Richard III’s claim to the throne is not as simple as being the son of a previous king. A new king had to be accepted by a majority of people who mattered. These were the Church, the Lords and the Commons who together comprised Parliament.
The preference in 15th century England was that the sovereign should be male. In earlier centuries, Henry I and Edward I had both made arrangements for a daughter to reign after them. More recently, Edward III and Henry IV had made arrangements to prevent a woman from inheriting the throne.
Hereditary played an important role, usually from father to eldest son. Whether a royal title could be inherited though a female was a point of disagreement. In the 14th century, Edward III claimed the throne of France through his French mother, Isabella, but this was not accepted in France. This dispute led to the Hundred Years War.
Richard III’s claim to the throne was based on the illegitimacy of his brother’s children.
When there was a break from father to son, this was usually because of poor kingship by the father. A recent case was Richard II, who had no children anyway. His behaviour became tyrannical and there was general support to depose him in 1399.
Richard II’s successor, Henry IV, did not have the full support of the nobility and had to fight off a rebellion in 1403 (Shrewsbury). Henry can be regarded as the first usurper of the 15th century. Testing a new usurper by rebellion became a fashion throughout the 15th century.
Henry V’s succession as the son of Henry IV went fairly smoothly in 1413 until, just as he was embarking for the invasion of France (1415) and immortal fame at Agincourt, he had to deal with the Southampton plot. This planned to replace him in favour of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel.
The Lancastrian dynasty was so well established by 1422, when Henry V died unexpectedly. His son was recognised as Henry VI at the tender age of eight months. Whilst Henry was growing up, Henry’s uncles and other senior nobles formed a Council to govern England and parts of France. Unfortunately, young Henry did not develop the character and skills expected of a medieval king. He also suffered from a mysterious mental illness so that even in adulthood a Protectorate was necessary in 1454. Historians disagree on whether the second Protectorate of his adulthood was also linked to his mental health.
Not Richard III (yet)
Step forward Richard, Duke of York, father of the future Richard III, who was formally appointed Protector of the Realm during Henry’s prolonged incapacity in 1454. Although Henry recovered, he remained a feeble presence. In 1460 following almost a decade of political tension and occasional armed conflict, Richard Duke of York formally claimed the throne by right of his mother’s descent from Lionel Duke of Clarence. Parliament agreed that when Henry died, Richard Duke of York, or one of his sons, would become King.
This did not go down well with Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who had a young son, Edward of Lancaster. She travelled to Scotland to seek support to oppose the Duke of York. Her cause was supported by a number of English noblemen, including the earls of Pembroke, Wiltshire and Devon, and the duke of Exeter. More of her supporters, led by the earl of Northumberland and the duke of Somerset, raised armies for her in the north of England. When Richard, Duke of York, marched to face these men, he found himself outnumbered. He was killed at the Battle of Wakefield (December 1460).
Cometh the hour, cometh the man and that man was Richard’s eldest son Edward, aged 18. He was proclaimed king in London (March 1461) and spectacularly revenged his father’s death by destroying the Queen’s army at Towton (April 1461), causing her and her son to flee England. Henry VI had disappeared so Edward had no opposition to remain on the throne for the next nine years. Henry VI was captured and imprisoned in the Tower in 1465.
All did not go well for Edward and in due course he was temporarily deposed by the earl of Warwick in October 1470 but reappeared in March 1471 to finish off the Lancastrian dynasty and its chief supporters at Barnet and Tewkesbury.
Edward’s second reign was very successful but ended abruptly in April 1483 when he died at the age of 40, after years of debauchery with wine, women and gluttony. He had several illegitimate children in addition to the ten with his queen.
He had made a rather unusual marriage in 1464 with an English-born widow who already had two sons from a Lancastrian knight killed at 2nd St Albans (1461). Kings of England had married foreign brides for more than three centuries before Edward met Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville). With Edward she produced three more sons and seven daughters. Elizabeth was one of fourteen siblings, so Edward did his best to find the Woodville clan profitable jobs or marriages, sometimes both, much to the dismay of some senior aristocrats.
