Richard III in Yorkshire

‘Much of the castle still stands, on high ground, its ramparts overlooking the gentle bare hills and valleys of Wensleydale’

There the bones lay, thrown unceremoniously into a hastily dug hole beneath the choir of the church of Greyfriars in Leicester. And there they remained, unmarked and unknown for more than 500 years, until last autumn when a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester discovered them. Richard III, last king of the House of York, last king of the Plantagenet dynasty that had ruled England for 300 years, had been found. Next spring, his mortal remains will be interred in Leicester Cathedral with due ceremony. We told the story in our July issue.

If one of history’s great mysteries has been solved by the discovery of Richard’s bones, however, another still remains: Was King Richard III the villain that history has long portrayed him to be? Up in his home country of Yorkshire, they’ve never been of that opinion, so I went back to Yorkshire to unpack this back-story. After all, inquiring British Heritage readers always want to know.

The youngest child of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, was born in 1452 at the Yorkist stronghold of Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire. He spent much of his boyhood, though, in Middleham Castle, Wensleydale, some 50 miles northwest of York, being raised by his cousin, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. The Wars of the Roses was heating up, essentially a Plantagenet family squabble between the then ruling Lancastrians loyal to the weak King Henry VI and the nobles who had rallied around Henry’s kin, the Duke of York. Young Richard was only 8 when his father was killed in the Battle of Wakefield, and the next year his eldest brother was crowned King Edward IV following the Battle of Towton in 1461. Richard remained largely at Middleham until he was 12, when he joined his brother. For the 20 years until his death on Bosworth Field, Richard’s life was devoted to battle and royal administration.

They were rough years—a time to be looking over your shoulder. Allegiances shifted constantly, treachery was commonplace and armed conflict always in the wings. By the time he was 17, the young knight, now Duke of Gloucester, had his own command at his brother’s side. Though Richard did suffer from idiopathic scoliosis, he was by all accounts a skillful and fearless combatant, who played significant roles in Edward IV’s victories in the battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury while he was still a teenager.

Among the many offices and honors that were conferred upon Richard by his brother over the years, none was more important than his role as president of the Council of the North. The vast holdings he had accumulated by forfeiture, kinship and marriage to Anne Neville, daughter of his cousin, made him the richest noble in the kingdom. From the early 1470s, Richard virtually ruled the north of England, and soon left his brother’s court to return there, where his principal seat was Middleham Castle. He was not yet 21 and a veteran battle commander. Richard and Anne’s only child, Edward, was born there in 1473.

Today Middleham is a quiet, small town—not much more than a village. Even now it takes a good hour to drive there from York; in Richard’s time it would have been a hard day’s ride. Much of the castle still stands, on high ground, its ramparts overlooking the gentle bare hills and valleys of Wensleydale. From the 1700s, Middleham has been the north’s principal center for the training of racehorses. Some 500 of them are now housed, trained and exercised daily on the moors surrounding the town. Modern thoroughbreds and quarter horses are a far cry from the military coursers and plodding wagon horses that clopped the town’s cobbled streets in Richard’s day.

Richard was often on the move, of course. His holdings stretched as far west as Penrith Castle in Cumbria and included castles at Skipton and Richmond, and Sheriff Hutton Castle a few miles northeast of York—the administrative and ecclesiastical capital of the North. In 1480, war with Scotland occupied him for several years. Both in York and across the north, Richard was highly respected as a lord and administrator. Then, in April 1483 his brother the king died, and the Duke of Gloucester headed south.

He had been named Lord Protector of his two young nephews, including Edward IV’s 12-year-old son who was to succeed him as Edward V. The country and its capital were rife with the machinations of jockeying for political power, including the large and influential family of the queen, Elizabeth Woodville. On Richard’s arrival in London, the young princes were ensconced in the royal residence of the Tower of London—where it would have been quite customary for a king to safely await his coronation. Not surprisingly, there are several versions of what happened next.

