Treachery: What really brought down Richard III

A new project has been launched to locate the mortal remains of King Richard III, more than 500 years after he was buried in the, now lost, church of the Franciscan Friary in Leicester. David Hipshon, author of a book on the controversial Yorkist monarch, discusses his theories for the reason for Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485

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© Bridgeman Art Library

On 22 August 1485, in marshy fields near the village of Sutton Cheney in Leicestershire, Richard III led the last charge of knights in English history. A circlet of gold around his helmet, his banners flying, he threw his destiny into the hands of the god of battles.

Among the astonished observers of this glittering panoply of horses and steel galloping towards them were Sir William Stanley and his brother Thomas, whose forces had hitherto taken no part in the action. Both watched intently as Richard swept across their front and headed towards Henry Tudor, bent only on eliminating his rival. As the King battled his way through Henry’s bodyguard, killing his standard bearer with his own hand and coming within feet of Tudor himself, William Stanley made his move. Throwing his forces at the King’s back he betrayed him and had him hacked him down. Richard, fighting manfully and crying, “Treason! Treason!”, was butchered in the bloodstained mud of Bosworth Field by a man who was, ostensibly at least, there to support him.

Historians have been tempted to see Stanley’s treachery as merely the last act in the short and brutal drama that encompassed the reign of the most controversial king in English history. Most agree that Richard had murdered his two nephews in the Tower of London and that this heinous crime so shocked the realm, even in those medieval days, that his demise was all but assured. The reason he lost the battle of Bosworth, they say, was because he had sacrificed support through this illegal coup. But hidden among the manuscripts in the duchy of Lancaster records in the National Archives, lies a story that provides an insight into the real reason why Thomas, Lord Stanley, and his brother William betrayed Richard at Bosworth during the Wars of the Roses. The records reveal that for more than 20 years before the battle, a struggle for power in the hills of Lancashire had lit a fuse which exploded at Bosworth.

The Stanleys had spent most of the 15th century building up a powerful concentration of estates in west Lancashire, Cheshire and north Wales. As their power grew they came into conflict with gentry families in east Lancashire who resented their acquisitive and relentless encroachments into their lands. One such family were the Harringtons of Hornby. Unlike their Stanley rivals the Harringtons sided with the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses and remained staunchly loyal. Unfortunately, at the battle of Wakefield in 1460, disaster struck. The Duke of York was killed and with him Thomas Harrington and his son John.

The Stanleys managed, as ever, to miss the battle. They were very keen, however, to pick up the pieces of the Harrington inheritance and take their seat at Hornby, a magnificent castle that dominated the valley of the River Lune in Stanley country.

When John Harrington had been killed at Wakefield the only heirs he left behind were two small girls. They had the legal right to inherit the castle at Hornby, but this would pass to whomever they married. Stanley immediately sought to take them as his wards and to marry them as soon as possible to his only son and a nephew. John Harrington’s brother James was equally determined to stop him. James argued that his brother had died before their father at Wakefield and so he himself, as the oldest surviving son, had become the heir, not John’s daughters. To make good his claim he took possession of the girls, and fortified Hornby against the Stanleys. Unfortunately for Harrington, King Edward IV – striving to bring order to a country devastated by civil strife – simply could not afford to lose the support of a powerful regional magnate, and awarded the castle to Stanley.

However, this was by no means the end of the matter. James Harrington refused to budge and held on to Hornby, and his nieces, regardless. What’s more, the records show that friction between the two families escalated to alarming proportions during the 1460s. In the archive of the letters patent and warrants, issued under the duchy of Lancaster seal, we can see the King struggling – and failing – to maintain order in the region. While James Harrington fortified his castle and dug his heels in, Stanley refused to allow his brother, Robert Harrington, to exercise the hereditary offices of bailiff in Blackburn and Amounderness, which he had acquired by marriage. Stanley falsely indicted the Harringtons, packed the juries and attempted to imprison them.

