Richard III - Jacob Abbott

Richard's Father

Richard's father was a prince of the house of York. In the course of his life he was declared heir to the crown, but he died before he attained possession of it, thus leaving it for his children. The nature of his claim to the crown, and, indeed, the general relation of the various branches of the family to each other, will be seen by the genealogical table on the next page but one.

Edward the Third, who reigned more than one hundred years before Richard the Third, and his queen Philippa, left at their decease four sons, as appears by the table. They had other children besides these, but it was only these four, namely, Edward, Lionel, John, and Edmund, whose descendants were involved in the quarrels for the succession. The others either died young, or else, if they arrived at maturity, the lines descending from them soon became extinct.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott

Of the four that survived, the oldest was Edward, called in history the Black Prince. A full account of his life and adventures is given in our history of Richard the Second. He died before his father, and so did not attain to the crown. He, however, left his son Richard his heir, and at Edward's death Richard became king. Richard reigned twenty years, and then, in consequence of his numerous vices and crimes, and of his general mismanagement, he was deposed, and Henry, the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward's third son, ascended the throne in his stead.

Now, as appears by the table, John of Gaunt was the third of the four sons, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, being the second. The descendants of Lionel would properly have come before those of John in the succession, but it happened that the only descendants of Lionel were Philippa, a daughter, and Roger, a grandchild, who was at this time an infant. Neither of these were able to assert their claims, although in theory their claims were acknowledged to be prior to those of the descendants of John. The people of England, however, were so desirous to be rid of Richard, that they were willing to submit to the reign of any member of the royal family who should prove strong enough to dispossess him. So they accepted Henry of Lancaster, who ascended the throne as Henry the Fourth, and he and his successors in the Lancastrian line, Henry the Fifth and Henry the Sixth, held the throne for many years.

Still, though the people of England generally acquiesced in this, the families of the other brothers, namely, of Lionel and Edmund, called generally the houses of Clarence and of York, were not satisfied. They combined together, and formed a great many plots and conspiracies against the house of Lancaster, and many insurrections and wars, and many cruel deeds of violence and murder grew out of the quarrel. At length, to strengthen their alliance more fully, Richard, the second son of Edmund of York, married Anne, a descendant of the Clarence line. The other children, who came before these, in the two lines, soon afterward died, leaving the inheritance of both to this pair. Their son was Richard, the father of Richard the Third. He is called Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. On the death of his father and mother, he, of course, became the heir not only of the immense estates and baronial rights of both the lines from which he had descended, but also of the claims of the older line to the crown of England.

The successive generations of these three lines, down to the period of the union of the second and fourth, cutting off the third, is shown clearly in the table.

Of course, the Lancaster line were much alarmed at the combination of the claims of their rivals. King Henry the Fifth was at that period on the throne, and, by the time that Richard Plantagenet was three years old, under pretense of protecting him from danger, he caused him to be shut up in a castle, and kept a close prisoner there.

Time rolled on. King Henry the Fifth died, and Henry the Sixth succeeded him. Richard Plantagenet was still watched and guarded; but at length, by the time that Richard was thirteen years old, the power and influence of his branch of the royal family, or rather those of the two branches from which, combined, he was descended, were found to be increasing, while that of the house of Lancaster was declining. After a time he was brought out from his imprisonment, and restored to his rank and station. King Henry the Sixth was a man of a very weak and timid mind. He was quite young too, being, in fact, a mere child when he began to reign, and every thing went wrong with his government. While he was young, he could, of course, do nothing, and when he grew older he was too gentle and forbearing to control the rough and turbulent spirits around him. He had no taste for war and bloodshed, but loved retirement and seclusion, and, as he advanced in years, he fell into the habit of spending a great deal of his time in acts of piety and devotion, performed according to the ideas and customs of the times. The annexed engraving, representing him as he appeared when he was a boy, is copied from the ancient portraits, and well expresses the mild and gentle traits which marked his disposition and character.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott


Such being the disposition and character of Henry, every thing during his reign went wrong, and this state of things, growing worse and worse as he advanced in life, greatly encouraged and strengthened the house of York in the effort which they were inclined to make to bring their own branch of the family to the throne.

"See," said they, "what we come to by allowing a line of usurpers to reign. These Henrys of Lancaster are all descended from a younger son, while the heirs of the older are living, and have a right to the throne. Richard Plantagenet is the true and proper heir. He is a man of energy. Let us make him king."

But the people of England, though they gradually came to desire the change, were not willing yet to plunge the country again into a state of civil war for the purpose of making it. They would not disturb Henry, they said, while he continued to live; but there was nobody to succeed him, and, when he died, Richard Plantagenet should be king.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott


Henry was married at this time, but he had no children. The name of his wife was Margaret of Anjou. She was a very extraordinary and celebrated woman. Though very beautiful in person, she was as energetic and masculine in character as her poor husband was effeminate and weak, and she took every thing into her own hands. This, however, made matters worse instead of better, and the whole country seemed to rejoice that she had no children, for thus, on the death of Henry, the line would become extinct, and Richard Plantagenet and his descendants would succeed, as a matter of course, in a quiet and peaceful manner. As Henry and Margaret had now been married eight or nine years without any children, it was supposed that they never would have any.

