“What must have most taken Richard by surprise, however, was the widespread, instinctive reactions of horror to what was presumed to be the murder of two innocent children. ” – Jonathan Hughes, The Religious Life of Richard III
I’ve been wanting to write about Richard III’s capacity for self-delusion, and, after quoting Jonathan Hughes in an earlier post, I thought what he had to say was a very applicable way to begin another one.
Suggesting that Richard was delusional raises the hackles of some Ricardians even more than the words “murderer” and “usurper” do. Maybe it’s because we can use the terms “murderer” and “usurper” to describe Edward IV and Henry VII, whose actions Ricardians often point to as a justification for Richard III’s. I, however, will never fall into the trap of defending Edward IV's and Henry VII's bad behavior, because both of them, on many occasions, just weren’t very “nice” people. However, there are several things that Edward and Henry do not share with Richard, and self-delusion is just one of them.
To say that Richard was self-delusional is seemingly to share the opinions of those who think he was manipulated into taking the throne by people like the Howards and Buckingham. Since Richard’s exploits against the Scots had gained him the praise and admiration of many in Parliament, he was ripe for flattery. The enemies of Edward IV and his sons might have thought how a kingship under Richard could benefit their interests. Like all men blinded by their own brilliance, Richard could have mistaken the adulation of his admirers for a public mandate, and Buckingham, the Howards, Northumberland, and William Herbert would have encouraged him, all having reasons of their own for doing so.
It’s not unusual for anyone to assume that his views are popular when he surrounds himself with people who feel the same way. The ease with which Richard captured, isolated, jailed and destroyed the King and his supporters probably reinforced his thinking, not bothering to understand that it was his own violent actions against those who were expecting no violence that made it possible.
His delusion was complete when his coronation went off without a hitch and was so well attended by many who probably wondered what was going to happen next and wanted to see for themselves. It was reaffirmed when he left London and found himself hosted by those who would rather pay him tribute than end up on his black list and possibly find themselves on his list of victims, as well. We mustn't forget, of course, that the mystique of an anointed king did have a compelling power over many people.
If Richard wasn’t blinded by self-delusion, he might have guessed that there would be a reaction once he left London on progress on July 20. There are some who believe that he was motivated to kill his nephews following the collapse of the 2-pronged July conspiracy that landed four men on the execution block. Perhaps even more unsettling to Richard was the query he received from John Dinham, governor of Calais, asking what had become of his oath to Edward V (Richard replied that the oath was taken “to him to whom it pertaineth not.” Dinham did not join the Edwardian loyalists in rebellion.)
Buckingham’s Rebellion might have been easily defeated in October 1483, but its consequences had a long lasting effect. It made Henry Tudor a viable contender for the throne because it was supported by many of those who had been former servants of Edward IV and his family. The rebellion, significant in its scope and even more so by the number of knights and gentlemen who participated, should have told Richard what his supporters wouldn’t – that the people upon whom he depended to serve his kingdom not only didn’t support him, but were willing to put a virtual unknown in his place, since the lawful male heirs of Edward IV – Edward V and Richard, Duke of York – were believed to be dead.
Richard’s reaction to rebellion was execution and attainder, and the planting of northerners in vacant offices once held by southerners who lost their positions due to their rebellion. The northern plantations deepened Richard’s unpopularity; no one likes outsiders invading their land to assume the power once held by locals. Richard became even more merciless as more people turned against him. Even before the battle of Bosworth, he promised no mercy for his enemies if he should win.
All of this is the testimony of a man trapped in self-delusion. A more realistic man would have realized that there would be many who would not support his usurpation, and so would have done his best to make peace with them, as his brother did with John Morton and Thomas Stanley and others at the start of his second reign, or as Henry VII did with Thomas Howard and the Bishops of Bath and Wells and Durham. Richard’s hardline stance against his opponents shows a man unwilling to understand that many did not accept his kingship. It demonstrates an intransigence that defies common sense. A king’s job is not to see how many enemies he can accumulate among his subjects.
A successful usurper must mend fences with the supporters of his rival. He cannot trust that he will be able to kill them all or win them to his cause through brutality. A usurper who takes the place of the incumbent king of his own party already has it harder than a usurper who takes the place of the king of the opposition. The supporters of the incumbent king of his own party will see the usurpation as a betrayal more deep than the supporters of a king from the enemies’ side. Richard needed and was counting upon the support of those who had been his brother’s servants. He wasn’t planning to replace all or most of them. The northern plantations wasn’t a cause for Buckingham’s Rebellion; it was a consequence of Buckingham’s Rebellion.
Richard had it all wrong. He did not perceive how his actions in the spring and summer of 1483 could rip apart the Yorkist party and cause many of his brother's former servants to support Henry Tudor. Some of Richard's modern-day supporters share his self-delusion when they discard all contemporary sources that they don't agree with as nothing more than Tudor propaganda; they think that they know Richard better than his own contemporaries did.