Richard III: Bound by Loyalty?

What do you do if someone you love marries someone you think is, at best, deeply unsuitable, or at worst, deeply despicable?

The only answer, if you want to remain close to your loved one, is to put your feelings aside for their sake, and try to develop civilised relations with your unwelcome in-laws – especially if said loved one is an absolute monarch, and their unsuitable spouse your new queen.

Such was the situation in which the 12-year-old Richard, Duke of Gloucester, found himself in 1464, when news broke that his eldest brother, King Edward IV, had secretly married a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville). While other, older members of his family (with good reason) openly opposed the match, Richard was apparently wise, tactful, or perhaps simply devoted enough to Edward to keep his own counsel – history records no evidence of hostility between Gloucester and his Woodville in-laws prior to 1483, whereas his kinsman and erstwhile tutor Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was killed in rebellion against the king in 1471, and his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, was executed for treason (possibly at the queen’s instigation) in 1478.

Richard’s unswerving support throughout Edward’s life is entirely consistent with the famous motto he adopted as an adult, Loyaulté me lie. Most commonly translated as ‘Loyalty binds me,’ this has an alternative and less well-known translation: ‘Justice rejoices me.’ (See Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, p. 271 – 74, for a fascinating discussion of Richard’s mottoes). Both meanings fit well with Richard’s documented interest in the law, and his attempts to emulate his revered late father Richard, Duke of York, in meriting high honour through the exercise of good lordship, fulfilment of obligations to superiors and inferiors, maintenance of the king’s peace, and dispensation of impartial justice.

Richard may well have known and used Loyaulte me lie earlier than 1483 in sources either lost or yet to be discovered, but its known survivals all date to the period from Edward IV’s death through to Richard’s own reign  – including its appearance, bracketed with his signature, on a scrap of paper also bearing the signatures of his nephew Edward V, and his then ally Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

To me, this casts another, far more sinister light on an innocuous phrase, akin to the undertones of ‘A Lannister always pays his debts’ in Game of Thrones. Loyalty might have bound Richard to Edward – but it had also bound his hands, rendering him incapable of acting against the Woodvilles unless and until his brother died. Richard’s actions after this unexpectedly occurred on 9th April 1483 suggest that he had always hated and distrusted the queen and her large, acquisitive family, and longed to take revenge for their presumption, the attendant loss of prestige to the House of York, and the execution of his brother Clarence; he may also have blamed his brother-in-law Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, in particular, for hastening Edward’s death by encouraging him in debauchery. Certainly, within a few months of the latter’s demise, Richard had arrested and subsequently executed both Rivers and Richard Grey, a nephew from the queen’s first marriage; attempted to capture another brother-in-law, Edward Woodville (Lord Scales); deposed one nephew, and possibly disposed of him too, along with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York.

So I find it hard to believe that Richard, a subtle and highly intelligent man, was not aware of, (and secretly amused by), the dark sub-text of his chosen motto – because clearly, the loyalty that bound him from April 1483 to the end of his life on 22nd August 1485 was not to his misbegotten nephew, the uncrowned Edward V. It was to the House of York and his own blood family, while the justice that rejoiced him was giving his rapacious in-laws their just desserts, and saving his country from the rule of an illegitimate Woodville king.

References: Anne Sutton & Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books, 1997, Sutton Publishing Ltd

History Matters: Counterfactual Conjectures on the Marriage of Edward IV

Recently I’ve been thinking: why blame Richard III for whatever befell the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Because if you trace back to root causes, it was all their dad’s fault, really.

Yes – much as I admire Edward IV in other ways, I find his sexual behaviour repugnant: a man who exploited his position, striking good looks and personal charm to the utmost, bedding swathes of women irrespective of their marital status then discarding them (in some cases, to pass on to his mates). These days, we might recommend he sought therapy for chronic sex addiction – well, if Richard III can be decried as a ‘serial incestor’ and next thing to a paedophile in Michael Hicks’ Anne Neville, why balk at calling Edward IV a predatory sex-maniac? – and even in a more misogynistic age, his conduct towards women was remarked upon.

However, his libido wasn’t remarked upon as much as his ill-advised marriage. Although it’s easy enough to sympathise with Edward’s determination to marry for love, as most people in modern Britain do, in 15th century England this was undesirable for the nobility, unthinkable for the king, and his realisation of this desire was to have tragic consequences. Not that I blame Elizabeth Woodville for refusing to be another ‘loved and left’ and holding out for marriage. It shows a healthy self-respect from the Duchess’s daughter, as well as understandable ambition – after all, Edward was the ultimate catch – but he should not have married her. By the standards of the time it was utterly irresponsible and un-kingly to put his personal feelings above the well-being of his country. This older widow’s only fortune was her comely face and figure; she brought the Crown no rich dowry, no political advantage, no valuable alliance with a foreign power. Instead, their mesalliance made the King of England a laughing-stock in the courts of Europe, (and sorely affronted a potential bride, Bona of Savoy). It was a hideous, humiliating blow to his royal family, proud descendants of Edward III, obliging them to bend the knee to the daughter of a lowly Lancastrian knight and prompting Edward’s mother Cecily, Duchess of York, to cry, ‘That bastard’s no true son of York!’ (or words to that effect). It made Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, negotiating for a suitable princess even as the clandestine wedding took place, look a total berk – an insult he would never forget or forgive. And it outraged the rest of the nobility, above all Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, now forced to watch the king’s tribe of relatively humble in-laws elevated and inter-married with the established peerage.

It proved too much for Clarence and Warwick to stomach, and by 1469 their festering chagrin had broken out into open rebellion… so the deaths in the battles of Edgecote, Barnet and Tewkesbury, along with the rash of executions carried out in that period, can all be laid at the door of Edward’s marriage – as can the subsequent execution of the alienated, conflicted Clarence in 1478.

Meanwhile Richard of Gloucester succeeded in keeping his own counsel, tolerating his Woodville in-laws for his beloved eldest brother’s sake; but the depth of his true feelings became clear after Edward’s untimely death in 1483. Bitterly blaming the Woodvilles for encouraging Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and thereby hastening his death, refusing to lose everything he had laboured for to their rapacity, fearing the possible disaster of another minority rule and convinced of his nephews’ illegitimacy, (by virtue of a pre-contract to Eleanor Butler in which I can readily believe, given Edward’s reputation), Richard took matters decisively into his own hands.

And this would never have happened if Edward IV had only exercised some self-control and kept it in his cod-piece. If he had dutifully married an acceptable foreign princess and begotten an heir of indisputable legitimacy and royal blood, Richard would have had no reason to challenge the prince’s right to succeed. He would have remained Duke of Gloucester; there would have been no mysterious disappearances from the Tower of London, no battle of Bosworth, and no dishonoured corpse to find 527 years later under a car-park in Leicester.

Instead, what a price England paid for its hedonistic sovereign’s stupid selfish love-match…