That King Richard III seized the throne from his young nephew during the intrigue and confusion of the summer of 1483 is well known, as is the short, turbulent time that he was to spend upon the throne. Was Richard’s problem that his coup was, in fact, too good?
In early April 1483 King Edward IV, the first king of the House of York, lay on his deathbed aged 40 after over two decades as king, the second of which had seen more peace than the country had known in a generation. Although his death was coming early and his son was only a boy of 12, the peace that he had secured should have nurtured the Prince until he became a man. But all was not as it seemed.
King Edward knew that strife lay ahead for his kingdom and for his son. Grafton’s Chronicle reports that as the king lay near to death he called about him his friends and family. “My Lords, my dear kinsmen and allies,” Edward reportedly began, “in what plight I now lye, you see, and I well feel.” There are other reports too of Edward pleading with those around him to unite for his sons’ sakes and to put aside their petty quarrels. He could see what was coming. “For it sufficeth not that you love them, if each of you hate other.” Lord Hastings, firmest of the king’s friends, was required to take the hand of his enemy Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, the king’s step son, and swear that they would cease their rivalry. “Such a pestilent Serpent is ambition, and desire of vain glory and sovereignty,” Grafton reports that the king continued, “Ambition, which among states where once entered, creepeth so far forth, till with division and variance he turneth all to mischief. First longing to be next to the best: Afterward equal with the best, and at the last chief and above the best.” The sick king pleaded with those about him “from this time forward, all griefes forgotten, each of you love other, which I verily trust you will“, though it seems that he did not trust in this at all. When he could speak no more, Grafton tells how he “laid down on his right side, his face toward them: and none was there present that could refrain from weeping. But the Lords comforting him with as good words as they could … each forgave other and joined their hands together, when (as it after appeared by their deeds) their hearts were far asunder.” Edward was not blind, nor was he naive. This situation required a different solution.
The answer at which Edward IV arrived was that neither of these parties could be trusted with power, for they would, by nature of their hatred of the other, use the position against their enemies. His solution, on his deathbed, was to name his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Protector. It is often forgotten that this is the situation into which Richard was imported from his estates far in the north. There was hatred and bitter rivalry in London before he was summoned. That is why he was summoned. To believe that he created an atmosphere of edgy, nervous partisan politics is to ignore the fact that such an atmosphere already existed in London. Edward’s personality and intense likeability had been the glue that had held the parties together and without him, he knew that it could swiftly descend into conflict. For this, he must bear the blame. He had not prepared sufficiently for a world without him. In relying solely on his personality and not a less personal form of solid governance he denied his son safe stability. Perhaps less of an issue had it happened a few years later, he must have known that his death while he son was 12 was a recipe for certain disaster. No more could be done, and on the 9th April 1483, the tallest king in English history, King Edward IV, passed away.
To my mind, this prevailing situation in London must colour our view of Richard’s role and his actions (which is different from excusing him of the worst crimes of which he is accused if he were guilty). Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset and half brother to the new king was supposedly bragging to the Council that his family held such power that they would rule without Richard. There must have been fear in the opposition camp that this was true because Lord Hastings wrote to Richard that he should come to London with all haste to stop the Queen’s family.
The new King Edward V was already in the care of his mother’s family, who had been a part of his household at Ludlow, led by his uncle Anthony, Earl Rivers. It is entirely possible, perhaps one might even concede reasonable, that Richard might fear that the Woodville family would indeed try to use their hold over the king to secure the authority that his brother had not wanted for them. They were generally disliked and mistrusted for their use of Queen Elizabeth’s position to secure some of the best positions at court and to corner the marriage market. They would have real reason to fear the loss of this position and if Richard believed the rumours of their posturing then securing the person of the king from them was the natural response. It matters less whether a Woodville plot against Richard was real or not than whether Richard had cause to genuinely believe it real. When Rivers overshot their agreed meeting place and took the king to a Woodville manor at Stony Stratford, that can only have served to add to Richard’s suspicion that some kind of plot may be very real.
What of Lord Hastings’ position in all of this? That he wrote to Richard pleading him to hurry to London suggests that he felt his own position weak. This would, to anyone’s eyes, make him dangerous. Even before his arrival in London, Richard must surely have been every bit as wary of Hastings and his motivations as he was of those of the Woodvilles. The execution of Lord Hastings is often viewed as the one undeniable blot on Richard’s character and reputation amid the fog of rumour. I am about to try and deny it, I’m afraid.
