He’s often remembered as Shakespeare portrayed him – an over-ambitious aggressor who triggered the Wars of the Roses.
But the early life of Richard, Duke of York shows a child who survived family tragedy and a skilled leader who fell foul of Henry VI’s faction-ridden court.
Richard had a tumultuous start in life, he had become an orphan by the age of 4.
Richard’s mother, Anne de Mortimer, died soon after his birth in September 1411. In August 1415, his father Richard, 3rd Earl of Cambridge, was executed for his part in the ‘Southampton Plot’ to overthrow King Henry V.
Just days later the king set sail for France on the campaign that would culminate in the great Hundred Years War victory at Agincourt. Among the casualties of this battle was Richard’s uncle Edward, 2nd Duke of York. Young Richard’s familial losses were complete.
The child inherited his father’s and uncle’s titles, making him one of the richest and most powerful magnates in the realm.
Young Richard also had a strong claim to England’s throne, through both his father and mother, each separately descended from Edward III.
Wardship and Marriage
Following his uncle’s death in October 1415, 4 year-old Richard became a ward of the crown, and was placed under the guardianship of trusted Lancastrian retainer Roger Waterton.
In 1423, for the huge sum of £2,000 (around £1.3 million today) the wardship was sold to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, giving him rights over young Richard’s lands, income and future marriage.
It proved to be money well spent, as the 13 year-old soon gained another title, Earl of March, when his childless maternal uncle, Edmund Mortimer, died of plague in 1425.
Income from the Welsh and Marcher lands that went with the Earldom was £3,400 a year – around £2.2 million today.
Neville soon betrothed Richard to his youngest daughter Cecily, and they were married in the late 1420’s in an arrangement that benefited all parties.
The Nevilles married into one of England’s pre-eminent magnate families; the crown absorbed the potential threat of Richard’s claim to the throne into a family of staunch supporters; and Richard increased his links to other powerful aristocrats who’d married into the Neville family.
A New King
In November 1429, Richard attended Henry VI’s coronation in Westminster Abbey. He was 18. The new monarch was just 7, and had been king since 1422 when he was just 9 months old.
A regency council had been formed to rule on behalf of the infant king, and factions were already forming among key councillors.
Henry V’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was pro-war, while the former king’s half uncle, Henry (soon to be Cardinal) Beaufort favoured peace.
Richard did his best to remain neutral.
First French Campaign
In 1436, at the age of 24, Richard was sent to France as ‘lieutenant-general and governor’ because the king desired ‘some great prince of our blood’ to control English possessions in France.
To repel a French attack on Normandy, Richard shrewdly delegated command to a legendary warrior, John Talbot, known as the ‘Terror of the French’. Talbot and his forces were successful.
Meanwhile, Richard secured rebellious areas and showed diplomatic skills, placating disgruntled Normans.
A year into the campaign, however, Richard faced financial problems, and requested a return to England. The Crown had under-funded the campaign and he’d been forced to pay huge costs himself. A rumbling dispute with the Council began.
On his return, Richard largely avoided politics, and sired his first two children, Anne and Henry – the latter named in loyalty to the Lancastrian dynasty, earning him £100 in jewels from King Henry.
Conspicuously, Richard wasn’t invited to join the Regency council that convened during this time.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that Henry VI, a man described by Pope Pius II as ‘utterly devoid of wit or spirit’, had huge shortcomings as a monarch.
England was sliding towards crisis.
Return to France
In 1439 Richard’s replacement in France died. Being acceptable to both court factions, Richard was sent back in 1441, with a promise of £20,000 a year (around £13 million today) to fund the war. His wife accompanied him.
Over the next 4 years three more children were born: Edward (the future Edward IV); Edmund (who would die at the Battle of Wakefield), and Elizabeth.
Richard again put Talbot in charge, but the military exploits were less successful than before. Back in London, the campaign’s failings were attributed to Richard’s cautious nature by the Beaufort faction.
Losing the Confidence of the Court
Cardinal Beaufort seized the opportunity to promote his own family’s interests by securing, for his nephew John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, the prestigious command of 8,000 fresh English troops dispatched to France.
It was a costly expedition at a time when Richard was still owed a fortune by the government.
Somerset proved an inept commander who attacked towns where the English had held favour. He also scuppered an alliance between England and the Dukes of Brittany and Alençon that Richard had been fostering for almost two years.
As England’s appetite for war seemed to be waning, the 1444 Treaty of Tours saw Henry VI give up the hard-won provinces of Anjou and Maine in return for a brief peace and marriage to landless and penniless Margaret of Anjou, a distant relative of the King of France.
Later in 1444 Richard returned to England amidst rumours – probably stirred by enemies at court – of misuse of funds on the Normandy campaign.
Richard tried to remain neutral in the politics of the court and maintained good relations with the king and most of the Council.
However, Margaret of Anjou had become closely tied to the Beaufort faction, and together they regarded Richard as a threat from early on.
They would become Richard’s implacable enemies, especially as Margaret of Anjou increasingly dominated a king troubled by illness and indecision.
Richard was steadily forced into a position where open rebellion became more and more likely. Perhaps, even, inevitable.