Richard III: your guide to the last Yorkist king of England
Richard III (1452–85) was the last Yorkist king of England, whose death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 signified the end of the Wars of the Roses and marked the start of the Tudor age. Many myths persist about the last Plantagenet king, whose remains were discovered beneath a Leicester car park in 2012; three years later he was reburied in Leicester Cathedral. We share a comprehensive guide to the much maligned English king…
In this comprehensive guide to King Richard III, historian Julian Humphrys looks at the life and changing reputation of England's most controversial king, Chris Skidmore shares a timeline of key moments in the life of Richard III – plus there's common myths about the Yorkist king considered by the late historian John Ashdown-Hill…
Jump to each section:
- Richard III's birth and family
- The princes in the Tower
- Henry Tudor and the battle of Bosworth
- Richard III's changing reputation
- Did Richard III have a hunchback?
- Uncovering Richard III's remains
- Timeline: key dates in the life and rule of Richard III
- Did Richard III aim to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York?
Large crowds lined the streets as the coffin containing the remains of Richard III was taken to Leicester Cathedral for reinterment on 26 March 2015. The Archbishop of Canterbury led the service, members of the royal family were present, Queen Elizabeth II herself wrote a message for the order of service, while the Leicester authorities made it clear that Richard was being buried not just with dignity but with honour. For many of those present, Richard was a much-maligned king who was finally getting the respect he deserved. But not everyone saw it that way. Writing in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee bemoaned the fact that Britain "mourned a monster" simply because he had been king. Even today, this controversial monarch continues to divide opinions.
Born in 1452 at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, Richard was the fourth son of Cecily Neville and Richard of York, whose conflict with the Lancastrian Henry VI was a major cause of the Wars of the Roses. In 1460, Richard's father was killed at the Battle of Wakefield but in 1461, his eldest brother, Edward, defeated the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton. became Edward IV and appointed Richard Duke of Gloucester. Unlike his unreliable sibling, George, Duke of Clarence, whose machinations would see him executed in 1478, Richard appears the very model of a loyal younger brother. Living up to his motto of 'Loyauté me Lie' (Loyalty Binds Me), he joined Edward in exile after Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick had restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470. The following year, they returned to England and Richard contributed to the Yorkist victories at Barnet (where Warwick was killed) and Tewkesbury where he led Edward's vanguard.
- Read more | Edward IV: champion of the Wars of the Roses
Richard was well rewarded. He was given control of lands confiscated from the Nevilles and his marriage to Warwick’s daughter, Anne Neville, gained him more territory in the north of England, which became his power base. As Edward’s lieutenant in the north, he seems to have been an able administrator and the chronicler John Rous described him as a "good lord" who punished "oppressors of the commons".
Unlike his sibling, Richard appears the very model of a loyal younger brother
Richard’s importance was national as well as regional; in 1471, he was appointed both constable and admiral of England and in 1482, he commanded the invasion of Scotland that led to the capture of Berwick. Yet his position was not as secure as it might appear. The lucrative offices he held were dependant on the will of the monarch, while the act of parliament which gave him those Neville lands that had formerly belonged to Warwick’s brother, Montagu, added to his insecurity. It stipulated that Richard and his heirs could only hold them while Montagu’s son George Neville or any heirs he had were alive. If that family line died out, the lands would revert after Richard’s death to another branch of the Neville family.
Even so, had it not been for his brother Edward’s early death in April 1483, Richard might well have lived out his days as a successful regional magnate, and instead of the innumerable books we now have about him, we’d probably have to content ourselves with the odd biography and a few PhD theses. But the king’s death changed everything.
Edward had named Richard as protector of his son and successor, the 12-year-old Edward V, but the problem was that the boy was at Ludlow in the care of his mother’s family, the Woodvilles, and Richard, like many in the kingdom. didn’t trust them. To secure his own position, Richard had to act quickly. As Edward travelled to London escorted by his uncle Anthony Woodville and his half-brother Richard Grey, Richard intercepted them at Stony Stratford. Claiming there was a plot against him, he arrested Woodville, Grey and a third knight, Thomas Vaughan, and took control of the young king.
