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Using first hand accounts and the views of historians from various sources this essay focuses upon the question: ‘When considering the reasons for Richard III’s rise and fall from power to what extent were Richard III’s strengths also his greatest weakness.’ Many historians consider that he usurped the English throne in 1783, triggering the end of the medieval period and the Plantagenet dynasty. The study of the role played by Richard in the ending of this epoch allows us to look at whether one man really can make that much difference to history as well as to consider how history itself is written. This essay sets out to investigate Richard III’s many qualities as a ruler, such as his intelligence, and aims to show how these aided him in claiming the throne, yet also ultimately led to his downfall. Other, exogenous factors in his rise and fall are also considered in order to judge the comparative importance of his personality in this matter. The essay starts by looking at the legend of Richard III (including the famous Shakespeare play in which he is portrayed as a tyrant by the Tudor playwright) in order to set his achievements, and interpretations of him, in a historical context. The reasons behind Richard successfully taking the crown and keeping it are then considered. This touches upon many controversial, deeply-debated events (such as what happened to the ‘Princes in the Tower’?) which have arguably led to his poor reputation. The essay then analyses how his apparent strengths failed to prevent his dethroning by Henry Tudor, before concluding that these eventually became his areas of greatest weakness, such as his patriotism and his high levels of education and ego.
To what extent were Richard III’s strengths also his greatest weaknesses?
In 1485, the medieval period ended with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard III is well known throughout the world due to the scandalous ‘Princes in the Tower’ situation, where many historians and the public hold Richard III responsible for the double disappearance of the heirs to the throne, Richard III’s nephews and sons of Edward IV. Not to mention with him being eternally immortalised within Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard III.’ However regardless of his forceful and slightly underhand taking of the throne, Richard was not the complete villain that history portrays him as. His evil reputation, ‘Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe’, possibly exaggerated by Shakespeare’s Richard III, was fashioned at least in part by the labours of Tudor propagandists to rationalise Henry VII’s own usurpation. It is possible that Shakespeare was funded by Tudor patrons, thereby possibly ensuring that Shakespeare wrote positively about Henry Tudor. However it appears that Shakespeare used the Chronicle writers, Vergil and Holinshed and even Thomas More to base his play upon, so perhaps he was only writing with the information provided and it was not a vindictive quest. According to Alison Weir ‘nearly all narrative sources for this period have a partisan bias: most were written in the South of England and reflect anti-northern sentiments, for Richard III was identified very much with the northern interests.’
He achieved power in 1483 due to many of his strengths; nevertheless Richard III had lost power two years later to Henry Tudor, potentially demonstrating that although Richard III’s strengths achieved him the throne they also led to his downfall. The first strength that is instantly noticed when looking into Richard III’s childhood and life before he became king, is how educated he was in the ways of being a member of the Royal family. As a young man Richard III was sent to train under Warwick’s ‘Master of Henxman,’ this was a household official whose job it was to implant in Richard the rudiments of knightly conduct. According to a source at this school the pupils were taught to ‘ride cleanly and surely; to draw them also to jousts; to learn to them to wear their harness and to have all courtesy in words, deeds, and degrees’ however what is important to note is that along with all these ‘necessary’ skills of a noble, he was also taught ‘a traditional English public school education, tempered with book learning and other liberal accomplishment.’ This source demonstrates that in appearances he would have looked and ac ted like royalty, but it also taught him knowledge which aided him greatly in the future for example making English the standard language for law so that everyone could understand it.
Intelligence and cunning played a huge role in the success of Richard III in becoming King as his intellect stood him ahead of other individuals. This can be seen consistently throughout Richard III’s seizing of power and throughout his short reign. The main event that allows us to see the part that intelligence and cunning played is with the introduction of the law Titulus Regius (1483) by which the title of King was granted to Richard III. Invented by the parliament, all loyal subjects and advisors to Richard III, this official declaration explains why Parliament had decided that the marriage of Edward IV of England to Elizabeth Woodville had been false, in order to give more power to Richard III as well as aid the prevention of another potential uprising like what had just occurred. Consequently their offspring had no right to the throne, and therefore placing Richard III on the throne of England.
Furthermore we see how cunning he was by the fact that no one tried to oppose this new ruling, not even Henry VII as he was hiding and gathering an army in France during this period. This is a prime example of how cunning and intelligence were key strengths in helping Richard III achieve power, as few individuals had the flair to create such an elaborate scheme and the desire to achieve power, without his education and background he may have never achieved his ruler status in the first place. Another instance of this is regarding his arch-rivals stepfather Lord Stanley. Richard knew that he had to keep Stanley on his side and although he could not trust him, he needed his influence in the North West and in North Wales so he used Stanley to keep order in his country, this is another demonstration of Richard’s cunning allowing him to obtain power.
