Inside the mind of Richard III

What made England's most controversial king tick? Was he vain, voluble, a spendthrift? And did he love his wife? Chris Skidmore, who's been investigating Richard's secret life for a forthcoming book, reveals all...

A portrait of Richard III.

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Richard liked the finer things in life

Details that survive from Richard’s court suggest that the king was no po-faced ascetic but a spendthrift who enjoyed life’s luxuries.

Richard had his own troupe of players and minstrels, while he ordered that one of Edward V’s own servants be retained, for “his expert ability and cunning in the science of music,” ordering that he “take and seize for us and in our name all such singing men and children”.

Richard also seems to have appreciated good fashion sense. In 1484 he sent the Irish Earl of Desmond a parcel including gowns of velvet and cloth of gold “to show unto you… our intent and pleasure for to have you to use the manner of our English habit and clothing”.

The king’s extravagance excited comment from the most unlikely of sources. Thomas Langton – who served as bishop of St David’s, Salisbury and Winchester – praised the king in a letter written shortly after his accession to the throne in the summer of 1483, describing how “he contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince… on my troth I liked never the conditions of any prince so well as his: God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all”. However, in the final line, the bishop added a note of caution: “Sensual pleasure holds sway to an increasing extent, but I do not consider that this detracts from what I have said.”

He was generous (when the mood took him)

The Crowland Chronicle – written in Lincolnshire’s Crowland Abbey from the 7th to 15th centuries – describes how Richard intended to “pass over the pomp of Christmas” in 1483. Yet this terse assessment contradicts surviving contemporary records, which tell us that the king spent £764 17s 6d (the equivalent of over £380,000 today) for “certain plate… for our year’s gifts against Christmas last past and for other jewels,” while he gave £100 (£50,000) to “our welbeloved servants the grooms and pages of our chamber… for a reward against the Feast of Christmas”.

At a Whitehall banquet to mark the epiphany celebrations of 6 January 1484, Richard gave the mayor and aldermen of London a gold cup “garnished with pearls and other precious stones” to be used in the chamber of the Guildhall. These were displayed at a council meeting a week later, where it was also declared how Richard “for the very great favour he bears towards this city, intended to bestow and make the borough of Southwark part of the liberty of the City, and also to give £10,000 (£5m) towards the building of walls and ditches around the said borough”.

Intriguingly, this huge financial gift never materialised – and the aldermen of London failed to raise the matter again. Did the evening’s festivities inspire Richard to make this magnanimous gesture – only to conveniently forget about it in the cold light of day?

He regarded himself as a man of York

The dispute over where Richard’s remains should be interred has made it all the way to the high court this year. But can contemporary sources shed any light on where the king himself wished to be buried?

Perhaps they can. Though the king is known to have supported several religious institutions – including St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and his own foundations at Middleham in Yorkshire and Queen’s College, Cambridge – he does seem to have placed particular emphasis on his relationship with York, and its famous Minster.

In one document, Richard described the “great zeal and tender affection that we bear in our heart unto our faithful and true subjects the mayor, sheriffs and citizens of the city of York”.

Shortly after his coronation, he travelled northwards to the city, holding a spectacular ceremony in the Minster, to which he donated a “great cross standing on six bases… with images of the crucifixion and the two thieves, together with other images near the foot and many precious stones, rubies and sapphires”.

Richard’s greatest display of affection to the city came on 23 September 1484, when he unveiled plans for a chantry foundation at York Minster, which would house a hundred priests to support the Minster, and practise the “worship of God, our Lady, Saint George and Saint Ninian”. The massive project involved the construction of six altars for the king’s chaplains, together with a separate building to house them.

Several months after his original grant, however, Richard was forced to write a letter to the authorities of the Duchy of Lancaster. Unpublished and unremarked upon by historians who have written on Richard’s plans for a foundation at York, the letter states that in spite of giving to the dean of the Minster and its authorities “our special power and authority to ask, gather and levy all and any sum of money for the time” in order to “sustain and bear the charge of the finding of a hundred priests now being of our foundation,” the priests still remained unpaid for their services.

Richard now demanded that they be paid from the Duchy of Lancaster. “We not willing our said priests to be unpaid of their wages, seeing by their prayers we trust to be made the more acceptable to God and his saints.” The connection between Richard’s establishment of the foundation at York and the salvation of his own soul could hardly be any clearer. Could this indicate that Richard’s real intention in creating this new religious institution was to follow the growing trend for 15th-century aristocrats across Europe to establish their own chantry foundations and ultimately mausoleums? Richard, Duke of York, had done just that at Fotheringay, Northamptonshire, and Edward IV was to follow suit at Windsor.

