Richard the radical: was Richard III a champion of the people?

For centuries Richard III has been cast as a diabolical despot who would stop at nothing in pursuit of power. But, argues Matt Lewis, in reality Richard was a champion of the common man – and it was this that ultimately led to his downfall

Richard III

On 1 October 1472, Richard Williamson was on his way back from Riccall, near York, to his home in Howden. As he waited for the Barnaby ferry, he was set upon brutally by three brothers who cut off both his hands, severed one arm at the elbow, hamstrung him, robbed him of all he had and left him at the roadside to die. His widow, Katherine, managed to get the case heard in parliament because her local lord, the younger brother of King Edward IV, had taken an interest (and he would later campaign to bring the murderers to justice, as part of his attempts to cast out corruption).

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More than a decade later, that brother – then Richard, Duke of Gloucester – would become King Richard III, one of England’s most controversial monarchs. Although the Williamson case happened before he was king, it helps to scratch beneath the surface of what was going on in Richard’s only parliament, held between 23 January and 20 February 1484. It is a thread that allows us to stitch together an image of a progressive king whose policies caused his downfall. Not because he was a tyrant. Quite the opposite.

Richard had not been groomed for kingship from birth. He was the youngest son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Born in 1452, his childhood was a rough ride through the early Wars of the Roses. His family was dispossessed in 1459, then restored in 1460 when his father was made heir to Henry VI – making Richard suddenly fifth in line to the throne. By the end of that year, his father and brother Edmund were dead, and in the early months of 1461 his oldest brother deposed Henry VI to become the first Yorkist king, Edward IV. Richard, now second in line to the throne, was made Duke of Gloucester on 1 November 1461, aged nine.

Although Edward initially seemed to plan to set Richard up in the South West, the rebellion led by their cousin Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, in 1469–70 changed the political landscape. Warwick held the vast Neville lands in the north of England but fell out with Edward, drove him from the throne and replaced him with Henry VI – only for Edward to return in 1471, with Richard’s help, to win back his crown. Richard married Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville, and became the dominant power in northern England from the early 1470s. He had plenty of authority in the region and carved out a reputation for keeping the troublesome border with Scotland quiet as well as for providing good lordship to the area. By 1483, Richard was the most powerful nobleman in England. That year was one of seismic upheaval that would see him become king. But the supposed Damascene change in the 30-year-old to become a scheming, murdering despot is, in many ways, a myth.

As part of the story of Richard III, the parliament of 1484 is often glossed over. Traditional history will paint it as the wheels of government grinding away, detached from the monarch, or as a desperate bid for popularity to maintain an already slipping grip on the crown. Either way, it is inconceivable not only that Richard did some good but that he planned to do much more.

Other kings viewed parliament as a necessary evil, but Richard saw it as utterly vital

Yet Sir Francis Bacon, lord chancellor from 1618–21, was comfortable describing Richard III as “a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people”. Meanwhile, a striking number of the acts of Richard’s parliament are worthy of remark compared to his predecessors and successors, who often viewed parliament as a necessary evil. For them, it was a tax-raising mechanism that required some lubrication by offers to reform the monarch’s behaviour. Richard saw it as something very different and utterly vital. Parliament was a direct link to his people and a vessel through which he could serve them. That might not sound like the thoughts of the child-killing, murderous, usurping tyrant that traditional history has bequeathed to us, but it can be easily demonstrated.

A merchant measures fabric in a late 15th/early 16th-century painting
A merchant measures fabric in a late 15th/early 16th-century painting. Richard penalised all foreign traders, but Italians were treated particularly harshly. (Image by Bridgeman)

Champion of justice

Among the bills passed by parliament in 1484 are several that deal with matters of justice. The abolition of benevolences is perhaps the clearest place to see a bid for political backing. They were a hated form of taxation – effectively requiring a gift to the crown – invented by Edward IV in the lead-up to his invasion of France in 1475. The old king had kept them as a convenient way to raise cash without having to go through the hassle, and associated accountability, of asking parliament for taxation. Removing them from the royal playbook was undoubtedly popular with the wealthy, the kind of men from whom a king needed support. It was also financially dangerous, and parliament approved of the clear statement of the king’s aim to live within his means.

But Richard’s reasoning for abolishing benevolences was more nuanced than a simple snatch at easy popularity with the elite. They were inequitable – entirely at the whim of the king in timing and amount demanded – and equity was of paramount importance to the legally talented and socially aware Richard. He had taken a stand against fishgarths (industrial, river-blocking fish traps) in the north for the same reason: they were inequitable and indiscriminate.