After sending his prisoners to his castle at Pontefract, Richard escorted Edward to the capital and lodged him in the Tower of London, to be joined later by his brother. There was nothing sinister in this – the Tower had yet to acquire its gruesome reputation, and it was traditionally used by English monarchs prior to their coronations. The Woodvilles had never been popular, and Richard’s actions seem to have been met with approval by other members of the late king’s household, notably the Duke of Buckingham, who’d helped him at Stony Stratford, and Edward IV’s old friend William Hastings. Despite the claims of later Tudor writers, there’s no evidence that Richard’s actions up to this point were part of a plot to seize the throne, and the preparations for Edward’s coronation went ahead as normal. But that would soon change.
During a Council meeting in the Tower of London on Friday 13 June, Richard suddenly announced that there was another conspiracy against him, arrested three councillors and, with no regard whatsoever for due process of law, had Hastings summarily executed. It was nothing less than murder, and even the most devoted supporters of Richard struggle to justify it. Why did Richard have Hastings killed? Some claim that Richard had discovered that Hastings was plotting with the Woodvilles against him, but Hastings had a long-standing dislike of the Woodvilles and had supported Richard’s move against them in April. It’s more likely that Richard had now decided to seize the throne, but because Hastings was fiercely loyal to young Edward, he had to be disposed of first.
It was nothing less than murder, and even the most devoted struggle to justify it
Why did Richard decide to make himself king? The official reason was publicised by Dr Ralph Shaa in a sermon preached at St Paul’s Cross on 22 June. Because Edward IV had been precontracted to another woman (later identified as Eleanor Butler) before he married Elizabeth Woodville, the Woodville marriage wasn’t valid and Edward V and his siblings were therefore illegitimate. Technically, the son of the late Duke of Clarence was next in line, but he was barred from the succession because his father had been attainted for treason. The next legitimate candidate was therefore Richard.
However, many believe that Richard had already made up his mind to take the throne, and the bastardisation of his nephews and nieces was simply a political manoeuvre to clear them out the way. Although ambition may have motivated Richard, he may simply have believed that the country needed an experienced adult as ruler. He may also have felt that he had no choice. Edward was known to be close to the Woodvilles, and Richard must have realised that there was a good chance that he would find himself sidelined as soon as the young king came of age. What’s more, the recent death without issue of George Neville meant that Richard had just lost much of the land he’d hoped to leave to his son. On 25 June, Woodville, Grey and Vaughan were executed at Pontefract, almost certainly on Richard’s orders, while in London his ally the Duke of Buckingham addressed an assembly of lords and commoners outlining Richard’s claim to the throne. Their response was initially lukewarm, but eventually a petition was drawn up asking him to become king. He accepted on the following day and was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 6 July.
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After his coronation, Richard set off on a progress around his kingdom. While he was away, news reached him of an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the princes from the Tower. It has been suggested that this led Richard to order their deaths, for after August the two boys were never seen again. Rumours began to spread that they had indeed been killed, and Richard’s failure to display the living boys did nothing to dispel them. The next uprising against him certainly suggested they were dead, for it aimed to set Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian exile, on the throne. Many of the participants in Buckingham’s rebellion, as it was known, were former members of Edward IVs household who had been shocked by what they saw as Richard’s usurpation, and it’s unlikely that they would have fought for Tudor had they believed that Edward V or his brother were still alive. Their support for Tudor tells us something else. The fact that they were prepared to support a Lancastrian exile with a distant claim to the throne against the brother of Edward IV shows just how far the Yorkist cause had been split by Richard’s actions. After suppressing the revolt, Richard tried to strengthen his hand by granting the land and offices forfeited by the largely southern rebels to a small group of his trusted servants, many of them from the north, but this merely added to his unpopularity. Richard had opposed the Woodville clique, but now he was ruling through a clique of his own.
It's clear that Richard was no more tyrannical than other monarchs of his time
Although on a personal level little went right for Richard – his only legitimate son died in 1484 and his wife in March 1485 – there were at least signs of the good government that had characterised his time in the north. His only parliament sat early in 1484, and the statutes it passed included reforms to aspects of the legal system, laws to protect English merchants against unfair foreign competition, the outlawing of benevolences (royal financial demands without parliamentary approval) and the establishment of the College of Arms. Despite the efforts of later Tudor writers to portray him otherwise, it’s clear that Richard was no more tyrannical than other monarchs of his time - and considerably less so than the son of his successor. Indeed, Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England under King James I, described Richard as "a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people".
