"Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe."

--Richard III

Northcote Princes

A Little History

When you are reading Richard III, it can be confusing to keep all the relationships straight. In addition, some of the characters seem to have two names. So, just to make things a bit clearer, here's a bit of historical background, which should help explain who's related to who and why Richard wants them all dead.

It helps to remember that characters in this play are referred to by both their given names and their titles. George's title, for example, is Duke of Clarence, so he may be called either "George" or "Clarence." Richard's title is Duke of Gloucester, so he may be called either "Richard" or "Gloucester." Henry Tudor is the Earl of Richmond, so he may be called "Henry" or "Richmond." If you're not sure who's who at any given moment in the play, go back to the Cast of Characters and check to see.

Shakespeare's audiences would have known all the historical background intimately, and would have been able to understand the relationships of all of the characters in the play, but modern audiences can often benefit from a few footnotes. So here's a very brief history, to put all of the events in Richard III in context.

In Richard III, Queen Margaret accuses Richard of killing her husband, the king. The King she is referring to is King Henry VI, who is dead by the time this play begins.

Henry VI became King of England when his father, Henry V (about whom you'll read in a couple of weeks) died. Henry VI was 8 months old at the time. The Regent, who would rule until Henry VI came of age, was Henry V's brother John, Duke of Bedford. Henry VI was crowned (that is, he was officially made the King in a coronation ceremony) when he was 8 years old. He was crowned King of France at age 10, a year after the death of Joan of Arc. He probably would have seen her burnt at the stake, as he was in Rouen when she was executed.

He began acting as king at age 14, with disastrous results: he was well-educated, but easily influenced, pious, soft-hearted, and generous, with poor political judgment. He gave away huge sums of money to anyone who had a convincing sob story, and spent much more time praying than attending to the affairs of the country, whose relations with France were still very shaky. In 1445, when Henry was 23, Henry's diplomats arranged a marriage for him with the daughter of Count Rene of Anjou, Margaret of Anjou, who was 16 at the time. This marriage was supposed to help improve relations with France. Margaret was beautiful and had a strong personality. She found that she had married a man who was not only easily led, but was already showing signs of slipping into insanity. She used the opportunity to take more and more power into her own hands, to the dismay of many of those in the English government.

In 1453, Margaret gave birth to a son, Edward; Henry VI now had an heir to the throne, but by this time he was, on most days, unable to recognize those he knew. It is unceratin that he even recognized that he now had a son. He was, of course, unable to rule. Margaret wanted to govern in his place, but the Privy Council (which had the power to govern in the absence of the King) assigned Richard, Duke of York, as Protector--i.e., he was to govern until Edward was of age.

The King regained his sanity the following year and once again ruled disastrously. The kingdom slid into chaos, and Richard, Duke of York, along with two allies, raised an army and, after the Battle of St. Albans, in which the King's forces were defeated, took over the government. Certainly, something needed to be done, but Richard's actions began a period of civil war (known as The Wars of the Roses) which would last for 30 years.

Richard's victory was not the end of the fight. Queen Margaret had no intention of giving up the throne so easily, and in a subsequent battle, she killed Richard. But when Margaret tried to return to London in triumph, the population rose against her and she was forced to flee to France. Richard's son, Edward, who had inherited his fathe's title and was now Duke of York, claimed the throne in 1461 and became King Edward IV. This is the King Edward IV you see in Richard III.

But Margaret was not giving up. She raised an army and returned to claim the throne. Her forces met Edward's at the Battle of Towton, which lasted two days and claimed as many as 28,000 lives. She was defeated, and Edward's coronation took place on June 28, 1461, in London.

Two of Edward's younger brothers, Richard (who later became Richard III) and George, had been in flight since the fighting began. They moved from house to house with their mother, always fearful of betrayal and capture, especially after the death of their father; the Duchess finally fled the country and took them to Utrecht when the fighting began. She was afraid that if the Yorkists lost, she and the children would be killed. Now that Edward was on the throne, he called them back to England. To George he gave the title Duke of Clarence; to Richard he gave the title Duke of Gloucester. At this time, George was 12 and Richard was not quite 9.

Richard had been born in 1452 at Fotheringay Castle, the twelfth of 13 children born to Richard, Duke of York, and his wife, Cecily Neville. Only seven of the children survived infancy; Richard was the youngest of the 7. The others were tall and fair and hearty; Richard was small, sickly, and dark. He was raised with his brother George, who was 3 years his elder, and his sister Margaret, who was 6 years older than he. His other brothers and sisters had been sent, as young children, to live in other noble homes, to be trained for noble service. This was the custom of the day: children were sent away as young as age two to begin their training; they saw their parents and siblings only rarely, if at all. Richard and George may have met their brother Edward for the first time in 1460; Richard appears to have formed a strong attachment to him at this time.

