Ask most people what they know about Richard III and they will tell you he ruthlessly murdered his way to the throne that he coveted. Similarly, many accounts of the Wars of the Roses depict his father, Richard, Duke of York as the man whose ambition for the crown sparked civil war. Both father and son died in battle following acts now viewed as rash: the duke in December 1460 after sallying out at Wakefield before his reinforcements had arrived, and Richard III in August 1485 after a thundering cavalry charge at Bosworth. These are just two of the many parallels between the lives and experiences of this father and son that I was struck by while researching my biography of Richard Plantagenet.
Both men acted as protector of the realm: the duke twice during Henry VI’s illnesses and his son following King Edward IV’s death because the king’s son, Edward V, was a minor. Neither man was to be thanked for his efforts, which arguably raises questions about their ability to govern. The duke’s protectorates drew praise for his even-handedness and willingness to tackle long-standing problems, but both were cut short by the return to politics of Henry VI; the reforms were swiftly undone and Richard’s intentions were eyed with suspicion by the court, members of whom were largely disadvantaged by the changes.
Similarly, as Richard III’s protectorate morphed into a rule that lasted just two years it offered tantalising hints of a reforming intention that was left unrealised. It also shows a willingness to legislate in favour of the common man against the interests of the nobility that can be traced back to his time as Duke of Gloucester.
The enduring reputation of this father and son are similarly unsympathetic, and both ignore the true story of their lives. Richard, Duke of York served as Henry VI’s lieutenant in France on two occasions and then in Ireland. He performed both roles solidly, though unspectacularly. It was perhaps a measure of the state of the English kingdom in France that the best available outcome was mediocrity that avoided abject failure. The 1450s were spent trying to avoid the confrontations that became the Wars of the Roses, largely caused and fuelled by Lancastrian paranoia and infighting into which Richard was drawn.
In a striking parallel, Richard III spent more than a decade being unswervingly loyal to his brother, Edward IV. Without his younger brother, Edward might have found regaining and retaining his crown far more difficult. He may also never have tamed a north attached to the Neville faction deprived by Edward of its leading light, the ‘kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick. The Neville family and the Percy Earls of Northumberland were the two dominant and often feuding factions in the far north of England, given a long leash by their distance from the centre of power in London. Warwick had been instrumental in Edward IV acquiring his crown, but after a series of sleights (that may well have been deliberate) Warwick rebelled, joining the Lancastrian side and placing Henry VI back on his throne for six months.
Richard joined his brother in exile in Burgundy and later returned with him to win back the crown. At the battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471, Edward and Richard faced their cousin Warwick, defeating him in a conflict that cost Warwick his life. Richard then married Anne Neville, one of Warwick’s two daughters (the other daughter, Isabel, was already married to Edward and Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence) and was given the northern portion of Warwick’s inheritance. This kept a Neville presence in the region, thus drawing the sting from the body of a potentially unsettled faction.
Richard would spend much of his time over the next decade or so preventing Scottish border raids and championing the economic needs of York and the wider region, thus ensuring that he would be remembered as perhaps the greatest friend the north ever had.
Richard displayed a strong sense of duty and commitment to justice, frequently involving himself in legal disputes and defying the laws of feudalism. In 1472, Katherine Williamson of Howden (near York) appealed to parliament for the murderers of her husband to be prosecuted. Their father, who aided and harboured them, had sought to evade justice by entering Richard’s service, but as soon Richard learned of what the man had done he ordered his arrest, defying the accepted protocols of protecting members of a lord’s affinity.
Having earned his brother’s trust, Richard was appointed lord protector on the king’s death in April 1483. In the aftermath of Edward’s death several Woodville relatives of his queen [Elizabeth Woodville] were arrested and executed by Richard, as was the dead king’s best friend, Lord Hastings. Edward’s sons were declared illegitimate and Richard was asked to take the throne by a delegation of London’s dignitaries. These dramatic events saw Richard’s long-earned reputation as a pillar of Edwardian Yorkist government largely forgotten, and it was later lost forever in the mud of Bosworth Field.
Likewise, during the 1450s Richard, Duke of York twice served as protector of the realm (from 1453–54 and 1455–56) to general acclaim, but his track record counted for little once open war arrived in 1459. Indeed, he has traditionally been blamed as the driving force behind the Wars of the Roses, motivated by greed and ambition to pursue the crown for himself.
I would instead argue that he was more a casualty of an increasingly paranoid, faction-led government losing control of its country. The House of Lancaster imploded in the late 1440s, climaxing with the arrest of the king’s last surviving uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1447. Humphrey died in prison a few days later amid suspicion he was murdered, but it is clear that Henry had been caused to believe his uncle was plotting against him. The shockwaves of this collapse were the real root of the Wars of the Roses and Humphrey had identified Richard, Duke of York with his cause, dragging him into the escalating troubles and drawing the king’s suspicion.
The lasting reputation of the Duke and his son also serve very similar political ends. York is remembered as a ruthlessly ambitious man so that he can be blamed for the Wars of the Roses. He had to be the bad guy so that Henry VI (who Henry VII tried to have canonised) could be the good guy wronged by an evil subject.
Richard III, too, had to be consigned to the darkest pages of history so that Henry VII could be the man who liberated England from a tyrant. York was no ambitious grasper and Richard III wasn’t a tyrant by any measure. It is perhaps no accident that William Shakespeare conflated father and son to have his Richard III, as Duke of Gloucester, kill the Duke of Somerset at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455 – even though, in reality, Gloucester was only aged two-and-a-half at the time.
Few historical figures have been used as a morality tale and political warning like Richard, Duke of York and his son Richard III. Neither now lie where they were originally buried and both have struggled to shrug off the damning reputation that has tarnished their legacies. Being a king, Richard III has attracted far more attention than his father, with attempts both to confirm his evil reputation and to reassess it more positively. A generation before, his father was fighting similar battles and had suffered a comparable fate.
When researching Richard Plantagenet, I found a complex man: a surprisingly unwilling rebel and a man dedicated to his family in a way seen in few other medieval noblemen. Indeed, there is very little sign of the man history remembers in the facts of his life. I hope that my biography will place Richard, Duke of York firmly in the context of the world in which he lived and demonstrate that myth can so often overtake fact.
Matthew Lewis is the author of Richard, Duke of York: King by Right (Amberley Publishing, 2016)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016