On 7 August 1485, Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven with a small army of French mercenaries, former Yorkists and diehard Lancastrians. Nineteen months earlier, he had strengthened his appeal to disaffected Yorkists by promising to marry Edward IVs daughter Elizabeth were he to gain the throne. Richard was reportedly delighted by the news of the landing; victory over Tudor would not only rid him of a troublesome focus of opposition, it would also imply divine approval of his own regime. On 22 August, Richard confronted him at the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard had the larger army but a third force, under William and Thomas Stanley, two former stalwarts of Edward IVs regime, lurked in the wings.
Richard had good reason to be wary of them – they had been his rivals for influence in the north and Thomas was married to Henry Tudor’s mother Margaret Beaufort. Richard tried to secure their loyalty by holding Thomas’s son hostage, but when they eventually joined the battle in support of Henry, it proved decisive. Spurning flight, Richard led a mounted charge in a desperate bid to kill Henry Tudor. It came within a whisker of success, but Richard found himself unhorsed and, as Polydore Vergil later put it, he was cut down "fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies". Not even the most virulent of his Tudor critics ever accused Richard of cowardice.
The century after Bosworth would see a succession of accounts, all portraying Richard in a highly unfavourable light. Rous, who had earlier praised Richard, now described him as a monstrous tyrant, born with teeth and hair after being in his mother’s womb for two years. Polydore Vergil, an Italian commissioned by Henry VII to write a history of England, claimed Richard planned to seize the throne as soon as his brother died. Thomas More accused Richard of a succession of murders, including Henry VI and of course the Princes in the Tower, and describes him as "ill featured of limbs, crook backed…" Later Tudor writers like Hall and Hollinshed told similar stories.
But the evidence for Richard III being a hunchback is at the very least dubious, writes Justin Pollard. During Richard’s lifetime no sources, even the hostile ones, claimed this, although you could argue that no one would dare. It is only after his death at the battle of Bosworth Field that the story emerges in a number of sources all of which can certainly be called ‘pro-Tudor’.
Richard Rous wrote two histories of Richard III. The first was published in the king’s lifetime, and doesn’t mention any deformity. The second was published after the king’s death, when, living in the new politics of the Tudor age, Rous has changed his mind and Richard is portrayed as a hunchbacked monster.
Of course it is Shakespeare whose words have most formed our image of Richard. He got his information indirectly (via Hall and Holinshed) from a book by Thomas More, who got his information from Polydore Vergil, who was a contemporary of Richard’s. Vergil is however a rather biased source, being the paid chronicler of Richard’s killer and successor Henry VII. More was himself also in the pay of Henry VII’s son and successor, Henry VIII, and so can hardly be called pro-Ricardian.
In an age when physical appearance was believed to be a good indicator of personality, Tudor historians had little problem in describing a man most had never met as being as twisted on the outside as they claimed he was on the inside. It all helped their Tudor masters, perhaps uncertain as to their own legitimacy, to sleep more soundly in their beds.
Inevitably, this 'Tudor' version of events would be challenged, notably by George Buck in 1619, Horace Walpole in 1768 and Clements Markham in 1906. Nineteen twenty-four saw the foundation of the Fellowship of the White Boar, the forerunner of the Richard III Society that has done so much to foster interest in the period, and which spearheaded the campaign to rediscover Richard's remains. In 1951, those who harboured doubts about Richard's involvement in the murder of the princes found unexpected support in the form of crime novelist Josephine Tey. In The Daughter of Time, Tey's fictional detective is recovering from a broken leg when he sees a portrait of Richard III. Convinced that his features are not those of a murderer, he examines the evidence and concludes that Richard's guilt was a fabrication of Tudor propaganda.
Recent decades have seen a decided switch in public attitudes to Richard. He’s now seen by many not as a villain, but as a man largely innocent of the crimes he’s been accused of and whose rule was cruelly cut short by betrayal on the battlefield. Others are more circumspect. Rejecting the ‘Tudor myth’ of a calculating schemer who revels in evil, they nevertheless point out that while Richard may not necessarily have been a bad man, he was certainly a bad king whose actions ultimately led to the destruction not only of himself but also of the Yorkist dynasty.
