Richard’s main policy was to establish and sustain stability in England and to him this meant preserving the Plantagenet dynasty.
He could achieve his aim in three main ways:
adjudicating between nobles in land, property and marriage disputes;
using land and naval forces to defend the realm from attack and, if feasible, invade neighbouring countries to gain more land and wealth for England.
name a suitable heir, ideally his own son.
Heir to the Throne
After the coronation in July 1483 his next move was to ‘meet the people’ by going on a Royal Progress via Oxford, Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Warwick, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Pontefract, reaching York at the end of August. These were all places of significance during the Wars of the Roses.
At York Minster at a lavish ceremony in September 1483 he achieved, at least temporarily, the third objective by naming his only son, Edward of Middleham, as Prince of Wales.
Sadly, his son died the following April and his Queen a year later with no further offspring.
Richard considered marrying again but never did so and he never publicly named an heir although there was some indication that he favoured his nephew, John de la Pole, 1st Earl of Lincoln.
Early in his reign Richard faced several rebellions which were successfully overcome.
An attempt was made to rescue the Princes in the Tower, sometime in July 1483 when Richard was on the Royal Progress. This was rebuffed and Richard set up a commission of oyez and terminer to try the perpetrators. An attempt to rescue the former Queen and her daughters from sanctuary at Westminster also failed.
Early in October there were uprisings in Kent which the duke of Norfolk dealt with.
On or around 11th October 1483, on his way south from York, Richard learned of Buckingham’s plans for armed rebellion. Richard ordered a general mobilisation in response and for the army to muster at Leicester on 20th-21st. Richard requested that the Great Seal be sent to him which reached him in Grantham on the 19th: this very important item, needed to authorise documents, had been left in the safe keeping of the Bishop of Lincoln in London.
By around the 24th Buckingham’s rebellion had foundered partly because of atrocious weather and flooding which prevented his army from crossing the River Severn and by lack of the expected support from Wales.
Further uprisings also began in the South West, Devon and Cornwall but the weather may have helped to weaken resolve there. These rebellions were led not only by Lancastrians but also by supporters of Edward IV who disagreed with Richard’s action in deposing his nephews.
Buckingham was executed on 2nd November in Salisbury, being described by Richard as ‘the most untrue creature’. Richard moved on to Exeter to counter another rebellion led by Sir Thomas St. Leger who was also captured and executed.
In late October, after storms in the English Channel had thwarted earlier attempts, Henry Tudor sailed from Brittany with a fleet of ships, funded by his mother and the duke of Brittany, but he chose not to land his forces, rightly suspecting a trap following Buckingham’s defeat. By early to mid-November all these risings had died down and so the first tests of Richard’s kingship had been successfully overcome, at least militarily if not politically.
A seminal event on Christmas Day 1483 at the Cathedral of Rennes, France was the declaration by Henry Tudor to marry Elizabeth of York. This was effectively a declaration of war against Richard by a distant, but well-supported, contender to the throne.
In January 1484 Richard listed over a hundred nobles and gentry for attainder who had taken part in the Buckingham rebellion. These had their titles, public offices and lands taken away and redistributed to people whom Richard trusted, mostly Northerners. This caused resentment in the English South and West who were used to a degree of self-governance by folk of their Shire and not by ‘foreigners’ from the North.
This may seem like an ‘own goal’ by Richard because many of the individuals named in the Act of Attainder of January 1484 went to join Henry Tudor who was beginning to create a court in exile. Perhaps the biggest casualty of the attainders was Lady Margaret Beaufort for bankrolling her son’s attempted invasion and for co-operating with the Buckingham rebellion. Had she been a man she might have been executed for treason but even in these violent times the execution of a noblewoman was unthinkable. Queens, duchesses and other noblewomen who fell out of favour with a king were locked away in a castle or sent to a convent and told to stop meddling in (men’s) affairs of state.
As her punishment Lady Margaret was put under house arrest and stripped of all her vast lands and property which were placed in the control of her husband, Thomas Stanley. We do not know to what extent, if any, Stanley continued his wife’s policy of sending money to his stepson, but we think that at Bosworth he stood and watched Richard defeated by Henry Tudor without intervening.