Meanwhile, Margaret hadn't given up. Once again she raised an army and once again was soundly defeated. She had brought King Henry VI with her to fight in the battle, even though he wasn't sure what he was fighting about or who she was. He escaped death in the battle, and wandered for a year, disguised, through the hill country in the north of England. Sometimes he was rational, sometimes he was not. He was finally captured a year later and imprisoned in the Tower of London. (He wasn't kept in chains in a dungeon; he had a luxurious apartment, servants, and his needs were amply met.)

Edward, back in London, was making his own quiet plans. He had been secretly pursuing Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful 27-year-old widow who was 5 years older than Edward. He married her in May 1464 but did not announce the marriage until September, when it could no longer be hidden. His advisors had been attempting to find other, more diplomatically advantageous brides for him. They were furious when he told them he was already married to a woman who would bring no political advantage to England.

Worse, Edward discovered after he was married, Elizabeth's family was large, and intended that Edward should provide handsomely for them all. Elizabeth had two sons by her previous marriage; she also had 5 brothers and 7 sisters who needed spouses. Edward arranged profitable marriages for them all, while his advisors and most of London looked on, scandalized at the Woodvilles' naked opportunism: the Queen's brother, John, who was 20 years old, was married to the 80-year-old Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, while her sister Katherine, who was in her 20s, was married to the 11-year-old Duke of Buckingham.

Edward's marriage had angered the Duke of Warwick, who had been taking great pains to arrange a politically advantageous marriage for him; it humiliated him too, since he considered himself Edward's best friend, and was embarrassed that Edward had hidden the secret marriage from him. He felt threatened by the power-hungry Woodvilles, who were determined to replace him as the power behind the throne. And he was further angered when Edward refused to allow him to marry his daughter Isabel to George, Duke of Clarence (Edward's brother). Edward was planning to marry both his brother George and Isabel to Woodvilles. This made George angry too, since Warwick was one of the wealthiest men in England, and a marriage to Isabel would have made him nearly as rich as his brother the King, of whom he was jealous.

Warwick and George began cementing an alliance. Warwick married his daughter to George without the King's permission, and then the two men began an armed rebellion aainst the King. They succeeded in taking Edward prisoner, but then couldn't get any support for their cause and were forced to release him. Edward pardoned them both, but they were still angry and rebellious and plotted against him again. Again, he pardoned them, and again they betrayed him. He said he was willing to pardon them again, but they didn't believe him and fled to France.

In France, Warwick befriended Margaret of Anjou, who was still looking for a way to put her husband, Henry VI, back on the throne and get her own crown back. Her son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, was formally betrothed to Warwick's younger daughter, Anne Neville, to cement the alliance. King Louis of France was happy to support them, since it served his own purposes, and provided them with an army.

They invaded England, and Edward IV was forced to flee to the Netherlands. Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, and a month later, her son--Edward's heir--was born there.

Warwick and George rescued King Henry VI from the Tower, dressed him in robes and his crown, and brought him to Westminster. He was hopelessly insane and could only be a figurehead, but that suited Warwick, who had himself appointed Lieutenant of the Kingdom and settled in to rule England. He had to have known his tenure was limited: Margaret would be sure to fight him for control, and George was not content to retire to the country and read books, either. But the greatest threat to him was Edward, who returned in 1471 with an army and retook London. Warwick was forced to flee, but returned with his own army and, in a vicious battle, was killed by Edward.

Poor King Henry VI was moved around during all of these events like a confused chess piece. He was moved back to the Tower of London after Edward retook London; then, when Edward went to battle against Warwick, he was dressed up in his armor and taken along as a hostage. Edward, hoping he would be killed, placed him in the middle of the most furious fighting, but miraculously, he survived while men all around him were killed. After the battle, bewildered and pathetic, he was taken back to the Tower.

Shortly after this battle, Margaret landed in England with her forces and decided to try to retake the throne despite Warwick's defeat. She and her forces were defeated in a bloody battle and she was captured. Edward had her held under house arrest for the next four years, until she was ransomed by King Louis XI, who took her back to France to live.

Her son, Edward, the Prince of Wales, did not survive the battle. He may have died during the fighting, but many historians claim that he was captured and delivered to Edward IV, where, after a confrontation, he was stabbed by Richard and George. (George was back in his brother's good graces again; when he saw that Warwick was doomed, he'd deserted him and returned to his brother's side).