There are many instances where the chicanery of Richard III appears throughout his life, firstly in the usurpation of the throne where he decided that Hastings was too loyal to the children of Edward IV, so he trumped up a charge of treason on this lord and had him summarily executed, showing Richard III’s ability to be wily and ruthless. The highest profile example of this was concerning the Princes in the Tower, in 1483.
Although this event is held in controversy by many historians, such as historian Alison Weir who argues that Richard III was to blame whereas another historian who researches the period Paul Murray Kendall argues that Henry had an even ambiguous claim to the throne so if the Princes where still alive Henry Tudor would have had even less claim to the throne. Who is responsible for this catastrophic occurrence, resulting in the death of the two ‘heirs’ to the throne after Edward IV? There are many different people who have been blamed for this tragedy, however many consider that Richard III had the biggest reason to see the two sons of Edward IV dead. Alison Weir, a well-known historian has written a novel on the subject looking at both sides of the argument and the sources, and in her conclusion she states ‘Given all the other evidence already discussed in previous chapters, then only one man could have been responsible for their deaths: Richard III.’
However as he discredited them as being illegitimate, why would he have them killed and have negative impact towards his reign, but his right to the throne was still shaky so he potentially had them killed to remove any possible threat to his reign. This all just shows how cunning and conniving he was through removing any threat and doing the whole process without making the situation appear like a coup d’état. Instead it appeared that Richard III was doing the country a favour. This all goes to show the great advantage that Richard III’s strengths played in allowing him to achieve the throne through guile and shrewd. Looking at the other side, there are many other people who could be blamed for this tragedy, firstly Henry Tudor for the same reason that Richard III is blamed, in order to remove the rightful heirs to the throne. However revisionists now claim that it might have been the Duke of Buckingham, Richard III’s biggest ally, trying to clear the path for Richard.
Potentially this tragic situation could show off another of Richard III’s strengths, if he is not responsible for the death of the heirs, that of being an opportunist and ruthless in his quest for power. This personality trait that we see in Richard III could have resulted from childhood, according to a website devoted to the Monarchs, ‘the young Richard grew up amidst the violent civil strife of the Wars of the Roses, it formed and molded him and he was very much the product of that turbulent age.’ From this source we can see that Richard was just a product of the time and for that reason we can see that Richard III used many of the events that occurred both in the past and present.
In agreement with Alison Weir about how ruthless and dangerous Richard III could be Sir Thomas More, famous for writing the ‘History of King Richard III’ the novel that was later used by Shakespeare to write his famous play. At the same time that the Princes in the Towers situation was going on Richard III was also allegedly involved in falsely accusing and arresting Jane Shore, late Edward IV’s mistress. This was once again another power play. As written by Thomas More from firsthand accounts ‘the Protector sent into the house of Shore’s wife (for her husband dwelled not with her) and spoiled her of all that she ever had, above the value of two or three thousand marks, and sent her body to prison. And when he had a while laid unto her for the manner’s sake, that she went about to bewitch him, and that she was of counsel with the Lord Chamberlain to destroy him.’ From this source we can see that Richard III even before he became King was ruthless in his removal of all potential enemies, not caring whether he falsified the crimes that this woman supposedly committed. Despite this source coming from a historian at the time it is possible that Sir Thomas More only wrote unflatteringly about Richard III because he thought that he would be able to further his career at the time. Also Thomas More grew up in the house of the Lord Chancellor during Henry Tudor’s reign so it is likely that he had biased opinions regarding Richard III.
His ruthlessness is perhaps best summed up by how he attempted to seize power following the unexpected death of Edward IV, on the 9th April 1483, with the death of the current ruler there was a sudden gap in the countries leadership that needed to be filled. As the current heirs to the throne were 12 and 9 respectively, they were too young to rule by themselves, so Richard III was named protector. Richard III then used this chance to achieve power himself. All this again shows just how much of an opportunist he was, and how much this played in helping him to achieve the throne. A more cynical historian could view this as just a stroke of luck and it did not demonstrate anything about Richard III’s actual character.
