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What If King Richard III Had Won at Bosworth Field? by Rooksmoor

Author says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Rooksmoor's excellent blog Tablets of Lead. Please note that the opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).

Please click the icon to follow us on Twitter.Recently I watched the first series of 'Blackadder' (1983) on DVD.  It was a very successful comedy series set in the late 15th century but with a counter-factual basis.  In our world, Edward IV (ruled 1461-70; 1471-83) was succeeded by his son Edward V (ruled 1483; aged 12 on accession to the throne; killed that year), with Richard, Duke of Gloucester, his uncle, as Lord Protector, i.e. Regent.  Instead in 'Blackadder' it is Edward V's brother, Richard (lived 1473-83 in our world), who is in line to the throne, with his uncle Richard ruling as King Richard III.  Contrary to our history, the young Richard is still alive in 1485 and looks about 30 years older than the 12 years old he would have been that year. This younger Richard, the heir apparent, has had two sons, Henry and Edmund who are both fully grown men.  Edmund is the Duke of Edinburgh, which is ahistorical given that England did not rule Scotland at the time.  Perhaps this is based on another counter-factual, as, in 1475, Edward IV tried to replace King James III of Scotland with the Duke of Albany.  Maybe the coup succeeded meaning that 10 years later Scotland is an English protectorate.  Prince Edmund is the one who becomes the eponymous 'Black Adder'.

In the series, Richard III is killed by Edmund at the Battle of Bosworth Field which Henry Tudor loses, though he is inadvertently given refuge by Edmund. Consequently Richard IV rules in his own right, only to be killed in 1493 as part of a failed coup by Edmund.  The poisoning of the bulk of the Yorkist royal family and the murder of Edmund leads Henry Tudor finally to come to the throne.  Henry re-writes history to make it appear that he won the Battle of Bosworth Field.  In our world Henry VII ruled 1485-1509.

This would have been a fun counter-factual if only they had not got Richard IV's age so wrong.  There is discussion whether Richard and his brother Edward were murdered by Richard III.  In British royalty, as discussed on this blog before, the children of a monarch always inherit the throne before the siblings of the monarch.  Consequently Richard III would have to have removed them before they had children themselves so he could become king.  In our world, he did this by saying that their father's marriage was bigamous and that his father's first wife, supposedly Lady Eleanor Butler, was still alive.  This made Edward (V) and Richard (IV) illegitimate and so unable to come to the throne.  These boys, termed the Princes in the Tower (of London), were not seen after the Summer of 1483 and it is likely they were murdered. 

Richard III, fascinatingly, is still popular in Yorkshire and parts of the East Midlands and it certainly seems he was a more just ruler than he is portrayed in William Shakespeare's play 'The Tragedy of Richard the Third' (1591) written during the reign of Henry VII's grand-daughter, Elizabeth I.  Richard III was the last in the series of rulers in the long enduring Wars of the Roses.  The origins of the conflict date back to 1399 when, in a coup, Henry of Bolingbroke overthrew his cousin Richard II and made himself Henry IV.  Henry was heir to large estates in Lancashire, so his faction became known as the Lancastrians.

Henry IV and his son Henry V were able to maintain the Lancastrian dynasty on the throne, but war broke out in 1455 when the mentally troubled Henry VI had come to the throne at the age of only nine months old.  He ruled England 1422-61 and 1470-71, and France 1422-53.  However, given his quiet nature and periods of mental illness, regents tended to do the ruling, the most important of these was Richard 3rd Duke of York who became regent in 1454 after having raised an army against the king. 

Richard of York had been heir presumptive from 1447 but was ousted from that position by Henry VI's son, Edward of Westminster when he was born in 1453 (he died at the Battle of Tewksbury in 1471 and never came to the throne).  Failures in France, the schemings of the Duke of Somerset and Earl of Suffolk, and Richard's popularity with the public, made him the focus of opposition to Henry VI's erratic rule. After 1461, when the Lancastrian army had been destroyed at the Battle of Towton, the Lancastrians lacked the strength to take the throne.  

Following the victory at Towton, Richard's son, Edward of York, imprisoned Henry VI in 1461 and came to the thone in a coup as Edward IV.  He was the first Yorkist king.  Following his capture in 1469, Edward IV was displaced by Henry VI, but, in 1471, following the Battle of Tewksbury, Edward was able to get the throne back and ruled until his death in 1483.  Henry VI died in prison in 1471.  With Henry VI and his son dead, the Lancastrians had few candidates left.  In 1483, Edward's brother, Richard became first Lord Protector over Edward IV's sons then King Richard III.  Richard was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by Henry Tudor, 2nd Duke of Richmond.