Finally, of course, there’s William Shakespeare. Drawing on the writings of Hall and Holinshed, Shakespeare’s play Richard III gives us a villainous hunchback who had plotted all along to seize the crown. (In doing so he may have been aiming a sly dig at Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s unpopular minister who did have a hunchback). He makes Richard responsible for just about every significant killing in the Wars of the Roses – from the Duke of Somerset at St Albans in 1455 (quite difficult as Richard was only two at the time) to the Princes in the Tower 30 years later. Shakespeare’s Richard is a monster, but there’s no denying he’s a memorable one. It’s tempting to conclude that that without the lasting interest caused by that grossly unfair portrayal, Richard’s short and unsuccessful reign would be largely consigned to the footnotes of history, there would be no Richard III Society and this controversial king’s body would still be resting under a Leicester car park.
After his death at Bosworth, Richard III's body was buried in Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary in Leicester. Legend had it that when the friary was dissolved in 1538, Richard’s remains were thrown in the river Soar, but many were unconvinced. In 2011, Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society approached Leicester University with funds towards an archaeological project to find Richard’s remains, which she argued were probably still in the ground. Excavations began in August 2012 and, almost immediately, a skeleton was found in what would be identified as the choir of the friary church. Analysis suggested a man in his early 30s who’d suffered fatal battle-related injuries and, remarkably, had a curvature of the spine. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the individual lived between 1450 and 1540. The signs suggested it was probably Richard; that probability became a certainty when DNA samples from two of the King’s collateral descendants matched that of the skeleton.
- Read more | A timeline of the discovery of Richard III's remains
Why wasn't Richard III buried at York?
Because, in keeping with normal practice, where remains found in archaeological digs are reburied in the nearest consecrated ground, the exhumation licence granted to the University of Leicester made provision for Richard’s bones to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. This didn’t stop people suggesting alternative sites: Westminster Abbey (where his wife is buried); Windsor (his brother); Fotheringhay (his father) – and York Minster. Supporters of York pointed out Richard’s close links with the city, and tried to argue, not totally convincingly, that his endowment of a large chantry in York was evidence that he wished to be buried there. In May 2014, the High Court threw out a call for wider consultation over the reburial by the pro-York ‘Plantagenet Alliance’, and Leicester got the green light.
Julian Humphrys is a historian and development officer at the Battlefields Trust. This article was first published in the May 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed
1452: 2 October | Richard is born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, 11th child of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville. He later records in his Book of Hours that “on this day was born Richard III at Fotheringhay” – third-person confirmation of his exact date of birth. He is delivered by caesarean section, having been in a breach position, or so later rumours suggest. More implausible is John Rous’s description of Richard as being born “with teeth, and hair to his shoulders”. Though both stories are examples of the black legend that will quickly develop around the king after his death, we do know that Cecily, aged 37 at the time, suffered a particularly painful labour. The birth, she later wrote, had been “encumberous” and “to me full painful and uneasy”, causing, she noted, an “infirmity” that was “not hid on my wretched body”.
1461: 29 March | Richard’s brother Edward wreaks a devastating victory against the Lancastrian army of Henry VI at Towton in North Yorkshire, one of the bloodiest battles in English history. The victor claims the thrown as Edward IV. Richard’s youth had been overshadowed by the deteriorating relationship between his father, Richard, Duke of York, and Henry VI, with violent confrontations ending in the death of York outside Sandal Castle near Wakefield in 1460. After Edward’s victory at Towton, though, Richard returns from exile in Burgundy as a royal prince, his status suddenly elevated as the king’s brother. Within a year he is created Duke of Gloucester.
