and later he created it a county in its own right.

Richard became a hero in the north country, acquiring a big following among the gentry and in the cities. ‘The popularity which he had won before his accession, in Yorkshire, where there was no love for the house of York before, proves he was not without the gifts which gained for Edward IV the lifelong support of the nation’, Stubbs admits.9 Much was thanks to his precautions against Scottish raiders, not only as warden of the Western Marches but along the entire border.

His standing was enhanced when war broke out between England and Scotland. Scottish raids over the border had revived while James III was dangerously pro-French, and in May 1480 Gloucester was made Lieutenant General with power to raise troops throughout the North. This did not deter the Earl of Angus from sacking Bamburgh, and in retaliation the duke and the Earl of Northumberland led a raid into Scotland. In November King Edward ordered preparations for a full-scale invasion, which he intended to lead in person but called off because of ill health. Even so, during the winter of 1481–2 English ships harried the Scottish coast while English troops besieged Berwick. In June 1482 Richard burned Dumfries and other towns in Galloway.

The invasion plan was revived, this time with Gloucester as commander. The aim was to replace James III with his brother Alexander, Duke of Albany, who promised to surrender Berwick and other border lands, besides repudiating any alliance with France. In return, the English would establish him at Edinburgh. Gloucester led 20,000 men across the border, informing King Edward of his progress by a species of pony express. On 24 July he routed a Scots force at the Battle of Hutton Field. No details survive, but it must have been a very minor engagement – the Scots could not find enough troops to oppose so large an army because James III was squabbling with his barons. Berwick surrendered as soon as Richard appeared, and he occupied Edinburgh. Unexpectedly, Albany abandoned any claim to the throne of Scotland in return for recovering his duchy. A truce was negotiated, but all Richard could extract was Berwick with a vague promise that the King of Scots’ son should marry Edward’s daughter Cecily. After only three weeks of expensive promenade militaire, he evacuated Edinburgh and disbanded his army. Yet the campaign put the seal on Richard’s popularity in the North. Besides occupying the capital of the hated Scots, he had knighted forty-nine northerners at Hutton Field, many of whom later served him loyally.

As a reward for regaining Berwick, when parliament met in January 1483, Edward created a palatinate for his brother, consisting of Westmorland and Cumberland, an independent principality in which the king’s writ would not run. He also made him hereditary warden of the Western Marches. Edward felt that a further war with Scotland was looming, and lacked the energy to fight it in person.

The man

Dark haired, with a thin, tight-lipped face and a sharp, watchful expression, in the best portrait (an early sixteenth-century copy) one has the impression of a highly strung, wiry little creature without an ounce of spare flesh. Because of the scoliosis that twisted his spine, he stood a foot less than his five feet eight inches, but made up for it by dressing splendidly, often in cloth of gold. Constantly looking round, fidgeting with a ring or the dagger at his belt, he chewed his lower lip when thinking. It is likely that he spoke with a strong Yorkshire accent and a dry rasping cough (due to roundworm). He was oddly pale, from the pain induced by his scoliosis. Yet clearly he was impressive. In 1484 a Scots ambassador told him, ‘nature never enclosed in a smaller frame such remarkable powers’.10

More tells us that he could be ‘merry’ and ‘companionable’, and his court was full of music and dancing, banqueting and feasting. He had a flamboyant streak, evident in the white boar that he chose as a personal emblem, worn by members of his household on doublets and bonnets or as a neck-badge. His motto was ‘Loyauté me lie’ (loyalty binds me) – an ironic choice in the light of future events.

He knew how to make people like and even love him. He acquired a number of committed henchmen, the best known being Sir Richard Ratcliffe, William Catesby and his childhood friend Francis, Viscount Lovell, whom he made his Lord Chamberlain. (Lovell was devoted to him in the same way Hastings had been to Edward IV, taking a dog for his crest in token of fidelity.) Yet he was a poor judge of character. The Duke of Buckingham, Lord Stanley and the Earl of Northumberland all had reason to be grateful to him – and all betrayed him.

We know nothing of Richard’s relations with his wife, except that in the end he saw her as an encumbrance. He was an indulgent father to their sickly only son Edward of Middleham, providing him with a chariot so he could follow the hunt. He also ensured that his two bastards (born before his marriage) were well provided for: Katherine became Countess of Huntingdon while John of Gloucester was made Captain of Calais. There are hints of womanizing after he became king.