The line of succession
During Edward’s second reign, he had condemned to death his middle brother, George, duke of Clarence, for treason. George had both a son, Edward, 17th earl of Warwick, and a daughter, Margaret, countess of Salisbury. Because of George’s treason, his children were removed from the line of succession.
At King Edward’s death the expected heir to the throne was his eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales, aged 12. He was living in Ludlow Castle in Wales under the tutelage of his Woodville uncle Anthony, Earl Rivers.
Twelve was a bit young to take on the full job of king, but the queen, his mother, wished to have him crowned as soon as possible. Richard II had been crowned at the age of ten, but that had turned out badly. Henry VI was crowned at age seven and that turned out to be a disaster. Even so, after Edward IV’s death, the king’s Council, a forerunner of the Privy Council, agreed to an early Coronation. The dead king’s nearest adult relative, Richard, duke of Gloucester, was not consulted.
In late April 1483 Edward V was escorted from Ludlow towards Westminster and Richard rode south from York. Their meeting took place in Northamptonshire and the events of 30th April 1483 had extreme consequences.
What happened next
Messages would be travelling to and fro at a hectic rate (up to 50 miles per day by horse) so that by the time the two parties met Richard had formed the view that there was a Woodville plot to take over the throne and govern through the young king. This would mean lessening of influence for Richard , who had been his brother’s number two. A new king, advised by his mother, could have taken away most of Richard’s land and titles. Richard used his status as the senior male of the House of York, arrested earl Rivers and took personal charge of Edward V.
The immediate response from Queen Elizabeth, finding there was support for Richard in London, was to take her remaining children into sanctuary in Westminster. She had taken sanctuary before when her husband had temporarily quit the throne to go into exile. Edward V had been born during this previous sanctuary..
This situation produced a stalemate for some weeks. Edward V took up residence in the Tower of London as was traditional for monarchs before their Coronation. His mother, sisters and younger brother remained in sanctuary. By mid-June Elizabeth was persuaded to release her younger son, Richard, duke of York, to join his brother and create the duo we know as The Princes in the Tower. Tradition is that they never left the Tower alive, but there is no clear evidence what happened to them.
Richard assumes power
Richard was now officially Protector of the Realm, the same title his father had been given almost a quarter of a century earlier. He continued preparation for Edward V’s Coronation until a bombshell piece of news was made public.
According to the Franco-Burgundian diplomat Philippe de Commynes, a Bishop, Robert Stillington, reported that Edward IV had been secretly married when he secretly married Elizabeth Grey. Canon Law meant that their children were all illegitimate and so Edward V was not eligible to be crowned. This newly discovered impediment was announced at St Paul’s Cathedral. It took a few days for the news to sink in, but the result was that parliament invited Richard to become king. He was crowned ten days later. Parliament later confirmed Richard III’s claim to the throne by the Act Titulus Regius. Former Queen Elizabeth did not attend, but ironically Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, not only attended but was given the high honour of carrying the train of the new Queen Anne (née Neville).
Richard III’s claim to the Throne
In the genealogical tree above, trace the descent from Edward III to Richard III via two of Edward’s sons: Lionel (2nd son) and Edmund (4th son).
Henry Tudor’s claim to the Throne
Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, was descended from John of Gaunt (3rd son of Edward III) via the very well-connected Beaufort family. This family was the product of an adulterous relationship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. After John and Katherine married in 1396, the Beauforts were declared legitimate both by the king and the pope. When Henry IV became king, he confirmed this, but said the Beaufort’s could not inherit the throne. By the 1450s it is clear that many people thought the Beauforts did have a claim.
With the assistance of both former Queen Elizabeth and Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s French army defeated that of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry had perhaps the least right to the throne of any 15th century King, descending from an illegitimate liaison. He claimed ‘right of conquest’ as his justification for taking the throne. After re-legitimising Edward IV’s children, he married the eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York: thus was the Tudor dynasty established.
Who was the usurper: Richard or Henry?
Rosemary Horrox, Richard III, a study in service (1991) Chapter 2
Michael Hicks, Richard III: The Self Made King (2019)