1460s | Richard spends his adolescence in the household of the Earl of Warwick, ‘the Kingmaker’, who had been instrumental in helping to establish the Yorkist dynasty. Warwick anticipates that the favour will be returned, expecting that his daughters, Isabel and Anne, will be married to the highest in the land – ideally the king’s brothers. Edward disagrees, and the king’s marriage to the low-born Elizabeth Woodville further alienates Warwick. In 1470, Warwick rebels, taking with him Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, who is by now married to Isabel. Richard, however, remains loyal to his brother, following Edward into exile in the Netherlands in October when Warwick and Clarence conspire successfully to put Henry VI back on the throne. While abroad, Edward and Richard are hosted by the Burgundian nobleman Louis de Gruuthuse, whose book collection leaves a lasting impression on both men.
1471: 14 April | Edward and Richard clash with Warwick at the battle of Barnet on Easter Sunday. They had earlier returned to England to reclaim the kingdom, landing in Yorkshire in March before marching southwards, gathering troops and welcoming their brother Clarence back into the Yorkist fold. Richard leads the vanguard of his brother’s forces at Barnet, and is wounded in the battle – he is later praised for his bravery. Fighting takes place in a thick fog, resulting in the Lancastrian forces accidentally attacking each other. Warwick flees the battle on horseback, but is discovered in a nearby wood and killed.Tewkesbury Abbey. Margaret and her son had landed on the south coast on the day of the battle of Barnet; Edward IV and Richard, learning of the invasion, had marched towards the Lancastrians, at times travelling 36 miles in a single day. At the battle of Tewkesbury Richard is again successful in destroying the Lancastrian army, and Prince Edward is killed on the battlefield. The following day, Richard presides over the trial and execution of the Lancastrian commander, the Duke of Somerset, who is dragged out of the abbey after attempting to seek sanctuary there.
1471: 21 May | Henry VI is found dead, having once more been placed in the Tower of London. His body is taken for burial at Chertsey Abbey, and it is noted how his coffin ‘bleeds’ on the journey. The official Yorkist version of events describes how Henry dies “of pure displeasure and melancholy” on hearing of the defeat at Tewkesbury – the death of Prince Edward and the capture of Queen Margaret has left the hopes of the Lancastrian dynasty in tatters. However, another chronicler, John Warkworth, is in no doubt that Henry had been “put to death, the twenty-first day of May… between eleven and twelve of the clock, being then at the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward”. This version has never been proved. Thomas More, notoriously hostile to Richard, could only claim that “as men constantly say” Richard had killed Henry “with his own hands”.
1472: February | Richard is rewarded for his service at Barnet and Tewkesbury with the Earl of Warwick’s estates and offices in the north. Set to replace Warwick as the pre-eminent northern nobleman, Richard wants more: in particular, he plans to marry Warwick’s daughter, Anne. This is opposed by Richard’s brother Clarence, who – being married to Warwick’s other daughter – is sole beneficiary of the earl’s inheritance. Richard retrieves Anne from Clarence’s custody and, despite being her cousin and brother-in-law, quickly marries her. This sparks a major row between the brothers. Richard wins the dispute, and takes half of Warwick’s possessions.
1475: June | Edward decides to raid France, launching the largest invasion force England has ever mustered. Richard brings 100 men-at-arms and 1,000 archers to add to Edward’s 15,000 strong army. However, when assistance promised by the Duke of Burgundy fails to materialise, Edward gets cold feet and instead in August chooses to sign the Treaty of Picquigny with the French king Louis XI, which provides the English king with a substantial annual pension. Richard, who has been hankering after military glory, is “not pleased by the peace” and does not attend the official ceremony. However, Richard does visit the French king shortly afterwards and is happy to receive “very fine presents, including plate and well-equipped horses”.
1476: 30 July | Richard, Duke of York is reburied at Fotheringhay after a nine-day procession in a huge, ornate hearse. He had been executed at Wakefield in 1460, his head displayed on a spike in York and his body placed unceremiously in a grave at Pontefract. Richard acts as chief mourner, leading the cortège of the coffins of his father and brother, Edmund, Duke of Rutland, along with several hundred mourners. The funeral is marked by an elaborate feast for 1,500.
1478: 18 February | The Duke of Clarence is executed – reputedly drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Unlike Richard, who is building a reputation as a stalwart of the Yorkist dynasty, Clarence was disenchanted with his own prospects, and seemed again to be flirting with rebellion. In 1477 he was arrested for his involvement in the death of one of his servants. Edward was determined to see his brother punished, and led the treason trial against him. According to one source, Richard is overwhelmed with grief at his brother’s death and vows to avenge it. Neverthless, he is still content to see Clarence’s title of Earl of Salisbury given to his own son, Edward of Middleham (b 1473) three days before Clarence’s death.
