To Top

The Real White Queen? A Defence Of King Richard III

Good or Evil? Let us talk rather of shades of grey, for that is what all real people are made up of. And what is often forgotten is that, just like you and I, King Richard III was a real person, a man of his times, yes, but a man with hopes and dreams, with fears and disasters that made him who he was. The recent discovery of his grave has kindled the spark of interest in England’s most maligned monarch but it is fascinating that this spark was still there, following only two years as king and over 500 years after his brutal death. Scrape at the surface of this king’s story and the façade thrown up by Tudor writers, reaching its apex with Shakespeare’s epic portrayal of evil and ambition untamed by morality, crumbles like a brittle mask.

Richard III Bosworth

Richard III at Bosworth

The list of crimes of which Shakespeare has made generations believe Richard is guilty is long and fascinating. I watched The Real White Queen on BBC, presented by Philippa Gregory to accompany The White Queen series, with anticipation. Would some of the glaring factual errors be explained and put right? Nope. The section in episode two on Richard III began promisingly from the perspective of those keen for a re-evaluation of his reputation with an assertion that he didn’t kill the Princes in the Tower, then descended into latching onto the strangest rumour about his reign, expanding it and representing it as fact.

So how easily can we debunk the crimes of King Richard III? The first thing to consider is that the source material is limited and open to interpretation. John Rous, a chronicler of the Neville family, wrote the Rous Roll in 1485, describing Richard in glowing terms during his reign. He was a ‘good lord’, praised for punishing ‘oppressors of the commons’. Immediately after Henry Tudor came to power Rous, clearly frightened for his own position, wrote his Historia Regum Angliae, suddenly presenting Richard as a monster who spent two years in his mother’s womb and was born with a full set of teeth and shoulder length hair. Very unlikely, but it demonstrates the necessarily fickle nature of the material available. I imagine Rous in a panicked fluster trying to round up copies of the Rous Roll in the wake of Bosworth and deciding to write his later piece when he couldn’t account for all of the manuscripts that he knew existed. The primary source for most of this period is Polydore Vergil, a man hired by Henry VII to write his personal history and therefore necessarily partisan.

Shakespeare’s account, though ingrained in the popular consciousness as the true Richard, is flawed. Perhaps its greatest achievement is telling us that a lie is the truth until we all believed it. It is also possible that Shakespeare didn’t mean us to see King Richard III in his play, but that is another story.

So to the crimes. A court of criminal law requires proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil law measures guilt on the balance of probability. Can Richard be convicted of any of the crimes of which he is accused by either of these yardsticks? Let us see.

Though out of chronological order, we will look first at the issue surrounding Elizabeth of York, since The Real White Queen has brought it once more to the fore. When Richard’s wife died on 16th March 1485, a rumour arose that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth also happened to be the woman Henry Tudor had vowed to marry should he take the throne, a clear play for the support of disaffected Edwardian Yorkists. Apparently on the advice of Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir William Catesby, Richard issued a public declaration that he did not intend to marry his niece. He spoke before the mayor and aldermen of London and wrote to others of his disgust at the malicious rumour. Public denial does little to establish guilt or innocence, yet this is odd for a man silent about the fate of his nephews.

A guilty conscience? Perhaps. Yet it ignores the fact that Richard opened negotiations to marry Joana of Portugal, an arrangement that was to include Elizabeth’s marriage into the Portuguese royal family to the king’s cousin Manuel, Duke of Beja at the same time. This was not simply a random, convenient match. Richard was attempting to play Henry at his own game. Philippa, a daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and sister of Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had married into the Portuguese royal family and the blood of Lancaster flowed strongly there. Stronger and more legitimately than it did in the veins of Henry Tudor. Richard was seeking to attract Lancastrian support just as Henry looked to draw disaffected Yorkists to his cause by unifying the feuding Houses.

The Red Rose and The White Rose

The Red Rose and The White Rose

It also disregards another vital fact. Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate by Parliament along with her brothers. She would hardly have been a suitable match for a king. Henry VII was to ensure that this obstacle was officially removed before he would marry her, so how could Richard, the man who had put the obstacle in place, overlook it? It seems doubtful that a Papal dispensation would ever have been granted for such a close blood relationship. It would certainly have been required, yet was never sought.