After Richard’s death, the archbishop there remembered fondly how “our most Christian prince, King Richard III… founded and ordained a most celebrated college of a hundred chaplains, primarily at his own expense”. The foundation was not to last long, however. By 1493, “timber from the house constructed by King Richard III from the establishing of chantry priests” had been broken up and sold.

He loved his wife (at least, that’s what he claimed)

Unlike his brother Edward IV, famed for his debauchery and mistresses, Richard seems to have been a devout family man. He was fond of his only legitimate son, Edward, whom he described as “our dearest first born son Edward, whose outstanding qualities, with which he is singularly endowed for his age, give great and, by the favour of God, undoubted hope of future uprightness”.

Edward’s premature death in April 1484 proved devastating to both Richard and his wife, Anne. The news clearly came unexpectedly, for, according to the Crowland Chronicle, “on hearing news of this, at Nottingham, where they were then residing, you might have seen his father and mother in a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief”.

Several months later, in September 1484, when wrapping up payments for the prince’s disbanded household, Richard continued to describe Edward as “our dearest son the prince”. When Anne herself died on 16 March 1485, rumours swirled that Richard had planned to poison his wife. Yet the records show a very different side to the king who, just days before her death, refers to her as “our most dear wife the queen”.

The king professed in his proclamations his distaste of “horrible adultery and bawds, provoking the high indignation and displeasure of God,” instead preferring “the way of truth and virtue,” and even declared to his bishops that “our principal intent and fervent desire is to see virtue and cleanness of living to be advanced, increased and multiplied, and vices and all other things repugnant to virtue… to be repressed and annulled”.

Yet this did not prevent Richard himself from fathering at least two illegitimate children. One was John of Gloucester, whom Richard evidently thought highly of, appointing him captain of Calais, on account of his “liveliness of mind, activity of body and inclination to all good customs”. The other was Katherine Plantagenet, who Richard married off to William, Earl of Huntingdon, making a generous financial provision to the couple.

He was convinced of his right to rule

Upon the birth of Edward IV’s eldest son, Edward, in 1470, Richard had sworn publicly that the young baby, “first begotten son of our sovereign lord,” was “to be very and undoubted heir to our said lord as to the crowns and realms of England and France and lordship of Ireland… In case hereafter it happen you by God’s disposition to overlive our sovereign lord; I shall then take and accept you for the very true and rightwise king of England.”

Richard was, of course, to break this solemn vow in spectacular style – but how did he justify going back on his word to himself and his peers? The archives provide some clues.

According to a lengthy explanation set down in parliament in 1484, Richard proved that Edward IV had already been contracted to marry Lady Eleanor Talbot before his union with Queen Elizabeth Woodville. As a result, his son Edward V was in fact illegitimate, so unable to take the throne. Two days after he had seized the crown, Richard wrote how men had wrongly sworn an oath to Edward V that had been “ignorantly given”.

In early January 1484, Richard had no qualms in repaying a Cambridgeshire bailiff for wildfowl purchased for Edward V’s aborted coronation, merely describing the planned ceremony as “the time we stood protector of this our realm while Edward bastard son unto our entirely beloved brother Edward IV was called king of this realm”.

In another document in the archives, Richard merely described how he was now the “true and undoubted king of this realm of England by divine and human right,” having “taken the royal dignity and power and the rule and governance of the same realm for himself… from Edward the Bastard, formerly called Edward the fifth… the same Edward legitimately having been removed by usurpation”. It seems that Richard, for one, was absolutely convinced of his right to rule.

He was a formidable warrior

The records reveal that Richard had begun his military training at an early age. In March 1465, his brother Edward IV spent over £20 (£10,000) for “sheaves of arrows” and bows, “to the use of our brethren the dukes of Clarence and Gloucester”.

Richard first saw military action in the battles of Barnet – where one source indicates he was wounded – and Tewkesbury. His fighting skills were praised by one poet, who described Richard as a young Hector. In 1480, Richard wrote to the French king Louis XI, thanking him for “the great bombard which you caused to be presented to me, for I have always taken and still take great pleasure in artillery and I assure you it will be a special treasure to me”.

Richard later took a leading role in the defence of the Scottish borders, and by 1483 the Italian visitor Dominic Mancini was stating that “such was his renown in warfare, that whenever a difficult and dangerous policy had to be undertaken, it would be entrusted to his discretion and generalship”.