King Henry VI died in the Tower on May 21, just a few weeks after his son. At the time, it was widely reported that he'd been killed by Richard. Tradition tells that he was murdered in the Octagon Chamber, and his death must have been violent: when his coffin was opened in 1910, his skull, it was reported, was "much broken."

King Edward IV ruled well for the next 12 years, ending the war with France and keeping peace internally. The main dissent during this time was between Richard and George, over Warwick's huge fortune. When Warwick died, he'd left a wife, who was still in sanctuary, a daughter Isabel, who was married to George, and a younger daughter, Anne Neville. She had been betrothed to Edward, Prince of Wales, but he had died before they had been married. Richard decided to marry Anne, who was 16 at the time. According to some historians, he was genuinely and deeply in love with her. According to others, he was in love with her father's estate and hoped, by marrying Anne, to wrest some of it away from his brother George, of whom he was jealous.

George, recognizing the threat to Warwick's inheritance (which had not been settled yet), tried to hide Anne by disguising her as a kitchenmaid in a friend's house. But Richard found her there and they were married in February or March 1472. The two brothers finally agreed on a settlement of the estate in 1475.

Then, Isabel, George's wife, died. Less than two weeks later, he made arrangements to marry the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, one of the rivals to Louis XI for the French throne. This would have given George power in both England and France, and would have increased his fortune immensely. Edward refused to allow the marriage, as it would have threatened his own power, and would have led to a deterioration of his hard-won peace with France. George was furious.

In retaliation, George began to suggest that Edward was illegitimate. He incited riots against him in East Anglia; he said his late wife, Isabel, had been bewitched by one of her former maids, who now was in the service of Queen Elizabeth. He had the maid arrested, tried, and hanged within 24 hours.

Edward warned George graphically, by executing two of his friends on what appear to be false charges. George ignored the warning and continued to agitate against Edward. Edward finally had him arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. George was tried for treason and convicted. His mother (and Edward's) pleaded for his life, and when Edward was immovable, pleaded that he at least be spared the humilation of a public execution. This request Edward granted, and George was put to death in the Tower by being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, his favorite drink. He was 28.

Richard was not party to any of this: he did not plead for his brother, nor did he have any part in his death. He dissociated himself from the situation as much as possible. Edward had granted him a number of castles in the North, where he still had enemies, and Richard had done a good job of governing these areas. He stayed there during the episode with George.

Edward died in 1483, at age 40. His death does not appear to have been instigated by Richard, although there are those who speculate that it was not an entirely natural death. Edward had had voracious appetities, mostly for women, drink, and food, and he had indulged all of them freely. By the time he died, he was enormously fat. Most likely, his heart or liver gave out.

His son, Edward V, was now 12. His mother and her family had every intention of governing until he came of age, and were sure enough of their influence over him to be certain that, even after that, he would be easy to control. Lord Rivers, the Queen's brother, was his official Governor; her oldest son, Marquess of Dorsett, was in charge of the Royal Treasury.

The only troublesome person in their path was Lord Hastings, who had been completely loyal to Edward IV, and who insisted that the terms of his will be met. And Edward's will, much to Elizabeth's fury, decreed that Richard be appointed Protector; this meant that he would, in effect, govern until Edward V was old enough.

The Woodvilles had no intention of losing their power. The coronation was set for Sunday, May 4. If Edward could be crowned before Richard arrived in London and was sworn in as Protector, then the Protector's power would automatically be given over to the Privy Council--which the Woodvilles controlled. Edward was at Ludlow, a week's journey from London. Lord Rivers, his uncle, and Lord Grey, his half-brother, were sent to accompany him to London. Richard, well aware of their plans, sent a friendly letter saying he would join them and accompany Edward to London. The two parties arranged to meet at Northampton on the 29th.

When Richard and his party arrived, as planned, at Northamption, Edward was not there. Rivers and Grey explained that he had been quartered in the next town, as there wasn't room enough for everyone in Northampton. They were telling the truth, and the two groups had a friendly dinner that evening. But on the following morning, Rivers and Grey woke to find themselves under arrest. Richard accused them, and the Queen, of attempting to subvert Edward's power. Edward attempted tearfully to defend them and his mother, but Richard arrested the noblemen and dismissed the servants in Edward's retinue. Rivers and Grey were executed several days later.

Richard, now in full possession of his nephew Edward V, arrived in London on May 4. The Queen, understanding Richard's motives, had gone into sanctuary at Westminster with her daughters and her 10-year-old son. She had taken with her as many of her possessions as possible, demanding that a hole be broken into the wall of the Abbey in order to fit everything through.