Why would this rumour surface from nowhere? It is possible, in a repeat of the misinterpretation of Henry II’s desire to be rid of the troublesome Thomas Beckett, that Richard exclaimed his desire to have Elizabeth of York married to rid himself of the threat of Henry Tudor marrying her. This frustrated aspiration could have been misread as the king proclaiming a desire to marry her himself, or it could have been seized upon by his enemies as a mark of the lack of support he suffered from and of the propaganda tactics employed by the Tudors throughout their time in power. To muddy the waters further, Henry Tudor was so uncertain as to Richard’s intentions that he apparently sought an alternative match with Katherine Herbert, sister of William, Earl of Huntingdon, a staunch Yorkist in whose father’s care Henry had spent some time, risking the loss of Woodville support. This may be a symptom of the lack of certain information reaching Tudor in exile, but it confirms that at least the rumour was all too real.

In The Real White Queen, it was asserted that Richard had an affair with Elizabeth, but there is absolutely no evidence for this beyond rumour and Richard’s refuting of the rumour. Indeed, an extra-marital affair seems deeply unlikely whether the rumours of impending marriage were true or not. It was also claimed that part of the reason Henry VII delayed marrying Elizabeth was to ensure that she was not pregnant by Richard. Henry was crowned on 30th October 1485, just over two months after his victory at Bosworth. He married Elizabeth on 18th January 1486 and had her crowned on 25th November that year. Elizabeth’s Yorkist support had helped to propel Henry to the throne and his delay demonstrated his desire to rule in his own right as a descendant of Edward III, through his mother’s line to Edward’s son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He could not tolerate accusations that he held power by virtue of his wife’s Yorkist blood. Beyond even this, a Papal dispensation was sought for the marriage because of the blood relationship between them and the couple had to wait or this dispensation to be granted and to arrive.

Henry VII

Henry VII

I do not believe that any crime was committed in this case. I cannot accept that Richard ever intended to marry or had an affair with his own niece, an illegitimate daughter of a woman he may have considered an enemy. It might have crossed his mind in a darker moment as a way to prevent anyone else, including Henry Tudor, from marrying her, but his solution appears to have been to seek a marriage for her into a foreign royal family. This seems a far more reasonable, suitable and effective solution. A criminal court would throw this out for lack of evidence. Even at the time none seemed certain what was happening and in the end, nothing did come of it. On the balance of probability? I do not think that Richard could be convicted by this measure either. His actions bear witness to his solution to the problem that the rumours sprang up around. I suspect that the rumours and the public announcement were a measure of just how far Richard’s grip on power had slipped by this point; how desperate a widowed, childless king struggling to galvanise support had become.


Innocent:    1

Guilty:         0

  • Bandit Queen

    Although the portrayal of the three women, Anne Neville, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort shows them as strong and determind as well as tragic and in danger at times, she goes overboard with the myths as well. The witchery thing has been grossly overdone and the myths about Elizabeth and the Princes in the Tower were put forward as fact by Gregory in her finale episode of the documentary on BBC2. The comment that Richard III was determined to marry Elizabeth of York and set his wife Anne aside has no basis in fact. He went on record in public to deny such a thing and it is clear he had no such intention.

    The final comment by Lynn Hilton, yet another novolist put forward as an expert shows that novelists should not be allowed anywhere near historians or put forward as the person who knows the facts. The reason that Elizabeth of York was married to Henry Tudor some five months after he came to the throne after Bosworth was not as Hilton claimed due to the rumours of her relationship with Richard III and that she may have been carrying his child: the delay was because they were cousins and they had to wait for a dispensation from the Pope, which took almost that long to arrive.

    There is also no truth in the ridiculous story that Elizabeth Woodville came out of sanctuary as she now trusted Richard III. She came out as she had guaranteed the safety of her and her daughters. She clearly did not know if her sons were alive or not and had no reason to suppose anyone had killed them at this stage. It was possible that she came to believe that her sons had vanished and been killed but there is no evidence that she believed Margaret Beaufort had killed them. The alliance with Margaret and Elizabeth did not break down as claimed by Gregory and both women merely tried to protect their own corner.