William, Lord Hastings was a close personal friend of King Edward IV, devoted to the cause of York. They shared good times and bad, food, drink and women, the last three to excess. Edward and Hastings famously both had Jane Shore as their mistress, as did the Marquis of Dorset, Edward’s step-son and Hastings’ rival. It is frequently asserted that Hastings was removed by Richard because of his fierce and unswerving devotion to his friend’s son, Edward V. It is claimed that Richard concocted a story of treason as an excuse to remove Hastings, who was a hurdle between him and the throne that he coveted. As with the Woodville plot, the question is less whether it was real and more whether Richard might have genuinely believed it to be.
Henry Tudor’s historian Virgil offers an interesting insight into this question. During the reign of Henry VII he wrote;
“But the lord Hastings who bore privy hatred to the marquis and others of the queen’s side, who for that cause had exhorted Richard to take upon him the government of the prince, when he saw all in uproar and that matters fell out otherwise than he had wenyd [wanted], repenting therefore that which he had done, called together unto Paul’s church such friends as he knew to be right careful for the life, dignity, and estate of prince Edward, and conferred with them what best was to be done. Here divers of them who were most offended with this late fact of Richard duke of Gloucester, adjudged it mete with all speed to procure the liberty of prince Edward, whom they accounted as utterly oppressed and wronged by force and violence, that so the fire, which was kindling, might be put out before it should spread further abroad.”
Was it Richard’s plan to seize the throne that caused such a desperate meeting? No. The matter that “fell out otherwise than he had wenyd” was the news that Richard had taken possession of the person of the king at Stony Stratford. This was precisely what Hastings had written to Richard to achieve, yet Virgil claims that on hearing of it, Hastings reaction was to call a meeting of powerful men to discuss what they might do against Richard on his arrival in London. Whilst Virgil may not be the most reliable source of unbiased information on Richard, he appears here to be offering substance to the notion that Hastings was plotting against Richard. Perhaps not against his life, but plotting nevertheless. Virgil concludes the matter of this meeting at St Paul’s by saying that “All the residue thought that there was no need to use war or weapon at all, as men who little suspected that the matter would have any horrible and cruel end.”
So, if Virgil is to be believed, most at the gathering did not share Hastings’ fear of Richard. The episode, if true, is perhaps reported to demonstrate Hastings precognition that Richard would turn to evil on arrival in London. What it in fact shows is that Hastings was measuring opposition against the Protector before he even arrived in London. If Hastings wished to preserve his own position, he may well have known that Richard, pious, priggish, upright Lord of the North, would not approve of Hastings lifestyle and may not wish that kind of influence upon his young nephew. Perhaps Lord Hastings had his own agenda that has been overlooked.
So it was that at a Council meeting in the Tower of London 13th June 1483 the deed was done. More recounts how Richard “came about nine o’clock to them, and having saluted all the lords very courteously, excused himself for coming to them so late, saying merrily, that he had played the sluggard this morning“. He jovially asked John Morton, the Bishop of Ely, for some of his “very good strawberries” for them to enjoy during the meeting.
“A little after this, the protector obliging them to go on in their councils, requested them to dispense with his absence awhile, and so departed. In the space of little more than an hour he returned again, but with such an angry countenance, knitting his brows, frowning and biting his lips, that the whole council were amazed at the sudden change. Being sat down, he said nothing for a good while, but at length spoke with great concern, and asked them this question : “What punishment do they deserve who had plotted his death, who was so near in blood to the king, and by office the protector of the king’s person and realm?” This question he had raised out of Catesby’s account of the Lord Hastings’s words and discourse, which he so represented to him, as if he had wished and contrived his death.”
Here, More, the supposed root of Richard’s criminal reputation, which he no doubt acquired tales of from John Morton himself, claims that William Catesby informed Richard that Hastings plotted against him. Catesby was a lawyer who had been in the service of Lord Hastings and who Richard had allegedly sent to sound out Hastings about Richard’s intention to seize the throne. It is reported that Catesby may never have actually raised the matter with Lord Hastings, but did report to Richard that Hastings would not join him. In fact, More is claiming here that Catesby in fact told Richard Hastings was plotting against him. So the question arises again: is it unreasonable to believe that Richard earnestly believed in a plot against him? If Hastings’ own man was informing him of one, it does not seem unreasonable.
Furthermore, Grafton reports that the night before this Council meeting, “Lord Stanley sent to him [Hastings] a trusty and secret messenger at midnight in all the haste, requiring him to rise and ride away with him“. It would seem that Stanley had endured such a nightmare about a crazed boar chasing him that he was convinced Richard, whose emblem was the boar, was out to get them. To this messenger, Hastings teased “leaneth my Lord thy master unto such trifles, and hath such faith in dreams, which either his own fear fantasiseth, or do rise in the night’s rest, by reason of the day’s thought. Tell him it is plain witchcraft to believe in such dreams, which if they were tokens of things to come, why thinketh he not that we might as likely make them true by our going, if we were caught and brought back, (as friends fail ﬂyers) for then had the Boar a cause likely to raise us with his tusks, as folks that tied for some falsehood“.