A final important strength that Richard III possessed was loyalty to his king and country. Understandably this is a good quality so why would a loyal man commit treason and potentially kill Edward IV’s sons? Well there are many differing views on why this happened; firstly it was never a doubt that Richard remained loyal to the king throughout Edward IV’s reign. This can be seen quite often throughout the reign as Richard III supported Edward when he was overthrown by his other son, Duke of Clarence, and then helped Edward regain power through his military prowess and his courage in battle. However it is possible to argue that here is another example of Richard III’s cunning, he could possibly just be supporting the right man to further himself in politics. Some historians even claim that Richard III was often reckless in battle, which could explain why Richard lost the Battle of Bosworth, 1485. This view of many is supported by Anne Crawford who in her study of Richard III states that ‘Richard’s plan had turned into disaster and all he could do was attempt to make political capital at home,’
Furthermore in regards to loyalty there is a clear case that on the accession of his brother, Richard was created the Duke of Gloucester, traditionally a royal title, and at which Richard adopted he white boar as his personal badge, according to a source he also took the motto ‘Loyaulte me lie (loyalty binds me).’ This would explain Richard III’s loyalty to Edward IV but not to any of his descendants. However relating back to the question, his loyalty enabled him to become King on a variety of levels, rather ironically; firstly according to the majority of historians such as Nigel Saul, Richard III would never have gained power without the aid of the duke of Buckingham. Richard’s loyalty inspired other people to join in and support him, which was obviously key to his claim to power. The support of the second most influential man in England eased Richard III’s path to become King.
In conclusion the most important strengths of Richard III that helped him achieve power successfully were his intelligence and cunning. However it can be argued that out of these attributes it was Richard III’s cunning and intelligence that allowed him to achieve power, through scandals and new laws and many other reforms.
However what is well-known is that Richard III only reigned for approximately two years, a relatively short reign, before he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and the Tudor period began, with Lord Stanley claiming ‘King Henry, God save King Henry!’
Firstly through loyalty as we saw Richard III manipulate his way into power, through rewarding those those who were loyal to him during this period, showering them with gifts in order to keep them loyal. An example of this is with Richard III’s new son in law, the Earl of Huntingdon, who took over the lands of Buckingham’s betrayal, and with this he bought William’s loyalty through wedding Richard’s bastard daughter Katherine to him as well as including a generous dowry, according to Anne Crawford as much as the sum of ‘1000 marks a year.’
Finally another trait that of being cunning also served Richard III well, as he decided after being crowned to go on a royal progress to gather support for himself. These skills mentioned helped Richard III to keep power for the two years that he held it for, but eventually many historians, including Anne Crawford, Nigel Saul and Antony Cheetham agree that these skills also contributed greatly to his ultimate downfall.
Firstly with Richard III’s intelligence from his education he felt able to introduce new laws all by himself, which therefore made him responsible in the public’s eyes for the negative laws restricting the people’s lives. Also he increased taxes in order to reward his followers, maintaining their loyalty. Evidently the public would not have liked this as they could barely afford to pay the old taxes. Therefore Richard III lost a lot of the public support that he had gained and with the growing popularity of Henry Tudor, it appeared that Richard III’s downfall was becoming imminent.
Another attribute that arguably turned from a strength into a weakness was loyalty, that of his followers and his loss of the ability to inspire. Richard III sat uneasily on his throne in 1483; the deep mistrust of the nobility had been engendered by the death of Lord Hastings and the apparent vanishing of Edward V and his brother. At Lincoln, on 11th October, Richard received the disturbing news that his most loyal ally, the Duke of Buckingham, had abandoned his cause and now supported Henry Tudor. Buckingham’s reasons for deserting remain a mystery, he was said to feel sorry for his previous actions, possibly an admission of guilt for the Princes in Tower, but it is possible that he felt that he deserved more recognition for all that he had done for Richard III, and Henry offered the Duke more power and rewards. It has also been suggested that, as the Duke was the direct progeny of Edward III’s youngest son himself, his support of Richard was part of a plan to help him achieve the throne himself. Anne Crawford, a historian of the Yorkist era puts forward the argument that ‘who knows whether Buckingham aspired the throne himself, whether he jumped on a bandwagon or whether he foresaw that his rule of south Wales would be threatened’.
This betrayal by the Duke hit Richard III very hard as he lost his greatest ally whom he considered a friend. In a primary source letter to his Chancellor Russell, Bishop of Lincoln Richard expresses his anger at the betrayal of Buckingham, ‘the Duke of Buckingham-the most untrue creature living: whom with God’s grace we shall not be long ’till that we will be in that parts, and subdue his malice. We assure you there was never falser traitor purveyed for; as this bearer Gloucestert shall show you.” In this letter we see how far Richard III had potentially slipped emotionally. This looked very bad for Richard now as he lost the main support of other nobles to Henry Tudor.