The whole period of the Wars of the Roses is pretty sordid and certainly seems characteristic of the term Machiavellian with two kings swapping twice in a decade.  Notable is the role of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, known as The Kingmaker because he helped install and then replace Edward IV and Henry VI.  Aside from Edward and Richard who Richard III replaced, Edward IV had five other surviving children by his wife and possibly six by other women.  These other five were effectively illegitimate following Richard III's declaration of Edward IV's bigamy in 1483; the only other son, George had died in 1477.  Edward's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married Henry VII to further legitimise Henry's claim.

Seeing the first 'Blackadder' series, despite its blunders, made me think it was time for me to turn to a counter-factual around Richard III.  It is probably right that he was ambitious and Machiavellian, but then again, the man who replaced him, Henry VII and certainly his son Henry VIII, can be characterised in the same way.  Richard III, with 8000 men, met Henry Tutor with 5000 at Bosworth Field.  Richard's position was sapped when Baron Thomas Stanley (later 1st Earl of Derby) and his brother Sir William Stanley, defected with their forces during the battle and Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland did not engage his troops on Richard's behalf when ordered to do so.  Thomas was married to Henry Tudor's mother, so it might have been expected that he would have backed his step-son.  William Stanley had been won over to the Lancastrian side while in exile.  Henry Percy also came from a Lancastrian family and can be expected to have been ambivalent to the Yorkist cause. 

Richard III was very active in the battle supposedly seeking out Henry Tudor to kill him personally.  This approach no doubt contributed to Richard's death on the battlefield.  As with Edward of Westminster, it seems remarkable that members of the royal family became so involved in the fighting, though, as discussed on this blog, that tradition was common in England going back to King Harold II's death and that of his brothers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Richard's key problem was Northumberland's unwillingness to commit the third of Richard's army he had been assigned.  Thus, with the defections and Northumberland's ambivalence, Richard was out-numbered.

Despite the seeming defeat of the Lancastrian cause in 1471 the loyalties ran deep.  Of course, both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists had only been able to provide kings because of Henry of Bolingbroke's original coup.  The war makes England look like a 'banana republic' with such overthrows and counter-overthrows of the ruler.  Richard III eliminated members of his sister-in-law's family, the Woodvilles, believing they would overthrow him.  I imagine that they would have felt a right to do so following the removal of the two princes who should have been in line to the throne.

Let us imagine that Richard III was able to win the Battle of Bosworth Field.  His main difficulty was the lack of capable generals who were not at heart Lancastrian sympathisers.  The disappearance of the Princes in the Tower did not help win support.  However, perhaps Richard may have been able to find capable, less notable, generals in the heartlands of his support.  Certainly if John Howard, Duke of Norfolk had not been killed, one could imagine the battle going better for Richard.  Perhaps if his son, John Howard Earl of Surrey, had been given Northumberland's force, Richard could have fought more successfully.  Richard did almost reach Henry, along with 800 picked troops and killed Henry's standard bearer, before being cut off by Stanley troops.    Unlike Richard, Henry was not an experienced general and having lived in Wales and Brittany was unfamiliar with the English Midlands.  As Richard was dependent on Norfolk, Henry was on John De Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford and if he had died in Norfolk's place then the battle could easily have turned against the Tudor forces.  Oxford kept his force compact rather than separated into three as was typical at the time and as Richard had done.  Richard held the higher ground and had cannon.

It might have been better for Richard to have withdrawn after Norfolk's death and his force's inability to drive off the Tudor troops under the Earl of Oxford had become evident. Like all invaders of England trying to overthrow the king, Henry Tudor was dependent on a victory to maintain a strong force.  Richard, trading space for time, could have seen Henry's forces denude as happened with Prince Charles's invasion in 1745.  Perhaps Richard could have been lucky and slain Henry himself.  It seems unlikely that this would have ended attempts by the Lancastrians to remove Richard, but certainly would have removed their last prime candidate.  No doubt, if Richard had won would have purged the Stanleys and marginalised Northumberland. 

Richard seemed happy to use hostages to win loyalty.  Notably he ordered the execution of George Stanley, 9th Baron Strange, Thomas Stanley's son, during the battle and he had tried to compel another of Henry's allies, Rhys ap Thomas to turn over his son, Gruffydd as a hostage in return for being made Lord Lieutenant of West Wales.  This kind of approach was used by regimes such as the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan (1603-1868) but suggests that Richard lacked a way to inspire inherent loyalty in the English nobles.  Perhaps this reflected the turbulence of the preceding thirty years with all nobles apparently willing to shift sides to the benefit not only their faction but simply their own family.

