By Tyler Parsons
Richard III’s notoriety belies the fact that his reign was one of the shortest in England’s history. At two years and two months, only a handful of post-Conquest reigns are shorter- Edward V, the nephew he deposed and murdered; Jane Grey, if you’re inclined to count her; and Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson.
Those two years were essentially a series of disasters and setbacks for Richard. Having deposed his nephew on a dubious legal pretext in June 1483, he faced a major rebellion in October. It revealed the defection of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, whose support had been essential in Richard’s ascent to Kingship, as well as the treachery of a number of key figures of Edward IV’s household and administration. Whilst the rebellion was crushed without incident, resulting in Buckingham’s execution and the exile of many others to the continent, it revealed a depth of feeling against Richard and demonstrated that he couldn’t rely on many who had been stalwart loyalists for the House of York under his brother.
It was at a similar time that rumours began to emerge that Richard had had his nephews, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, quietly put to death in the Tower. Numerous alternative theories have been put forth as the fate of the Princes in the Tower- that Buckingham, Margaret Beaufort, or Henry VII were actually responsible for their deaths, that they were spirited away to live in obscurity or become the pretender Perkin Warbeck- but murder at their uncle’s hands remains the most obvious. In any case, Richard’s guilt is inconsequential- the rumour spread and Richard was unable to refute it, his reign suffered the consequences.
Personal catastrophes followed. The King’s only legitimate son, Edward of Middleham, died in April 1484, to the great despair of both his parents. The Queen, Anne Neville, followed in March 1485. Her death triggered further damaging rumours that Richard had poisoned his wife out of a desire to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. The death of the pair also weakened Richard’s connection to his northern powerbase, which he had built out of his share of the Warwick inheritance- now he possessed no personal connection to the late Kingmaker.
In August 1485 Richard was presented with an opportunity to secure his reign. Henry Tudor, wielding a dubious claim to the throne via his Beaufort mother and a promise to wed Elizabeth that had won the support of disaffected Yorkists, landed in Wales. On August 22nd he was met by the King’s superior forces at Bosworth Field, in Leicestershire. A victory for Richard would destroy the main threat to his throne and provide an emphatic reinforcement of his right to rule. All the disasters of the previous few years could be put behind him. Richard could remarry, produce a new heir, and consolidate the place of the House of York on the throne.
Unfortunately the battle, too, went poorly. The powerful Stanleys- Henry’s stepfather Thomas and Thomas’ brother William- refused to attach their substantial forces to the King’s army. Richard’s threats to the life of his hostage, Thomas’ son George, failed to remedy the situation.
Richard’s vanguard was bested, resulting in the death of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and the capture of his namesake son, the Earl of Surrey- thus removing two of the few peers who had answered Richard’s call to battle. One of the other peers present, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, failed to engage the enemy with his detachment of the army. Arguments continue to the present day over whether this was an act of betrayal by Northumberland- scion of a traditionally Lancastrian family- or whether the geography of the battle prevented him from committing his force.
Despite these difficulties, Richard was presented with an opportunity- a decisive opportunity- to behead the enemy army. Having spotted Henry isolated from the main body of his troops, Richard opted to charge. It was reckless, perhaps even fatalistic- he could have withdrawn to fight another day. His father and elder brother had come back from worse defeats. But after such a series of frustrations and disasters the sheer release of a decisive, all-or-nothing, charge had a certain appeal.
It almost worked. Henry’s standard bearer, William Brandon, was slain- allegedly by Richard’s own hand- but Richard couldn’t quite make it to his enemy. His end was hastened by the intervention of William Stanley, who rode to Henry’s aid. The rest is, as they say, history- Henry inaugurated the Tudor dynasty, and Richard turned up 530 years later under a car park.
But what if Richard had reached and slain his enemy, only to then be overwhelmed? In part the appeal of such a scenario is just the farce of two armies, minus their Kings, sitting down and wondering what the hell happens now. There is, however, interesting speculation to be had.
First, we will examine the key claimants and their historical careers, before hypothesising what path history would take if both Richard and Henry fell at Bosworth Field.
Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick (1475-1499)
Warwick was the son of Richard’s elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, who was executed for treason by Edward IV in 1478. By strict primogeniture, Warwick thus had a superior claim to the throne, but this was waved away on the questionable grounds that Clarence’s attainder barred his son from the throne.