There, he had challenged the will of those who operated the traps – exclusively the wealthier gentry and nobility – at the expense of the poorer men downstream and those trying to navigate waterways. In 1484, his interests happened to align with those of more affluent subjects, but they were still a continuation of his broader interest in justice. Edward had used benevolences to circumvent parliament and its pesky demands for reform and accountability. Here was Richard removing that easy avenue, promising that he would take the harder road of working with the Commons. If powerful men were relieved by the new law, it was a coincidence.

Richard’s concern for the common man and disdain for the social norms of his age are clear to see in the acts of his parliament. It is a thread that runs, uncut, from his time as Duke of Gloucester. The Williamson case came to parliament in the 1470s because the murderers’ father, Thomas Farnell, had entered Richard’s service. He planned to secure the kind of protection from legal consequences that those serving powerful nobles relied on and get his sons into service to ensure immunity for them.

By the 15th century, the system of livery and maintenance that had begun as a code of brotherhood to bind knights together had become corrupted. Nobles assembled vast private armies who wore their livery, the badge that identified them as lord’s man, in return for maintenance, which used to mean food and lodgings, but now often meant protection from the legal consequences of crimes and the freedom to indulge in thuggery and corruption.

Instead of accepting the killers and swelling his affinity, Richard ordered for the father to be sent to jail in York to await trial, and the bill asked parliament in 1472 to order the three sons to surrender or be found guilty in their absence. The request was granted, and the brothers were to appear before the court of King’s Bench, the highest criminal court in England. The act stated that if they were to fail to appear, they “shall stand and be convicted and attainted of the said felonies, murder and robberies”. Thomas was delivered for trial, but he secured bail after four months in Newgate Gaol. He was tried by jury a couple of months later and acquitted, meaning Katherine, Williamson’s widow, was fined 6s 8d for wrongly accusing him. His sons never came to trial, despite five proclamations issued at Howden through the 1470s summoning them. They were convicted in their absence but were never brought to justice for the murder.

Casting out corruption

Richard also championed bail reforms, which sought to root out corrupt practices that fell heaviest on the poorest. However, he did not, as is sometimes claimed, invent bail. The system appears in 1275 in the Statute of Westminster. In 1484, parliament described people being “arrested and imprisoned for suspicion of felony, sometimes of malice, and sometimes of light suspicion, and so kept in prison without bail”. Local officials were arresting those accused of crimes, often on little or no evidence, and sometimes on malicious charges, and denying them their right to bail. Richard gave justices the power to correct this by granting bail to anyone they found had been denied it wrongfully.

The second part of the reform was even more clearly in line with Richard’s desire to see equity and fairness. The act provided that no goods could be seized “before that same person, so arrested and imprisoned, be convicted”. Some officials had been taking an accused’s assets at the time of arrest and failing to return them, so a malicious charge might ruin a person. Not only was this made illegal, but the fine for continuing the practice was double the value of the goods taken, paid to the person from whom they were seized.

Jury composition received attention from Richard’s parliament, too. The measures may sound harsh to a modern ear when all are eligible for jury service, but they were a response to more evidence of corruption. Parliament heard of the injustices caused “by untrue verdicts given in inquisitions and enquiries before sheriffs in their turns, by persons of no substance nor behaviour, not dreading God nor the world’s shame”. Juries were being bought or bullied into returning a desired verdict. The new law required all jurors to hold freehold land worth 20s a year in the same county as the court sat, with a fine of 40s for every unqualified juror appointed. This benefited the poorest at the expense of those able to buy justice: wealthier jurors could not be bribed to give certain verdicts as easily as poorer jurors could.

The problem with viewing Richard’s parliament as no more than the working of government is that the measures are clearly in line with his long-held interests. Painting it as a desperate bid for popularity is untenable, too. Traditionally, parliament was a place where a king might ingratiate himself to those with the power to keep him on the throne. It meant bolstering the nobility and local gentry, turning a blind eye to the corruption that lined their pockets in order to buy their support. This parliament showed no signs of that at all.

Those who benefited most were the lower ranks of society, a class Richard had long been keen to support

Richard established an early form of legal aid, meant to provide access to the courts for those unable to afford it. The Court of Requests (a function of the Privy Council that slashed the costs of accessing legal help and sped up the process too) may have picked up threads that were already dangling around, but in December 1483, just before parliament opened, Richard sought to formalise it. Richard appointed a clerk with responsibility for processing applications so that those usually prevented from seeking legal redress by the cost and timescale involved could now obtain justice. It is a measure firmly in line with Richard’s previous actions and interest in justice for the common man. Those who benefited most were the lower ranks of society, an ill-treated class Richard had long been interested in supporting. Giving them more rights and greater equity meant dragging power away from those further up the social ladder, alienating those whose support a floundering, desperate king would most need.