Even before Henry Tudor landed in Wales bent on overthrowing Richard III, there had been an uprising in 1483 by Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who seemed to be trying to restore Edward V, but, quite possibly, saw a chance to put himself on the throne; Some feel he had more motive than Richard III to kill the Princes in the Tower to strengthen his own claim.  What seems certain is that, in a way that Henry VII was able to do, Richard III was unable to win over a sufficiently large proportion of the English nobility to his cause.  Saying this, Henry VII faced rebellions too, in 1486, 1487 and 1495-7.  He had all nobles who had backed Richard at Bosworth Field declared traitors.

Conversely, we know that in areas he controlled as Governor of the North Richard was seen as fair in his rule.  His brother Edward IV later made him Constable of England, Chief Justice of North Wales; Chief Steward & Chamberlain of South Wales; Great Chamberlain and Lord High Admiral.  Of course, these were sinecures, but suggest at least some competence on Richard's part for administration.  Henry brought stability but it seems by the end of his 23-year reign greed and corruption had become rife.  Henry seems to have been more successful at manipulating the nobility and using financial methods to keep them divided than Richard's rather blunt threats.

Henry VII was 28 in 1485 and Richard, despite portrayals we see of him, was only 32 that year.  Henry lived until he was 52; dying in 1509.  Thus, assuming that Richard had lived as long he would have continued to reign until 1505.  The last remaining Plantagenet who could have succeeded to the throne was Edward, 17th Earl of Warwick, Richard's nephew and son of his elder brother, George, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449-78).  The Platagenets had ruled England since 1154.  This Edward was executed by Henry VII in 1499.  However, though he was de jure the Plantagenet heir to the throne, he had not been named Richard III's successor; this maybe because he had learning difficulties. 

Richard's subsequent named successor, assuming he had no children, (though he had had none by the time he died, he was far from being past the age of conceiving them), was his nephew John De La Pole, 1st Earl of Lincoln.  John was killed in 1487 at the Battle of Stoke, trying to overthrow Henry VII.  His brother, Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk (born 1471), took up the cause and was executed by Henry VIII in 1513.  His brother, Richard, then stepped in, until dying fighting in the Duchy of Milan in 1525.  Even if Richard had no heirs, then in 1509, at the age of 47-45 (his year of birth is uncertain; 1462-4), King John II would have continued the Yorkist dynasty; perhaps it would have been his son, Edward, as Edward VI or maybe one of his brothers, Edmund as Edmund III  or the even younger brother as Richard IV; we do not know when he was born, but probably was in his late thirties or early 40s in 1509.

In many ways, Richard III and Henry VII seem pretty similar.  Henry, perhaps had more sophistication in how he managed his nobles, but given the skills we know Richard had in governance, with a period of peace, perhaps he would have come to something similar.  Would Richard remaining in power late into the 15th century or into the 16th century have made much difference?  In the past 1485 was seen in England as the date when the country left the Mediaeval period and entered the Early Modern era.  However, a lot of this is really hindsight projecting the Renaissance appearance of Henry VIII and, especially, Elizabeth I back on to Henry VII's period.  Henry's change was to bring a greater degree of stability and the fact that rather than a civil war which had been raging intermittently for thirty years, it was now just a question of rebellions.  No-one really challenged Henry VIII's accession to the throne. 

Could Richard III have also marked a similar transitional reign to the Renaissance which came late to England as it was?  Like many of the Yorkists and Lancastrians and like Henry VII himself, Richard had spent time outside England, in his case staying for periods in Burgundy which was a state on its way to disappearing.  However, this suggests, that, as with the Tudors, Richard would not have been incapable of connecting with continental Europe, though his power base would always have been Yorkshire.  Given Richard's clear willingness to take an active part in combat, perhaps he would have acted like Henry V and led campaigns in France to regain lost English territory from the French.  It certainly seems that given the support Henry Tudor received in Wales, Richard may have led punitive campaigns in that country.  Perhaps Richard's court in later years would have resembled what we think of the city-states of Italy at the time, with ongoing dynastic intrigue.

I suppose we have to think that, instead of the rather particular traits of the Tudors, we would have continued with more Plantagenets.  In some ways I can see Richard III as being as self-focused as Henry VIII.  We know that the key change that occurred in Henry VIII's time, i.e. the breaking of England from Catholicism, quite easily might not have happened, even with Henry let alone Richard III's successors on the throne.  If Catherine of Aragon had had sons or if the Pope had granted an anullment to Henry VIII then England quite likely would have remained Catholic, perhaps until a brief experimental period under Edward VI, if Catherine's sons had not ruled in his stead and most likely he never would have been born.  Richard III certainly would not have needed a divorce, it seems.  He was content to name a male successor rather than insist on conceiving one in the way Henry VIII seems to have been obsessed with.  The de la Poles who would have followed Richard III seem to have had no difficulty in creating successors as the three brothers mentioned above suggest.