    Elizabeth Woodville was a master malipulator and so was Margaret and their alliance was one that had benefit for both of them. It protected them and their family interests and left an escape root in case it all went wrong. Henry Tudor was key to both of their plans once Richard took over as King and he was the only key alternative once the King’s son sadly died aged 10 in 1484. The failure of the Buckingham rebellion had left a lot of discontented gentry with no-one to aim that support at and they changed sides along with Elizabeth to back the young Earl of Richmond. Elizabeth’s eldest daughter Elizabeth of York was formally betrothed to Henry Tudor, although Richard may also have seen her as a potential bride and then changed his mind. There is no evidence that at any time Elizabeth Woodville showed any support for Richard other than to remain quiet and protect her own life. Gregory suggested that Elizabeth handed over a replacement to him as Richard her second son and that the real child was smuggled abroad. This was the origin of the story of Perkin Warbeck. She also suggested that Elizabth did not believe Richard had killed her sons. This is Gregory’s theory and has no basis in fact.

    In the end it all came to nothing as Richard met his fate on the battlefield at Redemore (Bosworth) on Monday 22nd August 1485, and Henry Tudor took the throne. Elizabeth Woodville may have been sent to a convent some 15 months after she was reinstated as Queen Dowager, but she was granted several grants of land and rights and her titles. She was very wealthy when she died and was not mistreated in any way. Margaret Beaufort as the new Queen Mother was given every honour as pointed out and lived to see her grandson Henry VIII crowned as well. She may have been the most important person in her sons life as he ruled mostly with her advice. There is no evidence that she had anything to do with the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

    • Ivana Cvetanovic

      The ridiculous story about Elizabeth Woodville handing Richard a replacement child – which would only work if Richard and everyone around him were complete idiots – certainly was not the origin of the Perkin Warbeck story in real life, since it was invented by Gregory. No writer ever before her suggested anything like that. The man usually called ‘Perkin Warbeck’ claimed that he had been in the Tower and was saved by a person he did not name, as he said to protect him, from anonymous murderers (he never claimed to know who they were). So, his story and Gregory’s version don’t match.

      Nobody thinks that Elizabet Woodville liked or genuinely supported Richard, or vice versa; but there’s really no evidence that she was all for Henry Tudor after she came out of the sanctuary, either. And there is no evidence that either Elizabeth Woodville or Elizabeth of York considered EoY formally betrothed to Henry Tudor. In fact, they clearly did not, since the deal was that the girls would join Richard’s court and that he would find suitable marriages for them – which he did at least for Cecily and Elizabeth; Cecily was married to Ralph Scrope of Marsham, and Elizabeth was supposed to get an excellent royal match in Manuel, Duke of Beja. Elizabeth Woodbille was looking for her family’s best interests. And that meant that, even if there was no love lost between her and Richard, she placed some trust in him. Not only did she agree to put her daughters’ lives and future in his hands – on the strength of an oath he took saying that he would not let any harm come to them and would make good matches for them – but she also wrote to her eldest son from the first marriage, Thomas Gray, who was in exile and had joined Henry Tudor, telling him it’s safe to come to England (as a part of the deal, Richard removed Thomas Gray’s name from the list of attained traitors that had been involved in the Buckingham’s Rebellion). And he tried to do just that, but was intercepted and stopped by Tudor’s men, which is often taken as a reason why Henry seemed later to distrust Gray (who was briefly arrested during the ‘Lambert Simnel’ Yorkist rebellion).

      You really believe that Elizabeth Woodville thought that Richard may have murdered her sons, but just got bored by waiting for Henry to invade and decided: “Oh well, let me just make a deal with my sons’ murderer. He may be a secret murderer of children aged 9 and 12 who were also his own nephews by blood, but he would never, never break an oath! So I’ll just put my daughters’ lives in his hands, and my remaining son’s. Because surely he would never hurt them, or Tom, who is an adult and not his blood relation and who dislikes!” Really? That makes no sense. (Not to mention that the girls were at that point arguably a bigger threat to his rule than their brothers had been – since there was a foreign invasion with French help planned by a pretender to the throne who had marriage to Elizabeth of York as one of his political objectives.)

