Richard III Rules England

The brief, bloody reign of the usurper king Richard III produced important reforms, but his unpopularity with the English people, including the nobility, began when he evidently had his two young nephews murdered at the Tower of London. This led to his eventual defeat and death at Bosworth Field and to the accession of Henry VII as the first Tudor Dynasty king.

Summary of Event

After a young, mentally defective king ascended the throne of England in 1422, the country was plunged into near anarchy. By 1455, the king’s family, the house of Lancaster, and the rival house of York, both of which were descended from the sons of Edward III (r. 1327-1377), were locked into a conflict later called the Wars of the Roses, Roses, Wars of the (1455-1485) which would last thirty years. The Yorkist Yorkists symbol was reportedly a white rose, the Lancastrian Lancastrians symbol a red rose. Richard III
Henry VII
Edward V
Woodville, Elizabeth
Stafford, Henry
Edward IV (king of England)
Woodville, Elizabeth
Edward V (king of England)
Stafford, Henry
Elizabeth of York
Henry VII (king of England)
Richard III (king of England)

After eliminating the Lancastrian king, the Yorkist king, Edward IV (r. 1461-1470, 1471-1483), managed to hold the throne despite threats both from the Lancastrians and from his own party. When at his death he was succeeded by his twelve-year-old son, however, the Yorkists expected the real power to be wielded by the queen, Elizabeth Woodville, whom they disliked because of her Lancastrian ancestry, her less-than-noble birth, and her habit of seeing that her relatives were preferred at court. Richard, duke of Gloucester, Edward IV’s youngest brother and his loyal supporter during his lifetime, was determined to seize the throne. He believed that the queen’s unpopularity with the Yorkists would make it much easier for him to succeed.

In the late king’s will, Gloucester had been named protector and regent, so it was easy for him to have Edward V placed in the Tower of London, supposedly until his coronation, and then to convince Elizabeth Woodville that nine-year-old Richard should keep his brother company. Meanwhile, Gloucester argued that he was his father’s sole legitimate heir, circulating rumors that his own mother, a woman of unquestioned piety, had been an adulterer. He said also that because of a previous marriage on Edward IV’s part, all of Elizabeth Woodville’s children were illegitimate. Although few believed these allegations, no one wanted to oppose the usurper. On July 6, 1483, less than three months after Edward IV’s death, Richard, the duke of Gloucester, was crowned King Richard III.

In August, the little princes disappeared, and even those historians who are most sympathetic to Richard admit that he almost certainly had them murdered. The king provided for the succession on September 8, 1483, by having his only legitimate son, ten-year-old Edward, made prince of Wales. When the boy died the following April, there were those who whispered of divine judgment.

Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, whom the king had made Lord High Constable (commander in chief of England’s armed forces), led a rebellion against Richard, probably because he believed that no king as mistrusted as Richard could remain in power for any significant period of time. On October 11, the king learned from his spies that rebellions were imminent throughout the south of England on October 18, followed by attacks by mercenaries and the Welsh. The rebels would be joined by the Lancastrian pretender, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, another of Edward III’s descendants, who would land on the southwestern coast of England, accompanied by five thousand Breton mercenaries. The plot might well have succeeded, but unseasonable storms halted Buckingham’s progress by land and scattered Richmond’s fleet. By the time the pretender reached port, Richard’s troops were in place, and the pretender returned to the Continent.

After quelling the rebellion, Richard had certain rebels executed, including Buckingham, pardoned others to gain a reputation for generosity, and confiscated estates throughout the south of England. He then infuriated southerners by bestowing these lands and titles upon his friends from the north and also by placing northerners in administrative offices throughout the south.