The records of Richard’s reign are littered with payments for military weapons and equipment: for instance, he spent £560 (£280,000) on 157 complete suits of armour, and a further £64 19s 1d (£32,000) on 2,228lbs of saltpetre for making gunpowder.

In 1485 Richard ordered that Edward Benstead, a gentleman usher of the chamber, was sent to the Tower to “shoot certain our guns we have been making there for their prove and assay”. Richard also ordered that a “long scaling bridge” under construction at the Tower be put through its paces.

He threw a good party

Details of the receipts for Richard III’s coronation banquet survive, and they suggest that the king’s accession to the throne in the summer of 1483 was celebrated in some style. The banquet comprised 75 different dishes over three courses, to be served to 1,200 “messes” (shared tables) that would feed around 3,000 people in total.

The guests tucked into 30 bulls, 140 sheep, 100 calves, six boars, 12 fatted pigs, 200 suckling pigs, eight hart deer, 140 bucks, eight roe deer and fawns. In addition, the lower ranks at the banquet would be treated to 288 marrow bones, 72 ox feet, and 144 calves’ feet.

For the fish dishes, the caterer ordered 400 lampreys, 350 pikes, four porpoises, 40 bream, 30 salmon cut into thin slices, 100 trout, 40 carp, 480 freshwater crayfish, 200 cod and salt fish, another 36 other ‘sea fish’, 100 tench, and 200 mullet.

The banquet also included 1,000 geese, 800 rabbits, 800 chickens, with another 400 chickens ‘to stew’, in addition to 300 sparrows or larks, 2,400 pigeons, 1,000 capons, 800 rails (a large, fat bird), 40 cygnets, 16 dozen heron, 48 peacocks, eight dozen of both cranes and pheasants, six dozen bitterns, 240 quails, three dozen egrets, 12 dozen curlews and 120 ‘piper chicks’ – probably young pigeons.

To spice the dishes, 28lbs of pepper, 8lbs of saffron costing 48 shillings, 28lbs of cinnamon costing 60 shillings, 4lbs of fresh ginger and 12lbs of powdered ginger were employed, though the most popular seasoning seems to have been the sweet variety, with 150lbs of Madeira sugar imported from Portugal, 150lbs of almonds and 200lbs of raisins making up the largest of the orders for spices in the kitchen. Dessert included 300lbs of dates, 100lbs of prunes, 1,000 oranges and 12 gallons of strawberries, decorated with 100 leaves of “pure gold”.

He was hell-bent on crushing his foes

The most detailed description of Richard III and his court comes from an eyewitness account left to us by Niclas von Popplau, a Silesian knight who visited the king while he was staying at Middleham Castle in North Yorkshire in May 1484. Popplau’s text, still only available in its original German, deserves a full English translation, as it gives us our best understanding of Richard by someone who met him face to face. Popplau suggested that Richard was “three fingers taller than I, but a bit slimmer and not as thickset as I am, and much more lightly built. He has quite slender arms and thighs, and also a great heart”.

Popplau was entertained by the king in his royal tent, where he witnessed Richard’s bed, “decorated from top to bottom with red Samite [luxurious silk fabric] and a gold piece” with a table “covered all around with silk cloths of gold embroidered with gold. The king set himself at the table and he wore a collar of an order set with many large pearls, almost like strawberries, and diamonds. The collar was quite as wide as a man’s hand,” Popplau noted.

Richard requested that his German visitor sit next to him at dinner, where the king was so engrossed in conversation that “he hardly touched his food, but talked with me all the time. He asked me about his imperial majesty [Maxmillian I], all kings and princes of the empire whom I knew well, about their habits, fortune, actions and virtues. To which I answered everything that could add to their honour and high standing. Then the king was silent for a while, and then he began again to ask me questions, about many matters and deeds.”

When Popplau began to discuss a recent defeat of the Ottoman Turks in Hungary, Richard suddenly became “very pleased” and answered: “I would like my kingdom and land to lie where the land and kingdom of the king of Hungary lies, on the Turkish frontier itself. Then I would certainly, with my own people alone, without the help of other kings, princes or lords, properly drive away not only the Turks, but all my enemies and opponents.” For Richard, it was a dream that proved impossible to fulfil.

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Chris Skidmore MP is an author and historian who also serves as Conservative MP for Kingswood. His forthcoming book The Lives of Richard III will be published in 2015.