Rumors began to spread among the people that Richard intended to overthrow the young King. They were reassured by Lord Hastings, whom they knew to be loyal to Edward and to be impeccably honest, and by Richard himself, who, at least publicly, deferred to Edward. Richard was confirmed Protector, and the coronation was rescheduled.

Richard then arranged for Edward to be transferred to apartments in the Tower, saying he would be safer and more comfortable there. Some eyebrows were raised at this, but in those days, the Tower was not exclusively a prison; many noblemen had luxurious apartments there. Richard's next task was to get Edward's little brother, the 10-year-old Duke of York, to join him in the Tower. The Queen resisted letting him leave sanctuary, fearful of what Richard planned, but finally agreed when the Archbishop of Canterbury, acting under pressure from Richard, threatened to revoke her own and her daughters' sanctuary.

Now that Richard had the two little princes safely in the Tower, he removed his next obstacle: he accused Lord Hastings of being part of a conspiracy against him, had him arrested, and had him beheaded within an hour of his arrest. Hastings had been warned that Richard was planning to kill him, but did not believe the warnings.

Shortly after, evidence was brought forth that Edward IV had been illegitimate. Richard appears to have arranged for this evidence to be manufactured and made public, despite the fact that his (and Richard's) mother was still alive at the time. Furthermore, evidence was given to show that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid. His sons, therefore, could not be the legitimate heirs to the throne.

The people of London were not persuaded, but by now, it was clear that opposing Richard meant death. His soldiers patrolled the city in large numbers, and those who were perceived as a threat to Richard were disappearing into the Tower with alarming speed. So, although his claim to the throne was false, the Mayor and other noblemen were forced to go through the charade of begging Richard to take the throne, while he pretended astonishment, then reluctance, and finally agreed to their "demands." He seated himself on the marble throne in Westminster Hall on June 26, 1483, and took the royal oath. The coronation took place on July 6, 1483.

Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV's widow, was not present at the coronation. She was still in sanctuary. Neither were her sons present. They had not been seen for some time, and rumors circulated widely that they had been murdered. No one knows what really happened to the princes, but one contemporary account speaks of Edward V taking confession daily, believing he was about to be killed. According to Sir Thomas More, Richard III gave the Constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, the order to kill the boys, but he (risking his own life) refused. Richard then put Sir James Tyrell in charge of the job. He hired Miles Forrest, who'd murdered before, and John Dighton. They smothered the children during the night (some accounts say this happened on the stroke of midnight, but that seems a bit of added drama), and buried them at the foot of a staircase in the Tower.

Two centuries later, workmen found a chest buried beneath a staircase in the White Tower. It contained the bones of two children. In 1933, a medical exam showed the bones to be those of two boys who were about 10 and 12. But, although it is tempting to conclude that these are the remains of the princes, there really is no conclusive evidence, and there are many theories about what really happened to them. Many believe that Richard was responsible for their deaths. Others believe that Henry VII (who later wrested the throne from Richard III) killed them. For a very detailed account of all of the possibilities, see a fascinating book called Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes, by Bertram Fields.

Now that Richard was King, he had lots of opponents. Most disturbingly, his old and trusted friend, the Duke of Buckingham, had turned against him. In the play, this is presented as a dispute over estates, but in reality, Buckingham was immensely wealthy, and it's hard to believe the estates meant that much to him. His real motives are unknown. He may initially have wanted the throne himself. But it became clear that there was a more likely candidate: Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who was the direct descendant of the older brother of an earlier king, John of Gaunt. (This claim seems to modern readers a bit tenuous, and it was, but those who wanted the throne could almost always find some bloodline to exploit for justification.)

Buckingham raised an army and attempted to overthrow Richard. But his rebellion failed and he was captured and beheaded, as were many others.

But with Buckingham gone, Richard III had no one he could trust. His own son, Edward, the Duke of York, had died April 9, 1484, at the age of 10, and now he had no heir. His wife, Queen Anne, never recovered from the death of her son, and just months later, was dangerously ill. Rumors circulated that Richard was poisoning her in order to clear the way for a marriage to Elizabeth, Henry VI's oldest daughter; such a marriage would have given more legitimacy to his claim to the throne. But it is more likely that Queen Anne had tuberculosis; she died on March 16, 1485, at age 28. (After Anne's death--and probably before it--Richard did consider marrying Elizabeth, in fact, but gave up the idea in the face of the people's overwhelming hostility to the idea.)

Worst of all, no matter how many masses he paid for, or how many churches he built, he could not make people forget about the murder of his nephews. His attempts to woo the people were ineffective.

