Was Richard III an anxious, fearful man, malleable and not very intelligent, who was led by others to usurp the throne, or was he a ruthless and intelligent man, who dissembled and played Edward V’s supporters against each other to gain the throne?
Up until recently, there was no contention among the traditionalists regarding Richard’s character; he was a man of high ambition and intelligence who was ruthless in pursuit of the throne. However, in the mid-20th century, another interpretation of Richard’s character emerged, espoused early by A.J. Myers, and, later, by Charles Wood and Christine Carpenter.
A. J. Myers writes: (Richard was) “probably an anxious and nervous man rather than a cruel and merciless one.’ It was only ‘the responsibilities and perils of an unexpected royal minority (which) aroused in his nature the elements of fear, ambition, and impulsive ruthlessness which led him further and further along the path of political expediency at the expense of duty and honor.”
Charles Wood writes: “I don’t at all see a villain with designs at the start. On the contrary, I see a perfectly decent guy who was perfectly prepared to serve honorably as the Protector of his nephew and his realm, but who then got caught up in a series of political binds for which he lacked the human skills needed to resolve them without violence.” (“A perfectly decent guy?” Was he joking or was he just trying to ingratiate himself to the Ricardians?)
Christine Carpenter writes that, after his brother’s death, Richard “reacted with an ineptitude that beggars belief.”
If Richard sincerely took his oath to Edward V in York before leaving for London on April 20, and was led to usurp the throne because of the malice of people like Buckingham, Howard, and Herbert, it only demonstrates that Richard was the quintessential example of the Peter Principle, rising to the height of his incompetence when confirmed as Protector, and then exceeding that incompetence as King.
About this alternate view, Charles Ross writes: “Instead of ruthlessness linked with ability, we have diminished responsibility, but also reduced political abilities.” Richard then becomes someone who is “not merely uncertain of his intentions, but deeply incompetent in their execution.” Ross voices my objections nicely when he writes that this opinion “sits somewhat askance with the opinion of well-informed contemporaries much closer to the events than we can possibly be.”
Traditionalists are pretty much in accord when it comes to the events leading up to Richard’s usurpation and his reign, but opinions naturally vary on Richard’s motives because we have no record of his thoughts. We can only conjecture.
I have a harder opinion of Richard than that held by Myers, Wood, and Carpenter, and here are my reasons:
Each step of Richard’s actions leads logically to his coronation on July 6, 1483.
There is his “divide and conquer” strategy against Edward V’s partisans. He first capitalized on the animosity between the Woodvilles and William Hastings and the moderates, leading to the coup at Northampton and Stony Stratford on April 30, the arrest of Edward V’s former household officers, the destruction of the Woodville party, and the capture of the King. Then, on June 13, he divided the King’s council, having some meet at Westminster and others at the Tower, where he executed William Hastings and arrested Stanley, Rotherham, and Morton without having to deal with the presence and possible objections of the other council members.
Then, there is his treatment of the King himself, whom he isolated in the Tower of London, while he paraded himself through London in elaborate dress and flanked by a troop of admirers.
During the course of his reign, his actions never indicated remorse or an acceptance that what he did divided the nation. Even though his other advisors stayed with him after Buckingham rebelled and was executed, he continued to take a strong stand against his rebelling southern subjects, even though he might have acknowledged that they had just cause to complain and should have worked with them to obtain their cooperation in the running of his kingdom. Instead, he executed about a dozen people, including his own brother-in-law, in the aftermath of the October 1483 Rebellion, and in 1484, executed Ralph Clifford and brutally and publicly hanged, drew, and quartered William Collyngbourne, former sergeant of the pantry for Edward IV and a member of his mother’s household. In his speech before the battle of Bosworth, he promised no mercy to the rebels if Tudor was defeated.
One might say that, politically, he could not have backtracked against what he did in the Spring and Summer of 1483, but his refusal to work with the contentious portions of his kingdom and thereby win their acceptance is testimony that he did not regret his actions. If he had been fearful and misguided by the advice of others, one might expect a little more compromise on his part, as he tried to pick up the pieces and save his kingdom.
When we consider Richard’s motives, we are drawn into a paradigm of Smart Richard-Good Richard, Stupid Richard-Good Richard, Smart Richard-Bad Richard, and Stupid Richard-Bad Richard. I might add that I don’t hold a strong opinion in regards to Richard’s motives or abilities. My opinion is just based upon my own conclusions. I could be wrong in my assessment that Richard was a capable and extremely ambitious young man who sought the throne early and masterfully outmaneuvered his opponents in its acquisition.