Accordingly, Richard Plantagenet was universally looked upon as Henry's successor, and the time seemed to be drawing nigh when the change of dynasty was to take place. Henry's health was very feeble. He seemed to be rapidly declining. His mind was affected, too, quite seriously, and he sometimes sank into a species of torpor from which nothing could arouse him.

Indeed, it became difficult to carry on the government in his name, for the king sank at last into such a state of imbecility that it was impossible to obtain from him the least sign or token that would serve, even for form's sake, as an assent on his part to the royal decrees. At one time Parliament appointed a commission to visit him in his chamber, for the purpose of ascertaining the state that he was in, and to see also whether they could not get some token from him which they could consider as his assent to certain measures which it was deemed important to take; but they could not get from the king any answer or sign of any kind, notwithstanding all that they could do or say. They retired for a time, and afterward came back again to make a second attempt, and then, as an ancient narrative records the story, "they moved and stirred him by all the ways and means that they could think of to have an answer of the said matter, but they could have no answer, word nor sign, and therefore, with sorrowful hearts, came away."

This being the state of things, Parliament thought it time to make some definite arrangements for the succession. Accordingly, they passed a formal and solemn enactment declaring Richard Plantagenet heir presumptive of the crown, and investing him with the rank and privileges pertaining to that position. They also appointed him, for the present, Protector and defender of the realm.

Richard, the subject of this volume, was at this time an infant two years old. The other ten children had been born at various periods before.

It was now, of course, expected that Henry would soon die, and that then Richard Plantagenet would at once ascend the throne, acknowledged by the whole realm as the sole and rightful heir. But these expectations were suddenly disturbed, and the whole kingdom was thrown into a state of great excitement and alarm by the news of a very unexpected and important event which occurred at this time, namely, the birth of a child to Margaret, the queen. This event awakened all the latent fires of civil dissension and discord anew. The Lancastrian party, of course, at once rallied around the infant prince, who, they claimed, was the rightful heir to the crown. They began at once to reconstruct and strengthen their plans, and to shape their measures with a view to retain the kingdom in the Lancaster line. On the other hand, the friends of the combined houses of Clarence and York declared that they would not acknowledge the new-comer as the rightful heir. They did not believe that he was the son of the king, for he, as they said, had been for a long time as good as dead. Some said that they did not even believe that the child was Margaret's son. There was a story that she had had a child, but that he was very weak and puny, and that he had died soon after his birth, and that Margaret had cunningly substituted another child in his place, in order to retain her position and power by having a supposed son of hers reign as king after her husband should die. Margaret was a woman of so ambitious and unscrupulous a character, that she was generally believed capable of adopting any measures, however criminal and bold, to accomplish her ends.

But, notwithstanding these rumors, Parliament acknowledged the infant as his father's son and heir. He was named Edward, and created at once Prince of Wales, which act was a solemn acknowledgment of his right to the succession. Prince Richard made no open opposition to this; for, although he and his friends maintained that he had a right to the crown, they thought that the time had not yet come for openly advancing their claim, so for the present they determined to be quiet. The child might not survive, and his father, the king, being in so helpless and precarious a condition, might cease to live at any time; and if it should so happen that both the father and the child should die, Richard would, of course, succeed at once, without any question. He accordingly thought it best to wait a little while, and see what turn things would take.

He soon found that things were taking the wrong turn. The child lived, and appeared likely to continue to live, and, what was perhaps worse for him, the king, instead of declining more and more, began to revive. In a short time he was able to attend to business again, at least so far as to express his assent to measures prepared for him by his ministers. Prince Richard was accordingly called upon to resign his protectorate. He thought it best to yield to this proposal, and he did so, and thus the government was once more in Henry's hands.

Things went on in this way for two or three years, but the breach between the two great parties was all the time widening. Difficulties multiplied in number and increased in magnitude. The country took sides. Armed forces were organized on one side and on the other, and at length Prince Richard openly claimed the crown as his right. This led to a long and violent discussion in Parliament. The result was, that a majority was obtained to vote in favor of Prince Richard's right. The Parliament, decreed, however, that the existing state of things should not be disturbed so long as Henry continued to live, but that at Henry's death the crown should descend, not to little Edward his son, the infant Prince of Wales, but to Prince Richard Plantagenet and his descendants forever.

Queen Margaret was at this time at a castle in Wales, where she had gone with the child, in order to keep him in a place of safety while these stormy discussions were pending. When she heard that Parliament had passed a law setting aside the claims of her child, she declared that she would never submit to it. She immediately sent messengers all over the northern part of the kingdom, summoning the faithful followers of the king every where to arm themselves and assemble near the frontier. She herself went to Scotland to ask for aid. The King of Scotland at that time was a child, but he was related to the Lancastrian family, his grandmother having been a descendant of John of Gaunt, the head of the Lancaster line. He was too young to take any part in the war, but his mother, who was acting as regent, furnished Margaret with troops. Margaret, putting herself at the head of these forces, marched across the frontier into England, and joined herself there to the other forces which had assembled in answer to her summons.

