At first, to associate Richard II with effectiveness seems an odd thing to do. He is a king with one of the shortest reigns in English history. He came to a violent end and his death was not only the end of the Yorkist dynasty, but also an end to the male line of the Plantagenet dynasty that had been on the throne since Henry VI in 1154. Richard III has always been one of the better-known losers of history, with an appalling reputation for excessive ambition and ruthlessness. He was also in the only king to die in battle with the exception of Harold II (Godwinsson) in 1066.
On the other hand, there is some evidence of his being an effective monarch. He was an active and hardworking king who wanted to se his ideas firmly established across England. He was also a pious man with a well-used book of hours. He had ability as a soldier and administrator. He also courted popularity by many means. He was dedicated to the promotion of justice, especially for the poor. This was shown in a proclamation issued in Kent following the 1483 rebellion, “the king’s highness is fully determined to see due administration of justice throughout his realm…and to reform, punish and subdue all extortions and oppressions the same.” In addition to the proclamation, Richard also showed his desire to enforce law and order with equality by supplications.
This meant access to law was opened up to people who could previously not afford it. Richard’s first act as king was to deliver a strict lecture to his judges in Westminster Hall on the impartial administration of justice for all his subjects. Another way of improving his popularity was to abolish benevolences, which had been greatly resented during Edward IV’s reign. This began to happen when, after his coronation, he went on progress around and made a point of declining benevolences offered to him, stating that he would not practice the extortions of his brother’s reign. The official abolition occurred in 1484. He also established the College of Arms in 1484 and transferred Henry VI’s remains to Windsor, a political gesture, showing that he was respectful towards the dead.
Although Richard III had a fairly narrow power base, he did use patronage effectively, especially towards the nobility. This can be shown by his generosity to the duke of Norfolk. His rewards included his duchy, his share of the Mowbray inheritance and the estates of the earl of Oxford. Another nobleman who benefited from Richard’s patronage was the duke of Buckingham, who was amply rewarded for his involvement in Richard’s usurpation, receiving the constableship of England among other things.
Richard III showed his courage and his ability to use his powers as king in the speed of his suppression of the 1483 rebellion. The uprising occurred in October in the counties south of the Thames, led by former servants of Edward IV. The duke of Buckingham joined it at a later stage. Large parts of the south were rebelling for over a month, but although the rebellion was serious and threatening, it failed. This was largely due to Richard’s vigilance and effective use of spies. He used the duke of Norfolk to crush the rebels in the South East, and concentrated his own efforts effectively against Buckingham. Due to a combination of Buckingham’s failure to raise support from his tenantry, an exceptional storm that kept him trapped in Wales and his betrayal in Shropshire, Buckingham was brought to Salisbury under Richard’s power and executed in December 1483. In two months the rebellion had been effectively quashed.
An important measure of good kingship is the domestic government. Richard continued and developed the Yorkist system of government, including the chamber system begun by his brother, Edward IV. He continued the policy of recovering lapsed feudal dues and improved the Crown’s demesne through forfeiture. He was particularly vigilant in the promotion of law and order as explained previously, establishing the master of requests, John Harrington. He also established the Council of the North to fill the power vacuum he had left under his nephew, the earl of Lincoln. This meant that no one noble was given extreme power, thus limiting opposition to the crown.
However, there is an equal amount of evidence suggesting that Richard III was an ineffective king. Although some aspects of his domestic government were strong, as explained in the previous paragraph, his foreign policy was largely unsuccessful. This is shown by the fact that Henry Tudor gained foreign backing to enable him to invade England in 1485. Part of Richard’s failure was due to bad luck. He had inherited a conflict with Scotland and strained relations with the French, as a result of the treaty of Arras in 1482. The situation was worsened after the death of Louis XI because a situation similar to that before Richard’s usurpation had arisen. The French Government did not want noblemen attempting usurpations after being in contact with Richard III, so shut down relations further. By making a truce with Brittany, Richard III suggested the possible renewal of the Triple Alliance and a possible English invasion to the French Government, which increased their hostility.
Although Richard III continued and developed the chamber system that had proved so effective during Edward IV’s reign, however, his expenditure was greater than his income and he had growing financial problems by 1485. He was frequently accused of wasting the surplus gained in his predecessor’s reign, although Edward’s military expenses, his funeral and Richard’s own coronation, had considerably reduced it. By 1485 it was necessary for him to request loans from his greater subjects, which were largely not granted and deeply resented.
