In defence of Richard III

The reconstructed face of Richard III

Ed West’s recent article on Richard III for this website stated that “Richard almost certainly murdered his nephews”. It also claimed that Richard had the boys declared bastards; described Elizabeth Woodville as Edward IV’s widow, and said that the arrest of her brother, Lord Rivers, was “shocking”. All of these points reveal a lack of knowledge of the situation in England in 1483.

Following the death of Edward IV, Richard, as the senior living prince of the blood, was the rightful Protector of the Realm (regent). But Elizabeth Woodville and her family tried, illegally, to seize power. Women – even queens – had no rights to claim regency powers in England at that time. Lord Rivers was arrested – and subsequently executed by the Earl of Northumberland – because of his connection with his sister’s attempted coup. Punishment of someone who is involved in an attempted coup which fails is not usually classified as “shocking”.

Richard was then offered the crown of England by the Three Estates of the Realm. Their decision was based on evidence presented to them by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, a high ranking clergyman and a well-known expert in canon law.

The bishop told the Three Estates that Edward IV’s marriage to the mother of the ‘princes’ had been bigamous, because he (the bishop) had himself married Edward to Lord Shrewsbury’s daughter, Eleanor Talbot, a devout lady of royal descent. Since this marriage had preceded the secret Woodville wedding – at which time Eleanor had still been alive – the Three Estates decreed that Edward IV had never legally been married to Elizabeth Woodville (so she was not his widow), and that the couple’s children were illegitimate, and could not inherit the crown.

Since the crown was offered to Richard III legally, by the Three Estates of the Realm, he was never a usurper. And since the Three Estates in 1483 (followed by the official parliament of 1484) formally acknowledged him as the rightful king and decreed that the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ were not princes at all, but bastards, Richard III had no motive for killing them.

Moreover, if he had killed them, the only logical sequel would have been to make their extinction public, thereby ensuring that everyone knew they were out of the way. But of course, Richard III never did that. Indeed he himself may have been uncertain of the fate of his nephews. But he did call the rebel Duke of Buckingham “the most untrue creature living”. And my view of the unknown fate of the ‘princes’ (as set it out recently in my book The Dublin King) is that Buckingham may have been the only person who could tell us what really happened to them.

Dr John Ashdown-Hill is leader of genealogical research and historical adviser, ‘Looking for Richard’ project