On August 22, 1485, Richard III died valiantly fighting to keep his crown. Although hated by many, he impressed even his enemies with his courage.
Not surprisingly, this day seems to have been fraught with drama, especially from within Richard’s camp. The Duke of Norfolk allegedly woke up to find these words fastened to his tent: “Jockey of Norfolk, be not bold. For Dickon, thy master is bought and sold.” Legend has it (and the fact that the Croyland Chronicler mentions this shows how quickly the legend developed) that Richard slept badly the night before, besieged by nightmares, and awoke looking “livid and ghastly” (and, no, regardless of what Shakespeare wrote, I don’t think that he had been haunted by the ghosts of his victims). No mass was said, and no breakfast was eaten.
Despite the appearance of Henry’s successful recruiting as he made his way east to meet Richard in battle, Richard still had the larger fighting force. And, despite the fact of Richard had a larger fighting force, the numbers of those who had come to fight for him without being threatened to do so were less than desired. The man who had summoned a sizeable number of northern recruits in June 1483 to fight against “the Queen and her affinity” was apparently less successful in August 1485, when it really mattered.
For example, York’s underwhelming commitment of 80 men seems very low in view of the well-accepted assumption that Richard was popular and well beloved by the city. He had shown special favor to the city during his reign; surely they recognized that his successor would not be as generous. And yet, although Richard had given out orders for a general muster in June 1485, on August 16, less than a week before the battle, York was asking Richard about his military requirements. How could they still not know what he wanted?
Of the nobles who had supported his usurpation, the earl of Northumberland apparently was not recruiting and would betray Richard by doing nothing on the day of the battle. The Earl of Westmoreland also seems not to have engaged. There doesn’t seem to be much information about how William Herbert, the unhappy earl of Huntingdon, contributed to Richard’s force, although the Howards would be very present.
Other northerners, the formidable Stanleys of Lancashire, eventually threw their might on Tudor’s side at the most vulnerable point in the battle, disregarding the fact that Richard had kept Thomas Stanley’s son George as a hostage and threatened to kill him if Stanley played him wrong (despite that, young George was not killed).
As Christine Carpenter writes in The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the constitution in England, c. 1437 – 1509, “It is…less the numbers prepared to fight for Henry that impress than the reluctance to fight for Richard”….(Richard) “had never succeeded in becoming more than a usurper, and the disloyalty around him on the last day of his life reflects that fact…If it was the north that betrayed Richard, it was the south that had made Henry into a real candidate for the throne and impelled the northern lords to doubt Richard’s ability to win.”
It was the first time in English history that the gentry had played a significant role in the overthrow of a King. Actually, it was southern gentry, officeholders, and servants of Edward IV and his family who played a decisive role.
Much has been said about the disrespectful way in which the victors treated the corpse of the dead king. This is hardly what one might have expected in light of the universal admiration Richard’s courage in battle produced. Has there ever been another occasion in Western civilization to match it, considering that there is a certain protocol that even a ruler’s enemies follow on the field of battle? That is, the enemies’ respectful treatment of a corpse fallen in battle, especially the corpse of one who had fought so bravely?
Who would desecrate Richard’s corpse, even going as far as stabbing it in the right buttock (as the examination of his recently exhumed remains shows) and exposing it so even “the privy parts” were on display?
Whoever it was must have been filled with such rage and hatred for the fallen king that even his death didn’t quench them. It could not have been the French troops or mercenaries who had no strong motivation to express outrage. Instead, it must have been the English exiles who had joined Henry in Brittany and, later, in France. It must have been the recruits who joined Henry as he moved east. They would have been the only ones who would want to strike at Richard even when he was dead.
Why was there such anger for Richard?
- Because of his many betrayals – Of his brother, his brother’s family, his King, the people who supported him initially because they thought, as Protector, he would do the right thing, and of himself
- Because of his murder victims, all of whom had family and friends
- Because of his northern plantations, which replaced the landed and established families of the south and west, thus placing local rule in the hands of “outsiders”
- Because of his attainders, disinheriting and confiscating the offices and properties of Yorkist loyalists
There really was no excuse for the desecration. The Croyland Chronicler, who was no admirer of Richard, took the moral high ground to criticize these actions. However, a surfeit of anger, pent up for two years, is understandable enough.
The Croyland Chronicler makes some telling remarks about the battle. In a way, his words are almost a wrap-up of his previous narrative. He says that Henry Tudor was received after the battle “like an angel from heaven,” which only goes to show how a totally unknown personality can be welcomed in place of another who was only known too well.
The Croyland Chronicler also writes:
“On taking consideration the signs and badges of the conqueror and conquered in our day, as well as those of the children of King Edward, whose cause in especial was avenged in this battle and the events which happened to the three Kings who have borne the name Richard since the Conquest of England, a certain poet composed these lines:
“Edward’s vast hoards of wealth consumed, the Third was not content
therewith but must destroy his brother’s progeny and then proscribe their partisans.
Two years had he usurped the throne when meeting these he lost his life
and ill-gained crown upon the battlefield.
The year one thousand hundreds four and five to eighty added
when of August came the twice eleventh day,
the Boar’s tusks quailed, and to avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed.”