Richard III was the last king of the House of York. His death in battle in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and initiated the rule of the House of Tudor. Born in October 1452, Richard was the youngest son of Richard, Duke of York, who challenged the ruling House of Lancaster for possession of the throne in 1460. Although Richard’s father died in battle in December 1460, his eldest brother secured the throne as Edward IV in March 1461. In June, Richard was created Duke of Gloucester and given liberal grants of land and office. In October 1470, when Henry VI of Lancaster regained the Crown, Gloucester accompanied Edward into exile. Returning with Edward in March 1471, Gloucester, now 18, commanded the van of the Yorkist army during the campaign that restored Edward to the throne. Although various reports implicated Gloucester in the murders of Henry VI and his son Prince Edward, the duke’s direct involvement in either death cannot now be proven.
In the 1470s, Gloucester’s marriage to Anne Neville made him heir to the Neville influence in the north, where he resided after 1475. By 1480, Gloucester had constructed an extensive affinity in the north, which he governed on Edward’s behalf. In 1475, Gloucester participated in Edward’s invasion of France and in the early 1480s led several campaigns into Scotland. In 1478, Gloucester was suspected of encouraging Edward to eliminate their troublesome brother, George, Duke of Clarence, although no evidence links Gloucester directly to the duke’s execution.
When Edward died in April 1483, Gloucester immediately swore allegiance to his nephew, Edward V. However, the duke suspected Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her ambitious family of using their influence with Edward to control the government. Gloucester therefore seized the king and frightened the queen into taking sanctuary at Westminster. In June, after being named lord protector by the council, Gloucester arrested and executed various nobles loyal to the young king and secured custody of Edward V’s brother, the Duke of York. Having at some point concluded that his best interests required him to take the throne, Gloucester launched a propaganda campaign to discredit his nephews’ right to the Crown. Although the duke was crowned king as Richard III on 6 July 1483, his regime, which was almost immediately met by rumors that Edward and York had been murdered in the Tower of London, never overcame the opposition generated by the usurpation.
The failure of an October 1483 uprising aimed at crowning the remaining Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, drove many southern gentlemen into exile. Forced to intrude his northern supporters into the leadership of southern counties, Richard reaped further ill will, which only intensified the condemnation and mistrust arising from his silence regarding the disappearance of his nephews. The death of his son in 1484 and of his queen in 1485 further weakened his position and led to damaging rumors that Richard intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. Accused of tyranny and suspected of murder, the king confronted Richmond at Bosworth Field in August 1485. The defection of Thomas Stanley, Lord Stanley, and his brother Sir William Stanley, combined with the lukewarm adherence of other lords, led to Richard’s defeat and death.
After Bosworth, the continuing mystery surrounding the fate of the princes, and Henry VII’s need to secure the new dynasty, fostered the writing of a series of works that progressively blackened Richard’s reputation. Culminating in William Shakespeare’s Richard III and answered later by many passionate defenses of Richard, these writings created a controversy that continues today.
See also Princes in the Tower
Richard III Society. www.r3.org.
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