Richard III’s Usurpation of the English Throne

It is not surprising that there was little opposition to the usurpation of Richard III to the English throne. The senior peerage had been hollowed out during Edward IV’s reign and the simultaneous minorities of the three Bourchier lords – the Earl of Essex and Barons FitzWarin and Berners – disempowered the only clan that might have been able to restrain Richard. Once the nobles of the court party were neutralized the remaining magnates either supported the coup or kept their heads down. Those whose titles and lands depended on royal favour as usual rushed to jump on the bandwagon.

On 20 July 1483, a mere two weeks after his coronation, Richard embarked on a grand progress through the kingdom, initially accompanied by Buckingham and throughout by his 21-year-old nephew John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, leaving Howard in charge of the capital. This was a signal mark of trust in a man twice his age (Richard was thirty, Howard about sixty) who had been one of Edward IV’s henchmen. Howard’s enthusiastic participation in the usurpation testifies to how deeply betrayed he had felt when Edward cheated him of his right of succession to the dukedom of Norfolk.

At Reading Richard issued a posthumous pardon to William Hastings and granted his widow Katherine née Neville custody of his estates and the wardship and marriage of their son. He also thought it magnanimous to assure Rivers’s widow that the lands she had brought into the marriage were safe, which should have been unquestionable. She received nothing from Rivers’s estate, all of which went to Howard over the coming days, without a shred of legal justification.

The royal party was at Viscount Lovell’s grand manor house at Minster Lovell when the fateful news arrived of the bungled plot to liberate the princes from the Tower. The next stop was Gloucester, where Buckingham departed for Brecon to assume his new role as Richard’s regime lock on Wales. Even after being awarded the half of the historic Bohun estate stolen by Henry IV, Buckingham must have known that he lacked the personal following to make a success of the appointment. He was riding for a fall, and according to Thomas More he knew the king had ordered the murder of his nephews before they parted company.

Richard was joined by Queen Anne at Warwick, and by their sickly 9-year-old son Edward at Pontefract, where Richard’s northern affinity gathered to honour the boy and to ride with their leader in a state entry to York at the end of August. This was the culmination of the progress, and Richard was to spend most of September in the city or in nearby Sheriff Hutton. On the 8th young Edward, already declared Earl of Salisbury, Duke of Cornwall and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was invested as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester in a ceremony so grand that it was described as a second coronation.

Richard declared Sheriff Hutton a royal residence for his sister’s son the Earl of Lincoln and for Clarence’s 8-year-old son Edward, Earl of Warwick. They were the next in line to the throne should Richard’s heir die before him, and it was probably an error to make such obvious preparation for the eventuality, however sensible it may have seemed to one obsessed with the purity of the York bloodline. It drew attention to the fact that the royal succession now rested with a single boy who could not even ride a horse for any great distance, instead of with Edward IV’s robust ‘heir and a spare’.

There was a religious sub-plot to the progress. At Tewkesbury Richard made a donation to the abbey as atonement for Edward IV’s breach of sanctuary, and at Pontefract he restored the landed endowment of the priory, rebuking his late brother for having taken it when it should have remained to support masses for the soul of Richard of York, buried there until 1476. He also ordered the construction of a chapel at Towton, where his father’s death had been avenged.

Strangely uncommented until Michael Jones joined up the dots in Bosworth 1485: Psychology of a Battle (2002), Richard also undertook to fund a massive chantry of 100 priests at York Minster. Chantries were often established to pray for the souls of the founders, and the size of Richard’s foundation meant that Masses for his soul would be conducted almost continuously. The coincidence of the foundation and the date of his nephews’ murder suggests that Richard wished to reduce the amount of time his soul would be spending in Purgatory.