Meanwhile, support for Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, was growing. He had the backing of France now, as well as many English nobles. His fleet sailed to England in August 1485. As he advanced across country, his forces grew as the countryside joined his cause. Richard, by contrast, was finding it difficult to raise support. Most of the noblemen who showed up with armies arrayed behind them did so out of fear. From Lord Thomas Stanley, Richard even demanded a hostage--his oldest son--to ensure his loyalty. But even that was not enough: on the day of the battle, it became clear that Stanley would not support Richard. Upon being reminded that his son's life would be forfeit if he deserted Richard, he replied that he had other sons.

(An interesting aside: E. A. J. Honigmann argues that Shakespeare probably wrote Richard III while he was with the theater company known as Lord Strange's Men. The name of Lord Thomas Stanley's oldest son was Lord George Stanley Strange; the Lord Strange who was the patron of Lord Strange's men was a direct descendant of the traitorous Lord Thomas Stanley. This may explain some of the historical changes in the play, which reflects Thomas Stanley in a more flattering light than does history. Shakespeare made Stanley's services to the incoming Tudor dynasty seem more momentous than they really were, and omits the family's opportunism and betrayals. In the play, Stanley is even the one to take the crown from the dead Richard and place it on Henry Tudor's head.)

The two armies met on August 22, 1485, at a field about two miles south of what is now the town of Market Bosworth. The Battle of Bosworth lasted less than two hours--it was probably over by 8 a.m. Less than 1,000 men died. But the fighting was fierce. Richard's horse was cut out from underneath him, and he fought on foot. Then he saw Henry Tudor and, though he was dreadfully outnumbered, fought his way toward him. He was nearly upon him, and would certainly have killed him, had not Sir William Stanley's forces joined the battle at that moment, on the side of Henry Tudor. Sir William, brother of Lord Thomas Stanley, had pledged his men to Richard, but had been watching the battle from the sidelines, reluctant to take a side until he saw who was likely to win. He decided to fight for Henry just in time to save his life. Richard died within feet of Henry; his last words were "Treason! Treason!"

Richard's body, filthy and naked, was displayed to the public for several days, then buried in an unmarked grave. Much later, Henry Tudor, by now King Henry VII, bought a cheap tombstone to mark the grave.

The Battle of Bosworth was small, as battles went, but it was vitally important. It ended the Wars of the Roses and placed Henry Tudor on the throne, thus beginning the Tudor dynasty. England under the Tudors was happier, more stable, and more prosperous than it had been in a long time. This stability gave it the chance to build its own fortunes and start an empire.

When Shakespeare wroteRichard III, Elizabeth was Queen. She was the granddaughter of Henry VII. So Shakespeare made the Tudors look very good and made Richard III look very bad. Richard was probably no saint, but Shakespeare made him pure evil. He exaggerated the extent of Richard's physical deformities: the historical Richard was small and thin, but not hunchbacked or crippled, nor did he have a withered arm (no man could have sustained himself in battle with Richard's ferocity with only one useful arm). In portraying Richard in this way, Shakespeare is falling in line with the Tudor propaganda of the day--perhaps, some critics suggest, he is even parodying it by making Richard's evil so unrelenting and unremorseful.

Today, historians disagree about Richard, his nature, and his motives. Many try to whitewash him, painting him as a good, kind, ethical man who genuinely cared about his people. Others demonize him. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between: like the rulers of his time, he was capable of cruelty, ruthlessness, ambition, and greed. But for many years before he became King, he was very popular in the North of England--where Yorkists were generally despised--because he was a fair and effective governor. As in our time, Richard's contemporaries did not agree on him: some liked him, some did not, according to their interests and their politics.

Many questions are still left open:

Themes and Ideas in Richard III

Richard III can be read either as a stand-alone play, or as part of an epic series which begins with Richard II and proceeds through Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and ends with Richard III. In addition, the play can be read either as a history or as a tragedy.

Any brief discussion of the play can never bring to light all of the themes, ideas, and elements it contains, but here are a few:

By the way, although there are several good movie versions of Richard III, I most strongly recommend the 1995 Richard III starring Ian McKellan, directed by Richard Loncraine. It is set during the Nazi era, and is an excellent version of the play. As a backup, there is also the very good 1954 Laurence Olivier version.

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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
3. Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess
4. Shakespeare: The 'Lost Years', by E. A. J. Honigmann
5. Shakespeare's Kings, by John Julius Norwich
6. "Richard III: A Modern Perspective," by Phyllis Rackin, in the New Folger Library edition of Richard III
7. Royal Blood, by Bertram Fields

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