1482: 24 August | Richard seizes the castle at Berwick from the Scots after a short siege. War had erupted between England and Scotland during the early 1480s; in 1480, Richard was appointed lieutenant general of the north, leading several border raids. In June 1482, Richard leads a full invasion of Scotland with a force of around 20,000 men. This army devastates surrounding areas as it marches to Edinburgh in a bid to overthrow King James III and install the Duke of Albany as puppet ruler. In the end, Albany backs down. Richard’s seizure of Berwick for England is richly rewarded by Edward and remains perhaps his most lasting achivement.
1483: 9 April | Edward IV dies unexpectedly, leaving the throne to his 12-year-old son, proclaimed Edward V. It is clear that the new king will be led by his Woodville relations, particularly his governor Anthony, Earl Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville’s brother. The young king and Rivers depart Ludlow for the coronation, set for 22 June; Richard intercepts them at Stony Stratford on 29 April. Next day, Richard arrests Rivers and seizes the young king. Elizabeth flees into sanctuary, and Richard is proclaimed Protector of the Realm.
1483: 13 June | After a period of seeming stability, Richard calls a council meeting at the Tower of London, where William, Lord Hastings is accused of conspiracy and beheaded. Richard is now clearly determined to seize the throne, having detected a conspiracy: on 10 June, he had written to the city of York, asking for support “to aid and assist us against the Queen, her blood adherents and affinity, which have intended and daily doeth intend, to murder and utterly destroy us”. His young nephew Richard, Duke of York, is placed in the Tower, joining Edward V.
1483: 26 June | Richard seizes the throne, taking his seat in the king’s marble chair at Westminster Hall. The new king bases his claim on a revelation that Edward IV had made a ‘pre-contract’ for marriage with Eleanor Talbot in 1464, thus rendering his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville illicit and their children illegitimate. Richard is crowned on 6 July. Edward V is scrubbed from the records and referred to simply as ‘Edward the Bastard’.
1483: 29 July | Richard writes that several men have been arrested after an ‘enterprise’ is discovered. According to the chronicler John Stow, this may have been a failed attempt to free the princes in the Tower, and ultimately may have sealed their fate. Other sources suggest that the princes were murdered on the advice of the Duke of Buckingham; Thomas More suggests that Richard decided to have them killed while in Warwick during his summer progress. A lack of evidence means that the fate of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York remains unknown to this day.
1483: October | Richard receives news that a huge uprising is being planned by former household men of Edward IV with the intention of placing Henry Tudor on the throne. Richard is stung by the news that Henry, Duke of Buckingham, a previously loyal supporter, has joined the uprising. Declaring him “the most untrue creature living”, Richard crushes the rebellion, while floods prevent Buckingham from raising troops in Wales. Meanwhile, Henry Tudor sails from Brittany in the hope of landing near Plymouth. Forced to turn back, he is soon joined by hundreds of English exiles who flee abroad after the failed rebellion.
1484: January | Richard’s only parliament is finally called, with the purpose of passing legislation declaring his right to the throne. More than 100 rebels are attainted – their property and titles forfeit – providing a rich supply of patronage to reward the king’s northern supporters. Legislation includes xenophobic bills against Italian merchants trading in England, though customs duties on books are abolished, as is the practice of ‘benevolences’ – forced loans to the king. Bondsmen working on crown lands are also freed.
1484: 9 April | Edward of Middleham, Richard’s young son, dies two months after Richard orders his court to swear a new oath recognising Edward as heir tovthe throne. The king and his wife, Anne, are stunned. The Crowland Chronicler observes that “you might have seen his father and mother in a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief”. Richard is without an heir.
1484: May | Richard entertains the European nobleman Nicolas von Poppelau, who leaves the best first-hand account of the king and his court. For eight days Poppelau dines at the king’s table, recording how Richard tells him of wishes to crusade: “With my own people alone and without the help of other princes I should like to drive away not only the Turks, but all my foes.” Poppelau describes the king as “three fingers taller than I, but a bit slimmer and not as thickset as I am, and much more lightly built; he had quite slender arms and thighs, and also a great heart,” and how he “hardly touched his food, but talked with me all the time”.