Not the least of Richard’s early errors was to have sent a disrespectful reply on 18 August to a tentatively welcoming letter from King Louis XI. Louis died on the 30th, leaving the regency for his 13-year-old son Charles in the hands of his 22-year-old eldest daughter, Anne de Beaujeu. Richard’s letter would have been among the first she read and confirmed in her mind her dying father’s belief that Richard intended to reopen hostilities. In March 1484 she sent Bernard Stewart, Seigneur d’Aubigny and commander of the royal Garde Écossaise, to sign a treaty with the Scots renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’.

According to the Rolls of Parliament the leaders of the October 1483 rebellion ‘launched their enterprise’ on 24 September, as this was the day Buckingham joined them by writing to Henry Tudor with regard to an invasion on 18 October. However Buckingham was in no way an initiator or leader of the revolt. He was a Johnny-come-lately to a conspiracy among former servants of Edward IV, including but not led by the surviving Woodvilles.

The crucial point is that the conspirators chose to make the exiled Tudor their candidate for the throne, although Edward IV had regarded him as a threat to his dynasty and had tried to eliminate him. The rebels therefore were certain that Richard III had murdered his nephews, which opened the door for Henry Tudor’s mother Margaret Beaufort, Lady Stanley, to initiate contact with Elizabeth, and through her to a wider constituency united by hatred of the usurper.

While it is likely that Lady Margaret (through her confidential emissary Reginald Bray) and Buckingham’s Woodville wife played some considerable part in persuading him to turn his coat, another agent was Bishop Morton, his prisoner at Brecon. Given that Morton was Thomas More’s mentor, the subtly nuanced dialogue at the end of The History of Richard III, in which Morton turns Buckingham’s head by suggesting he might claim the throne himself, probably came from the episcopal horse’s mouth.

Of course this requires us to believe that Buckingham was a vain fool, a fair assumption in the light of his less than stellar career. Revulsion at the murder of the princes is not likely to have played any part in his decision to turn against the man whose willing accomplice he had been. More likely is that he belatedly realized that John Howard, not he, was going to be Richard’s right-hand man, and was galled that once more he was not going to play the role corresponding to his royal blood, high rank and even higher opinion of himself.

The most regime-threatening part of the conspiracy was among the Yeomen of the Crown, royal household servants and a key component of the London garrison, led by George Brown, Sheriff of Kent and stepson of the lately murdered Thomas Vaughan, who had carried the flag of St George at Edward IV’s funeral. Yeomen occupied a uniquely English place between esquires and commoners. The origin of the term may be ‘yewmen’, referring to the wood from which the longbow was made, and Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) described them as:

They that in times past made all France afraid, and albeit they be not called Master, as gentlemen are, or Sir, as to Knights appertaineth but onlie John and Thomas etc., yet have they beene found to have done verie good service, and the Kings of England in foughten battles were wont to remaine among them (who were their footmen) as the French Kings did amongst their horsemen, the Prince thereby showing where his cheefe strength did consist.

Henry Tudor was to recognize a very particular debt to them and in 1485 named them ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ with responsibility for guarding the Tower of London, a duty they perform to this day. The debt stemmed from their leading role in the 1483 revolt, for which Brown and five Yeomen of the Crown were put to death. The rest of the rebels in the South-East, including John Fogge, Richard Haute, the Earl of Essex’s younger son Thomas Bourchier, and Thomas Fiennes, grandson and heir to Joan, Baroness Dacre by right, either fled to join Henry Tudor in Brittany or accepted an offer of pardon.

One of the yeomen, William Bracher, betrayed his comrades to Howard and the ringleaders were rounded up on or about 10 October. Bracher also revealed that uprisings were planned in the South-West and the West Country to coincide with Henry Tudor’s arrival on 18 October with an invasion force of 5,000 mercenaries, replicating the Kingmaker’s 1470 invasion and paid for by Edward Woodville’s loot and 10,000 crowns [£1.3 million] from Duke Frañsez. The bombshell was that Buckingham intended to lead an army from Brecon to join them.