Ten years old in 1485, Warwick spent much of Richard’s reign in the castle of Sheriff Hutton. His historical fate was unhappy, with Henry VII locking him up in the Tower and ultimately executing him on trumped up charges in 1499- Henry having been pressured into disposing of potential threats to secure the hand of the Spanish princess Catherine for his son Arthur.
There is also speculation that Warwick was developmentally disabled, but I find this unconvincing. It is based on a single report that the adult Warwick ‘’could not tell a goose from a capon’’. In my opinion that was likely just the fact that Warwick had been locked in the Tower since he was ten and had limited socialisation, let alone education, since, rather than being the result of any inherent disability. My scenario will be based on this opinion.
John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln (c. 1464-1487)
Lincoln was the son of Richard’s sister Elizabeth and her husband John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. He was given significant positions in his uncle’s government, including President of the Council of the North, and seems to have been implicitly recognised as heir.
Whilst briefly reconciled to Tudor after Bosworth, he quickly became involved in a rebellion. Intriguingly, he did not openly seek to claim the throne for himself, instead promoting the claim of Warwick, and rallying support behind a Warwick impostor named Lambert Simnel. His motivations for this course of action are obscure.
The rebellion was brought to a close at the Battle of Stoke in 1487, at which Lincoln was killed. His younger brothers also proved irritants to the Tudor regime. Edmund and Richard de la Pole fled to the continent in 1501 to seek foreign support. Edmund was traded back to England in 1506 and executed in 1513, but Richard won some recognition from the French and almost led an army of mercenaries in an invasion of England in 1514, only being stymied by the outbreak of peace. He ultimately befriended King Francis, and died fighting for him at Pavia in 1525. A fourth brother had the misfortune to be imprisoned in the Tower after his brothers’ defection, and remained there for the remaining 37 years of his life.
Elizabeth of York (1466-1503)
Eldest daughter of King Edward IV, and thus Richard’s niece. Condemned as a bastard in Richard’s seizure of power, she and her sisters nevertheless eventually left sanctuary and joined Richard’s court. Rumours abounded that Richard intended to marry her himself, furthering damaging his reputation given the English distaste for uncle-niece marriages. Revisionists claim that Richard may have been attempting to organise a marriage with Manuel, Duke of Beja (later King of Portugal, r. 1495-1521) as a corollary to his own negotiations for the hand of Manuel’s cousin Princess Joanna.
In any case, these thoughts were rendered moot by Richard’s death at Bosworth. Elizabeth married Henry Tudor, nominally uniting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne, and birthing the next generation of the Tudor dynasty.
The Lancastrian claim is getting very remote by this stage. Henry’s assertion of his claim- as a great-great-grandson of John of Gaunt via a legitimised bastard line that had been explicitly barred from the throne- was already a stretch, only validated by his victory and subsequent reign.
There is no obvious candidate to take up the claim after his death. Various continental royals can boast legitimate descent from John of Gaunt via his daughters Philippa and Catherine, who married Kings of Portugal and Castile respectively. None of these continental rulers seem likely to engage in a military adventure to press a remote claim to England. In England itself, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, also boasts descent from one of Gaunt’s legitimate daughters, but no one seems to have remarked on his claim historically.
Someone whose claim very much was remarked upon is Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham- the son of Richard’s key supporter-turned-enemy Henry, who was executed in 1483. Buckingham can boast legitimate descent from Thomas of Woodstock, fifth son of Edward III, and after the death of Henry Tudor is also a prominent Beaufort heir. Historically, his alleged royal pretensions got him executed by Henry VIII in 1521, but in the aftermath of Bosworth he is child of seven.
As for other potential claimants, both Edward IV and Richard III had bastard sons. Edward’s, Arthur Plantagenet, became Viscount Lisle and Lord Deputy of Calais under the Tudors, but died in the Tower after being arrested by his nephew Henry VIII. Richard’s, John, was named Captain of Calais during his father’s reign as a teenager, but disappears into the shadows of history after 1485- likely being executed by Henry VII. Both were seemingly born of humble mothers, and I cannot see either coming anywhere near the throne when there is a profusion of legitimate Yorkist heirs.