In the mean time, Prince Richard had assembled his adherents too, and had commenced his march to the northward to meet his enemies. He took his two oldest sons with him, the two that wrote the letter quoted in the last chapter. One of these you will recollect was Edward, Earl of Marche, and the second was Edmund, Earl of Rutland. Edward was now about eighteen years of age, and his brother Edmund about seventeen. One would have said that at this period of life they were altogether too young to be exposed to the hardships, fatigues, and dangers of a martial campaign; but it was the custom in those times for princes and nobles to be taken with their fathers to fields of battle at a very early age. And these youthful warriors were really of great service too, for the interest which they inspired among all ranks of the army was so great, especially when their rank was very high, that they were often the means of greatly increasing the numbers and the enthusiasm of their fathers' followers.

Edward, indeed, was in this instance deemed old enough to be sent off on an independent service, and so, while the prince moved forward with the main body of his army toward the north, he dispatched Edward, accompanied by a suitable escort, to the westward, toward the frontiers of Wales, to assemble all the armed men that he could find in that part of the kingdom who were disposed to espouse his cause. Edmund, who was a year younger than Edward, went with his father.

The prince proceeded to the city of York, which was then a fortified place of great strength. The engraving gives a very good idea of the appearance of the walls in those times. These walls remain, indeed, almost entire at the present day, and they are visited a great deal by tourists and travelers, being regarded with much interest as furnishing a very complete and well-preserved specimen of the mural fortifications of the Middle Ages. Such walls, however, would be almost entirely useless now as means of defense, since they would not stand at all against an attack from modern artillery.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott


The great church seen over the walls, in the heart of the city, is the famous York minster, one of the grandest Cathedral churches in England. It was a hundred and fifty years in building, and it was completed about two centuries before Richard's day.

When Prince Richard reached York, he entered the town, and established himself there, with a view of waiting till his son should arrive with the re-enforcements which he had been sent to seek in the western part of England.

While he was there, and before the re-enforcements came, the queen, at the head of her army from Scotland, which was strengthened, moreover, by the troops which she had obtained in the north of England, came marching on down the country in great force. When she came into the neighborhood of York, she encamped, and then sent messengers to Prince Richard, taunting and deriding him for having shut himself up within fortified walls, and daring him come out into the open field and fight her.

The prince's counselors advised him to do no such thing. One of them in particular, a certain Sir Davy Hall, who was an old and faithful officer in the prince's service, urged him pay no attention to Queen Margaret's taunts.

"We are not strong enough yet," said he, "to meet the army which she has assembled. We must wait till our re-enforcements come. By going out now we shall put our cause great peril, and all to no purpose whatever."

"Ah! Davy, Davy," said the prince, "hast thou loved me so long, and now wouldst thou have me dishonored? When I was regent in Normandy, thou never sawest me keep fortress, even when the dauphin himself, with all his power, came to besiege me. I always, like a man, came forth to meet him, instead of remaining within my walls, like a bird shut up in a cage. Now if I did not then keep myself shut up for fear of a great, strong prince, do you think I will now, for dread of a scolding woman, whose weapons are only her tongue and her nails, and thus give people occasion to say that I turned dastard before a woman, when no man had ever been able to make me fear? No, I will never submit to such disgrace. I would rather die in honor than live in shame; and so the great numbers of our enemies do not deter me in the least; they rather encourage me; therefore, in the name of God and St. George, advance my banner, for I am determined that I will go out and fight them, if I go alone."

So Prince Richard came forth from the gates of York at the head of his columns, and rode on toward the queen's camp. Edmund went with him. Edmund was under the care of his tutor, Robert Aspell, who was charged to keep close to his side, and to watch over him in the most vigilant manner. The army of the queen was at some distance from York, at a place called Wakefield. Both parties, as is usual in civil wars, were extremely exasperated against each other, and the battle was desperately fought. It was very brief, however, and Richard's troops were defeated. Richard himself was taken prisoner. Edmund endeavored to escape. His tutor endeavored to hurry him off the field, but he was stopped on the way by a certain nobleman of the queen's party, named Lord Clifford. The poor boy begged hard for mercy, but Clifford killed him on the spot.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott


The prince's army, when they found that the battle had gone against them, and that their captain was a prisoner, fled in all directions over the surrounding country, leaving great numbers dead upon the field. The prince himself, as soon as he was taken, was disarmed on the field, and all the leaders of the queen's army, including, as the most authentic accounts relate, the queen herself, gathered around him in wild exultation. They carried him to a mound formed by an ant-hill, which they said, in mockery, should be his throne. They placed him upon it with taunts and derision. They made a crown for him of knotted grass, and put it upon his head, and then made mock obeisances before him, saying, "Hail! king without a kingdom. Hail! prince, without a people."

After having satisfied themselves with their taunts and revilings, the party killed their prisoner and cut off his head. They set his head upon the point of a lance, and in this way presented it to Queen Margaret. The queen ordered the head to be decorated with a paper crown, and then to be carried to York, and set up at the gates of that city upon a tall pole.

Thus was little Richard, the subject of this narrative, left fatherless. He was at this period between eight and nine years old.