What was Richard III’s claim to the throne?

It’s complicated!

It is not as simple as being the son of the previous king; a new king had to be accepted by a majority of people who mattered: the three ‘estates’ of the Church (Lords Spiritual), the aristocracy and barons (Lords temporal) and (in theory) the Commons who represented the gentry and growing middle class of land owners.

The basic principle in 15th century England was that it was preferable for the sovereign to be a man. (Henry I and Edward I had both made provisions for daughters to reign after them, but Edward III and Henry IV had both, at times, made provisions to prevent women inheriting. There was no generally agreed policy).

Whether a royal title could be passed on via a female was a point of disagreement amongst people who mattered. In the 14th century, Edward III claimed the throne of France through his French mother, Isabella, but this was not accepted in France (possibly specifically because they did not want the English king to inherit the French throne). This was one of the circumstances that led to what we call the Hundred Years War.

Richard II

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, but whose behaviour became tyrannical and there was general support to depose him in 1399.

Henry IV

His successor, Henry IV, did not have the full support of the Lords temporal and had to fight off a rebellion in 1403 (Shrewsbury). Henry can be regarded as the first usurper of the 15th century and it became the norm in the 15th century to test a new usurper by rebellion.

Henry V

Henry V’s succession went fairly smoothly in 1413 until, just as he was embarking for the invasion of France (1415) and immortal fame at Azincourt, he had to deal with the Southampton plot to overthrow him in favour of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel.

Henry VI

The Lancastrian dynasty was so well established by 1422, when Henry V died unexpectedly, that 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 to govern in 1454. Although Henry recovered, he remained a feeble presence. 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 in 1460. 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 in fighting the Duke of York. Her cause was supported by a number of 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.

Edward IV

Cometh the hour, cometh the man and that man was Richard’s eldest son Edward aged 18. He was proclaimed king in London (March 1460) 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 remaining 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 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 the Woodville clan was quite a large one and Edward did his best to find them either profitable jobs or marriages, sometimes both, much to the dismay of some senior aristocrats.

Also, during Edward’s second reign, he had condemned his middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence to death for treason. George had both a son, Edward, 17th Earl of Warwick, and a daughter, Margaret. However, because of George’s treason, his children were ruled out of the line of succession.

At Edward’s death the expected heir to the throne was his eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales, aged 12. At the time 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, the king’s Council, a forerunner of the Privy Council, agreed to an early Coronation without consulting the dead king’s nearest adult relative, his younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester who was in York.

In late April 1483 we have Edward V being escorted form Ludlow to Westminster and Richard, Duke of Gloucester riding hard from York to meet up in Northamptonshire.

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 probable lessening of influence for Richard and possibly worse. 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, after finding there was support for Richard in London, was to take her remaining children into sanctuary in Westminster, where she had been before in 1470-1 when her husband had temporarily quit the throne and where Edward V had been born.

This produced a stalemate for some weeks. Edward V took up residence in the Tower of London as was traditional for Monarchs before their Coronation, but his mother, sisters and younger brother kept their distance. By mid-June Elizabeth was persuaded to give up 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 there alive, but there is no decisive evidence either way.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, now officially Protector of the Realm, the same title his father had been given almost a quarter of a century earlier, 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 already been secretly married when he secretly married Elizabeth Grey. If true, this would mean that their children were all illegitimate and so Edward V was not eligible to be crowned king.  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 members of the three estates invited Richard to become king and he was crowned ten days later. 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 title 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 title 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. But this family was the product of an adulterous relationship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford during John’s second marriage to Queen Constance of Castile. Because of John’s importance as the senior uncle of King Richard II, the Beauforts were declared legitimate by the King and the Pope after John and Katherine married in 1396. When Henry IV became king, he confirmed this, but said they could not inherit the throne. By the 1450s it is clear that many people thought the Beauforts did have a claim nonetheless.

In due course, with the assistance of both former Queen Elizabeth and Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s army defeated that of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, 22 August 1485.  Henry had perhaps the least right to the throne of any 15th century King, descended as he was from an illegitimate liaison of his great-great grandfather and through his mother. He claimed ‘right of conquest’ as his justification for taking the throne and, after re-legitimizing Edward IV’s children, married the eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York: thus was the Tudor dynasty established.

Who was the usurper: Richard or Henry?

Further reading.

Rosemary Horrox, Richard III, a study in service (1991) Chapter 2

Michael Hicks, Richard III: The Self Made King (2019) 

IWF