1484: 7 December | Richard issues a proclamation against Henry Tudor and his followers, declaiming them as “open murderers, adulterers and extortioners contrary to truth, honour and nature” who would “do the most cruel murders, slaughters, robberies and disinheritances that ever were seen in any Christian realm”. Earlier, on Christmas Day 1483, Henry Tudor had sworn that he would take Elizabeth of York as his wife if he successfully invaded England. Henry won French backing and began to prepare a fleet, while intrigue in England continued. In December, William Colyngborne, a servant of Richard’s mother, was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered after being caught lampooning Richard’s key advisors.
1485: 16 March | Queen Anne dies after suffering from an illness, possibly tuberculosis. Rumours circulate that Anne has been poisoned; some add that Richard plans to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. At Christmas 1484, the Crowland Chronicler had noted how “vain changes of apparel … of similar colour and shape” were presented to Elizabeth as well as Anne. Richard’s rumoured plans are condemned by his advisers, who tell him that “if he did not abandon his intended purpose … all the people of the north, in whom he placed the greatest reliance, would rise in rebellion against him.”
1485: 7 August | Henry Tudor lands 30 ships at the opening of Milford Haven, a week after setting sail from France. Richard quickly hears news of Tudor’s landing – and is reportedly overjoyed. Believing that he will crush Henry, whose forces number only 2,000 or 3,000 and are dwarfed by the vast army gathered by the king at Nottingham, Richard delays his departure from the city to observe the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15 August.
1485: 22 August | Richard’s forces face Henry’s men on a patch of marsh known as ‘Redemore’, south of Market Bosworth. Richard’s army is twice the size of Henry’s but, as fighting begins, it becomes clear the king does not have the full loyalty of his army. Betrayed by Sir William Stanley, Richard makes a brave final charge at Henry but is hacked to death. His body is stripped and taken to Leicester, where it is later buried in the Grey Friars priory.
Chris Skidmore is a historian and politician, and the author of several books on late medieval and Tudor England. This timeline first appeared in the Richard III Special Edition from the makers of BBC History Magazine
Listen: Chris Skidmore, author of a major biography Richard III, offers his fresh take on some of the biggest debates surrounding the Yorkist king's life on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
6 myths about Richard III
Many myths persist about King Richard III. Did he murder the Princes in the Tower? Did he want to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York? In 2015 late historian John Ashdown-Hill responded to common charges levied at Richard III…
Richard was a murderer
William Shakespeare’s famous play, Richard III, summarises Richard’s alleged murder victims in the list of ghosts who prevent his sleep on the last night of his life. These comprise Edward of Westminster (putative son of King Henry VI); Henry VI himself; George, Duke of Clarence; Earl Rivers; Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan; Lord Hastings; the ‘princes in the Tower’; the Duke of Buckingham and Queen Anne Neville.
But Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Buckingham were all executed (a legal process), not murdered: Clarence was executed by Edward IV (probably on the incentive of Elizabeth Woodville). Rivers, Grey and Vaughan were executed by the Earl of Northumberland, and Hastings and Buckingham were executed by Richard III because they had conspired against him. Intriguingly, similar subsequent actions by Henry VII are viewed as a sign of ‘strong kingship’!
There is no evidence that Edward of Westminster, Henry VI, the ‘princes in the Tower’ or Anne Neville were murdered by anyone. Edward of Westminster was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury, and Anne Neville almost certainly died naturally. Also, if Richard III really had been a serious killer in the interests of his own ambitions, why didn’t he kill Lord and Lady Stanley – and John Morton?
Morton had plotted with Lord Hastings in 1483, but while Hastings was executed, Morton was only imprisoned. As for the Stanleys, Lady Stanley was involved in Buckingham's rebellion. And in June 1485, when the invasion of his stepson, Henry Tudor was imminent, Lord Stanley requested leave to retire from court. His loyalty had always been somewhat doubtful. Nevertheless, Richard III simply granted Stanley's request - leading ultimately to the king's own defeat at Bosworth.