Putatively, Richard was informed that his brother’s union to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid because of an earlier marriage. On June 22, the Bishop of Bath and Wells preached a sermon outside St. Paul’s declaring the boys illegitimate and proclaiming Richard the rightful king. A petition was subsequently presented to the duke asking him to take the throne, to which Parliament later unanimously assented in a document called the Titulus Regius. Richard accepted and was crowned king on July 6 at Westminster Abbey. Up north in York and in Middleham, Richard’s accession was joyfully celebrated. But it certainly wasn’t everywhere. Every conveyance of power was contested in those turbulent 15th-century decades and no political act went unchallenged. Every noble had something to gain and something to lose.

That summer, the young princes in the Tower disappeared from public view. Now the king, Richard III has always been accused and held responsible. In fact, no one knows what happened to them—another of history’s great mysteries still unresolved. What did happen was that Richard faced armed rebellion led by his former ally the Duke of Buckingham, and then the rallying of the last Lancastrian loyalists to Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond. Two years later, the king met Tudor at Bosworth Field, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That the triumphant Henry Tudor wanted the body of the dead king disposed of quietly is quite reasonable given the times. That subsequently Tudor historians, and artists like William Shakespeare, would be given to blackening Richard’s reputation is rather understandable as well. So, was Richard III’s legacy as dark and evil as it has been portrayed over the intervening centuries?

Let’s go back to York, where Richard was affectionately known as “The Lord of the North.” The city’s tallest medieval gatehouse is Monk Bar, its upper story given to the city by Richard in 1484. Since 1992, Monk Bar has housed the Richard III Museum. Its exhibition puts Richard on trial for the murder of the two young princes, and visitors are invited to render their own verdict. Frankly, it is pretty camp and even tacky, and, of course, there are a plethora of souvenirs to be purchased ( More seriously, however, focusing on what has proven flashy and dramatic, though totally unanswerable for five centuries, has obscured what we do know about the brief reign of Richard III.

After being crowned king for less than six months and having faced down an armed rebellion, in December 1483 Richard established the Court of Requests, where poor people without recourse to legal representation could have their grievances heard. The next month he instituted the notion of bail, to prevent the imprisonment and seizure of property of accused individuals before trial. Richard also directed that law be translated into English from the French it had written in from Norman times. And he abolished any restrictions on the sale and printing of books, effectively becoming the first monarch to champion freedom of the press.

That’s not the sort of picture we usually see of the last Plantagenet king. Still, it’s not a bad record of accomplishment for a king who spent his two-year reign largely occupied with defending his throne. Every medieval monarch had blood on their hands; it was the necessary and expected nature of their office, whether in Richard’s case that included the blood of his nephews may never be known.

In the North Country, however, where Richard’s Council of the North had materially improved both the rule of law and the economy, the Tudor portrayal of Richard III has never mattered. In York and in Middleham, the king’s death at Bosworth Field was greatly mourned. To this day, on the anniversary of Richard’s death a requiem mass is said in Middleham church.



  1. So why, with all these lifelong connections with the North and with Yorkshire in particular, must Richard III be buried in Leicester? Because Leicester University says so?

  2. Some inaccurate and misleading points made in this article.

    Richard did not spend ‘much of his boyhood in Middleham’ being ‘raised by… the Earl of Warwick’. He spent most of his boyhood living in the residences of his parents in Fotheringhay, the south, Ludlow and even briefly in the low countries.

    Contrary to many people’s belief the House of York’s lands were not in Yorkshire, although the Duke did hold Sandal castle, but were centred round the midlands, east Anglia and the Welsh border. So it is extremely unlikely that Richard ever went to Yorkshire as a child.

    When Edward became king Richard certainly did not remain ‘largely at Middleham until he was 12′. When Edward was crowned Richard was 9 and remained with his brother. There is documentary evidence from the wardrobe accounts that Richard travelled to various places with the king and even had his own household at Greenwich Palace.

    It was only after Edward’s marriage that Richard was sent to be trained as a knight under the tutelage of Warwick. Probably by way of appeasement as Warwick disapproved of the marriage.

