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The Significance of Richard’s Rebels

The Upper-Middle Class Topples a King

For me, all arguments regarding Richard III’s popularity as King ended when I learned the nature of the opposition to him.  The involvement of the southern gentry in Richard’s defeat has been obscured, as historians chose to consider only the roles of the high-ranking players, but it was electrifying all the same.  Perhaps this was the first time that the opposition of the upper-middle classes had toppled an English king.  Louise Gill, author of Richard III and Buckingham’s Rebellion, writes:  “Never before had political society made such an unequivocal statement against the Crown.  Buckingham’s Rebellion in itself is the biggest tribute to Edward IV’s kingship and to his policies at court and in the country.”

The so-called “Buckingham’s Rebellion” of October 1483, however, did not end with the executions of George Brown, William Clifford, and four yeomen of the Crown on December 4, 1483; it was the precursor of the downhill slide of Richard’s reign.

Family Ties Don’t Explain Everything

Ricardians don’t want to admit this.  Instead, they search desperately for a tie to the Tudors or Beauforts, or to the Woodvilles and Lancastrians, for surely dissatisfaction with “good King Richard” and his reign could not possibly be the reason!  But, in a world where intermarriage among the upper and middle classes was customary, one’s relations could only influence one’s politics so far.  Thus, you have most of the members of the Haute family rebelling, but not James Haute, who remained loyal to Richard.  You have some members of the extended Courtenay family rebelling and others remaining loyal.  The examples of divided family loyalties go on.  Refer to Charles Ross’ biography of Richard III for other examples.

Fear of Change is Not the Answer

I hear Ricardians argue that it was fear of change that motivated the rebels.  This sounds ludicrous in light of the fact that the rebels backed Henry Tudor for King once they believed Edward V and Richard of York were dead.  In other words, they preferred an unknown exile who hadn’t been to England since he was 14 to a man who had been a very visible part of his brother’s government and who had as recently as February 1483 been lauded by Parliament for his military victories over the Scots.  As Michael Hicks says: Supporting Henry Tudor’s candidacy was tantamount to saying that anybody was preferable to Richard.  It was more important to depose Richard than to find a candidate to replace him.  It was only Tudor’s promise to marry Elizabeth of York that made him an acceptable candidate.  If we consider that the commoners’ punishment for treason was drawing and quartering, and that there were those who took this risk for the sake of someone who was hardly more than a stranger, we can only conclude that Richard was viewed with repugnance by a great many of them.

On the other hand, maybe the rebels didn’t like change in that they had a problem with the succession of England resembling an episode of I Claudius.  To think that moral outrage had nothing to do with the motives and feelings behind the rebellion is to be out of step with the sources of the time and with historians ever since.  It is a mistake to think that the hearts of the gentry were so shriveled by war and bloodshed that they accepted the manner by which Richard usurped the throne as a normal affair.  Dominic Mancini reports that men burst into tears when mention of Edward V was made after his deposition.  The Croyland Chronicler cites a poem which includes the line:  “And so to avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed.”  Another poet compares what Richard did to a boar rending the branches of “the Rose” and burying them under a clod of clay.  Others compare Richard to King Herod.  Still others, ignoring the fact that both men were hardened politicians, eulogized Rivers and Hastings as if they were martyrs.  At home and abroad, Richard’s betrayal and hypocrisy caught attention.

The Rebels were Insiders, NOT Outsiders!

If you look at the careers of the men who rebelled against Richard, you find that they were not malcontents outside government, but people who had been squires and knights of the body to Edward IV, sheriffs and other county officials, mayors, merchants, and landowners.  Like those who signed the American Declaration of Independence, they were people of comfortable means who had much to lose, not desperadoes who had nothing to lose by trying.

So, why should we be surprised that men of this caliber opposed Richard?  Many of them had a connection to Edward IV’s reign, felt that they had a stake in it, and expected to continue their service under his son.  Nor were they angry because Richard had displaced them with his own men.  Indeed, with the exception of George Brown, who was the son-in-law of Thomas Vaughan, and John Cheney, Edward IV’s master of the horse, Richard kept his brother’s men, hoping to profit from their experience and familiarity with their offices.  Richard didn’t usurp the throne promising to be an agent of change, but instead offered a continuation of his brother’s government and policies.  Richard’s government only began attacking Edward IV and his government when it was apparent that Richard did not have the support of many of those who had been part of it.  Richard’s filling offices with his own men did not CAUSE rebellion; it was a consequence OF rebellion, as southern officeholders were attainted or forced into exile.