      The only way it makes sense is if Elizabeth Woodville did NOT believe that Richard had murdered her sons. And what little evidence there is for what the relationship between Elizabeth of York and her uncle Richard was, shows that she had at least some affection for him (no, I don’t mean in the Philippa Gregory way), and certainly didn’t seem to nurse any hatred for him, which would be hard to explain if she thought he had murdered her little brothers (and while she may not have been close to Edward V as he lived in Ludlow, Richard of Shrewsbury certainly grew up with his sisters and they would have been close).

      If Henry Tudor was having second thoughts, the obvious reason was that he didn’t think Elizabeth would be available anymore (and Cecily was not, as she was already married, which Vergil claimed upset Henry, as Cecily was the alternative choice if the marriage to the eldest sister didn’t work out). Why would he think she was available, when she was at Richard’s court, in apparently friendly relations with her uncle and aunt, and he was supposed to make a match for her according to the deal struck with her mother? I don’t know if Henry really believed the rumor of her supposed upcoming marriage to Richard himself, but if he had known the truth, he’d have known that his prospects were even more endangered by Elizabeth’s planned marriage to a Portuguese royal duke, which would have effectively made her completely unavailable for Henry’s marriage plans.

      Saying that Richard “may have seen her as a potential bride” is really strange, since there’s no evidence for such a thing except for rumors that he angrily denied, and lots of evidence against it, plus common sense that says he would have never contemplated a match to his illegitimate niece (whose de-legitimization was the very thing that his claim was based on) that would more or less have amounted to a political suicide.

      As for the story of Elizabeth Woodville just deciding to retire from court in 1487 and go to a (male) convent, out of her own free will, that’s a lovely story, but seems really implausible to me. Somehow she doesn’t seem the type who was yearning for the peace of a convent all along.

      You’re absolutely right, though, that there’s no evidence that Margaret Beaufort murdered the ‘Princes’. Just as there’s no actual evidence that Richard III murdered the ‘Princes’. Or that anyone murdered the ‘Princes’, for that matter.

  • Maire

    It is the Crowland Chronicler (apparently writing after Bosworth) whom we have to thank for the main details of the rumour that Richard planned to marry Elizabeth, and it is Crowland who tells us Richard was talked out of the idea by Ratcliffe and Catesby. But Crowland needs to be read with caution. For instance, he also tells us Ratcliffe and Catesby got together over a dozen doctors of divinity who persuaded Richard the Pope would be unable to grant a dispensation for such a marriage; this seems to mean that Richard was told on good authority that the marriage fell foul not only of the Church’s own rules (which the Pope could set aside if he chose), but also of the prohibitions in the Old Testament (Book of Leviticus), which were held to be the word of God. Doctors of divinity were Bible experts, you see; the church’s own rules were dealt with by doctors of canon law. So that is what Crowland was telling us had happened; but the problem is that an uncle/ niece marriage is not prohibited by Leviticus, and popes had on rare occasions granted dispensations for these. That Catesby could have raked up over a dozen DDs is hard enough to believe, but that they could all have made the same mistake is quite incredible. This incident, in other words, cannot have happened. Crowland knew nothing about the Portuguese plans and seems to have been reporting rumours.
    A possibility that has not been put forward above is actually that the rumour may have been sown by the Tudor camp in order to discredit Richard and allow Henry (who seems never to have known whether Elizabeth’s brothers were alive or dead) to find a new, rather safer, bride. His delay in marrying Elizabeth after Bosworth cannot simply be explained by the need to obtain a dispensation. It is now known that a dispensation had been granted in the spring of 1484, 17 months before Bosworth. Elizabeth had been at Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire for about the last five months of Richard’s reign, so waiting to see if she was pregnant is not a tenable excuse for the delay either; indeed, had she had sexual relations with Richard this would have necessitated a further dispensation for affinity (as Richard and Henry Tudor were cousins), but this was never sought and no writer before modern times has ever suggested that Richard Elizabeth may actually have had an affair.
    What seems to have been generally expected is that Henry would marry Elizabeth as soon as possible and then be crowned with her – at least, the heralds evidently thought so as they began amending the blueprint for Richard and Anne’s coronation for another double coronation. But Henry made no immediate move to marry Elizabeth, despite having placed her in his mother’s household, and got himself crowned alone and had his own claim to the throne enshrined by Parliament without reference to Elizabeth’s claim. In fact, Portuguese sources claim that he tried to continue with the marriage plans Richard had been pursuing, with himself as the Princess Joanna’s bridegroom. He did not agree to marry Elizabeth until formally petitioned by Parliament in December, hence the January wedding. He did not, in fact, have her crowned the following November, but the November of the year after that, probably in response to the discontent that had nearly cost him his throne just a few months earlier. He was clearly not happy to rely in any way on Elizabeth’s Yorkist claim.
    The reason for the second, last-minute dispensation issued by the Papal legate in London is an interesting mystery. It covered the same relationship as the first dispensation, but came with a lot of depositions from people claiming to know that Elizabeth was not being forced and that her father had discussed that very marriage with Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort back in the day.