Furthermore in the following year after Richard showed that he intended to keep all the power that he had amassed as a Duke in the north of England, as a result he lost support around the country. In the summer of 1484 after this action, many rebellious ballads and rhymes started to emerge in London, the most famous attributed to William Collyngboure ‘the Cat [Sir William Catesby], the Rat [Sir Richard Ratcliffe] and Lovell our dog[Lord Lovell] all serving under a Hog [Richard III].’ This slanderous rhyme a deliberate slur at the supporters of Richard III and the King himself showed how far Richard III was starting to fall in public opinion.
In further support of exogenous factors leading to Richard III’s downfall from the throne on the 22nd August 1485, there was finally the expected battle between Richard III and Henry Tudor, now known as the Battle of Bosworth, famous for being the last time a monarch was killed in battle. After Richard’s death the continuator of the Croyland Chronicle depicted the event as thus ‘the tusks of the boar [Richard] were blunted and the red rose [Henry Tudor], the avenger of the white [the princes in the Tower]’ now shone upon England.’ This source clearly shows how public opinion was no longer supporting Richard and they saw Henry as a righteous avenger for the evil deeds of Richard III. However it is impossible to be sure whether this was just propaganda or a personal belief.
Linking to the attributes that led to Richard III’s downfall here is a key skill that ultimately led to his death as well as ruin. Richard III’s pride meant that he wore his crown into the battle, making him an easy target. In fact this can be linked to the earlier point about loyalty; Richard III was not killed by Henry Tudor or even the duke of Buckingham’s men, but by Sir William Stanley’s men. Stanley saw a chance to win the gratitude of Henry Tudor, while leading a counterstrike from the sidelines and surrounding the King with a superior force cutting off Richard III from his main army. With Richard dead the army disintegrated, leaving Henry Tudor to claim the throne. It can be seen here how both pride and loyalty turned on Richard III leading clearly to his downfall.
However it can be argued that there are other reasons why Richard III lost his throne, firstly the time that Richard ruled was a turbulent period. With Richard’s usurpation, it led to the possibility that there would be another, either by the people to replace the rightful heir or another potential candidate to try and take the throne before Richard III could consolidate his power.
It could also be considered that unlucky situations that Richard III faced, first, on 9th April 1484, Richard’s only son and heir, Edward of Middleham died, perhaps of tuberculosis. Both Richard and his wife Anne Neville were said to be preoccupied with grief. Many in that superstitious age saw it as celestial vengeance for Richard III’s handling of his brother’s sons.
Furthermore fate seemed to working against Richard III. In March 1485, when Queen Anne Neville died of tuberculosis, her husband was said to be loath to visit her in her lodgings. Subsequent to Anne’s death rumors arose that Richard III had poisoned her, though ungrounded in fact, they demonstrate Richard’s subjects suspicions of him. He was required to make a mortifying communal refutation of the rumors, saying that he was not delighted at her death “but as sorry and as heavy in heart as a man can be” and to deny that he planned for an incestuous matrimony with his niece. Richard III was destroyed by grief, which all affected his judgment to rule and provided Henry Tudor with the opportunity to muster a force to remove Richard III from the throne.
In conclusion we can see that Richard III’s key characteristics eventually changed from assets to liabilities and played a huge contribution to his downfall. It is easy to see that Richard’s strengths ironically became his weaknesses. His cunning and intelligence seem to have been a recurring factor in all aspects of Richard III’s life. In his use of the law to achieve the throne, but then he used this knowledge to introduce new measures and taxes which lost him public support. Pride and deviousness allowed him to inspire followers however it also arguably led to his death on the battle field as he foolishly wore his crown into battle. Finally manipulating his supporters, this led to him losing many supporters including Lord Stanley which ultimately led Richard III’s defeat in battle.
His luck also ran out with the death of his wife and son, by taking the throne by force, his determination also ended up working against him as it inspired Henry Tudor to copy him. He started a trend of people taking the throne, rather than being born to it. Therefore it was only a matter of time before Richard III met his downfall, whether he caused it himself or whether it was just fate. Revisionist historian Nigel Saul, writer of the Oxford Illustrated history of Medieval England is of a similar opinion that ‘it is doubtful whether either Edward IV or Richard III ever quite felt secure on the throne’ analyzing the evidence and arguments it appears that the revisionist idea is the most valid as it appears Richard III was vilified by propaganda. However his methods did provide a basis for his infamously flawed character and led to the circumstances which caused his downfall.
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