Richard preferred falconry to hunting, while he took particular pleasure in bear-baiting (during which mastiffs savaged the animal to death) and appointed a royal ‘bear-herd’ in 1484. He also had a special bear-pit built at Warwick Castle11. Among his books were the Chronicle of John of Brompton, Aegidius on statecraft, Of the Rule of Princes by Giles of Bologna and William of Worcester’s Norman documents. He commissioned only one illuminated manuscript, a translation of Vegetius on war. Lighter reading consisted of a volume of tales (including two by Chaucer.) He owned a Lollard bible, indicating an inability to read Latin or French in which the scriptures were freely available. A love of heraldry is revealed by his founding the College of Arms. Fond of music, he employed minstrels and choirs. He enjoyed building, notably a great hall at Middleham Castle and a new chapel at Sheriff Hutton, while during his reign he added towers and a range of lodgings to Warwick Castle, as well as palatial apartments to Nottingham Castle, which became a frequent residence.

He converted Middleham parish church into a college of priests, who daily said Mass for him, his wife and his dead kindred. When he became king, he planned to add a huge chantry chapel to York Minster, with six altars served by a hundred priests, which in size would have rivalled the great chapel that Henry Tudor later built on to Westminster Abbey. Clearly, he intended it to be his burial place.

Constantly on pilgrimage and visiting shrines, Richard developed a cult for St Julian the Hospitaller, a parricide who killed his father and mother but was pardoned by God. (A prayer to Julian by ‘thy servant King Richard’ in his Book of Hours has a paranoiac quality.) He was prone to moralize, denouncing enemies as fornicators and adulterers – giving substance to More’s gibe that he posed ‘as a goodly continent prince, clean and continent of himself, sent out of heaven into this vicious world for the amendment of men’s manners’.12

The coups d’état of 1483

Whatever Gloucester’s plans may have been, Edward IV’s death took him by surprise and he found himself threatened by the Wydevilles, who formed a majority on the council. They denied his right to be more than a titular Protector, insisting the council as a whole must rule. But the Wydevilles had enemies, the most prominent being Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, with whom Richard immediately forged an alliance. Another ally was Edward IV’s treasurer, Lord Howard – later rewarded with the duchy of Norfolk.

He then mounted two coups d’état in quick succession. The young king’s governor, Earl Rivers, who was the queen’s brother and the Wydevilles’ leader, had gone to Ludlow to bring him to London for his coronation on 4 May. Richard and Buckingham met the earl in the most amiable way at Stony Stratford on 29 April, spending the evening carousing together. Next morning, however, despite Edward’s tearful protests, their men seized Rivers and his key lieutenants, eventually executing them without trial. The Wydevilles were unpopular, so the Londoners cheered Gloucester when he rode in with the king. Lord Hastings, an old enemy of the Wydevilles, was overjoyed. Terrified, Queen Elizabeth fled to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, taking her younger son, the Duke of York. As Lord Protector, Richard chose a new date for his nephew’s coronation, amid general approval. This was his first coup.

The second coup followed after he had persuaded the queen to give him custody of York, who was sent to join his brother at the Tower of London – still a palace as well as a fortress. Having discreetly summoned troops from the North, at a council meeting on 20 June he suddenly called armed guards into the room and arrested the unsuspecting Lord Hastings, whom he accused of plotting with the Wydevilles and then had beheaded in the yard outside.

Now that Hastings, the one man who might have stopped Richard, had been eliminated, a friar announced at St Paul’s that the young king and his brother were bastards because of a marriage contract between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler which predated the Wydeville marriage – he even alleged that the late king had himself been a bastard. Buckingham then made a speech at Guildhall, asking everyone to petition the Protector to take the throne, an invitation repeated by a delegation of peers and gentlemen. On 26 June Richard graciously accepted.

‘Richard III’

On 6 July, Richard III and Anne Neville were crowned at Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Bourchier of Canterbury, and every effort was made to make the occasion joyful, with pageants in the London streets. At the end of July, the new king went on progress, visiting the West Country, the Midlands and the North. He spent over a fortnight at York, whose citizens vied in producing displays and tableaux, the corporation giving sumptuous banquets for the royal party. On 8 September the ten-year-old Edward of Middleham was invested in the minster as Prince of Wales, with splendour worthy of a coronation.

