First, if you happen to follow me on Twitter, please don’t open any direct messages purporting to be from me. They were sent by a hacker, not by me. I very seldom send direct messages on Twitter, and I never send messages inviting people to take IQ tests and so forth.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.
When Richard III’s admirers touch upon the subject of why he chose to take the crown (leaving aside the question of whether Edward V was legitimate), they invariably offer up this: Richard was protector. Protectors inevitably came to bad ends. Once Edward V came out of his minority, he was bound to murder Richard, because this was what happened to protectors and because Edward V would have been no more than a Frankenstein’s monster controlled by the Evil Woodvilles, who were known to harbor murderous intentions against Richard. Thus, Richard’s defenders conclude, Richard had to take the crown in order to save his own life.
Well, there are a couple of problems with this scenario, which hardly ever seem to be acknowledged. First, for people who supposedly were bound and determined to murder Richard in order to prevent him from becoming protector, the Woodvilles were singularly inept at doing it. Following Edward IV’s death, Anthony Woodville, instead of rushing up to London with his charge Edward V and sending out assassins to murder Richard as he made his own way to London, dawdled at Ludlow and even made time to attend a St. George’s Day ceremony. Once his journey to London was underway, Anthony, accompanied by only a small escort, backtracked from Stony Stratford to meet Richard at Northampton, stayed overnight, and was taken prisoner the next morning. That same morning, Richard traveled to Stony Stratford to confront Anthony’s supposedly murderous entourage, waiting at Stony Stratford with Edward V. There, the future Richard III effortlessly arrested Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan, after which Anthony’s men dispersed without a fight. Clearly, Anthony, Richard Grey, and Thomas Vaughan were mighty ineffective at protecting their own selves against arrest, much less at killing Richard. Perhaps they should have given their copy of Murdering Dukes for Dummies a more careful reading.
Aside from this alleged plot, in support of which Richard never bothered to offer any evidence other than to display cartloads of weapons supposedly belonging to the Woodvilles, there’s no evidence that the Woodvilles ever intended to kill Richard as protector, or anyone else. It seems a trifle speculative, then, to say that the inevitable result of a protectorship by Richard would have been death for Richard at the hands of Edward V and his maternal relatives when Edward V came of age.
The other part of the argument that Richard took the crown in self-defense centers on the notion that protectors inevitably met bad ends at the hands of their erstwhile charges, with the usual examples given being Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (for Richard II), and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (for Henry VI). There are problems, though, in drawing parallels between the careers of these two men and Richard’s potential career as protector of Edward V. First, though one recent apologist for Richard III, Annette Carson in The Maligned King, describes Thomas of Woodstock as having been Richard II’s protector (p. 32), this isn’t a position Thomas ever held; to the contrary, he was omitted from Richard II’s council when the boy became king. It was not until 1387, when Richard II was nearly twenty-one and had in effect already been ruling on his own, that Thomas and the other Lords Appellant began the process of purging Richard II’s household of their enemies and forcing themselves into a position of control over the king. While Richard II did indeed eventually get a chance to revenge himself upon Thomas in 1397, it is stretching things, to say the least, to characterize this as vengeance taken for actions done by Thomas while Richard II was a child king, unless one characterizes a man’s early twenties as his childhood.
Unlike Thomas in regard to Richard II, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, actually did serve as protector to the child Henry VI. But Humphrey’s arrest in 1447, when Henry was twenty-five, was most likely a preemptive strike by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to ensure that Humphrey did not interfere in the fraught peace negotiations with France. (Though the unfortunate Humphrey is often said to have been murdered following his arrest, it’s far more likely, by the way, that he died of natural causes; tellingly, murdering Humphrey was not among the many charges that were brought against Suffolk in Parliament in 1450). Humphrey’s arrest (ostensibly for plotting against Henry) might well have been on trumped-up charges, but it was most certainly not connected with anything Humphrey had done or hadn’t done as protector during Henry VI’s minority.
So, in sum, evidence that the Woodvilles were murderously disposed toward Richard as protector is sadly lacking, and the deaths of Thomas of Woodstock and Duke Humphrey cannot be attributed to actions they took with respect to being protectors of a child king, but to situations that arose when the monarchs in question were adults. Perhaps, then, it’s Time to Retire the protector-as-automatic-death-sentence justification for Richard III’s actions. What about it, folks?