    Richard didn’t set foot in Middleham until 1465 when he was nearly 13, a young adult by medieval standards and hardly a child, even by our own.

    He stayed in the household of Warwick, until he came of age at 16. There is no evidence these years were spent exclusively at Middleham as Warwick held other residences.

  3. He didn’t have any ‘lifelong connections with the North’. He was a peripatetic kind of guy who had some links to the north but also to plenty of other places. He had very strong connections with the East Midlands – he was born there and his family seat was there. He raised an army in Leicester in both 1483 and 1485, which shows he had plenty of support in the area. He also lived in London, Shropshire, Herefordshire and what is now Belgium. Although the article says he spent much of his boyhood at Middleham, he didn’t live there until he was 13 – a young adult by the standards of the time. The romanticising of his links to York is quite a recent development, probably due to the wholly incorrect idea that the House of York had anything at all to do with the city of York.

  4. Lots of efforts to prove King Richard’s connections with York and Middleham were tenuous. In all these arguments I have never seen one statement confirming that he spent any length of time in Leicester.

    Instead of busily trying to disprove his York/ Middleham connections you should try finding some connection with Leicester. Because after extensive research I can only find he stayed there for a few days and even fewer nights.

    Check the documentary evidence. In his own words he regarded York/ Middleham as home. Where in the Leicester city records is there any mention of the cities sadness at his defeat and death. What building did he do in Leicester? What endowments did he give to Leicester cathedral?

    Unfortunately Leicester have the license to bury him where they choose and that is all.

  5. The intention of my comment was to point out inaccuracies in the article. But to reply to the previous commentator:

    Richard indeed refer to his ‘homecoming’ in a letter written from the south, significantly addressed to the York council, but not about York. No doubt this letter referred to his home residence of Middleham and it is a comment of the moment. Like Richard himself I have resided in many places, each called ‘home’ in their turn. It has no more meaning than that, it has no other significance and should play no part in any argument to support his preferred place of burial.

    Indeed as Duke of Gloucester Richard resided in the north which he governed effectively. It was his powerbase acquired through marriage, grants from the King and via acts of attainder of defeated nobles. Richard was their ‘good lord’ and acted accordingly to the city of York, the relationship being of mutual benefit.

    But all that changed when he took the throne. His powerbase shifted to the whole of England, whose governance was in the south. His ‘homes’ became the palaces in and near London. Even though he visited York, amongst many other places, he never resided in the north again. He appointed his nephew in governance.

    Apart from Westminster and Windsor, if you check the documentary evidence, he stayed for extensive periods during his short reign at Nottingham. It was here he bestowed the title of Prince of Wales on his son and where he heard about that son’s death. The investiture in York appears to have been a spur of the moment occasion as they had to send to London for the appropriate robes. It may have been a reminder to the citizens that he was indeed King, although not residing nearby.

    As King, when the Tudor invasion became a reality, Richard called for his supporters to attend him at Nottingham, then moved onto Leicester. To choose this location to defend his Kingship, it must have been of significance in Richard’s eyes. The midlands had been a centre of Yorkist holdings, Richard himself had chosen to spend in total about 5 months of his two year reign here, here he was killea and buried. He should remain in the place where he has lain since Bosworth.

    If Richard is to be reburied as a King, his career and choices as a King should be the deciding factor.

  6. J. Carole Clarke on

    Soldiers are buried near to where they fell in battle. Richard was at least laid to rest in holy ground and has been there for 500 years and even tho life’s changes passed over him on the surface, once consecrated it is still holy ground. The current royal family claims descent thru Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who married into Scotland and the Stuarts so they probably guided the choice away from York Minster, Westminster Abbey, Canterbury or the Tower as being a bit too prominent. Windsor is out since they are buried there. Leicester is a good place as long as the specific site is marked by a memorial plaque. My family was transported from the Harrowgate area in 1736 but we backed him and I’d like to attend the service. You don’t forget men of that caliber.

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