‘He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince’, wrote Dr Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s, who accompanied Richard. ‘For many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands now in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money give to him, which all he hath refused. On my troth, I never liked the condition of any prince so well as his. God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.’ Breaking into Latin, the bishop marred this paean a little by adding, ‘I do not take exception to the fact that his sensuality [voluptas] seems to be increasing.’13

Meanwhile the boy now known as ‘Edward Bastard, late called King Edward V’ and his brother were taken into the inner rooms of the Tower itself, and seen less and less until they disappeared altogether. They may have been murdered after an attempt to release them in July. The London chronicles suggest they were dead before the end of the year, while across the Channel Louis XI, who died on 30 August 1483, believed that Richard had killed the boys. During an address to the Estates General in January 1484 the chancellor of France referred to the English king having done away with his nephews.

Sir Thomas More has been accused of writing his biography of Richard as Tudor propaganda. Yet Mancini, in London at the time, bears out More. ‘The importance of Mancini’s narrative lies in the fact that he provides direct contemporary evidence that Richard’s ruthless progress to the throne aroused widespread mistrust and dislike, to the extent that at least some of his subjects were willing to believe, within a fortnight of his accession, that Richard had disposed of his nephews by violence.’14


Richard was still in the North when he learned on 11 October that a rebellion had broken out, led by Buckingham. Writing to his chancellor, he described the duke as ‘the most untrue creature living: whom with God’s grace we shall not be long till that we be in those parts and subdue his malice. We assure you there was never traitor better purveyed for’.15

The plot’s originators were the former queen and Lady Margaret Beaufort, Lord Stanley’s wife, who used Dr John Morton to turn ‘Harry Buckingham’ against the king. Aghast at Richard’s unpopularity, the duke did not wish to share his downfall. Mainly former members of Edward IV’s household, but including the Wydevilles and their friends, most of those involved were leading gentry from all over the southern counties, who at first hoped to restore Edward V. The Yorkist establishment had ‘imploded’.16 Suspecting that Edward and his brother were dead, they now planned to replace Richard with Henry Tudor, the son of Margaret Beaufort who was the last heir of the left-handed line of Lancaster. To strengthen his claim, Henry must marry Elizabeth of York, the young king’s eldest sister and heiress.

The weather was on Richard’s side. Heavy rain prevented Buckingham from joining the rebels in the southern counties, his Welsh retainers deserted him and the rising collapsed almost as soon as it began, while the duke was quickly caught and beheaded. Henry Tudor, who arrived too late, sailed back to Brittany without setting foot on English soil. Many of those involved fled the country.

However, Buckingham’s revolt turned the unknown Tudor into a serious pretender, who was soon joined in exile by a substantial number of rebels. At the same time, Richard’s narrow political power base became even narrower, restricted to three magnates – the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Stanley. Placed under house arrest, Margaret Beaufort set about turning her husband Stanley against him.

When parliament met at Westminster in January 1484, the Lord Chancellor, Bishop Russell, claimed the rebellion violated the laws of God, and a hundred men who had taken part were attainted. Another bill confirmed Richard’s right to the Crown. There were legal and economic measures, one particularly appreciated being to abolish benevolences – the arbitrary ‘gifts’ from wealthy men introduced by Edward IV. Richard was presenting himself to his subjects as a good lawmaker who looked after the common people.

On 9 April his only son Edward died unexpectedly at Middleham after a short illness. ‘On hearing the news at Nottingham where they were staying, you could have seen his father and mother in a state bordering on madness, from shock and grief’, says the Croyland author.17 The king’s loss looked like divine judgement, while the lack of an obvious successor increased his insecurity. He thought of making Clarence’s son Warwick heir presumptive, but this meant reversing Clarence’s attainder, which would give the boy a better claim to the throne than his own. Instead, he chose his sister Elizabeth’s son, John de la Pole.

A Wiltshire gentleman called William Colyngbourne wrote secretly to Henry, inviting him to invade, and then posted a famous couplet on the door of St Paul’s in July 1484:

The Cat, the Rat and Lovell our Dog

Ruleth all England under a Hog.