Richard, however, had many of the qualities of a good administrator. He got along well with his parliament, and he persuaded them to pass some beneficial laws. For example, it was made illegal for a seller of land to conceal secret agreements that would cloud the title to the property and result in expensive lawsuits. Other measures protected Richard’s subjects against false accusations, made it easier for them to obtain bail, and safeguarded the property of those who were awaiting trial. Parliament also abolished the notorious “benevolences,” or forced loans to the king, that had impoverished some of England’s most prosperous individuals during the reign of Edward IV. Law;England

Richard also demonstrated his abilities in foreign affairs. He visited Ireland, and by his generosity there won the support of his peers and the Irish people alike. He successfully negotiated peace treaties with Scotland and Brittany, and he was even very close to having the Bretons hand over Henry Tudor, but the pretender was warned in time to make his escape to France.

At home, Richard tried to improve his image by surrounding himself with churchmen and scholars and by issuing pious pronouncements. He even tried to win over the Woodvilles by promising Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the murdered princes, that he would cherish her daughters and see them married to peers of the realm. Richard had an immediate problem, though: His son was dead, he had no heir, and his queen was evidently barren and also very ill. Callously, Richard began a scandalously bold courtship of the sister of the dead princes, his niece, Elizabeth of York. The court was shocked by this and by his clear desire to see his wife die. His cruelty toward the queen undoubtedly hastened her death; it was even rumored that he had poisoned her. The rumors were so widely circulated that Richard had to deny the allegation publicly. Moreover, he was forced to assert that he had never wanted to marry Elizabeth, and to support his declaration, he sent her away from court.

Meanwhile, Lancastrians and Yorkists were gathering around the pretender. On August 7, 1485, Henry Tudor landed in South Wales with a large contingent of French mercenaries and several hundred English exiles. Though many Welshmen joined him as he marched eastward, he reached Bosworth Field Bosworth Field, Battle of (1485) with less than half the men that were under Richard’s command. When the battle began early on the morning of August 22, it seemed certain that Richard would win. Several nobles, however, who had been vacillating as to which side they would support, joined Henry’s forces at a crucial time, thus ensuring his success. Though Richard fought bravely, he was killed, his army fled, and the pretender was crowned Henry VII. Richard’s corpse was beheaded, stripped, mangled, and carried to Leicester to be displayed and then thrown into a pauper’s grave.


With the death of Richard III and the subsequent marriage of the new Lancastrian king to the Yorkist princess Elizabeth, the Wars of the Roses ended. However, Richard is still the subject of controversy. In his play Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593), William Shakespeare followed the lead of the earlier writer, Sir Thomas More, who portrayed Richard as a bloodthirsty tyrant. Many later historians have agreed, though others have argued that such an interpretation was Tudor propaganda rather than truth. Fictional works such as Josephine Tey’s mystery The Daughter of Time (1951) and Sharon Kay Penman’s historical novel The Sunne in Splendour (1982) convince readers that Richard was a good person and a conscientious king. The Richard III Society, boasting thousands of members, works tirelessly to rally support for their maligned hero. Richard III ruled for two years only and died defeated, but he remains one of the best-known monarchs in British history.

Further Reading

  • Cunningham, Sean. Richard III: A Royal Enigma. Kew, England: National Archives, 2003. An objective account of Richard’s reign, supported by reproduced extracts from surviving letters and state papers.
  • Fields, Bertram. Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes. New York: ReganBooks, 2000. A well-known entertainment lawyer applies modern courtroom techniques to his subject.
  • Gillingham, John, ed. Richard III: A Medieval Kingship. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Seven leading fifteenth-century scholars consider how established political and governmental frameworks shaped the reign of Richard III and influenced his subjects’ attitude toward him.
  • Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. London: Allen & Unwin, 1955. Argues that, though flawed, Richard was no monster. One of the most important works written in his defense.
  • Ross, Charles. Richard III. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Another major defense of Richard. Insists that he was intelligent, pious, and a fine administrator.
  • Seward, Desmond. Richard III: England’s Black Legend. 1984. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1998. The writer of this superbly written study explains why he believes that Richard was indeed as evil as his long-standing reputation.

1455-1485: Wars of the Roses

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England