History has been less than kind to Richard who had for many years been a loyal supporter of his brother Edward. What caused him to seek the throne for himself we shall never know, but Lord Stanley’s treachery finally ended his brief reign.
Richard began his bid for the throne when he lodged the young King Edward in the Tower which was at the time, a royal residence as well as a fortress “for his safety” and the business of the realm continued with royal writs now being issued under the seal of Edward V and countersigned by Richard with his motto “Loyeaulte me lie”, until suddenly stopping on the 8th of June. On the 16th June, postponement of the coronation, scheduled for 22nd June was announced and a new date set for the 9th November.
A number of events now occurred that seems to have changed Richard. He discovered that Lord Hastings and John Morton the Bishop of Ely had been plotting with the Dowager Queen to challenge his authority to act as Edward's Regent, a situation made worse when Robert Stillington, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, made a startling revelation in a council meeting (at which Richard was not present) to the effect that Edward V was illegitimate and could not, therefore, be a lawful king. It is likely that Hastings and Morton, seeing Richard’s hand in this announcement, joined the queen’s faction to stop Richard taking the throne. Richard did write to the city of York, requesting that troops be sent to him “to assist us against the queen, her bloody adherents and affinity” and London‘s streets were soon full of armed men in Gloucester’s livery. Stillington maintained that Edward IV had a marriage precontract with Eleanour Butler; such a precontract would mean that his subsequent marriage to Elisabeth Woodville was invalid and that any offspring thereof would be illegitimate. This gave Richard clear line of sight to the throne. How much of this had been orchestrated by him we can never know, but within a short time he had the other remaining son of Edward IV, the young Richard of York, removed from sanctuary and lodged with the young king in the Tower “to keep him company”. This request being backed up by troops surrounding his Westminster retreat.
Much has been written regarding Stillington’s allegations and it has long been assumed that they were merely devices to clear Richard’s path to the throne, but it should be remembered that, if true, under medieval law, Richard was the lawful heir to the crown. Henry Tudor’s attempts later to suppress the laws and judgments on the subject, largely to help legitimize his own marriage to the prince’s sister Elizabeth, resulted in chroniclers largely ignoring these important events or attempting garbled versions of the facts.
The ever suspicious Richard was determined to destroy any of the old king’s adherents and looked for treason in all men. He settled on Hastings, the Chamberlain, John Morton, the Bishop of Ely and Thomas Rotheram. It was reported to Richard that these three frequently foregathered in each others houses and he became convinced that they were plotting against him, which was true. He arranged an elaborate plan whereby the three were instructed to attend a council meeting in the Tower and once admitted, Richard declared that there was a plot afoot to kill him and called in soldiers who he had kept in waiting nearby. Richard accused them of treason and also accused Elisabeth Woodville of witchcraft, stating that he had been cursed by her and was unable to sleep, eat or drink. He bared his withered arm and accused her of causing the infirmity. All three were arrested and Hastings was taken outside and executed.
These events caused much concern among the moderate nobles of the council. If Hastings could be so treated, so could they. There had been no semblance of a trial; Hastings was killed on the express order of Richard in direct denial of his rights under Magna Carta. There are some who would argue that Hastings was arrested on the 13th June, tried and executed on the 18th of June, but no proof now exists for this position. The populace too was restless with many believing that Richard was intent on usurping the crown.
Richard however, while still publicly proclaiming that he was merely righting old wrongs and protecting his young charge, while gradually removed all attendants who had waited on the king and withdrawing him and his brother into the inner apartments of the Tower, being seen less and less frequently until at length, ceasing to appear at all. The last of the king’s old attendants, a Dr Argentin, reported that the lad was aware of his probable fate and, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance. Prince Edward and his brother were left to the care of Richard’s man William Slaughter.
Richard held a series of secret meetings with a Ralph Shaa, half brother to London’s Mayor and a noted theologian with a large following, during which he is said to have made clear his claims of his brother’s bigamy and the young king’s illegitimacy. Shaa duly preached a sermon at St Paul’s in the presence of Richard “with a great guard of armed men”. Shaa preached of Richard’s mother, Duchess Cecily’s adultery and naming Edward IV as a bastard. He urged the congregation to name Richard the true king. The ripples of the sermon spread throughout the land and caused much unrest, many ordinary folk feared for the lives of the young princes. Rumblings of rebellion were heard in the south and west of the country as well as London. In the north where Richard had most of his support, he reinforced it with bribes and rewards, buying loyalty and arresting opponents. On June 22nd 1483, Richard declared that he was taking the throne and on July 6th, was crowned at Westminster Abbey. It is said that, with the exception of three young Earls not old enough to attend, every peer of the realm was there, saying much for the power Richard now wielded.
Shortly after his coronation, he toured his old power base in the north, receiving a warm welcome in York and traveled on to see his son Edward invested as Prince of Wales. Richard was far from safe in his new position however, the unrest in the country among the supporters of Edward V, plus threats of invasion from the exiled Henry Tudor who claimed the throne through his ancestor John of Gaunt, plus the threat posed by supporters of the Dowager Queen and her daughters, caused him to lose trust in those who had helped him to his new position. Attempts were made by his enemies to rescue the queen and her daughters from their sanctuary, hoping that, should the worse happen and the young princes be killed, the daughters might provide at some future time, a king of Edward IVs line. Anticipating this, Richard had the sanctuary surrounded by the austere John Nesfield and his men, allowing no entry or exit without permission of the new king.
Events were now getting out of hand, throughout the south of England people were rising in protest at Richard’s perceived favoring of the north at their expense, plus growing public concern at the disappearance of the princes. Richard would never be safe on his throne while the youngsters lived. Accordingly, it is said, he ordered Sir James Tyrell to visit Brackenbury, the Constable of the Tower, with a letter from Richard demanding that the Tower keys be handed over for one night. This accomplished, Tyrell appointed two henchmen, John Dighton and Miles Forest, to the task of murdering the princes. Creeping into their room in the night and smothering them to death with pillows. This done, they summoned Sir James to see the bodies before burying them at a stair foot deep under the Tower.