What alternative policy could Richard have applied to Lady Margaret? If he had taken control of all her property himself and deprived her husband, that might have had the effect of alienating one of his most powerful supporters, as he believed. It was a dilemma that came back to haunt him in due course.
On the day of his Coronation in his reign Richard spoke to the senior judges assembled in Westminster Hall and told them he wanted justice to be dispensed fairly and speedily to all. Justice could often be bought quite blatantly and Richard attempted to limit the extent to which the smaller law courts were being exploited by the wealthier party in a suit.
A medieval king was often on the move both to keep in touch with his subjects and also to listen to grievances and to dispense justice. This was the origin of the King’s Bench Division of our criminal justice system today. Richard was regarded as particularly conscientious in hearing evidence and settling disputes between landowners. This may have been partly self-interest in order to establish his credentials with nobles and lesser landowners.
Council of the North
Edward IV had set up this body in 1472 to meet four times a year to discuss law and order issues and major land disputes. Richard was the first President of this Council and when he became King he appointed his son, Edward of Middleham, as the nominal President. Edward was far too young to take charge at age nine and decisions still had to be agreed by Richard. After Edward of Middleham’s death, Richard appointed his nephew, John de la Pole, as President in his place. The Council survived for 150 years, continuing throughout the Tudor dynasty, suggesting that it did its work well and was a valuable support to the Monarch, who usually remained in the South.
Medieval Kings tended to outspend their financial assets, not least by waging expensive wars, usually against France in this period, but also against Scotland and in Ireland.
The usual method for a king to obtain money was by taxation of moveable goods. Typically one tenth of their value in a city or town, one fifteenth in the countryside and on the export and import of goods.
If this was not sufficient then loans would be sought: from wealthy nobles, wealthy churches (Abbeys & Monasteries) or even from foreign kings and dukes. In return for cash the king would offer mortgages on property and titles. Edward III and Henry V even pawned the crown jewels to some of their subjects and bankers to fund their invasions of France. Some very wealthy noblemen would sometimes fund an army themselves and claim back the cost from the king, which took some time to be refunded, if it ever was.
Until 1290, Jewish money lenders had provided funds to Kings, but the Jews had been expelled from England and were not invited back until the mid-17th century. Instead, Edward IV turned to the Italian bank of the Medici’s in Florence and had borrowed so much by the time of his death that the debt broke their bank. Neither Richard nor Henry VII paid back the loans.
Richard inherited a poor Exchequer and had to make the books balance by using current income and loans rather than accumulated capital. He was criticised, with justification, for funding two lavish ceremonies at the start of this reign: one in Westminster and another in York during a time of financial hardship. The number and extent of rebellions in the early months of his reign which required his army to be continuously ready was very costly: men at arms, archers and pikemen did not fight for free, even for a king.
The export of wool from England to Europe had raised huge amounts of money for the Crown from taxation of this trade, which helped to fund the early stages of the Hundred Years War. A reminder of how important the wool trade was to the medieval economy is that today the Lord Chancellor presides from a seat called the ‘woolsack’ in the House of Lords. Gradually the trade changed from raw wool to woollen cloth but also declined so that by Richard’s reign the income had diminished to the extent that it was insufficient to sustain a war.
Other commodities traded to Europe from England included iron, tin and wheat. In return England imported wine from Gascony, an English possession until lost under Henry VI in 1453, the news of which allegedly precipitated Henry’s long catatonic state during which Edward of Westminster was born. Other imports included leather and fruit from Spain, silk & glass from Italy, dyes from Flanders, linen from Normandy and spices from as far away as Indonesia.
The King’s Council
Naturally, Richard introduced some advisers from amongst people he had worked with in York and this would have caused some resentment and suspicion amongst members of the Council who were southerners. However, given that existing primary sources on which we rely for our information were written by southerners, this view is not surprising. A northern chronicler might have provided some alternative views. The minutes of the City of York paint a glowing picture and a high regard for Richard and his governorship. The North-South divide is not a modern phenomenon.
A successful policy for rulers throughout history has been to unite a people in defence against a common foe, usually a neighbouring state. In 15th century England this would be either France or Scotland, sometimes both.
Scotland was a foreign country at this time with its own monarchy and had recently acquired Orkney & Shetland from the King of Norway in exchange for a loan which was never redeemed. The Scottish King was neither the richest nor the most powerful person in Scotland and so his rule was relatively weak.
