Son, Brother, Uncle, Cousin, Husband and Father
Richard was born into an already large family. He was the youngest of seven surviving children (4 boys and 3 girls). Although he briefly had a younger sister, Ursula, her premature death meant that he remained the youngest member of the family. His eldest brother, Edward was ten years his senior and was a role model during his formative years.
His father, Richard, duke of York, was of royal descent, from two of the sons of Edward III and, during Richard’s boyhood, was appointed Protector of the Realm three times. Richard grew up in the knowledge that he was part of a very important family with aspirations to be the leading family in England.
But his father had made enemies in high places who wanted to stop his rise to power. At the age of seven Richard, his mother Cecily and his brother George were captured when their father fled to Ireland to escape a royal army. They went to live with their mother’s sister, Anne, duchess of Buckingham.
Cecily was part of a large family with many titled siblings and the extended family looked out for one another. Her father was Ralph Neville, earl of Westmoreland and her mother Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt. No doubt Richard would have had his self-image enhanced by hearing stories from members of his family about how important they were and perhaps how he was destined to play his part in governing England.
His father’s fortunes waxed and waned and eventually led to his violent death (1460), along with another son, Edmund, at the hands of forces loyal to Queen Margaret of Anjou and her son. His father’s head was put on public display on the Micklegate at York: a huge humiliation for the whole family. His mother’s reaction to this disaster was to send Richard and George to relatives outside England for their safety: a precaution used several times during Richard’s life and one that perhaps he employed many years later to protect his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.
Revenge was quickly achieved by Richard’s elder brother, Edward, who defeated a royal army at Mortimer’s Cross following which he was declared king in London after many years of exasperation with the ineffective Henry VI. As if to affirm this decision, Edward then inflicted a devastating defeat on the Lancastrians at Towton, which established him on the throne for the next nine years.
Now Richard was brother to the king, although still a boy of nine, this would have seemed to him and his family like God’s approval of their own sense of importance in the nation.
At the age of ten, Richard was created duke of Gloucester, just one of many titles given to Richard by his brother and which he retained for the remainder of his life. This was a time when religion was the bedrock of society, at least formally. Richard grew up in the Catholic Church and this led him to believe that everything that existed and that happened, or did not happen, was a sign of God’s real presence and involvement the affairs of mankind. If things went well, this was a sign of God’s approval. Being born into a noble family meant one was in good standing with God. Being ugly, poor, physically handicapped or chronically ill could mean that God was punishing you for something you or your parents had done wrong (although it might also be a test from God that would speed your route to Heaven!). Richard had mild scoliosis, curvature of the spine, but this may not have been apparent as a boy and does not appear to have prevented him from developing into a very effective fighter. Forget the sometimes grotesque stage presentations of Shakespeare’s pantomime character: these are artistic creations based on the text of a play, not the anatomical fact that we know from the discovery of Richard’s skeleton in 2012.
During his early teens, with his brother on the throne, Richard lived with the next most powerful man in England, his first cousin Richard Neville, 16th earl of Warwick at Middleham Castle. He would have learned how to become both a knight and a worthy duke as well as furthering his academic education in Latin, French, English and theology. Here he met Anne Neville, his future wife and also Francis Lovell who became a lifelong friend.
By the age of eighteen Richard was ready to join his brother but disaster came when Neville rebelled together with their middle brother George. Edward and Richard took the prudent course of going into exile in the Low Countries (The Netherlands) and then to their sister, Margaret, duchess of Burgundy. Her husband, Duke Charles, after some hesitation, found merit in supporting a Yorkist on the throne of England in his quarrels against France, funded Edward and Richard’s return with small army. Not the first time, or the last in the 15th century, an invasion by a claimant to the English throne was supported by foreign money, manpower and ulterior motives.
Richard and Edward fought side by side at Barnet, also with George who had changed sides again, defeating the Lancastrian army and killing Warwick in the process. This was soon followed by the crushing defeat of another Lancastrian army at Tewkesbury, again boosted by foreign funding and men (France this time) during which Edward, Prince of Wales was killed. Shortly afterwards King Henry VI’s life ended, possibly on Edward’s orders, and Edward regained the throne.
Richard was showered with titles and roles to take his part in the governance of the nation, notably leading the Council of the North. This made Richard into Edward’s most trusted ally and the two brothers worked closely together to maintain peace for much of the 1470’s.
During this time, marriage became a political, if not a personal, ambition for Richard. With Warwick dead and his vast lands inherited by his two daughters, Isabel and Anne, they represented two of the biggest prizes in England’s nobility. Wealthy women were much sought after by ambitious men seeking the power that their wife’s wealth would bring them. Isabel had married George (1469) as part of Warwick’s plot to overthrow Edward. Anne had briefly been married to Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales (Dec 1470) during Richard’s exile, but, after Tewkesbury, she was now a widow.
There does seem to have been genuine affection between Richard and Anne, who had known each other since childhood, and the match would create a formidable power couple who would briefly rule England in the following decade. One obstacle was George. He wanted all of the Neville inheritance for himself. Also, he claimed that Anne’s prior marriage to Edward of Lancaster was a canonical (religious) bar to the marriage of Anne & Richard, and anyway they were first cousins once removed (Anne’s father, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick was first cousin to Richard, duke of Gloucester) so needed permission from the pope (a ‘dispensation’) to marry. Edward mediated in the land dispute between his two younger brothers in which Richard agreed to a minor share, the pope sent his written permission and Richard and Anne were married sometime in 1472.
That same year, Isabel gave birth to a girl, Margaret, who would outlive all of the Plantagenets of her generation only to be executed by Henry VIII. Three years later a son was born to Isabel and George: named Edward, who inherited the title of 17th earl of Warwick.
