Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 31 October 2013

"God hath sent him for the weal of us all..."

I want to try something different, and offer some discussion of Henry VII and Richard III as rulers rather than their qualities (or lack of) as individuals. We could argue until the roses turn brown about the characters of the two men, so will set aside the 'cult of personality' for the moment and focus on what they actually did for the country. It's a big subject, so I'll tackle Richard first. I'm probably going to miss out quite a lot, being very far from an expert, so please feel free to correct me and fill in any gaps.

Ok so he killed a bunch of guys, but check out those statutes

Richard III ruled for just two years, but still managed to pack a lot in. Polydore Vergil claimed that as soon as Richard had taken/usurped the crown (delete according to inclination) he 'began to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he might be accounted more righteous, more mild, more better affected by the commonalty' - in other words, Richard pretended to act like a good and just ruler in order to win much-needed public support.

That sounds like a criticism - and it was certainly was, coming from Vergil - but there isn't anything unreasonable about a man doing good in order to win support. Modern politicians are still trying to pull off the same trick now.

So what did Richard do as king that was so wonderful? His main acts can be briefly summarised as follows:

  • Made public his concerns that good order should be kept, ordering his judges and noblemen to 'justlly and duly minister his law without delay or favour'. 
  • Issued a proclamation stating that any man who was wronged by a royal official would have justice of the King, and 'according to Justice and his laws they shall have remedy'. 
  • Behaved with energy and efficiency, travelling swiftly about the realm and rarely keeping to one place, thus making himself visible and accessible to his subjects.
  • Most famously of all, his one and only Parliament of 1484 issued a series of public acts that included six beneficial statutes: this included allowing bail to those suspected of felony (Richard did not invent bail, as Philippa Langley claims); protecting the rights of purchasers to land; making illegal the arbitrary system of taxation known as benevolences; preventing dishonesty in the cloth trade, and promoting English merchants over 'foreigners'.

The latter might seem a tad xenophobic by today's standards, but was a highly sensible populist move for a late medieval king sitting on a rather unsteady throne. 

Apart from his law-making, Richard went to great lengths to secure support by other means, principally by the sprinkling about of large amounts of cash. In the space of a few hectic weeks in 1483 he rewarded the scholars of Oxford with gifts, granted various local petitions, honoured debts and made all sorts of grants and gifts to religious houses, especially in the north. The latter was another shrewd move, since the north was the heartland of his support.

This barrage of schmooze got Richard what he wanted: a euphoric tidal wave of support, culminating in a triumphant entry to York. The Bishop of St David's wrote to a friend:

"He contents the people where he does best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in the progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given him which he hath refused. On my truth, I never liked the conditions of any prince as well as his. God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all."

If the opinion of the starry-eyed bishop was reflected by the rest of Richard's subjects, then it must have seemed that Richard was set fair for a long and glorious reign. The dodgy circumstances of his accession would soon be forgotten - or smothered - and he was destined to be remembered as Richard the Brilliant. 

How, then, did it all go so horribly wrong for him? The simplest answer is that pleasing commoners and churchmen is one thing, but pleasing the nobility quite another, especially the four great magnates still standing after thirty years of inter-class genocide: Northumberland, Stanley, Norfolk and Buckingham. Of these, Richard could only truly count on his old mate Norfolk. 

That, however, is for another day and another blog post. Next up, the doings of King Henry the Seventh... 


  1. That was wonderful David! Thank you for summing it all up. I've asked this question many times and never got an answer. I have one now.

    1. No probs Geanine - glad you liked it :)

    2. I always wondered when people said such wonderful things about their king how much of it was said to gain favor .

  2. The nobility did not trust Richard after he murdered Hastings and Rivers. They were worried about who he would turn on next. He had shown how ruthless he was by making his nephews bastards. So when the chips were down at Bosworth the nobility voted with their lead boots. Hence a dead Richard and a Henry crowned as king.

  3. Fascinating as always, David. I enjoy your research and wonderful writing.