The astounding news reached Richard at Lincoln on the 11th, and the following day he wrote to Chancellor Russell calling Buckingham ‘the most untrue creature living’. Although he summoned troops to join him at Leicester on 21 October, for the time being Richard remained at Lincoln. On the 10th he had stayed with Thomas Burgh at Gainsborough Hall, when his host warned him there might by a local uprising.† The 1470 Lincolnshire rebellion began with an assault on Burgh’s manor, and he would have been alert to unrest among the Welles affinity. Richard would also have known that the broader Hastings affinity would move against him if the rebellion looked like succeeding.

As an experienced military commander Richard knew to remain in one place while intelligence reports came in, so his sojourn at Lincoln served a double purpose. Even after he set out, when he learned on the 20th that Lord Strange had departed Lathom in Lancashire at the head of a large force, he paused at Grantham until it was confirmed that Strange was not marching to join the rebels in the South-West. While he waited, nature took care of the rebellion for him.

On 15 October Richard proclaimed Buckingham a traitor and a prolonged storm of unusual violence struck south-western England. The storm kept Tudor’s fleet in port during the crucial week he was supposed to have crossed the Channel and also caused the river Severn to flood, preventing Buckingham from using the lower river crossings, while Humphrey Stafford of Grafton destroyed the bridges across the upper river. Bombarded by rain, Buckingham’s army, described by Polydore Vergil as Welshmen ‘whom he, as a sore and hard dealing man, had brought to the field against their wills, and without any lust to fight for him’, dissolved.

On 19 October Richard issued a further proclamation denouncing Dorset and Bishop Morton as traitors and putting a £1,000 [£636,000] price on Buckingham’s head. Bizarrely, Richard issued another denunciation of Dorset a few days later, accusing him of immorality and adultery with ‘Shore’s wife’, as though this would have meant anything to the general public. Richard obviously thought it would, although it is hard to imagine what constituency in bawdy England might have shared his obsessive prudery.

Buckingham marched his diminishing band to Weobley in Herefordshire in the hope of raising the Marches. Weobley belonged to Lord Ferrers of Chartley, and lay at the heart of the ancestral Yorkist domain that had turned out in force to defeat Jasper Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. Far from joining the rebellion, any doubts the Yorkist Marchers had about Richard were resolved. Led by Thomas Vaughan of Tretower, whose father had been beheaded by Jasper Tudor in 1470, they marched into Brecknock and captured Brecon Castle.

Buckingham went on to Shrewsbury, where he failed to enlist Gilbert Talbot, and then donned a disguise and rode north, perhaps hoping to find refuge with Lord Stanley in Lancashire. He stopped for the night at Wem, 10 miles north of Shrewsbury, at the home of his servant Ralph Banastre, who promptly betrayed him to Thomas Mytton, Sheriff of Shropshire.

The leaders of the rebellion in the South-West were Giles Daubeney and John Cheyne, later to be the only followers for whom Henry VII created new titles of nobility. Daubeney was a considerable landowner in Dorset and Somerset and was the first person in the area contacted by Reginald Bray, Lady Stanley’s emissary. The giant (6ft 8ins) Cheyne held lands in Wiltshire and Hampshire. He had been Edward IV’s Master of the Horse, and some of his men had been involved in the failed attempt to spring the princes from the Tower in early August.

Lionel Woodville, Bishop of Salisbury, was among those who fled to France when the rebellion collapsed, and Richard Woodville, who became Earl Rivers after Anthony’s murder, was attainted. Given that the king would not have given any Woodville the benefit of the doubt, it is highly indicative of Richard Woodville’s innocence that he did not flee and was later pardoned. Lionel’s flight simply confirms that he was a coward, something already indicated when he needlessly joined Elizabeth in sanctuary and then abandoned her. He died the following year.

