The Last Days of Richard III

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in

John Ashdown-Hill, The Last Days of Richard III.  The History Press, Stroud, 2010.  ISBN 978 0 7524 5404 7

This latest book by John Ashdown-Hill arrived on my doorstep a few days ago, having ordered it from the UK as soon as it became available.  After being fascinated by John’s previous books I had high hopes for this one and am glad to say that it did not disappoint.

The first half of this book looks in detail at the last 150 days of Richard’s reign, starting on Friday 25 March 1485 till his death at Bosworth on Monday 22 August 1485.  The aim is to present this period as Richard would have seen them, and not in the light of hindsight.

I particularly liked John Ashdown-Hill’s statement in the Introduction that “Modern attitudes to the rival claims to the throne of the houses of Lancaster and York are often as partisan as those of the fifteenth century.  Thus the attitudes adopted by historians tend to reflect the personal preferences of the writer.”  He then states clearly that he believes the Yorkist claim to be superior to the Lancastrian one, and Richard’s superior to that of Edward V.

His detailed analysis of the period from late March to August 1485 shows clearly that far from anticipating a defeat, Richard was expecting to take any threats from Henry Tudor in his stride and to reign for many years to come.  He was busy planning ahead for the future, for instance an agreement with Portugal to marry the Infanta Joana of Portugal was imminent.  This would have combined Yorkist claims to the throne, as represented by Richard, with those of the legitimate Lancastrian claimants of the Portuguese royal family.  John also explains clearly the day-to-day activities which would have kept Richard busy, thus offering a valuable insight into medieval life.

The book starts off with the deteriorating health of Queen Anne and her death on Wednesday 16 March 1495.  John shows clearly that their marriage was close.  At a time when upper-class spouses usually had separate bedrooms the fact that the Crowland Chronicle tells us that on medical advice they did no longer share a bedroom, must mean that up to then they had done so.

It was news to me that Richard spent the time waiting to do battle with Henry Tudor on a hunting holiday in Sherwood Forest.  Hardly the behaviour of a man who is worried about the anticipated encounter with his adversary.

The second half of John’s book deals with events after the battle until the present day.  Here John first dismantles two claims about the alleged shabby behaviour by Henry Tudor after the battle, which unfortunately have become “fact” in the mind of many Ricardians.  The first is the claim that Henry tried to antedate his reign to 21 August 1485, but there is no evidence for this.  It is also clear that Henry always acknowledged Richard as king, as otherwise he could not have claimed the throne by conquest as he did.

The second is the alleged shabby treatment of Richard’s body after his death on the battlefield.  The basic information we have from the chronicles was fleshed out with emotionally charged adjectives in Kendall’s account, which led to widespread preconceived ideas that Henry was particularly barbaric after the battle.  However, John clearly shows that far from treating the body shabbily, Henry actually treated it as respectfully as was possible under the circumstances with the limited resources available on a battlefield.

The surviving information about the tomb which Henry VII had erected for Richard in the summer of 1494 is analysed.  It seems that Cecily Neville, Richard’s mother, who had been on good terms with her son until his death, found the men responsible for this project so trustworthy that she named them as executors of her will the following year.  This monument was erected fairly soon after Richard’s death, much sooner than comparable monuments for Richard II or Henry VI.

In this context John points out that the timing was suggestive:  it coincided with the threat posed by the Yorkist claimant usually known as Perkin Warbeck.  While some writers did not understand this point, John makes it clear that the claims of Richard III and the sons of Edward IV are mutually exclusive.  Either Richard was the rightful king, because the boys were bastards and thus barred from inheriting the throne.  If they were not bastards, however, Richard would have been an usurper. So facing a threat from someone claiming to be one of the boys, it was a safer bet for Henry to support Richard, who was unquestionably dead, as the rightful king.  Incidentally the stories about Richard killing his nephews only started to be circulated after this pretender had been executed.

John also looks at the problem of what happened to Richard’s body after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and concludes that on the basis of the available evidence it probably still lies in the ground where it was originally buried in August 1485,  an area that seems to be covered by a car park today.

John also explains the topic of Richard’s DNA in detail, a topic which he has researched extensively.  And he certainly managed to explain the scientific details in such a way that even someone as unversed in this field as I am can clearly understand the problems and solutions.

I can only recommend this book to anyone.  Someone who is relatively new to this era will find a clear introduction to Richard’s last days and the issues we face today.  At the same time it is a valuable reference for experienced Ricardians offering new aspects and eliminating old prejudices.

Note: A second edition, The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA: The Book That Inspired the Dig, was published in 2013, including information from the findings of the Greyfriars Dig in Leicester.  Available as paperback, ISBN 9780752492056.