Richard Plantagenet was born on 21 September 1411 to Richard of Conisburgh, the third Earl of Cambridge and his wife Anne Mortimer, who died giving birth to him.
Richard’s mother was the great-granddaughter of Lionel Antwerp, the first Duke of Clarence, which gave Anne and her descendants a claim to the English throne that many believed was stronger to the reigning house of Lancaster, whose claim came from their descent from the third son of King Edward III, John of Gaunt.
At the age of four, Richard and his elder sister, Isabel of Cambridge, became orphans when their father was beheaded for his part in the 1415 Southampton Plot against King Henry V. Though the Elder Richard’s title was forfeited upon his death because of his traitorous actions, his son was allowed to inherit the titles and meagre land holdings of his paternal uncle when he died later the same year. As such, Richard the younger became the third Duke of York, adding the lesser title of the Earldom of March when his maternal uncle Edmund Mortimer died in January 1425. The combined land and prestige of his vast array of titles made him the wealthiest and most powerful noble in England, second only to the king.
As an orphan Richard came under the wardship of Ralph Neville, first Earl of Westmorland, who betrothed Richard to his daughter Cecily when they were thirteen and nine, respectively. The two were married in 1429 and had seven children – two of whom went on to become kings of England – King Edward IV and King Richard III.
Richard came into his inheritance on 12 May 1432 and was granted full control of his estates. He went on to undertake a number of appointments in France and Ireland between 1436 and 1450 at which point he returned to England where his stance as a reformer and his competing claim to the throne led to numerous conflicts with the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and other members of Henry VI’s court.
The resulting political upheaval was a major cause of the War of the Roses between 1455 and 1487. In 1455 Richard along with his brother-in-law, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and his nephew, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick gathered an army and met the king’s forces at the First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was killed during the battle and Henry VI was captured and returned to London by Yorkist forces.
Margaret of Anjou acted quickly, gathering an army which drove York and his allies briefly out of London before they returned with a vengeance and York laid formal claim to the throne. Though Richard was unsuccessful in taking the throne a compromise was reached and it was agreed that Henry VI would maintain the throne but the succession would go to Richard and his Yorkist heirs.
Weeks later, however, Richard died in the Battle of Wakefield between the Yorks and the Lancasters on 30 December 1460. Following his death Margaret of Anjou had Richard’s head impaled on a spike of the city walls of York in triumph over his defeat, placing a paper crown on him in jest. But it was the Yorks who would have the last laugh with Richard’s eldest son gaining victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton just weeks after the Duke’s death. He ascended the throne as King Edward IV, establishing the House of York.