Now that Edward IV was secure on the throne his foreign policy turned to a nominal attempt to reclaim the throne of France by an alliance with his brother-in-law, Charles, duke of Burgundy and Francis, duke of Brittany. Edward raised a small army and led them into northern France but instead of fighting, he was bought off by Louis XII, King of France, with gifts of money and a seven-year peace treaty (Picquigny, 1475) which left France free to attack Burgundy.
This deal was widely regarded in Europe as a dishonourable settlement, a view which Richard shared, and he refused to accept any part of the cash settlement. This is the first indication of a public disagreement between the two brothers.
Sometime in the mid-1470’s Anne and Richard produced their only child, a son also named Edward (of Middleham, his birthplace). The year of his birth is not known with certainty but has been inferred as between 1473 and 1476 from indirect evidence.
Meanwhile, Edward and his Queen Elizabeth Woodville had been producing children and would continue to do so until the end of the decade.
In 1476 Isabel died after giving birth to a child who did not long survive her. George accused a member of his wife’s household of having poisoned her and, after a sham trial, had the unfortunate woman executed. This was an abuse of power by George and another indication of his instability under stress.
The following year, his sister Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary, became duchess of Burgundy and George’s aspiration aimed at her as his next wife. Edward refused to give permission, as he had done before with Isabel Neville, and George went off in a huff.
George seems to have gone off the rails, consorting with associates who were tried and executed for treason but whom he continued publicly to defend. Edward had had enough of this disloyal and unstable brother, petitioned Parliament for conviction on a charge of treason and had George executed in early 1477. The following year the woman wrongly accused and executed by George was given a posthumous pardon by Edward.
Richard was the only brother left, much more reliable than George, though not entirely happy with Edward’s decisions or his lifestyle but not likely to make trouble. Edward was a notorious womaniser, with several illegitimate children from different women: he was not even loyal to his favourite mistress, Jane Shore, never mind to the Queen. He also drank heavily and enjoyed his rich food, all of which probably contributed to his death at the age of forty in April 1483. Richard seems to have retained his piety induced during his childhood and therefore his character and concept of duty was a contrast to that of either of his brothers.
Richard’s actions immediately following his brother’s death can be read elsewhere. The focus of this narrative is on family relationships.
With the revelation that his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth may have been bigamous, on the evidence of one person, Richard and Parliament accepted this and declared the Princes in the Tower to be illegitimate and so out of the line of succession. They lost their former titles and would have been known as Lords Bastard. Their mother was reduced in rank from Dowager Queen to Dame Grey after the family name of her former husband. These were the decisions of Parliament, not of Richard. What happened to the Princes in the Tower? No one really knows. Richard never spoke or wrote about them as far as we know. Rumours spread that he had them killed to stop rebellions in their name, but others with an eye on the throne had similar motives: Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor. Bones found in the Tower of London in 1674, now in an urn in Westminster Abbey, have been declared to be those of the two boys, but if true, we still do not know how they died or who was responsible.
What we do know is how Richard treated his other nephews, nieces and his own son. One of his step-nephews, Richard Grey, from Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage, now an adult and part of the allegedly treasonous escort of Edward V from Ludlow to Westminster was arrested on 30th April and executed two months later along with his uncle, Anthony, Earl Rivers, Edward V’s tutor, as a measure to suppress a potential Woodville coup d’état.
The five daughters of Edward IV had been taken into sanctuary by their mother on 1st May 1483 as soon as she heard of Richard taking control of her son, Edward V. After ten months of negotiations, mother and daughters agreed to resume normal life in return for a formal, public promise by Richard to treat them well and arrange good marriages. He did not live long enough to finalise any marriage contract.
The children of his brother George, both under the age of ten and orphans, now his responsibility, were sent to be brought up at his castle at Sheriff Hutton. Richard would have assumed responsibility for the tally of ten (legitimate) fatherless, blood nieces and nephews at Edward IV’s death, all children:
Edward’s children: five girls and two boys
George’s children: one girl, one boy
(Sister) Anne, duchess of Exeter: one daughter
His other eight nieces and nephews from his sister Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk had both parents living and only one was adult: John de la Pole whom Richard was to put in charge of the Council of the North during his reign.
As for his own son, Richard invested him as Prince of Wales in a magnificent ceremony at York in September 1483 after the Royal Progress through England. He spent so much money on these celebrations that he was accused of emptying the royal treasury: he could not be accused of being stingy on behalf of his only son.
Young Edward, now Prince of Wales, seems to have been a sickly boy and died in April 1484, just a few months after his investiture. His parents were not with him and when they heard the news, they are reported to have been devasted by grief. They would have tried to produce another heir to the throne but did not succeed before Anne’s own death a year later.
In the next few months Richard looked around for a new bride. He was even accused of poisoning Anne during her final illness in order to free his path more quickly to create a new heir. Rumours spread that he considered marriage to his niece, Elizabeth of York, and he felt it necessary to repudiate this idea in public.
He did not marry again so, when he arrived at Bosworth, he was a man without an heir and a recently bereaved widower. Yet he retained his faith in God and on the morning of his last day he would have said his prayers before going to battle and placing his destiny in the hands of the Almighty.
In his last moments, instead of the words Shakespeare wrote for his character, he may have remembered the words of Christ on the Cross:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?
Richard III: A Study in Service, Rosemary Horrox (CUP, 1999)
The Life and Times of Richard III, Anthony Cheetham, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972)
Richard III Loyalty Binds Me, Matthew Lewis (Amberley, 2018)
Richard III The Maligned King, Annette Carson (The History Press, 2013)
Richard III, Paul Murray Kendall (W.W. Norton & Co, 1956)