There is also another side to the argument concerning the 1483 rebellion. Richard’s speedy reaction to the rebellion meant that a lot of the danger was reduced; however it did continue to have a detrimental effect on his authority and power-base throughout his reign. Many of the rebel leaders had escaped and crossed the channel to join Henry Tudor in Brittany forming a court in exile. This turned Henry Tudor into a more serious threat and lost Richard a great deal of support. The rebellion also signified the failure to project himself as Edward’s natural successor due to the high number of his brother’s servants who rebelled. Therefore he attempted to impose his rule upon the southern subjects by putting members of his northern retinue in positions of power in the South. This only served to increase resentment as the southern gentry felt these positions were rightly theirs. Only one member of the southern gentry fought with Richard III at the battle of Bosworth.
Richard failed to swing the opinions of the “super-magnates” in his favour. These were a few very powerful men scattered around the country whose support really mattered. This can be shown with the earl of Northumberland. Although he was instrumental in Richard’s rise to power he wasn’t given power over the North as he had expected, and was under the control of the Council of the North chaired by the earl of Lincoln who was an outsider to northern affairs. Thomas Lord Stanley was also important by his ability to change sides at the most opportune moment. Due to Richard III’s failure to firmly secure Lord Stanley on his side, Stanley intervened at the battle of Bosworth at a crucial time against Richard and aided in his loss of the battle.
Propaganda was another weak area of Richard’s kingship, which is demonstrated by the ineffectiveness of his 1484 act. This was meant to confirm the validity of Richard III’s claim to the throne and act as proclamation against Henry Tudor. This stated the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV was invalid; therefore any children were illegitimate; that the children of Clarence were debarred from the succession by his attainder; condemned the government of Edward IV due to the Woodville influence, described as harmful to English security, immoral and corrupt. Very few of Richard’s subjects believed the content of the proclamation and it did no good to Richard III’s popularity.
Although some of the problems during Richard’s reign were doubtless caused by his personal mistakes almost all of them were reinforced by bad luck. For example, the breakdown of relations with France was already begun in Edward’s reign due to the bitterness caused by the terms of the Treaty of Arras. There is another argument that Richard III could never be a truly effective king due to the nature of his rise to power.
This idea means that he was not ineffective because of his own personal abilities but his actions in 1483 meant he faced continual opposition from the day he seized power. Despite how historians have attempted to justify Richard’s usurpation, it was unique in the murder of his nephew’s, showing an extreme level of naked aggression, which shocked even the most hardened of hearts. Although all usurpations have a certain aspect of aggression and ambition, Richard alone isolated so many key groups and is essential the only failed, not establishing his dynasty successfully, usurpation in English history.
The case against Richard III concerning the princes in the tower is extremely strong. The rumours concerning their death were politically harmful to Richard III and could easily be scotched by producing the Princes. However, Richard failed to ever offer any alternative evidence to their disappearance. His only counter-argument was under the pretext of protecting them, which did not satisfy his subjects. This lack of faith in Richard III led to the emergence of a Tudor-Woodville alliance as an alternative leadership. Many important members of the English gentry joined the Tudor-Woodville alliance, notably Buckingham when he joined the 1483 rebellion. More members of the gentry joined Henry Tudor in Brittany following the rebellion, as Richard did not succeed in executing the leading rebels. This led to the creation of an alternative court in Brittany allowing Henry Tudor to build up his support base and strengthen his position.
Many contributing factors led to Richard II’s failure to widen his power-base. Although he had a very large retinue, who he relied on implicitly, it was too narrow a political base to be secure. This was partly due to Richard’s own personality; he was a suspicious man in general, generous to those who earned his trust, but unwilling to let many close to him. However it was also due to the hostility of a large portion of the population towards him. Richard was never popular in the south and many others could not overcome their personal worries about his self-serving ambition. This meant he was entrapped within the narrow base of his northern support.
Although I have explained previously in this essay many ways in which Richard III attempted to win popularity, none seemed to work. The methods employed by Richard, when other kings in history had used them did succeed in gaining support, so it was not due to Richard’s own effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Again the opposition towards him appears to have been based on the events of 1483 where his actions were interpreted as desperate, ruthless and hypocritical. It was not only his supposed murder of his nephews that caused resentment, people in the City of London were also against his murder of Lord Hastings during his time as protector, and uproar was only prevented through the use of Richard’s retinue.
Overall I believe that Richard III was ineffective as a monarch between 1483 and 1485. However, this is not wholly because of his individual character, but mainly the events and singularly ambitious nature of his usurpation that he could not conquer by any means. As A.R. Myers said in England and the Late Middle Ages “Had he come to the throne in the normal way, his ability…might have given him a long and successful reign. As it was…[his] qualities were not enough to overcome the formidable hostility to him.”