Louise Gill provides the following statistics:

There were 40 squires of the Body under Edward IV; 24 were southerners.  Of the 24, 11 rebelled.  Of the remaining 13, five lost their peace commissions and two rose to rebel in 1484.

There were 24 knights of the Body under Edward IV; 10 were southerners.  Six of the 10 rose in 1483.

Fifty percent of Edward IV’s southern knights and squires (17 of 34 retainers) led the rising.

Forty-eight percent of those who had been Edward IV’s sheriffs in 14 counties from 1478 through 1482 rebelled in 1483; 35% of the peace commissioners rebelled.

Forty percent of the southern justices and sheriffs rebelled.

Thirty-five percent of the peace commissioners that Richard selected for the bench rebelled.  This rises to 61% “with the inclusion of the men who stood down directly after the rising.”

Of the ten sheriffs selected in November 1482, four rebelled.

Richard had to replace 40% of the principal officers in the south.  Increasingly suspicious of southerners, he replaced them with northerners or with men he could trust to stay loyal to him.

Northern Plantations were not Welcome

However, these northern plantations in themselves became sources of disaffection.  People don’t like strangers running their local affairs, even if the strangers are countrymen.  To the south, this northern imposition was tyranny.  Further, as Louise Gill points out, by rewarding those who stayed true to him, Richard risked alienating other loyalists if their expectations for reward were not likewise met.

Was Richard a Popular King?

It seems ridiculous to claim that Richard was a popular King when he felt compelled to hold sons (such as George Stanley or William Griffith) as hostages in order to ensure the loyalty of their fathers (an ineffective strategy).  Surely, an incumbent and popular King should be able to command the support of his subjects without having to resort to that!

Apparently, neither could Richard count on his trusted northerners.  York, the city he had favored, sent 80 soldiers to fight for Richard at Bosworth.  Ricardians say that sweating sickness was to blame for these underwhelming numbers, but the sweating sickness seems not to have hampered Henry Tudor’s recruitment effort after he landed at Milford Haven and made his way east.  The timeline gives us something to think about:  Richard knew for several months that Henry Tudor and his supporters would eventually invade England.  On June 21 or 22, 1485, he issued a proclamation against Henry and the rebels and put out general orders to muster.  Henry landed on August 7.  Richard heard about his landing on August 11.  On August 16, York asked Richard for his military requirements.  How could York be unprepared to answer Richard’s call when a muster had been raised in June?

Considering how much emphasis Ricardians since have laid upon Richard’s tie to the North, one would expect a large show of northern support for Richard at Bosworth.  One would expect that they would have been aroused by his call to muster and would have been ready to march to any place Richard had wanted them at the first word that Henry had landed.  The northerners might have preferred Richard III to Edward V simply because he was more familiar to them and was a man rather than a boy, but 12 years of residence in the north did not make Richard a northerner.  Regret for Richard’s death in the York city records is a poor substitute for actually fighting for him.

My own feeling is that the North was cynical but not blameworthy.  They were ready to accept whatever favor Richard aimed in their direction.  They were willing to move into the offices vacated by the southern rebels and take advantage of Richard’s ever-growing distrust of the South, but, as time went by, they could see that Richard’s government was in trouble.  In the end, it was the North that let Richard down at Bosworth, though less the commoners and gentry than the northern lords like the Stanleys who turned to fight for Henry Tudor at the worst minute for Richard, and Northumberland who didn’t engage at all.

Let’s not forget that Northumberland had supported Richard’s usurpation, though probably more because he wanted Richard out of his sphere of influence than because he preferred Richard to Edward.  As for the Stanleys, regardless of what the Ricardians say, Thomas seems to have supported Warwick, another northerner, during Edward IV’s first reign and brief deposition, while William was an ardent Yorkist who had been attainted by Henry VI’s Parliament and who remained true to York during Edward’s deposition in 1470-1 (see Cora Scofield’s biography The Life and Reign of King Edward the Fourth).  It appears that Lord Neville, another northerner who had supported Richard’s usurpation, might not have engaged at all at Bosworth.

As Christine Carpenter writes:  “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.”

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