The Cat was Catesby and the Rat Ratcliffe – Richard’s principal henchmen – while the Dog alluded to his chamberlain’s crest and the Hog to his Boar emblem. The king grew paranoiac. ‘When he went abroad, his eyes whirled about; his body privily fenced [secretly armoured], his hand ever on his dagger, his countenance and manner like one always ready to strike again’, is what More was told. ‘He took ill rest a nights, lay long waking and musing, rather slumbered than slept, troubled with fearful dreams.’18

Richard worked feverishly to persuade Duke Francis of Brittany to hand over Henry Tudor, to whom fellow exiles had sworn allegiance as king in Rennes Cathedral at Christmas 1483. Henry had also taken an oath to marry Elizabeth of York. Francis’s chief minister, Pierre Landois, agreed to send him to England, but – probably alerted by Lord Stanley – Dr Morton heard of it and warned Henry, who in September 1484 fled to France.

Early in November 1484, the Earl of Oxford was freed by his gaoler at Hammes (a fortress guarding Calais), the pair going off to join Henry in France, followed by members of the Calais garrison. At the same time Sir William Brandon and his sons started a rising at Colchester, escaping to join Henry by boat when it failed. There was trouble in Hertfordshire, part of the same plot.19 France recognized Tudor as Henry VI’s heir, promising 4,000 troops.

Nevertheless, the Twelve Days of Christmas 1484–5 were celebrated at court with dancing and gaiety, according to the Croyland writer. He says that Queen Anne and Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest daughter, wore each other’s clothes, as the two ‘were of similar colour and form’.20 This is the only clue to Anne’s appearance: she must have been a considerable beauty if she resembled her cousin Elizabeth, who had fine features and an English rose complexion. Richard was presiding over the Twelfth Night revels, wearing his crown, when spies informed him that Henry Tudor would invade England the next summer.

He paid such attention to Elizabeth that it was clear he meant to marry her. Conveniently, Queen Anne died of tuberculosis on 16 March (during an eclipse of the sun) and his far from unwilling niece could give him an heir, removing a key part of Henry’s strategy. Her mother encouraged the match, while canon lawyers assured him they could obtain a dispensation for an uncle–niece marriage. However, Ratcliffe and Catesby told him ‘to his face’ that if he did not publicly deny the plan even the northerners would accuse him of murdering the queen to indulge his incestuous lust.21On 30 March 1485 the Mayor and Corporation of London were summoned to the Priory of the Knights of St John at Clerkenwell with many others, to hear the king tell them, ‘It never came in his thought or mind to marry in such manner-wise [his niece], nor willing or glad of the death of his queen, but as sorry and in heart as heavy as man might be.’ He complained of rumours, presumably of his having poisoned Anne.22 The speech gives us an idea of what the Londoners thought of him. Henry sent letters to England, asking supporters to join in ‘the just depriving of that homicide and unnatural tyrant that now unjustly bears dominion over you’.23 Increasingly alarmed, Richard spent the spring and most of the summer waiting for an invasion after learning that Tudor would be supplied with funds by the French, who feared the king might intervene in Brittany and try to reconquer Normandy. Yet by midsummer it looked as if Richard was safe. Pierre Landois was ousted by pro-French Bretons and hanged from the ramparts of Nantes. Now there was no longer a threat that Richard might intervene in the duchy, France lost interest in Henry, withdrawing their offer to help.

In desperation, Henry borrowed money from a French courtier to hire 1,000 men and seven small ships – a much less formidable force than the 4,000 troops originally promised by Charles VIII’s government. The king’s spies believed he would make for Milford, a tiny harbour in Hampshire, and Lovell assembled a fleet at Southampton to intercept him. In June Richard went to Nottingham Castle, at the centre of England, so he could confront his enemy as soon as he landed. In a proclamation, he denounced the followers of ‘Henry Tydder’. They were murderers, adulterers and extortioners, who would steal everyone’s estates and offices, killing and robbing on an unheard-of scale.

Richard’s challenger was an obscure Welshman, ‘descended of bastard blood’ on both sides whose grandfather, Owain Tudor, Keeper of the Wardrobe to Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, had supposedly married her. One of their sons had married Lady Margaret Beaufort, the heiress of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, and it was they who were Henry Tudor’s parents. That someone with such a feeble claim to the throne, whom few Englishmen had ever seen, could become a pretender shows how desperate men were to find an alternative to Richard.