There is also Perkin Warbeck, an impostor who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury and troubled the Tudors throughout the 1490s, before ultimately being imprisoned and executed in 1499- he having supposedly conspired with Warwick whilst in the Tower. Warbeck only emerged in 1490, however, and it seems unlikely anyone would have had a convincingly trained up fake Prince on the eve of Bosworth.
Who Takes the Throne?
At first glance, Lincoln seemingly has several advantages. He is an adult, has some governmental experience, and was likely acknowledged as his uncle’s heir. His location may also be advantageous. It is unknown whether he was present at Bosworth. If he was, then he can network, cajole, and make promises to all the other powerbrokers present. If he was not, then he was likely at Sheriff Hutton, and can easily take custody of the other prominent male heir, Warwick.
However, his close association with the unpopular Richard may count against him in the eyes of many. The influential Stanleys, whose intervention against Richard contributed to his death, may be wary of a King John seeking justice for his uncle- and in the immediate aftermath of Bosworth, they are in command of several thousand fresh troops. Additionally, Lincoln is already married- to Margaret Fitzalan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel- and this precludes him from contracting an advantageous marriage to advance his claim to the throne, or stepping up as a potential husband for his cousin Elizabeth of York.
Core Ricardian supporters- men who did well out of Richard’s rule and have much to lose- might be enthusiastic supporters of Lincoln. If Lincoln was present at Bosworth, perhaps such men could persuade him to make an immediate bid for the throne. Unfortunately, the weight of their support is questionable.
Men closely associated with Richard, and who engaged in post-Bosworth intrigues against Tudor historically- such as Francis, Viscount Lovell, Humphrey and Thomas Stafford, and Lords Scrope of Masham and Bolton- are hardly amongst the foremost peers of the realm.
Perhaps most difficult to overcome is the fact that it is not at all clear Lincoln wanted the throne-historically, he died pursuing not his own claim to the throne, but that of an impostor claiming to be the Earl of Warwick.
There are theories. That Simnel was a patsy, and if they’d won Lincoln would have disposed of him and assumed kingship himself. That the use of an alleged Warwick meant he could draw on Clarence’s Irish connections. But, these seem a little over-complex, and the equivocation demonstrated in this strategy calls into question whether Lincoln would decisively throw himself at the throne after our alternate Bosworth.
Eyes must turn, then, to the other prominent, male, Yorkist claimant: little Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. He has a certain prestige to him, being the last living male Plantagenet. He’s also only ten, and thus not exactly in a position to start hacking off heads any time soon- appealing to an England gripped by civil discord for the past thirty years.
Perhaps he could also be betrothed to his cousin Elizabeth. The match would be awkward- she is nine years his senior, and Warwick’s father Clarence had been partially responsible for the murder of some of Elizabeth’s Woodville relations- but desperate times call for desperate measures. This would have the benefit of tying off the two Yorkist claims, removing a potential source of dissent.
The minority would be rough. All manner of factions would be wrestling for control- Elizabeth’s Woodville relations; the ever-adaptable Stanley; Lincoln and the Ricardian stalwarts; the Edwardian household men who went over to Tudor; perhaps even the Lancastrians like Oxford and Jasper Tudor, if they have been allowed to stick around after Bosworth.
Whether Warwick would emerge from such a turbulent childhood into an effective king seems dubious, but in the short term, at least, some uneasy compromise and conciliar rule- between people who despise eachother, no less- seems close to the best case scenario for England.
The alternative is… anarchic. Lincoln seizing the throne and trying to desperately cling to power on the basis of whatever support he can muster from the Ricardians. Elizabeth shopping herself about to whoever is willing to marry her and push her claim to the throne. Scheming magnates plotting to snatch up a child claimant and become the power behind their throne, or training impostors in the shadows. Foreign rulers poking into England and conniving at their own gain.
Anarchy might still come, but it will be kicked a few years down the line- as the 1490s progress, King Edward VI might try to shake off the control of some of his councillors, depending on who has captured his ear; he might rail against his in-laws and his older, controlling wife, thus continuing his father’s vendetta against the Woodvilles; he might face an alleged Prince in the Tower, one more successful than Warbeck at gaining domestic adherents, or a proud, ambitious Buckingham. Maybe the realm collapses into flames again, but it will, at least, have snatched a few years of uneasy peace.