Plaque on the Minster Library, formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, Dean’s Park.

The Old Palace, Dean’s Park, now home of the Minster Library

Richard III reigned for a mere 26 months. He was the last English king to die in battle and his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 saw the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, which had ruled since 1164, and the arrival of the new Tudors.

Born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 2 October 1452, Richard was the 11th of 12 children of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and his wife, Cecily Neville. He was the youngest of eight sons. Four died in infancy; the second son reigned as Edward IV of England from 1461-70 and 1471-83. Richard would spend much of his life embroiled in the period of English history now known as the Wars of the Roses. This was a time when two factions of the Plantagenet family were challenging the succession to the English throne. Edward III, who died in 1377, had several sons and the two branches contesting the succession were the descendants of his fourth son, John of Gaunt, (the Lancastrians) and those descended from both Edward’s third and fifth sons (the Yorkists). The Lancastrians provided three monarchs: Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413), Henry V (r.1413-22) and Henry VI (r.1422-61 and 1470-1).

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (1411-1460)

After service in France during the Hundred Years’ War, Richard Plantagenet returned to England in 1445 and was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland and Justice of the Forest south of the Trent. In 1452, his attempt to be recognised as the heir to the throne was thwarted. But when Henry suffered a mental breakdown in August 1453, Richard seized the opportunity and, on 27 March 1454, he was appointed Protector of the Realm and Chief Councillor. On Henry’s recovery in January 1455, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, York’s rival, was reinstated, but the real power behind Henry’s throne was his strong-willed and ambitious wife, Margaret of Anjou. It was she who led the Lancastrian cause against the Yorkists. The resulting power struggle came to a head at the First Battle of St Albans in May 1455. In a short skirmish, Richard defeated the royalist (Lancastrian) army. The Duke of Somerset was killed and the king injured, causing him to have another mental breakdown. This in no way solved the conflict and sporadic battles continued for 30 years.

In 1459 the Lancastrians routed the Yorkists at Ludford and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York had to submit to Henry VI with her three youngest children. Margaret, George and the young Richard (who was only seven) were put into the care of her sister, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham, who had taken the Lancastrian side. The following year, Richard, Duke of York, was killed at a battle in Wakefield by forces still loyal to Henry VI and his queen, Margaret of Anjou. York’s body was interred in the church of the Mendicant Friars in Pontefract but his head was displayed, complete with paper crown, for three months on Micklegate Bar, York’s southern entrance. Margaret of Anjou had apparently ordered this ‘so that York can look upon York’. After the Battle of Wakefield, the Duchess of York sent her two youngest sons, George and Richard, to take refuge in the Burgundian Netherlands until the Yorkists’ overwhelming victory at the bloody Battle of Towton in March 1461 made it safe for them to return to England.

First Yorkist king

Edward, Richard Plantagenet’s 19-year-old son, was proclaimed the first Yorkist king as Edward IV and crowned in June 1461. On the eve of the coronation, Richard, then aged nine, was created Knight of the Garter and, four months later, Duke of Gloucester. He spent much of his teenage years at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, a favourite home of his cousin, the Earl of Warwick. Here he was educated, not only in academic subjects but also in the art of leadership and chivalry. Warwick virtually ruled the kingdom on behalf of the young king, though he disagreed with Edward about foreign policy and disapproved of Edward’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth was a widow with two young sons and a numerous extended family, all eager to profit from their connection to the new queen. Warwick, who at first had supported Henry VI, now severed his links with Edward and once again returned to the Lancastrian side, helping put Henry back on the throne in 1470, and earning himself the title of “Warwick, the Kingmaker”. Edward IV fled into temporary exile but returned to defeat and kill Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester

From this time onwards, Richard of Gloucester remained a faithful servant of his brother, both in military and administrative matters. In 1470 he was with him in Burgundy when Henry VI was temporarily restored to the throne and returned with Edward to command a wing of the Yorkist army at the battles of Barnet and Tewksbury in 1471, both overwhelming Yorkist victories. Not quite 19 years old, Richard took over Warwick’s responsibilities in the North as chief steward of the Duchy of Lancaster, and only 10 days later he was granted all the estates held by the earl north of the Trent, including Middleham and Sheriff Hutton castles. He became keeper of the northern forests and Great Chamberlain of England.

In 1472, Edward established the Council of the North, an administrative body to oversee Royal justice and improve government in the northern part of England from Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire as far as the Scottish border. Richard was its first Lord President. At first, the council was administered from Sheriff Hutton Castle near York and Sandal Castle on the outskirts of Wakefield. At an unrecorded date, probably in 1472/3, Richard married Anne, Warwick’s younger daughter, and spent his time at Middleham in Wensleydale consolidating his position in the northern counties, dispensing impartial justice and showing understanding to the problems of both rich and poor alike.

A religious man, his personal prayer book still survives in Lambeth Palace and was clearly much used as he annotated the text. He established rules for daily worship at Middleham Castle, made pilgrimages to shrines in England and, in 1478, Richard asked that four priests be admitted to Queens’ College, Cambridge to preach to the fellows and say prayers for his living and departed relatives. The following year he founded a college in Middleham for a dean, six priests, four clerks, six choristers and a sacristan to say a daily service and again to pray for his relatives. When he became king, Richard also decided to found a chantry in York and even planned to be buried at York Minster, although English monarchs were traditionally interred at Westminster Abbey. He hoped to build a huge chantry chapel at the Minster where 100 chaplains would pray for his soul.