We know that Richard III raised churches he had known to be collegiate churches or minsters, i.e. communities of priests rather than monks, with the kind of approach of a cathedral without the diocesan powers; he had plans for one with over 100 priests at York.  Richard and his wife Anne gave money to establish colleges at Cambridge University.  Perhaps this suggests a robust approach to clerical establishments, more worldly than monasteries, but it would be too much of a stretch to see Richard on this basis favouring Reformation approaches.  However, it seems the church and education would have been favoured under a longer reign from Richard III.

One key difference would probably be the status of York.  In our world it is a pleasant historic town and seat of the Archbishop of York, responsible for the dioceses of northern England, second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England.  York's importance was overshadowed by the 19th century with the rise of the industrial Yorkshire cities of Sheffield and Leeds and the port of Hull just to the East of York.  It did not get a university until 1963.  With Richard III's continued patronage it may have become a kind of second capital for England and gained an 'ancient' university in the 1490s or 1500s alongside the growing universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  It is likely to have grown larger, but perhaps would have remained an administrative centre rather than becoming industrial due to its lack of appropriate rivers.  It was always the most loyal area for Richard III and perhaps would have been important for the Pole dynasty that would have followed him, especially given John was Earl of Lincoln, just to the South of Yorkshire.  This would have created a second focus in England and one that might have been more appropriate as a capital in the long run.

Of course, we cannot be certain how the Pole dynasty would have fared through the 16th century.  However, there were sufficient male heirs to keep them going without the difficulties Henry VIII faced.  It is likely we would not have had the long Elizabethan-style 45-year reign but more typical 20-30 year reigns.  They would have overseen England entering the early modern period.  It is unlikely that they would have stunted the mercantile and exploratory missions of English sailors.  They key difference seems to be that England would have remained a Catholic country.  Henry VIII had particular issues that it seems unlikely other rulers would have faced in the place of the Tudors.  In addition, if King John II had come to the throne and managed to hold on, then the approach of adopted heirs may have become more established in England making the succession less of a challenge.

Given Richard III's emphasis on the secular clergy rather than monasticism, perhaps England would have embraced the Catholic Reformation rather than the Reformation per se, so denying Protestant states a key ally and probably exacerbating the Anglo-Dutch conflicts of the era.  It seems unlikely that Richard or his successors would have abolished monasteries the way Henry VIII did.  People argue that without Protestantism England would have lacked the mindset to have become the first industrialised nation, but given its raw materials and its inventiveness and that it was the Catholic states of Spain and Portugal who began the world exploration race, it seems unlikely that England would have diverged too greatly from the economic/industrial development we have seen.

It seems likely given that the Poles seemed to have no difficulty in producing male heirs that Scotland would have remained an independent state, unless, say, John II or his son Edward VI (rather than the Tudor Edward VI) had intervened in Scotland as Edward IV had done.  However, the combining of the thrones as happened in 1603 when Elizabeth I died without a heir, is unlikely to have happened.  England would not have faced the Spanish Armada but it is likely that it would have become involved in the ongoing conflicts between France and Spain, it was during one of these around Spanish-controlled northern Italy that Richard de la Pole was killed.  We would have probably seen shifting loyalties as both France and Spain would have tried to woo over the third great Catholic power in western Europe, England, to tip the balance in their favour.  Another interesting difference would have been England's intervention in Ireland.  As a conquering power it would have still faced opposition, but this would not be on a religious grounds.  With Scotland a separate state then Protestant settlers from Scotland would not have come to Ulster; perhaps instead they would have settled somewhere in North America instead and we would still have Nova Scotia.

To a great degree I do not see a vast difference between Richard III and Henry VII ruling after 1485.  Richard's rule may have been a little more authoritarian but it is likely to have been about as fair for the average English person as Henry's was.  The greater changes would have come under Richard's successors.  Though they would have had affairs and illegitimate children as much as their predecessors, it is unlikely any would have approached the behaviour of Henry VIII or in fact Mary I or Elizabeth I.  The Tudors were an exceptional family but that was not always for the good of England.  A duller, more steady Pole dynasty would have ruled a Catholic England separate from Scotland even in the 17th century.  The key beneficiary from this would probably have been the city of York, perhaps capital of England, certainly home to an ancient university and more religious buildings even than its great minster.

Rooksmoor, Editor of Tablets of Lead. You can comment on this story here.


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