This virtual state of war became a real conflict in 1469, when, in a monumental fit of pique, the Earl of Warwick – the most powerful magnate in the land, with massive estates in Yorkshire, Wales and the Midlands – rebelled against his cousin Edward IV. The revolt saw the former king, the hapless Henry VI, being dragged out of the Tower and put back on the throne. Stanley, who had married Warwick’s sister, Eleanor Neville, stood to gain by joining the rebellion.

There were now two kings in England – and Edward was facing a bitter battle to regain control. In an attempt to secure the northwest, he placed his hopes on his younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. This had immediate consequences for Stanley and Harrington, for Richard displaced the former as forester of Amounderness, Blackburn and Bowland, and appointed the latter as his deputy steward in the forest of Bowland, an extensive region to the south of Hornby. Even worse, from Stanley’s point of view, the castle of Hornby was in Amounderness, where Richard now had important legal rights.

During the rebellion Stanley tried to dislodge James once and for all by bringing a massive cannon called ‘Mile Ende’ from Bristol to blast the fortifications. The only clue we have as to why this failed is a warrant issued by Richard, dated 26 March 1470, and signed “at Hornby”. It would appear that the 17-year-old Richard had taken sides and was helping James Harrington in his struggle against Stanley. This is hardly surprising as James’s father and brother had died with Richard’s father at Wakefield and the Harringtons were actively helping Edward get his throne back. In short, it seems that the Harringtons had a royal ally in Richard, who could challenge the hegemony of the Stanleys and help them resist his ambitions.

The Harringtons’ support for Edward was to prove of little immediate benefit when the King finally won his throne back after defeating and killing Warwick at the battle of Barnet and executing Henry VI. Grateful he may have been, but the harsh realities of the situation forced Edward to appease the Stanleys because they could command more men than the Harringtons and, in a settlement of 1473, James Harrington was forced to surrender Hornby. Richard ensured that he received the compensation of the nearby property of Farleton, and also land in west Yorkshire, but by the time Edward died in 1483 Stanley had still not handed over the lucrative and extensive rights that Robert Harrington claimed in Blackburn and Amounderness.

One thing, however, had changed. The leading gentry families in the region had found a ‘good lord’ in Richard. He had been made chief steward of the duchy in the north in place of Warwick and used his power of appointment to foster members of the gentry and to check the power of Stanley. Only royal power could do this and Richard, as trusted brother of the King, used it freely. The Dacres, Huddlestons, Pilkingtons, Ratcliffes and Parrs, all related by marriage to the Harringtons, had received offices in the region and saw Richard, not
Stanley, as their lord.

When Richard took the throne he finally had the power to do something for James Harrington. The evidence shows that he planned to reopen the question of the Hornby inheritance. This alone would have been anathema to Stanley but it was accompanied by an alarming series of appointments in the duchy of Lancaster. John Huddleston, a kinsman of the Harringtons, was made sheriff of Cumberland, steward of Penrith and warden of the west march. John Pilkington, brother-in-law of Robert Harrington, was steward of Rochdale and became Richard III’s chamberlain; Richard Ratcliffe, Robert Harrington’s wife’s uncle, was the King’s deputy in the west march and became sheriff of Westmorland. Stanley felt squeezed, his power threatened and his influence diminished.

With Richard at Bosworth were a close-knit group of gentry who served in the royal household: men like John Huddleston, Thomas Pilkington and Richard Ratcliffe. They were men whom Richard could trust, but they were also the very men who were instrumental in reducing Stanley’s power in the northwest. By Richard’s side, possibly carrying his standard, was James Harrington. When Richard III sped past the Stanleys at Bosworth Field he presented them with an opportunity too tempting to refuse.

During the 1470s Richard had become the dominant power in the north as Edward’s lieutenant. He served his brother faithfully and built up a strong and stable following. The leading gentry families could serve royal authority without an intermediary. The losers in this new dispensation were the two northern magnates, Henry Percy and Thomas Stanley. Richard challenged their power and at Bosworth they got their revenge. When Richard rode into battle, with Harrington by his side, loyalty, fidelity and trust rode with him. Like the golden crown on Richard’s head they came crashing down to earth.

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About the author
Dr David Hipshon teaches at St James Independent School in Twickenham. His book Richard III and the Death of Chivalry is published by The History Press (2009)

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