On 7 August Henry landed, not at Milford in Hampshire but at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. Supporters joined him as he marched so that he had about 5,000 men. Richard assembled 12,000 troops at Leicester, the largest contingents those of Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William, and of the Earl of Northumberland. This was a small army for a King of England with time to prepare, but it looks as if a few people wanted to fight in his defence while so obscure a challenger as Tudor seemed to have little chance of winning.

If Richard felt doubtful about Lord Stanley and his brother Sir William, their contingents were too strong for him to act on mere suspicion. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Margaret Beaufort had converted Lord Stanley to her son’s cause. It is also clear that the Earl of Northumberland had no liking for the king, despite having worked closely with him in the North – or perhaps as a result.


On the morning of 22 August 1485 the two armies faced each other near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire. Every reconstruction of the battle that followed is based on Polydore Vergil, who, although he spoke to people who had fought in it, wrote thirty years later. There is no full eyewitness description, just a few scraps to flesh out Vergil’s account, but this was scarcely another Towton – neither leader inspired much loyalty and the ruling class were less inclined to risk their lives. Even the topography has been misunderstood, a recent archaeological examination finding it was fought over a 4 mile area around a group of adjoining villages instead of on the traditional site.24

The veteran Lancastrian who led Henry’s army, the Earl of Oxford, attacked first, despite having fewer troops. However, archaeologists have recently discovered bullets on the battle-field, suggesting they included French arquebusiers, whose new matchlocks were highly effective against cavalry. It is also likely that there were Swiss-style pike-men among them. When the Duke of Norfolk charged at the head of the vanguard, his men-at-arms were held off by long pikes and shot down. Another attack failed, ending in Norfolk’s death. Losing his most loyal commander, fear of treachery by the Stanleys and the enemy’s weaponry explain Richard’s next, desperate move.

Seeing Henry Tudor’s dragon banner, he realized that his rival was near. If he eliminated him he would win, regardless of matchlocks or pikes. Together with the knights and squires of his household, who amounted to about a hundred and sixty men-at-arms, he charged, killing Henry’s banner-bearer with his lance, striking another of his enemy’s bodyguard out of the saddle with his axe and cutting down several more.

At the last moment, Sir William Stanley changed sides and led his own men to Henry’s rescue, overwhelming the royal household. Northumberland made no attempt to rescue the king, but watched him being killed. Richard’s horse became bogged down in the marshy ground and he was forced to dismount. Alone, surrounded by enemies, crying ‘Treason! Treason!’, he fought to the end. Even the hostile Croyland writer admits he died ‘like a brave and most valiant prince’.25 The wounds found on his skull suggest a frenzy of blows.

Stripped naked and slung over a horse, its face disfigured by banging into a bridge, the king’s corpse was taken back to Leicester where for three days it was displayed on a church pavement. Men other than valets or tailors were able to see for the first time how much higher one shoulder was than the other, and perhaps too that he had a small hump, which is not uncommon in sufferers from scoliosis. Then he was buried at the Franciscan friary – the beggars’ church; his grave was lost when it was demolished in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries until its rediscovery in a ‘long stay’ car park in 2012.


Although Richard III is one of the most studied figures in English medieval history, his brief time on the throne was merely a lurid postscript to his brother’s reign. Its only lasting significance lies in providing a raison d’être for Henry Tudor. He had committed not just political but dynastic suicide. In March 1483 there had been five male Plantagenets; by August 1485 only Clarence’s disinherited son was left, the ten-year-old Earl of Warwick. Vergil was stating the obvious when he wrote of Richard ‘destroying the house of York’.26 The Great Chronicle of London (written by someone who lived in the City at the time) comments that ‘had he continued still Protector and suffered the childer to have prospered according to his allegiance and fidelity, he should have been honourably lauded over all, whereas now his fame is darkened and dishonoured’.27

As his namesake had prophesied three centuries before, after being begotten by the devil, the Plantagenets ended by going to the devil. Not even the Borgias killed children. Yet the last Plantagenet sovereign has a strange fascination, not just for his partisans, but for those convinced of his guilt.

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