Richard III and the Fates of Protectors

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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?

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8 Responses to Richard III and the Fates of Protectors

  1. zquilts says:

    What a fabulous argument you make Susan! I thoroughly enjoyed this post and, from the details that you cited – I heartily agree with your summation !

  2. Alianore says:

    Great post! I agree completely.

  3. trish wilson says:

    I don’t know whether the below-mentioned would help but they’re two questions amongst a number that led to a fresh reappraisal of 1483 about which I am still kicking myself in self-disgust for being so slow on the uptake.
    1
    Why did Edward IV allegedly only appoint his ‘trusted’ brother as Protector rather than Regent? Henry V had no qualms appointing his brother John of Bedford to that task and incidentally Humphrey only became Protector because John was away in France with the continuation of the Hundred Years’ War a position he misused and abused by bringing in an Act of Parliament to prevent their sister-in-law Catherine de Valois from marrying Edmund Beaufort. No way did the ambitious Humphrey albeit being unfit to be in charge of a castle never mind a kingdom want to see his half-brother become Henry VI’s stepfather. And he wasn’t very nice to the guy who did become that stepfather Owen Tudor either.

    2
    Who on 9th April 1483 was ‘in loco parentis’ viz-a viz Edward V – Richard or Anthony? In this respect what did both Annette Carson – the apologist that renders even me apoplectic – and Arlene Okerlund apparently fail to realise? And what do I mean by the ‘Silver Blaze Syndrome’?

  4. Bella says:

    Much food for thought Susan, leaves little room for our/my own drawn conclusions. I feel that I have to agree with your argument. A great blog for discussion =)
    ~Bella

  5. Susan Higginbotham says:

    Thanks, all! Trish, you'll have to clue me in about the Silver Blaze.

  6. Barbara Paine says:

    Here’s a question though- didn’t the Woodvilles attempt to cut Richard out of the protector ship by not notifying Richard of Edward’s death, and attempting to crown the young king as quickly as possible, making any possibility of a protector ship moot? Didn’t Richard only find out about Edward’s death from Hastings?
    Maybe they weren’t trying to kill him, but weren’t they trying to cut him out of the new government?
    “when you play the game if thrones, you win- or you die”.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Actually, there’s no evidence that the Woodvilles (or the council, whose responsibility notifying Richard would have been) failed to tell Richard of Edward’s death. Kendall makes a claim to that effect, but neither of the sources he cites, Mancini and Crowland, claims that there was anything irregular about when and how Richard was notified of his brother’s death. Hastings did communicate with Richard to keep him apprised of the discussions taking place among the council members, however.

      Anne Sutton and Peter Hammond in their timeline in “The Coronation of Richard III” suggest that Richard received the news about four days after Edward IV’s death–about the same time that Edward V received the news at Ludlow. There had also been a premature report of the king’s death, so Richard must have known his brother was ailing.

      Edward’s body was displayed the day of his death, and the news was current in Calais the next day, so it’s highly unlikely the Woodvilles could have kept the news from Richard even if they had wanted to (and there’s no evidence that they did).

      While the Woodvilles did plan for an early coronation, I think it’s unlikely that this in itself would have prevented Richard from being protector, or from otherwise playing a leading role in the minority government. In the next century, Edward VI’s coronation didn’t preclude his uncle Edward from being protector.

  7. Sensibilia says:

    Interesting though, that the two earlier Protectors cited were both titled as Gloucesters. Shakespeare, in Henry VI plays, has young Richard (later III) ask if he can please not be Duke of Gloucester, because it’s bad luck. His older brother Edward (IV), gives him short shrift, and Gloucester is what he becomes.