Hastings advised against leaving lest they appeared guilty of some crime. If report of this reached Richard, what was he to make of these two discussing fleeing from London to their estates? Hastings had a large affinity in the East Midlands and Stanley could command an immense host from the North West. Could reports of this really be ignored, especially if they accompanied news of Hastings’ meeting at St Paul’s before Richard arrived.
Richard cursed Hastings as a traitor and had him dragged outside for execution, telling him “by Saint Paul, I will not dine till I see thy head off” (Grafton). Fabyan’s Chronicle reports that “there without judgement, or long time of confession or repentance, upon an end of a long and great timber log, which there lay with other for the repairing of the said Tower, caused his head to be smitten off“. Curiously, not allowing “long time” of confession implies that confession and last rites were in fact allowed, as it is often asserted they were not. As to the matter of “without judgement” there is an issue here too. Richard had, for many years, been Lord Constable of England, making him president of the Court of Chivalry and the Court of Honour. It is my understanding that the Constable was entitled to try matters without trial by peers based upon evidence that he had seen. I stand to be corrected if this is not true, but if it is, then Richard did not act illegally or outside of his jurisdiction by pronouncing judgement and sentence upon Hastings if he had evidence of a plot.
After the execution, Richard summoned the aldermen of London and, Grafton states, “Then the Lord Protector showed them, that the Lord Hastings and other of his conspiracy had contrived to have suddenly destroyed him and the Duke of Buckingham there the same day in council, and what they intended farther was yet not well known, of which their treason he had never knowledge before ten of the clock the same forenoon“. As with the evidence Richard presented to Parliament of his brother’s pre-contract and his nephews’ illegitimacy, many will claim that he invented the tale, but it is just as likely that he did not. London did not rise in opposition, perhaps because Richard showed them compelling evidence of the plots, the same evidence that he had been made aware of that morning, including, no doubt, Stanley’s call to Hastings to flee; evidence now lost to us.
In short order, the story of the illegitimacy of the Princes was circulated and Richard was asked to assume the throne. Having gone on at great length already, I will save the discussion of that matter for another time, but Richard was king. Earl Rivers, his nephew Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughn were executed at Pontefract. When Richard had arrived in London, Lord Hastings had supposedly congratulated him on securing the kingdom (for Edward V) without spilling so much as a thimbleful of blood. I can’t help wondering whether this very achievement ended up costing Richard his throne.
If he arrived in London in May 1483 to find a nest of vipers, a fraught atmosphere of plotting, intrigue and uncertainty, what should he have done? In short measure, Richard had dealt with it. He cut the heads from the two opposing factions; Lord Hastings and Earl Rivers. It is often assumed that he did so as part of a grand scheme to seize the throne, but what if he truly believed the plots were real and acted swiftly to prevent them progressing? This would explain why he continued to prepare for his nephew’s coronation, issuing edicts in the name of Edward V, minting coin for the new king and swearing his fealty repeatedly until the tale of their illegitimacy was given light. Perhaps it is hard to see the reversal of this man’s previous good character because it did not happen.
Thomas More also reports that during the Council meeting at which Hastings was arrested Richard bared his arm to show it withering, claiming witchcraft was being used against him. Since we now know that Richard did not have a withered arm , it is hard to know how much of these sources can really be believed, but it is intriguing that these are Tudor writers, trying to condemn Richard III, who in fact appear to give substance to the suggestion that he was surrounded by plotting.
That King Edward IV foresaw such turbulence from his deathbed is testament to the fragility of the peace that he had won and his realisation that without him it would not be likely to be maintained long. He would not apportion power to Woodville or Hastings, but turned to Richard, who he must have trusted to do what was required to resolve the tension. Would Edward IV have objected if he knew that the price of securing his son’s succession was the death of his best friend and his brother in law? I do not know. If any of the above has convinced you, then Richard was the right man for the job and Edward was only undone by his own previous wilful indiscretions.
The reason that I ask whether the coup was too perfect is that it was achieved with the death of four men; Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughn. Edward IV took the throne after years of bitter fighting and battles that decimated the nobility and gentry. Perhaps if Richard had killed more people, crushed more potential opposition and allowed attrition to work for him, he would have better secured his throne. That he did not, and that he tried to make peace with the likes of Thomas Stanley, at least suggests that he was a more genuine character during the summer of 1483 than he is given credit for.
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.