The Woodville influence made itself felt through the female line. Elizabeth’s sisters were the mothers of the new Duke of Buckingham (aged 5 in 1483) and the future Earls of Essex (11), Kent (2) and Arundel (7). Finally, Lord Stanley’s heir George was Lord Strange through marriage to the dowager queen’s niece. Women could go where men dared not, and this was the network Lady Stanley tapped into when she made contact with Elizabeth in sanctuary and they agreed what became the unifying theme of opposition to Richard III: the marriage of her son Henry Tudor to Elizabeth’s namesake eldest daughter.

The rebellion in the South-West collapsed and the main conspirators fled to France before Richard, at the head of a considerable army, marched into the region. He arrived at Salisbury on 31 October, but found nobody to execute except Buckingham, brought from Shropshire and beheaded on 2 November. Richard could not stand to see him, perhaps as well because the duke’s heir later alleged that his father had a concealed dagger and meant to kill him.

It is not unusual for partners in crime to turn on each other, but Buckingham’s motivation remains a tantalizing mystery. He appears to have been mourned by none, and one cannot dismiss the suspicion that Bishop Morton and Lady Stanley wound him up principally to refute Richard’s claim that the ‘old blood’ of the English aristocracy supported his right to the throne.

There remained the rebellion in the West Country, whose principal movers were leading members of the Courtenay clan, notably Edward Courtenay of Bocconoc in Cornwall, heir to the attainted earldom of Devon, and Peter, Bishop of Exeter. Their allies the Luttrells of Somerset rose up on 2 November, the day that Henry Tudor arrived off Plymouth with two ships but found the port was in the hands of Richard’s men. Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, appears to have returned from exile to play some role, and Richard’s brother-in-law Thomas St Leger was one of the few who did not flee opportunely. He was executed on 13 November.

There was a subtext to the West Country rebellion that must have concerned Richard deeply. Among the rebels now in exile were Thomas Arundel, his brother-in-law Richard Nanfan, Sheriff of Cornwall, and Robert Willoughby of Broke, Sheriff of Devon. In 1460–1 Nanfan and John, Lord Dynham, had been comrades-in-arms, Arundel was Dynham’s brother-in-law, Willoughby his father-in-law – and Dynham himself was Lieutenant of Calais, whose garrison had all been members of murdered Lord Hastings’s affinity.

As he rode back from Exeter to London, Richard had much to think about. He had needed a cathartic Towton, but circumstances had denied him the opportunity. Overly fixated on the nobility, he must have been shocked to discover how deeply he was loathed by the essential cogs in the machinery of government – royal servants and the sheriffs and commissioners of array of southern England, none of whom had suffered by his usurpation.

Perhaps most of all he would have been profoundly shaken to learn that men like Nicholas Latimer, who had once followed his brother Clarence and who by Richard’s reckoning should have celebrated his overthrow of the bastard Edward’s line, were now making common cause against him with the followers of Clarence’s executioner, with unreconciled Lancastrians and even with the demonized Woodvilles. He had redeemed the House of York – how was it possible that so many once loyal Yorkists now supported Henry Tudor?

Psychopaths are polarizing individuals, mesmerizing to weak personalities but repulsive to those who can see them as they are. Richard commanded a loyalty from his northern retainers that went far beyond hope of gain, and clearly expected the same alchemy to work for him as king. It did not, and one of the reasons may have been that the personalities of his northern followers were pre-shaped by submission to the will of the no less psychopathic Kingmaker.

Nor should we overlook the fact that Richard was physically unimpressive, especially by comparison with his half-brother. Edward had also oozed charm – he was a seducer whose appeal was not limited to women, most clearly demonstrated by the manner in which he personally collected benevolences before the 1475 expedition. Richard had none of the easy self-confidence and common touch that had inclined people to be indulgent of Edward’s many but very human failings.

Like the father whose memory he worshipped, Richard thought he could command by divine right; and so he could, but only among those persuaded he had right on his side. There can have been few who genuinely believed that God could possibly endorse a man who shamed his mother, terrorized a recently widowed queen and climbed to the throne over the murdered bodies of well-regarded lords and innocent children.