Richard of Gloucester was very popular in York. He knew the city well and granted much-appreciated favours including commuting taxes when times were hard and suppressing illegal fish-traps on the River Ouse. In December 1476, Gloucester visited the city. ‘By the mayor and council it was wholly agreed and assented that the Duke of Gloucester shall, for his great labour made to the king’s good grace for the conservation of the liberties of this city, be presented at his coming to the city with six swans and six pikes.’ And, in March 1482, he was given ‘praise and thanks’ for what he had ‘at all times done for the welfare of this city’.

The princes in the Tower

On 9 April 1483, Edward IV died suddenly leaving two young sons, Edward and Richard, and naming Richard of Gloucester Protector in his will. The Woodvilles realised that, in order to keep their high positions, the young Edward V should be crowned as soon as possible and then the Protectorship would lapse. Being warned of their plans, Richard intercepted Edward as he was travelling to London from Ludlow, arrested his guardian, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and took Edward to the Tower of London where his younger brother, Richard, was to join him in captivity on 16 June. Richard of Gloucester, it seems, was now ready to seize the throne for himself. From Yorkshire he was summoning men ‘to come to us to London … with as many as ye can make defensibly arrayed, there to aid and assist us against the Queen, her bloody adherents and affinity.’

There were many with grudges against the Woodvilles who were only too happy to join Gloucester’s cause but some would not countenance the disinheritance of Edward IV’s children. Lord Hastings opposed the idea, so Richard had him arrested at a council meeting and beheaded on the spot. Two days later, Dr Ralph Shaw preached a sermon at St Paul’s Cross on the theme ‘bastard slips shall not take deep root’. He proclaimed that Edward IV had made a marriage contract with Lady Eleanor Butler before he married Elizabeth Woodville and therefore their children were bastards and could not inherit; the true heir was Richard of Gloucester. At the end of June, Parliament petitioned Richard to take the throne and his coronation followed on 6 July.

The city of York rejoiced at the news and, following his coronation, Richard III chose to have his son, Edward, invested as Prince of Wales in York Minster on 8 September 1483. Always a sickly child, Edward died suddenly at Middleham the following year. His parents were ‘in a state almost bordering on madness by reason of their sudden grief’. His mother, Anne, died in March 1485 leaving Richard III, now an heirless widower, to meet his end at the Battle of Bosworth in August killed by the forces of the future Henry VII.

Richard’s remains discovered

In August 2012, a search began to locate King Richard’s remains. There were reports that his body had been thrown into the River Soar, but researchers were convinced that they should search the site of the former Greyfriars Church in Leicester where he was known to have been buried after the Battle of Bosworth. The friary was dissolved in 1538 and later demolished so the site of Richard’s tomb might be difficult to locate. The Richard III Society supported the excavation which was led by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services in partnership with Leicester City Council. On the very first day of excavations, a human skeleton belonging to a man in his 30s was uncovered. The skeleton had scoliosis, a severe curvature of the back, and was exhumed to allow scientific analysis. Examination showed that the man had probably been killed by a blow from a large-bladed weapon which cut off the back of his skull exposing the brain. There were also other wounds on the skeleton which had probably occurred after death as ‘humiliation injuries’.

The age of the bones at death matched that of Richard when he was killed and preliminary DNA analysis showed a match with that of two descendants, one 17th generation and the other 19th generation, of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Taking these findings into account, along with other historical, scientific and archaeological evidence, the University of Leicester announced on 4 February 2013 that it had concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton was that of Richard III. His remains were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral on March 2015. It was a disappointment to many that, although Richard seemed to wish originally to be buried in York, he was reburied in Leicester, a place he had rarely visited.

In the 21st century, assessments are still being made about Richard’s physical form and character in the absence of any contemporary evidence. Was he the misshapen oddity promulgated by his Tudor successors? Shakespeare in his play Richard III pictured him as having ‘an arm like a withered shrub’ with ‘an envious mountain on [his] back’ and ‘legs of an unequal size’. Sir Thomas More, only seven when Richard was killed and probably never having seen him, repeated the myth that Richard ‘had been retained within his mother’s womb for two years’ and emerged ‘with teeth and hair to his shoulders’. A splendid villain from Shakespeare’s point of view, but was this physical picture even vaguely true?

Detailed examination of the skeleton confirmed that Richard III had indeed suffered from scoliosis which would have raised one shoulder higher than the other, but it seems that this did not prevent him leading his brother’s troops into battle and taking an active part in the fighting. Modern historians continue to try to assess what can be gleaned of his physical appearance but also to know a little about the character of the man himself. History has still not solved the problem of whether Richard III ordered, or was implicated in, the “murder” of his young nephews, the sons of his brother Edward, who disappeared once they had been incarcerated in the Tower of London. Apologists for Richard feel that a religious man who was so loyal to his brother could not possibly be implicated in the disappearance of the two princes. History still does not have the answer to this question which has hung over Richard’s reputation for more than 500 years.

Needless to say, the city of York was stunned by the news of his passing at Bosworth. Civic documents record his death. ‘King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us, was … piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.’

John Ashdown-Hill, The Mythology of Richard III (Stroud, 2015)

David Baldwin, Richard III (Stroud, 2012)

Anthony Cheetham, ‘Richard III’, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, ed. Antonia Fraser (London, 1975)

David Hipshon, Richard III and the Death of Chivalry (Stroud, 2009)

Rosemary Horrox, Richard III (1452-1485)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)

© Dinah Tyszka