    • Ivana Cvetanovic

      That’s a pretty strange thing, indeed, but certainly shows that there must have been some widespead suspicion about Elizabeth’s willingness (which is not surprising, considering the fact that, although being re-legitimized and marrying the new King of England was surely not a bad deal, it’s not like she had any other choice, anyway), if there was an effort to prove it was not the case.

      The story about Edward IV supposedly contemplating marriage of Elizabeth to Henry seems incredibly unlikely, and I suspect it only happened in Margaret Beaufort’s wishful thinking. For starters, it’s well known that Elizabeth had been betrothed to the French dauphin Charles since 1476, until shortly before Edward’s death, when King Louis XI broke the deal (which he probably had never meant to uphold, but Edward IV did not know that) and found his son another bride. Secondly, why would Edward ever contemplate marrying his eldest daughter to a mere exiled Earl of Richmond? Henry was not considered a serious contender for the throne at the time, his descent was not considered particularly prestigious (Beauforts were not seen as legitimate successors to the Lancasters, Edward IV himself had a Beaufort grandmother anyway, and Henry’s claim to the throne was quite weak and inferior to that of every member of the York dynasty, plus quite a few other people across Europe, including the Portuguese royal family, who were descended from John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster and were therefore senior Lancastrian descendants; and obviously, being Owen Tudor’s grandson wasn’t considered prestigious at all, while being descended from Henry VI’s mother may have helped Henry’s credentials with the Lancastrian supporters, but meant nothing in terms of any claim to the throne) and even if he had been seen as a serious Lancastrian pretender at the time, Edward’s rule was secure and he had no reason to fear a new pro-Lancastrian (or pro-Beaufort) rebellion. If he had been worried, it would be more likely if he thought of marrying Elizabeth into the Portuguese royal family, as Richard later did. It’s unlikely that Edward planned for her anything less than a marriage to a foreign royal prince.

  • KittiePeacock

    Someone killed those princes and the list of who had access to them is not that long. It seems to me killing a Royal in the tower during that period was not that unusual. Elizabeth Woodville ended up being the grandmother of a king in spite of the murders of her sons. It is true that the victors write the history.

    • Roger DESHON

      “Just call me urn”. I must say there is NO proof anyone, including TUDOR, Margaret BEAUFORT, Henry STAFFORD, Duke of Buckingham or Richard for that matter, killed Edward IVs’ sons. We do not know to where they went after 1483 and even if the bones in the Westminster urn are those of the princes that only shows who they were but not who killed them, if anyone did. If poison were found in the structure of the bones then we could well say they had been murdered but again we have no killer.
      All I do know is that the ‘confession’ of TYRELL, just before he was executed for Treason by that usurping grub Henry VII, was very convenient for Henry. I also call it poetic justice that the treacherous William STANLEY, whose betrayal at Bosworth gave TUDOR the victory, died by the axe at Henry’s order.

      • Ivana Cvetanovic

        Not to mention that there’s no evidence whatsoever that Tyrell ever made such a confession, unless one counts a rumor recorded years later by Tudor historians. Common sense says that, had there ever been such a confession, Henry VII would have made it public. He had every reason to do so and no reason not to. Plus, the other man who supposedly participated in the murder, Miles Forest, lived freely in England even years later when More was writing that story. How could that have possibly been the case if he was known to be a murderer and regicide?

More in History

Royal Central is the web's most popular source for the latest news and information on the British Royal Family and the Monarchies of Europe.

Subscribe via Email

To receive the latest Royal Central posts straight to your email inbox, enter your email address below and press subscribe.

Join 31,639 other subscribers.

Copyright © 2018 Royal Central, all rights reserved.