The Border between England and Scotland was more fluid than it is today and one of the main roles of the nobles in the Border lands was to keep the Scots from invading England.
Richard had led an invasion across the River Tweed in 1480-82, reaching Edinburgh and capturing Berwick castle on the way back to York. This was a show of strength and a warning to the Scots what could happen if they tried an invasion of their own.
France was a long-term enemy of England and, since the time of Edward III, kings of England claimed to be the king of France. Henry VI was actually crowned king of France in 1431 at Notre Dame de Paris under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes (1420).
Edward IV invaded France in 1475 in an attempt to assert his ‘rights’ and, instead of having to fight, he came away with a seven year truce and a hefty annual pension (Treaty of Picquigny). In addition he repatriated Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s Dowager Queen, in return for more cash. Richard, duke of Gloucester, did not approve of this Treaty and declined to take part in the negotiations or to accept a ‘pension’. You can speculate about Richard’s motives for this distancing from his brother the king.
Scotland had a long diplomatic and military alliance with France. War with both Scotland and France would have been cripplingly expensive so, although Richard’s fleet had defeated the Scottish fleet, he compromised by signing a three-year truce with Scotland in 1484.
Richard’s other foreign policy concern was to keep Henry Tudor out of England by one means or another: bribery, diplomacy, marriage, deception or death. Henry’s earlier abortive invasion in October 1483 in support of Buckingham was financed partly by his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort and partly by the Duchy of Brittany so this meant that Brittany was treated as a potentially hostile power.
Early in his reign, Richard made diplomatic approaches towards Brittany to try to gain control of Henry Tudor. Richard does not seem to have planned a land invasion of France, unlike most of his Plantagenet and Lancastrian predecessors: he had neither money nor time, but his ships did attack France and Brittany over the winter of 1483-4 as part of his aim to extradite Henry Tudor. Richard even promised to send 1,000 archers on demand to the duke of Brittany in exchange for Henry, but Henry narrowly avoided the extradition and escaped across the border into France and into the protection of their king. At this time the King of France was a thirteen year old boy and, as the seven year truce of Picquigny had expired, the French Council/ Regency may have feared an English invasion, of which there had been many in the previous 150 years. Richard now took a more belligerent view and renewed his claim to the French throne. This pretty much ensured that the 1485 invasion of England was funded largely by the government of France.
Richard’s Biggest Mistakes in Government
Allowing rumours to propagate that he had murdered the Princes in the Tower. As far as we know, Richard never spoke or wrote about what happened to the two boys.
Executing, on his sole authority, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, tutor & guardian to Edward V, turning the Woodville family more firmly against him.
Executing William, Lord Hastings, without trial, which sent a shock throughout much of the nobility.
Imprisoning Bishop John Morton who turned into an anti-Ricardian propagandist and may have furnished a young Thomas More with ideas for the latter’s History of King Richard III. William Shakespeare elaborated on this to create the pantomime character which resonated with Tudor propaganda and which has so coloured opinions about Richard over the past four centuries.
After the Buckingham rebellion, passing an Act of Attainder against 100 prominent individuals which encouraged many to move to France to join Henry Tudor.
Failing to fully neutralise the power of Lady Margaret Tudor to support her son’s bid for the throne.
Attacking the coasts of France and Brittany with his fleet and renewing the claim to the throne of France, which prompted France to fund Henry Tudor’s invasion of 1485.
Failing to nominate an heir after the loss of his queen and their only son.
Financing Government from hand to mouth having spent what was left in the Exchequer after his brother’s death.
Leading the final cavalry charge at Bosworth on marshy ground.
Successfully managing the constitutional crisis of 1483 by attaining the throne with the agreement of Parliament.
Successfully countering widespread rebellions in October to November 1483, which could only be achieved with the support of many nobles and their armies.
Reforming the criminal and civil justice system to be fairer to all litigants whatever their wealth or social standing.
Promoting the use of the English language for Government business rather than Norman-French and Latin, so that all his subjects could understand legal documents and proclamations.
Many acts of kindness to disadvantaged people.
More contemporary testimony to Richard’s personal character can be read on the Richard III Society website here .