The other focus of the public bills enacted in 1484 was trade, and the potential for a far-reaching plan can be discerned in them. English merchants could see plenty to encourage them in Richard’s parliament. Foreign traders were to pay around twice the duty on imports and exports that their English counterparts owed. They were also prohibited from importing a whole raft of items, including saddles, caps, gloves and blades. Italian merchants were singled out for special attention because Richard viewed them as a financial and security threat. They were legally required to sell all of their goods at wholesale prices to English subjects by 1 May 1485. With the proceeds of their sales, they had to buy English goods or forfeit their cash before leaving the kingdom.

England’s protector

The Lombards of northern Italy were the focus of even more draconian measures. Parliament heard about “the seditious confederacy of the Lombards”, importing low-quality bow staves and charging £8 per 100 instead of the old rate of 40s. This, parliament insisted, was a matter of national security, risking the military strength of English armies in the field. A new law required the import of 10 bowstaves of the correct quality with every barrel of malmsey or tyre (sweet wines enjoyed by the nobility) to ensure the English longbow remained a fearsome and reliable weapon. A fine of 13s 4d was set for every barrel not accompanied by suitable bowstaves. Interestingly, the one thing excluded from these isolationist and xenophobic measures was the book trade – something Richard, who had an extensive and well-thumbed personal library, nurtured.

These trade measures aimed to light a fire under the English economy, which had begun to pick up in the later years of Edward’s rule after years of stagnation in the wake of the end of the Hundred Years’ War and then the Wars of the Roses.

The focus on improving the position of merchants, alongside the measures that increased the justice available to those at the bottom of the social ladder, may hint at a larger scheme. The problems that had dogged England in the second half of the 15th century were exacerbated by the nobility’s use of the broken system of livery and maintenance to build substantial private armies. As much as it was a dynastic battle for the crown, the Wars of the Roses was a set of local feuds, between the Neville and Percy families, the Courtney and Bonville families, the Duke of Norfolk and the Paston family, and more. These local disputes were the fuel that kept the fires of civil war burning, and Richard may have seen a cure for the kingdom’s ills.

During his second reign, Edward IV had created hardly any new noblemen despite the decimation of the Wars of the Roses. Richard gave John Howard the dukedom of Norfolk which was rightfully his, but otherwise followed his brother’s policy. Henry VII would continue in the same vein. If there was a feeling that the old nobility, the old ways of doing things, were the problem, Richard might have seen a solution in the merchant classes. Self-made men, used to hard work, who would have no intention of wasting their money on retaining large armies, could offer the perfect foil to the gentry and nobility who were undermined by so much of parliament’s work in 1484. It might have been a sign of the political significance of early capitalism.

During his time as Duke of Gloucester, Richard had petitioned his brother the king for tax concessions for northern merchants and tried to establish a continental presence for them to rival that of London, so even this interest was not new. If there was a plan, these men would be needed to help lay a shoulder against the crumbling old structures of society and begin to shove them over, perhaps even to replace them. And parliament’s mercantile favour could only have encouraged them to align with Richard.

Alienated elites

In October 1483, it had been the gentry of the South East that had rebelled against Richard III’s rule. At Bosworth, it was more of the same men, many intimately associated with Edward IV’s government, who would take to the field against the king. Tradition holds that they did so in disgust at the thought that Richard had murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower. Given that they were the very class most affected by Richard’s deter mined efforts to drive out corruption, it is more likely they acted in self-interest as Richard’s policies disrupted their lucrative and comfortable lives. In parliament, Richard had criticised his brother for “delighting in adulation and flattery” and being surrounded by “persons insolent, vicious, and of inordinate avarice”. When he wrote to the bishops in March 1484, he insisted “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, provoking the high indignation and fearful displeasure of God to be repressed and annulled”.

His parliament was never a desperate bid for support. It was about fairness, equality and justice

His parliament was never about a desperate bid for support. It was about fairness, equality, justice and equity. Richard pursued these ends even though they alienated him from the precise classes whose support he needed. It was admirable, but a mistake: a miscalculation that probably cost Richard his crown and his life. The parliament of 1484 was about many things, but it was not a calculated bid to prop up a floundering king. Richard was, perhaps, a victim of his progressive policies; of his determination to reshape a kingdom, to make it better; and of men who had too much of a vested interest in the status quo to allow that to happen.

Matt Lewis is a historian, author and law graduate. His books include Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me (Amberley, 2018). He also appears on our podcast series, The Princes in the Tower. You can listen to all eight episodes now

Tune in to a BBC Radio 4 Great Lives episode in which Philippa Langley chose Richard III: bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b04wv045

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine