An Incestuous Passion

IN 1484 ELIZABETH of York was eighteen. In looks she resembled her mother, but her long red-gold hair was inherited from her Plantagenet forebears. Of medium height, she had ‘large breasts’, according to one Portuguese ambassador, and extant portraits of her show that she must have been very comely in her youth: a Venetian envoy to the court of Henry VII called her ‘very handsome’. Vergil later described her as ‘a woman of such character’. She was intelligent, pious and literate, could speak French and a little Spanish, delighted in music, card games and gardens, and was renowned for her skill at embroidery. Of gentler nature than her mother, she had nevertheless inherited her father’s sensual and passionate nature, and at eighteen she was long past the age at which princesses were usually married. Commines records a rumour circulating in 1484 that Richard III had considered marrying Elizabeth to Bishop Stillington’s bastard son, but this almost certainly had no basis in fact, nor would such a marriage have complied with the terms of the King’s undertaking to Elizabeth Wydville.

By the end of 1484 it was clear that Queen Anne was a sick woman, unlikely to have any more children, and probably not long for this world. Elizabeth Wydville, following her usual pragmatic instincts, and having now abandoned her hopes of Henry Tudor, saw some advantage for her daughter and herself in this situation, for if Anne died, as seemed likely, the King would be expected to marry again in the hope of providing for the succession. In such circumstances, who better to mate with him than the Lady Elizabeth, regarded by many as the rightful heiress of the House of York? Marriage to her would place Richard III in an unassailable position: as husband of the woman many people regarded as the lawful Queen of England he would enjoy the unchallenged right to wear the crown. Elizabeth would be accorded her rightful rank and dignity and, even more to the point, Elizabeth Wydville could expect to be restored to power and influence as the mother of the Queen Regnant. For all the former Queen’s ambition, it must have cost her dearly to contemplate marrying her daughter to the man who had murdered her sons, but with such advantages in view, scruples had to be suppressed.

In December, says Croyland, ‘the lady Elizabeth was, with her four younger sisters, sent by her mother to attend the Queen at court at the Christmas festivals kept with great state in Westminster Hall. They were received with all honourable courtesy by Queen Anne, especially the Lady Elizabeth, who was ranked familiarly in the Queen’s favour, who treated her as a sister. But neither the society that she loved, nor all the pomp and festivity of royalty, could heal the wound in the Queen’s breast for the loss of her son.’

With Anne ill and preoccupied with her grief, Richard – himself in need of comfort – began to look to his attractive, buxom niece for solace. The sensual streak in his nature perhaps recognised something similar in hers, and it was only a matter of days before a passionate attraction was kindled between the two of them. Elizabeth may have initially approached her uncle with feelings of distaste: later chroniclers all assure us she had been devoted to her brothers. But she was also ambitious, like her mother, and she had recently been thwarted of her chance of a crown as the wife of Henry Tudor. Now the prospect of queenship was opening up once again. Not only was the Queen ailing but there was also talk of the King having their marriage annulled in order to remarry and beget more sons. He might soon be a free man. On a personal level, Richard had the charisma and appeal of one who enjoys and wields power, an older and experienced man who well knew how to charm a young girl. When courtiers observed how things stood between the King and his niece, the rumours of an impending royal annulment proliferated.

Richard’s interest in Elizabeth of York was not purely sensual: he, too, had perceived the enormous advantages of a union with her. Henry Tudor’s determination to marry her and claim the crown through her, ignoring the provisions of ‘Titulus Regius’, could not have failed to bring these advantages to Richard’s notice. If Henry could strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying Elizabeth, so could he, Richard, even if it meant reversing his own Act of Settlement and legitimising her. The King’s determination to marry his niece is virtual proof, if any were needed, that the precontract story on which his title was based was pure invention. Had it been true, Richard would not now have been contemplating the marriage to strengthen his position. His pursuit of Elizabeth was not only a tacit acknowledgement of the widespread recognition of her as the rightful queen, but also amounted to confirmation that the Princes were dead. Marriage to her would crush Henry Tudor’s pretensions once and for all, and it would hopefully silence the ever-present rumours about her brothers. It would stabilise Richard’s tenure of the throne, enlist the Wydvilles on the side of the Crown, and in every way make sound political sense.

It is clear from the evidence available that Elizabeth attracted the attentions of her uncle in a remarkably short time, and that by January 1485 this was apparent to observers at court. Croyland tells us that ‘the Feast of the Nativity was kept with due solemnity at the Palace of Westminster and the King appeared with his crown on the day of the Epiphany’ (6th January). Then a note of clerical disapproval creeps in:

It must be mentioned that, during this Feast of the Nativity, immoderate and unseemly stress was laid upon dancing and festivity, vain changes of apparel of similar colour and shape being presented to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth, a thing that caused the people to murmur and the nobles and prelates greatly to wonder thereat. It was said by many that the King was bent, either on the anticipated death of the Queen taking place, or else by means of a divorce, for which he supposed he had quite sufficient grounds, on contracting a marriage with Elizabeth, whatever the cost, for it appeared that no other way could his kingly power be established or the hopes of his rival put an end to. There are also many other matters which are not in this book because it is shameful to speak of them.

Croyland, writing in 1486, would not have committed to paper anything compromising about the new Queen of England, Elizabeth of York. Instead, he would represent Richard III as the villain of the piece and, ever discreet, was probably implying in this last sentence there was more to the relationship between uncle and niece than political advantage. With the passage worded as it is it appears that the chronicler is trying to convey that there was already a sexual relationship of some nature. Croyland’s reticence leads us to believe that there were more grounds for conjecture than just the similar gowns given by Richard to his wife and niece, for this by itself would hardly have provoked such disapproval. And Croyland’s statement that Richard supposed he had sufficient grounds for divorce is indicative that the matter had already been discussed, perhaps in Council.

Whilst the King ‘was keeping this festival with remarkable splendour’ in Westminster Hall and the court hummed with speculation, ‘news was brought to him from his spies beyond the sea that, notwithstanding the potency and splendour of his royal estate, his adversaries would, without question, invade the kingdom during the following summer’. Richard answered that, ‘than this, there was nothing that could befall him more desirable’.

News of the coming invasion made the idea of marriage with his niece not only desirable but urgent, and in the days after the Epiphany the King’s courtship became more ardent. Buck believed his desire was ‘feigned’, but most of the evidence is to the contrary and shows that he had every intention of making Elizabeth his wife as soon as he was free to do so. Croyland would later refer to Richard’s ‘incestuous passion’ for her and throughout strongly implies that the King was motivated by passion as much as ambition. Molinet even alleged that Elizabeth bore a child by him, though there is no evidence for this, but it may well have been at this time that Richard gave Elizabeth his copy of The Romance of Tristan (now in the British Library), which bears not only his name but her motto and signature also: ‘Sans removyr, Elizabeth’. The book cannot have come into her possession later on because when she was queen she always signed herself ‘Elizabeth ye Queen’, while her usual signature before 1486 was ‘Elizabeth Plantagenet’.

Elizabeth was under considerable pressure from her mother and her half-brother Dorset to respond to the King’s advances, but there is good evidence that this pressure was unnecessary and that she had already become emotionally involved. How she reconciled this with the fact that Richard had murdered her brothers is not known; the simplest explanation must be that he somehow convinced her that he was innocent of the deed, a lie that a girl in the throes of infatuation would be only too willing to believe. The fact that she could contemplate such a marriage shows her to have been as much of a pragmatist as her mother and confirms that her ambition to wear a crown was greater than her grief for brothers who might never have been close to her.

Croyland says that ‘the King’s determination to marry his niece reached the ears of his people, who wanted no such thing.’ Vergil states that when Henry Tudor, in France, learned what was afoot, the news ‘pinched him to the very stomach’, and he was even more downcast when he heard that Richard proposed to marry Elizabeth’s sister Cecily to an unknown knight so that Henry should be baulked of yet another Yorkist princess. The three youngest girls, Anne, Katherine and Bridget, were too young to be considered seriously as prospective brides, and while Elizabeth of York lived the dynastic claims of her sisters were secondary to hers anyway. Henry, in desperation, now made a bid to marry Maud Herbert, daughter of his former guardian, hoping thereby to enlist Welsh support for his cause, but Maud could not bring Henry a crown as her dowry and was therefore a poor substitute for the Yorkist heiress.

Contrary to popular belief, at that time a marriage between uncle and niece was permitted by the church provided a dispensation was obtained beforehand. When Richard III’s contemporaries condemned his intended marriage as unlawful and incestuous, it became clear that the path to wedded bliss would be littered with obstacles, though people anticipated that Richard would sweep these aside and have what he wanted. But, says the chronicler Hall, ‘one thing withstood his desires. Anne, his queen, was still alive.’

As the affair between Richard and Elizabeth progressed, so did Anne’s illness. Croyland writes that a few days after Epiphany ‘the Queen fell extremely sick, and her illness was supposed to have increased still more and more because the King entirely shunned her bed, claiming that it was by the advice of his physicians that he did so. Why enlarge?’

The Queen’s illness was terminal and was probably caused by either tuberculosis or cancer. It conveniently freed Richard from his marital obligations and left him with more opportunities to pursue Elizabeth. Hall says that Anne, ‘understanding that she was a burden to her husband, for grief soon became a burden to herself and wasted away’. Both Croyland and Hall agree that her condition was exacerbated by her husband’s neglect and callousness, for he made it quite plain that she was of no further use to him and that he was just waiting for her to die. Hall adds that, even when he knew she was dying, Richard ‘daily quarrelled’ with her ‘and complained of [her] for [being] barren’. Vergil says that, after abstaining from her bed, the King complained to Archbishop Rotherham about Anne’s ‘unfruitfulness’, showing himself most distressed about it, and probably paving the way for an annulment if death should not intervene quickly enough. Rotherham was sympathetic but he tactlessly spread the word about that the Queen ‘would suddenly depart from this world’. According to Vergil, Richard was also broadcasting the Queen’s imminent demise and spreading rumours deliberately calculated to reach Anne’s ears, so that she would, literally, be frightened to death.

Sometime in February 1485, when the Queen was dressing one day, one of her ladies told her there was a rumour in the court that she had died. Desperately afraid, and ‘supposing that her days were at an end’, Anne went straight to her husband, with her hair still unbound, and in tears ‘demanded of him what cause there was why he should determine her death. He soothed her, saying, “Be of good cheer, for in sooth ye have no other cause.”’ Although Vergil recounted this story much later it is corroborated by Croyland who states that Richard used psychological means to hasten Anne’s death, and is in keeping with the other evidence. It also, interestingly, shows that the Queen believed her husband to be capable of murder.

Anne had good cause for believing that Richard desired to be rid of her, and was under no illusions about him waiting for her to die so that he could marry again and have more children. She may also have been aware of his adulterous designs on Elizabeth of York.

Just how far this affair had progressed is made clear by Richard’s Jacobean apologist, George Buck, who says that ‘when the days of February were gone, the Lady Elizabeth, being very desirous to be married and growing impatient of delays, wrote a letter to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, intimating first that he was the one in whom she most affied [trusted], because she knew the King her father much loved him, and that he was a very faithful servant unto him and to the King his brother, then reigning, and very loving and serviceable to King Edward’s children. She prayed him, as before, to be a mediator for her in the cause of the marriage to the King who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in this world, and that she was his in heart and in thought, in body and in all. And then she intimated that the better part of February was past, and that she feared the Queen would never die. And all these be her own words, written with her own hand, and this is the sum of her letter, whereof I have seen the autograph or original draft under her own hand.’ Buck observed in conclusion that ‘this young lady was inexpert in worldly affairs’.

Unfortunately the letter no longer survives; Buck’s report of its contents is the only version of it we now have. Buck stated he had seen the original, ‘that princely letter’, in the Earl of Arundel’s ‘rich and magnificent cabinet, among precious jewels and more monuments’. Arundel was one of Norfolk’s descendants and Buck’s patron, to whom Buck dedicated his history of Richard III, and it was with pride that he showed Buck this letter, a precious family heirloom. Over the years many writers have dismissed it as an invention by Buck, but it is hardly likely that he would have involved the Earl of Arundel in such a deception, nor made up something so open to disproof by the Earl. There was no reason why Buck should have invented the letter, which shows his hero, as well as Arundel’s ancestor, in no very good light; nor would it have been politic to portray Elizabeth of York, through whom the then King, James I, derived his title, as an adulteress. Certainly no-one would have considered forging such a letter in Tudor times, when Elizabeth’s son and grandchildren sat on the throne. Buck was diligent in his research and weighed his sources painstakingly. The text he quotes bears striking similarities to other letters written by high-born ladies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, especially one written by Cecily, Marchioness of Dorset, which contains the phrase, so similar to that in Elizabeth’s letter, ‘I have none help in the world but him only.’ Nor was it unusual for women to write in such emotional terms, as the early letters of Katherine of Aragon bear witness. Moreover, the contents of the letter, as quoted by Buck, are corroborated by Croyland. It is only later Tudor sources such as Vergil and The Song of the Lady Bessy, that stress Elizabeth’s aversion to the idea of marriage with Richard III. There is no reason, therefore, to dismiss this letter as an invention; on the contrary, it has all the hallmarks of authenticity.

Two versions of Buck’s history exist, each with the letter worded differently. In 1646 Buck’s nephew and namesake published a savagely abridged and inaccurate edition of his uncle’s work, the only one available until 1979, when the eminent historian A.N. Kincaid produced a fine version faithful to Buck’s original text. This second version, from which the above letter is quoted, shows two significant amendments to the 1646 text of it, which show that the nature of the relationship between Richard III and Elizabeth of York was far different from what historians had assumed up until 1979.

Firstly, the 1646 edition states that Elizabeth required Norfolk to be a mediator ‘to the King in respect of the marriage propounded between them’, which led many writers mistakenly to conclude that Richard was an unwilling participant in the affair and that his feigned pursuit of his niece was only a ploy to discountenance Henry Tudor. Buck’s original text actually reads that Elizabeth prayed Norfolk, ‘as before, to be a mediator for her in the cause of the marriage to the King’, and does not specify with whom he was to mediate: because of her previous request, Elizabeth assumes that Howard will know to whom she is referring. Clearly it is not the King, for the letter is proof that her feelings were very much reciprocated, as Croyland confirms; it was likely to have been either one of several prominent doctors of divinity and canon law whom we know were summoned by the Council to pronounce on the feasibility of a dispensation, or one of the councillors close to the King who were known to be violently opposed to the marriage, seeing it conflicting with their own interests. Elizabeth was hoping to put pressure on these men and thereby ensure a happy outcome.

The second amendment concerns the intimate nature of her relationship with the King, and indicates that Elizabeth was already a willing partner in an adulterous liaison. In the 1646 version she states that ‘she was his in heart and thought’, but the original text shows ‘that she was his in heart and thought, in body and in all’, proof that the relationship was a sexual one. It was not unusual then for couples to live together quite honourably on the strength of a formal promise to wed followed by sexual intercourse, but in this case Richard had a wife still living and that arrangement could not apply. Elizabeth’s relationship with him was at best adultery. Her telling comment that Richard was her ‘only joy and maker in this world’ implies that she was otherwise at a very low ebb, which is understandable considering how circumscribed her life had been during the previous two years. Maybe the stigma of bastardy had caused her to lose sight of her own worth. Whatever the reason for her surrender, it had brought her both joy and pain, and now she was so deeply involved that she could view the continuing existence of Richard’s sick wife as no more than an obstacle to her own future happiness and the fulfilment of her ambitions.

Anne was now very ill indeed. It is possible that the King, spurred on by his dynastic ambitions, his passion for his niece, and the knowledge that Henry Tudor would invade in the summer, took steps to hasten her end. The man who had murdered two children would not have hesitated to dispose of an ailing and unwanted wife, especially when she was known to be dying anyway and there was little chance of anyone proving his guilt.

On 16th March, 1485, Anne died during a great eclipse of the sun. Nine days later she was buried in Westminster Abbey, says Croyland, ‘with no less honour than befitted the interment of a queen’ in an unmarked grave in front of the sedilia by the ancient tomb of Sebert, King of the East Saxons. Croyland says her husband wept openly by her grave.

But London was vocal with rumours. The Acts of Court of the Mercers Company record that there was ‘much simple communication among the people, by evil-disposed persons, showing how that the Queen, as by consent and will of the King, was poisoned, for and to the intent that he might then marry and have to wife Lady Elizabeth’. The Great Chronicle of London states there was ‘much whispering among the people that the King had poisoned the Queen his wife, and intended with a licence purchased to have married the eldest daughter of King Edward’. It goes on to say that even the King’s northern stalwarts, ‘in whom he placed great reliance’, willingly imputed ‘to him the death of the Queen’, and there was much ‘whispering of poison’ among them. These are authentic reports of rumours circulating at the time of the Queen’s death; given his previous notoriety, people had no difficulty in believing that Richard had murdered his wife. Later allegations of poison were therefore based on what was regarded as credible at the time and not on so-called Tudor propaganda.

John Rous, who devotedly chronicled all the deeds of the Neville family, believed the rumours: ‘Lady Anne, his queen, he poisoned,’ he wrote. Commines, in France, heard the rumours and later recorded how ‘some said he had her killed’. The Song of the Lady Bessy also alleges that Richard poisoned and ‘put away’ his wife. Vergil, having heard how he had tried to hound her to death by other means, wrote: ‘But the Queen, whether she was despatched by sorrowfulness or poison, died.’ And Edward Hall, years later, stated: ‘Some think she went her own pace to the grave, while others suspect a grain was given her to quicken her in her journey to her long home.’

After Anne’s death, says Croyland, Richard’s ‘countenance was always drawn’. More tells us that a mutual acquaintance told him that, from this time onwards, the King ‘was never quiet in his mind, never thought himself secure, his hand ever on his dagger. He took ill rest at nights.’ He was now more hated and distrusted by his subjects than ever before, and had alienated most of the nobility and gentry. His courtiers found his dogged attention to business tedious; he had the reputation of being over-meticulous and some, such as Sir William Stanley, disparagingly referred to him as ‘Old Dick’ behind his back. The majority of his contemporaries regarded him as a treacherous hypocrite of whom they were wise to be fearful.

The marriage between Richard III and Elizabeth of York never took place. The rumours that Richard had poisoned his queen so that it could be accomplished made it impossible for him to carry through his plans. The rumours perturbed him deeply, for he had seen their effect in the past and knew that his throne was too unstable to survive another scandal. If he made Elizabeth his queen it would only serve to fuel the rumours and might lose him valuable support when he most needed it.

The majority of Richard’s Council were violently opposed to the marriage. Croyland says that when ‘the King’s purpose and intention [was] mentioned to some who were opposed thereto, the King was obliged to summon a Council and exculpate himself by denying profusely that such a thing had ever entered his mind. There were some persons however, present on that Council, who very well knew the contrary’ – including, presumably, Croyland himself:

Those who were most strongly against the marriage were two men whose views even the King himself seldom dared oppose: Sir Richard Ratcliffe and William Catesby. By these persons the King was told to his face that if he did not abandon his intended purpose and deny it by public declaration, all the people of the north, in whom he placed the greatest trust, would rise in rebellion and impute to him the death of the Queen, through whom he had first gained his present high position, in order that he might gratify his incestuous passion for his niece, something abominable before God.

Again, Croyland is implying a sexual relationship. ‘For good measure they brought him 12 doctors of divinity who asserted that the Pope could grant no dispensation in the case of such a degree of consanguinity.’ This was not strictly true but in the climate of the time people were willing to believe it.

Croyland says there were other, more personal, reasons for the objections of Catesby and Ratcliffe. ‘it was widely assumed that these two, and others like them, raised so many obstacles out of fear, because if Elizabeth became queen, it would be in her power sooner or later to avenge the deaths of her uncle, Earl Rivers, and her brother Richard [Grey]’, and punish those, such as Ratcliffe, who had been involved in their deaths. The very real fear felt by Ratcliffe and Catesby is testimony to the general belief of the councillors that Elizabeth of York was capable of such vengeance. After all, she had not scrupled to involve herself with the King while his wife lay dying. Some councillors feared her because of her Wydville mother and would have placed any obstacle in the way of that faction’s return to favour. Some northern councillors had been given confiscated Wydville lands by the King and feared to lose them. Vergil says that the Council was opposed to the marriage mainly because ‘the maiden herself opposed the wicked act’, but contemporary evidence does not bear this out. Vergil, writing in Tudor times under royal patronage, could hardly have accused the wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII of having wished to marry Richard III; his job as official historian was to exonerate her from all culpability.

Richard, says Croyland, followed the advice of his councillors. Two weeks after Anne’s death, ‘a little before Easter, in the great hall of St John’s [Hospital at Clerkenwell] and before the Mayor and citizens of London, the King totally repudiated the whole idea in a loud, clear voice.’ The Acts of Court of the Mercers Company record that he ‘showed his grief and displeasure and said it never came in his thought or mind to marry in such manner-wise, nor willing nor glad of the death of his queen, but as sorry and in heart as heavy as man might be’. He then commanded his subjects to cease all discussion of the matter on pain of his displeasure and imprisonment, while he investigated whence the rumours originated. Letters reiterating his public denial were sent to major towns and cities such as York and Southampton.

The King’s statement was seen as a public humiliation. Few were deceived by it; Croyland says ‘people thought it was more because of his advisers’ wishes than his own’.

Hell, it is said, hath no fury like a woman scorned. Richard’s public denial that he had ever planned to marry her deprived Elizabeth of York of her lover, her matrimonial prospects, and the crown which she felt was hers by right. Richard probably made it clear that their affair could not continue because of the scandal it would create. She was abandoned and dishonoured with no immediate prospect of ever regaining her rights. Within an indecently short time the King was considering other matches for her, with the Earl of Desmond or the Portuguese Duke of Beja, while he himself was negotiating to marry Juana of Portugal. It was as if the close relationship between them had never existed.

Not for nothing her mother’s daughter, Elizabeth was both ambitious and determined. Twice she had aimed for a crown and twice she had been thwarted, but this second disappointment was made all the more bitter by Richard’s rejection of her. Now her infatuation for her uncle metamorphosed into vengeful hatred, and she firmly resolved to place her hopes once more in Henry Tudor and do all in her power to ensure the success of his planned enterprise.

According to The Song of the Lady Bessy, Elizabeth waylaid Lord Stanley at court and asked him to come secretly to her rooms at night. He refused, whereupon Elizabeth staged a dramatic swoon which made him realise that it might be wiser if he went along with her request. Accompanied only by his esquire, Humphrey Brereton, the author of the poem, he visited Elizabeth in secret and began plotting with her on Henry Tudor’s behalf. Elizabeth Wydville, baulked of a restoration to power, joined the conspirators, and together with Margaret Beaufort persuaded Elizabeth to send Henry a letter and a ring to signify that she was still willing to become his wife, should he take the crown. The Song of the Lady Bessy may exaggerate Elizabeth of York’s role in the conspiracies that preceded Henry Tudor’s invasion, but there is no reason to doubt that she took part in them. It also portrays her as revolted by the idea of marriage with Richard III, and that is probably the impression she desired people to gain, to save her honour and reputation.

Richard III may well have discovered that Elizabeth was now working against him. Sometime between the end of March and June he sent her to live at the royal household at Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire. In that secure stronghold she would be out of Henry Tudor’s reach should he attack in the South, and away from those persons of whom Richard was suspicious.

The King now prepared to face his enemy. In June he moved to Nottingham Castle and made it his military headquarters. From there he commanded his magnates to raise armies on his behalf. He was painfully aware that his success in the field would depend on those same magnates staying loyal. In July he dismissed Lord Chancellor Russell and appointed in his place a northerner, Thomas Barrow, Master of the Rolls.

Many people in England were preparing to support Henry Tudor. Most came from the ranks of the gentry families who had supported Buckingham’s rebellion in 1483. Others were Wydville supporters and several Welshmen of note. Those members of the nobility who meant to support Henry were already in France with him, preparing to invade, and the French government was providing financial support.

On 1st August, 1485, Henry Tudor sailed from Harfleur. He landed at Milford Haven in Wales six days later and marched unopposed via Welshpool, Shrewsbury and Stafford to Lichfield, arriving on 19th August. Richard III learned of the invasion whilst hunting in Sherwood Forest; Croyland says he ‘rejoiced’ and summoned his forces, promising them they would triumph with ease ‘over so contemptible a faction’. On 19th August he left Nottingham and set up his headquarters at Leicester.

On Sunday 21st August, says Croyland, ‘the King left Leicester with great pomp, wearing his diadem on his head’. Knowing that Henry Tudor’s army was approaching he set up camp near Ambien Hill, overlooking Redmore Plain, not far from the little town of Market Bosworth. Here, he spent a miserable night. Vergil says he was troubled by nightmares, which Croyland corroborates, telling us of the inauspicious beginning to the day on which battle would be joined. ‘At dawn on Monday morning the chaplains were not ready to celebrate mass for King Richard, nor was any breakfast ready with which to revive the King’s flagging spirit. The King, so it was reported, had seen that night, in a terrible dream, a multitude of demons apparently surrounding him, just as he attested in the morning when he presented a countenance which was always drawn but was then even more pale and deathly, and affirmed that the outcome of this day’s battle, to whichever side the victory was granted, would totally destroy the kingdom of England.’ Diego de Valera, the Spanish envoy, says that a Spanish mercenary warned the King that he had not a hope of winning the battle for those whom he trusted had betrayed him. He answered, ‘God forbid that I yield one foot. This day I will perish as king or have the victory.’

The Battle of Bosworth, which took place that day, 22nd August, 1485, was, says Croyland, ‘a most savage battle’. No eyewitness accounts survive, but the evidence we have shows that it was fought on Redmore Plain below Ambien Hill, where the King took up his position and directed his army. The conflict lasted two hours. Henry Tudor did not engage in the fighting but remained under his standard behind the lines. The Stanleys stood off with their forces to the north, to see which way the battle was going before joining it; Richard waited in vain for their support. When the royal forces appeared to be losing the day, Northumberland, who should have intervened with his men on the King’s behalf, did nothing. Seeing that his soldiers were struggling, and realising that he had been deserted by those in whom he had trusted, Richard gathered round him a small band of loyal adherents and made one final, desperate charge, bearing down on the red dragon banner of Henry Tudor. He cut down the standard bearer and was about to swoop on Henry himself, but at that point the Stanleys came to Henry’s aid, which turned the tide of the battle. Rous says of Richard: ‘Let me say the truth to his credit, that he bore himself like a noble soldier and honourably defended himself to his last breath, shouting again and again that he was betrayed, and crying, “Treason! Treason!. Treason!”’ Croyland records that ‘during the fighting, and not in the act of flight, King Richard was pierced with many mortal wounds, and fell in the field like a brave and most valiant prince’. ‘King Richard alone,’ says Vergil, ‘was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies.’ ‘The children of King Edward,’ commented Croyland, had been ‘avenged’ at last.

Vergil says that when the news spread that the King was slain, ‘all men forthwith threw away their weapons and freely submitted themselves to Henry’s obeisance’. ‘Providence,’ wrote Croyland, ‘gave a glorious victory to the Earl of Richmond.’ The crown was found where it had rolled under a hawthorn bush – later a popular Tudor emblem – and one of the Stanley brothers placed it on Henry Tudor’s head, proclaiming him King Henry VII, the first sovereign of the Tudor dynasty. With the death of Richard III, 331 years of Plantagenet rule had come to an end.

There had been many casualties. Norfolk, Ratcliffe, Brackenbury and nearly 1,000 soldiers were killed. Surrey and Catesby were taken prisoner. Lovell fled and led the life of a fugitive for the next two years. Northumberland offered his allegiance to King Henry.

When the news of Richard’s death and Henry Tudor’s accession reached Westminster, London burst into celebration. But in York, the clerk to the City Council recorded that ‘King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us, was, through the great treason of many that turned against him, piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.’ The available evidence shows, however, that very few other than the prosperous burghers and local gentry whose relationship with Richard had been mutually beneficial, mourned him in York. When he had sent a plea for military aid against Henry Tudor, the city Council sent only eighty men, an insignificant offering from the second greatest city in the realm. Croyland states also that many northerners in whom Richard had placed his trust also deserted at Bosworth.

Hated though Richard III had been, every chronicler expresses outrage at what happened to his corpse. Croyland says that it ‘was found among the slain and many insults were heaped on it, and it was removed to Leicester in an inhuman manner, a halter being put about the neck, as was the custom with condemned felons’. The Great Chronicle says that the King’s body was ‘despoiled to the skin and, nought being left about him so much as would cover his privy member, he was trussed behind a pursuivant’ – his own herald, Blanche Sanglier – ‘as an hog or other vile beast’. Vergil described the body’s ‘arms and legs hanging down both sides’ of the horse. And so, recounts de Valera, ‘all besprung with mire and filth’, Richard was brought to Leicester when Henry VII entered the town in triumph that evening. The new King ordered the body to be taken to the conventual church of the Franciscan or Grey Friars, where, says de Valera, it was ‘covered from the waist downward with a black rag of poor quality [and] exposed there three days to the universal gaze’, for all men ‘to wonder upon’. Croyland commented acidly that this usage of a human corpse was ‘not exactly in accordance with the laws of humanity’.

Two days later, says the Great Chronicle, Richard III was ‘indifferently buried’ in an unmarked grave in the choir of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, by the charity of the friars and without, says Vergil, ‘any pomp or solemn funeral’. In 1496 Henry VII paid £10.1s, a paltry sum, for a coloured marble tomb and alabaster effigy to be placed above his rival’s grave. This bore a Latin inscription proclaiming that Richard had come to the throne by betraying the trust placed in him as Protector during his nephew’s reign.

During the Reformation of the 1530s the monastery of the Franciscan friars was dissolved and the church despoiled. Richard’s tomb was destroyed and his bones disinterred and thrown into the River Soar. They were either lost at that point or recovered and reburied at Bow Bridge: the evidence is conflicting. Richard’s coffin is said to have been used as a horse trough in Leicester but had been broken up by 1758 and its pieces used to build the cellar steps in the White Horse Inn. Some ruined walls and foundations are all that is left of the monastery; a car park now occupies most of its site. However, there is a modern memorial stone to Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, put up by the Richard III Society.

The fall of the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty may be attributed directly to the fatal effects of Richard III’s ambition: his usurpation and the murder of the Princes. Had these events not occurred there would have been no need for an opposition party to focus its hopes on Henry Tudor.

The view of Richard’s contemporaries was that God had delivered His judgement upon the King at Bosworth: Richard’s death was seen as divine punishment for his crimes. ‘In spite of being a powerful monarch,’ wrote de Valera, ‘Our Lord did not permit his evil deeds to remain unpunished.’ ‘Thus ended this man with dishonour as he that sought it,’ commented the Great Chronicle, ‘for had he continued still Protector and had suffered the children to have prospered according to his allegiance and fidelity, he should have been honourably lauded over all, whereas now his fame is darkened and dishonoured as far as he was known.’ ‘No killing was more charitable,’ wrote the Welsh bard Dafydd Llywd. Rous was scathing: ‘This King Richard, who was excessively cruel in his days, reigned in the way that antiChrist is to reign. His days were ended with no lamentation from his groaning subjects.’

Hall, writing over fifty years after Richard’s death, acknowledged his qualities of courage and leadership and his early loyalty to Edward IV, but commented that his character was perverted by his overweening ambition. More’s analysis was even more damning to Richard’s reputation, for he held that his ambition had warped all his fundamentally decent feelings and turned him into the tyrannical monster of the ‘Black Legend’.

But for the murder of his nephews, Richard III might have been a successful king, despite his acts of tyranny and his ruthless seizure of the throne. It was the murder of the Princes that gave Henry Tudor his opportunity and which brought down the House of Plantagenet. Thus the murder may be viewed in its wider context as a single event that dramatically changed the course of history.

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