Richard was a usurper
The dictionary definition of ‘usurp’ is “to seize and hold (the power and rights of another, for example) by force or without legal authority”. The official website of the British Monarchy states unequivocally (but completely erroneously) that “Richard III usurped the throne from the young Edward V”.
Curiously, the monarchy website does not describe either Henry VII or Edward IV as usurpers, yet both of those kings seized power by force, in battle! On the other hand, Richard III did not seize power. He was offered the crown by the three estates of the realm (the Lords and Commons who had come to London for the opening of a prospective Parliament in 1483) on the basis of evidence presented to them by one of the bishops, to the effect that Edward IV had committed bigamy and that Edward V and his siblings were therefore bastards.
Even if that judgement was incorrect, the fact remains that it was a legal authority that invited a possibly reluctant Richard to assume the role of king. His characterisation as a ‘usurper’ is therefore simply an example of how history is rewritten by the victors (in this case, Henry VII).
- Read more: Did fear drive Richard III to the throne?
It has frequently been claimed (on the basis of reports of a letter, the original of which does not survive), that in 1485 Richard III planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. There is no doubt that rumours to this effect were current in 1485, and we know for certain that Richard was concerned about them. That is not surprising, since his invitation to mount the throne had been based upon the conclusion that all of Edward IV’s children were bastards.
Obviously no logical monarch would have sought to marry a bastard niece. In fact, very clear evidence survives that proves beyond question that Richard did intend to remarry in 1485. However, his chosen bride was the Portuguese princess Joana. What’s more, his diplomats in Portugal were also seeking to arrange a second marriage there – between Richard’s illegitimate niece, Elizabeth, and a minor member of the Portuguese royal family!
Richard slept at the Boar Inn in Leicester
In August 1485, prior to the battle of Bosworth, Richard III spent one night in Leicester. About a century later, a myth began to emerge that claimed that on this visit he had slept at a Leicester inn that featured the sign of a boar. This story is still very widely believed today.
However, there is no evidence to even show that such an inn existed in 1485. We know that previously Richard had stayed at the castle on his rare visits to Leicester. The earliest written source for the story of the Boar Inn visit is John Speede [English cartographer and historian, d1629].
Curiously, Speede also produced another myth about Richard III – that his body had been dug up at the time of the Dissolution. Many people in Leicester used to believe Speede’s story about the fate of Richard’s body. However, when the BBC commissioned me to research it in 2004, I concluded that it was false, and I was proved right by the finding of the king’s remains on the Greyfriars site in 2012. The story of staying at the Boar Inn is probably also nothing more than a later invention.
Richard rode a white horse at Bosworth
In his famous play about the king, Shakespeare has Richard III order his attendants to ‘Saddle white Surrey [Syrie] for the field tomorrow’. On this basis it is sometimes stated as fact that Richard rode a white horse at his final battle. But prior to Shakespeare, no one had recorded this, although an earlier 16th-century chronicler, Edward Hall, had said that Richard rode a white horse when he entered Leicester a couple of days earlier.
There is no evidence to prove either point. Nor is there any proof that Richard owned a horse called ‘White Syrie’ or ‘White Surrey’. However, we do know that his stables contained grey horses (horses with a coat of white hair).
Richard attended his last mass at Sutton Cheney Church
It was claimed in the 1920s that early on the morning of 22 August 1485, Richard III made his way from his camp to Sutton Cheney Church in order to attend mass there. No earlier source exists for this unlikely tale, which appears to have been invented in order to provide an ecclesiastical focus for modern commemorations of Richard.
A slightly different version of this story was recently circulated to justify the fact that, prior to reburial, the king’s remains will be taken to Sutton Cheney. It was said it is believed King Richard took his final mass at St James’ church on the eve of the battle.
For a priest to celebrate mass in the evening (at a time when he would have been required to fast from the previous midnight, before taking communion) would have been very unusual! Moreover, documentary evidence shows clearly that Richard’s army at Bosworth was accompanied by his own chaplains, who would normally have celebrated mass for the king in his tent.
The late John Ashdown-Hill is the author of The Mythology of Richard III (Amberley Publishing, April 2015). This article was written by the late John Ashdown-Hill and was first published by HistoryExtra in March 2015
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