Royal power: The reputation of Richard III

8.5 King (1483–85) and the man

On 22 June 1483, the day appointed for Edward V’s coronation, sermons were preached in London questioning his legitimacy. It was declared that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid and their children illegitimate and thus unable to inherit the throne. Richard III was proclaimed king.

During his brief reign Richard developed a reputation as promoter of legal fairness. He instituted the Court of Requests to which poor people could apply to seek justice. The only parliament held in his reign has been considered by historians to be an example of improvement and reform of the legal system. He was also a cultured and religious benefactor, particularly generous to York Minster. For some contemporaries, Richard was a skilled military commander, intelligent, devoutly religious, champion of the common man. But for others Richard was also a ruthless and enigmatic personality whose behaviour was often open to suspicion.

During adolescence Richard had developed idiopathic scoliosis (curved spine) but as we have seen this did not stop him forging a positive military reputation. As king he was to face two major rebellions. The first in 1483 was led by his former ally the duke of Buckingham, together with disaffected gentry from important southern families, many of whom had been supporters of Edward IV. The reasons for Buckingham’s rebellion are debated by historians. A possible cause could have been the power and influence of Richard’s northern supporters. The rebels’ aim was to place the exiled Henry Tudor, a distant scion of the House of Lancaster, on the throne. However, Richard crushed the uprising. The second rebellion was led by Henry Tudor in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth and it was to end in Richard III’s death.

Group activity: Assessing Richard III’s kingship

Richard's brief reign is often viewed through the prism of what we know about how Richard came to the throne. If we step back from this and look more specifically at Richard's reign and his decisions as king, what do we learn about the man and his reign?

First read the following chapter of Christine Carpenter’s book and follow the link to David Grummitt’s lecture, then make notes on the questions below:

Chapter 10, ‘Richard III and the end of the Yorkist rule 1483-1485’, in Carpenter, C., The Wars of the Roses; Politics and the Constitution of England.

Dr David Grummitt on ‘How able a king was Richard III’.

  • On what grounds did Richard III seek to legitimise his claim to the throne?
  • What skills were considered necessary for good kingship in the fifteenth century (you might like to refer back to Unit 2: ‘Interpreting the Sources’ for further ideas)?
  • Was Richard an able king?

Return to the Richard III forum and share your final thoughts on this with your fellow students.