How Richard III Was Outmanoeuvered by Henry Tudor

   Posted by: Annette Carson   in

This article was first published in the Summer 2008 edition of the Ricardian Bulletin

In my new book, Richard III: The Maligned King, one of my assertions relates to Richard’s fatal underestimation of just how much of a threat was posed by Henry Tudor.1

Evidence clearly indicates that Tudor, his family and their advisers, notably his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort and her aide Bishop John Morton, demonstrated the skills of consummate politicians throughout 1483-85, presenting a different face and a different argument in each new situation they encountered.

For example, the catalyst that aroused the exiled Tudor’s hopes of gaining power and status after the death of Edward IV was undoubtedly the arrival of Sir Edward Woodville to join him in Brittany in May 1483, with two ships and vast amounts of treasure.

The seafaring Sir Edward had one objective in his sights: to ensure the coronation of his nephew, Edward V, as a puppet child-king under the control of the dowager queen’s Woodville family. Such an outcome was scarcely of personal benefit to Henry Tudor, yet his advisers evidently counselled him as to the advantages to be gained from appearing to support the Woodville cause, especially since one of its leaders had landed on his doorstep replete with ships and money.

As events moved on in England during the months of June, July and August, with the boy Edward V now deposed and replaced by Richard III, the Woodvilles’ initial objective had to change. It metamorphosed into a southern and south-western uprising in favour of Edward V’s restoration. At its root were disgruntled office-holders of the now-defunct Woodville dominated régime that formerly held sway under the late Edward IV. Margaret Beaufort and her family were almost certainly involved in this insurgency, as historians including Rosemary Horrox agree.2 Why should this be, if not because Margaret’s party had thrown in its lot with the Woodvilles?

Nowadays we know all about Henry Tudor joining up with Sir Edward Woodville, although the myth-makers of the subsequent Tudor era had good reason to ensure Sir Edward’s pivotal role was eliminated from their version of history.

By the end of August 1483 the new Woodville-Tudor partners had persuaded their host, Francis II, Duke of Brittany, to equip an invasion fleet on their behalf. Reports indicate that it was already being prepared in the first half of September.3 Bearing in mind the time delays involved in receiving news from England, the duke could not have heard by early September that Edward V was missing. No contemporaneous document puts Edward’s disappearance earlier than this; the Crowland Chronicle and Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia put it later. Obviously, therefore, the cause which the duke believed he was supporting was the restoration of the deposed – but living – boy-king. This timeline is reinforced by the duke of Buckingham’s spell at the helm of the rebellion in the first half of September, to be replaced by Henry Tudor only after rumours were circulated that Edward V was dead.4

This, then, was the first subterfuge used by the Tudors: ostensibly helping to restore Edward V. I say ‘ostensibly’ because it is scarcely believable that, if successful, they had any intention of peaceably allowing young Edward to occupy the throne.

The Woodvilles, for their part, would have regarded the recruitment of the Tudor family, especially Henry’s wealthy mother (Margaret Beaufort) and step-father (Lord Stanley) as a huge coup for their cause. In return for gaining – as they believed – such heavyweight support, they would have considered it a fair price to offer Henry the hand of one of the king’s sisters once he had helped Edward V back to the throne. It is, by the way, surely risible that any marriage contract was considered without such conditions attached.

Spreading the rumour that Edward V and his brother had been killed was the next ploy of the Tudor camp. The insurgents, whom they were now manipulating (via John Morton and his influence on Buckingham), would readily believe Richard III capable of such killing, and could be stampeded into accepting Henry Tudor as a ready-made contender for the throne in place of the unloved Buckingham. So Henry now presented himself to the rebels as the new Yorkist candidate by promising to marry the eldest surviving daughter of Edward IV, conveniently misrepresenting the true nature of the contract that was discussed with her mother. His Yorkist credentials were further reinforced after the collapse of the rebellion when, taking that rather glib promise at face value, refugee rebels gravitated to him in Brittany.

Richard III, meanwhile, either discounted Tudor or was unaware that he presented any threat. We see this from Richard’s failure even to mention Henry Tudor in his brief to his ambassador, Thomas Hutton (although the name of Sir Edward Woodville featured prominently) when Hutton was sent to negotiate with Francis II in July 1483.5 Even in early 1484, with the insurrection safely snuffed out, Richard in his Act of Attainder failed to denounce Tudor as anything other than a ‘rebel’, in contrast to his later proclamations repudiating Tudor as a claimant to the throne.6

With hindsight, of course, we think of Tudor as a pretender from the October rebellion onwards. It is significant, however, that no chronicler mentions any manifesto by Tudor at that time, although the Crowland cleric tells us that Buckingham issued one (now, presumably, lost).7 Here we have another example of the clever politicking of the Tudor camp, avoiding commitment to any particular cause in case a better one should come along. The policy served them well, alien though it was to the old-fashioned ethics of chivalry.

It was Richard’s own almost-successful attempt to extradite Henry Tudor from Brittany that prompted the exile’s next volte-face, when he threw in his lot with France. By then his motley crew had been joined by the last remnants of the Lancastrian faction led by the earl of Oxford, recently escaped from prison. The French now came up with a different role for Tudor to play: he was to adopt a newly invented Lancastrian pose as Henry VI’s son and successor.8

Despite stories fed to Polydore Vergil about Buckingham’s divinely-inspired notion to unite the rival royal houses, with Henry (Lancaster) marrying Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth (York), these can safely be classified as retrospective Tudor hogwash. In the summer of 1483, when Buckingham allegedly proposed the idea, Henry Tudor had not dared to present himself as a scion of the house of Lancaster: not only because he was descended from bastard stock, but also – more importantly – because he was entirely dependent on Yorkist supporters who wanted no truck with the Lancastrian dynasty.

Somehow, during 1484, Tudor’s persuasive advisers managed to win over most of those very Yorkists so that they now accepted the proposition of shedding their blood to restore the house of Lancaster, in the person of an heir they knew to be spurious. Perhaps they understood that it was all a cynical ploy. More likely, being committed to rebellion and exile, they found themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The huge gamble that was required of Henry by the French in claiming the crown through his ‘father’ Henry VI is underlined by the omission of any further public reference to that once-crucial marriage with Elizabeth of York. It is not surprising that several prominent members of Henry’s entourage, including some Woodvilles, were disillusioned enough to desert him and accept pardons from Richard III.

One would think such blatant imposture would destroy his credibility. Yet amazingly, Henry Tudor, posing first as supporter of Edward V, then as Yorkist-by-marriage, and finally as pseudo-Lancastrian heir, managed to hoodwink substantial numbers of people. Little wonder that a candidate so evidently willing to accommodate his backers would also appeal to those disaffected magnates in England who found their old powers of extortion curbed by Richard III, who had curtailed their retainers and legislated protections for ordinary citizens. Those who deserted Richard to support Henry would later learn to rue their mistake.

In the end Tudor managed to present himself as all things to all people: king by right of conquest, with the stamp of divine approval; duke of Lancaster by the simple expedient of awarding himself the title; and unifier of York and Lancaster by virtue of taking a Yorkist queen.

Nevertheless, there was considerable dissatisfaction on all three counts. Yorkists were resentful of his repeated postponement of Elizabeth’s coronation. Those who knew their genealogy were well aware that legitimate heirs of Lancaster existed who were far senior to him. And as for his so-called ‘right of conquest’, there was outspoken opposition in Parliament to this claim because, as many magnates pointed out, they had actually handed him England on a plate.9

Although few historians acknowledge the fact, Henry Tudor triumphed by means of the sheer deviousness at which he proved so adept throughout his life. It is one of the great ironies of history that Richard III has been cast as the master of dirty tricks and Henry as the champion of rectitude. There can be no doubt that the ideals of chivalry – valour, fidelity, truth and generosity – were trampled underfoot along with Richard III at Bosworth.


1. Annette Carson, Richard III: The Maligned King (The History Press, formerly Sutton Publishing, 2008).
2. Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study of Service (Cambridge University Press, 1989, 1992), p. 169; Michael K. Jones & Malcolm G. Underwood, The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (Cambridge University Press, 1992),  p. 125.
3. Ralph A. Griffiths & Roger S. Thomas, The Making of the Tudor Dynasty (Sutton Publishing, 1985, 1997), p. 102.
4. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486, ed. Nicholas Pronay & John Cox (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 1986), p. 163; Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia, Books 23–25, ed. J.B. Nichols (1846), p. 188.
5. Griffiths & Thomas, Tudor Dynasty, p.  86.
6. British Library Harleian MS 433, ed. R.E. Horrox & P.W. Hammond (Richard III Society, 1979-83), vol. 3, pp. 124–5.
7. Crowland Chronicle Continuations, ed. Pronay & Cox, p. 163.
8. Michael K. Jones, Bosworth 1485: Psychology of a Battle (Tempus, 2002), pp. 124–5.
9. Sir George Buck, The History of King Richard the Third, ed. Arthur N. Kincaid (Sutton Publishing, 1979), pp. 87-89; Crowland Chronicle Continuations, ed. Pronay & Cox, p.195.

© Annette Carson