This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018.
From ancient times to the modern-day, populations of countries have all had their fair share of tyrants. However, what is one person’s tyrant is another person’s fair and good leader. So what exactly makes a leader a tyrant? The not so easy answer is that it depends. In medieval England, the country had two obvious tyrants rule back to back: Richard III and Henry VII. Their blatant disregard for the law as well as social norms was what caused the two men to be considered tyrants during their respective kingships. After all, there is nothing more frustrating for the people than to be ruled by a lawmaker who does not think the very laws that they created do not apply to them.
Richard III gained the throne through disregard for what was considered the status quo as well as breaking the law. While nearly all of the kings of the fifteenth century were either usurped, a usurper, or both, it was still frowned upon to depose a reigning king. In fact, the medieval idea of tyranny relied on the idea that “if it were believed that [the king] came to the throne by force and without right, then he would be judged a tyrant” (Pollard 152). This was certainly true for Richard III. He did not seem to particularly care about the status quo and usurped his young nephew, Edward V. While usurping a bad king has many risks associated with it, usurping the heir of a beloved king before the new king gives you a reason to, is always a bad idea. Combined with the fact Richard III used deception to gain access to Edward V by suggesting the two travel to London together “and the prince’s route was modified accordingly” (Horrox 97). This shows just how much Richard III did not think the rules applied to him.
Furthermore, by gaining access to the new king, it gave Richard III the chance to arrest Edward V’s “stepbrother Richard Grey and his chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan” (Horrox 97) as well as earl Rivers and “other Woodville kinsmen and connections [to] Edward V” (Ross 63). The people arrested were imprisoned and eventually executed (Ross 63). Like his father before him, Richard III manipulated the system and was named protector of the realm. Richard III, still ignoring social norms, had Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of York, declared bastards, thus disqualifying them for the throne, and put into the Tower of London (Mancini 97). Richard III then crowned himself king. This was all within weeks of Edward IV’s death.
Now, according to the contemporary source, the Vitellius AXVI Chronicle, after Richard III “had vnto the crowne, excityng the people to take hym for their kyng” (190-191). Confirming this is another contemporary source, Dominic Mancini’s Usurpation of Richard the Third where it is written that on the day of Richard III’s coronation he went “passing through the midst of the city attended by the entire nobility and a display of royal honours…he greeted all onlookers, who stood along the streets, and [Richard III] received their acclamations” (Mancini 101). So what changed? What was the event that changed the public perception of Richard III? Well, when people slowly realized that no one had seen Edward V and Richard of York for a while Richard III’s popularity began to free fall, especially when rumors flourished about Richard III murdering the princes (Ross 99). While usurpers are known to kill the king who came before them because “to keep alive a politically dangerous person, and especially a deposed king, was an act of folly” (Ross 98), murdering children, heir to the throne or not, is generally not looked upon in a good light. The rumors that Richard III had murdered Edward V and Richard of York would poison the rest of Richard III’s reign and cause several rebellions. He was especially unpopular in the south of England where they considered Richard III to have “rode roughshod over the sentiments and interests of a substantial part of the English political nation” for usurping the throne as well as trying to rule over the south of England (Pollard 162).
However, this did not mean everyone hated Richard III. He was still quite popular “with the city of York and with the north as a whole” (Pollard 153). Anne Crawford argues that the only reason Richard III was popular in the north was because of his marriage to Anne Neville, the daughter of the earl of Warwick (138). However, even after Anne died of what was probably tuberculosis—though there was a rumor Richard III poisoned her (Crawford 138), thus furthering the idea of being a tyrant—Richard III still had loyal northern followers. This is important because even after his death at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard III had Yorkist supporters who would rather another Yorkist be on the throne than Henry Tudor. This, of course, caused problems for Henry VII when he was crowned king of England.
Like Richard III, Henry VII also did not start his kingship out on a good note. He had usurped Richard III and as a usurper, he would have more difficulty keeping the throne than a king who did not usurp the throne. And he most certainly did. Richard III had not killed every Yorkist heir to the throne. There were several people who could be considered a more proper ruler due to their lineage. These people were “Edward, earl of Warwick, Margaret Beaufort, and even John II of Portugal” (Cunningham 47). Luckily for Henry VII, his “right to the throne was…not addressed by parliament” (Cunningham 47). Unluckily for Henry VII, Yorkist supporters did not agree. To them, he was still a tyrant due to the fact there were other more superior heirs. Besides the fact there were other people first in line for the throne, Henry VII was also a tyrant in the sense that while “the king had absolute power…[he] was not above the law” (Pollard 150). Henry VII did not exactly get the memo and often switched between disregarding the law completely and just doing what he wanted to following the law in a maliciously compliant way.
One way Henry VII disregarded the law, or at the very least the status quo, was how he treated the nobility and the gentry. He did not trust anyone that was not close to him. While he certainly had good reasons for this, the mistrust worked against him in regards to keeping the nobility and gentry happy. For example, when there was trouble in the north of England, Henry VII had the option of either selecting one northern noble “which could have brought the region under control” (Carpenter 23) or he could give the land to a few noblemen close to him. Henry VII chose the latter option. By ignoring the northern nobility, Henry VII furthered the problems he was trying to prevent. His decision “produced disorder, violence, murder, misuse of, and disrespect for, the king’s authority and considerable local disaffection” (Carpenter 23) in the north.
Henry VII also seemed to have forgotten that a northern noble would be much better equipped for the job. Due to living in the area, a northern noble would be much more aware of the problems facing the region then a person chosen merely because they were close to the king. It certainly would have solved Henry VII’s problem that he was “ruling a medieval polity whose needs he had largely failed to understand” (Carpenter 16). Still, the fact that Henry VII obviously chose people close to him instead of a person most qualified for the job was one reason the people, especially the unfavored nobility and gentry, considered Henry VII a tyrant. Though we still must take into account that the northerners were still loyal to the Yorkist dynasty. It did not help that Henry VII eventually gave the northern lands to his mother, Margaret Beaufort. After all, “kings could not guarantee to have an able and loyal mother around all the time.” (Carpenter 23-24). Kings “could, however, count on the services of the nobility if they knew how to get the best out of them” (Carpenter 24).
Henry VII’s relationship with his mother also caused a few issues during his kingship. Due to their separation since Henry VII’s childhood, once Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII were able to reunite in Henry VII’s adulthood, they immediately started to spend a lot of time with each other (Crawford 145). The letters sent between Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII display a “passionate devotion” (Crawford 148) between the two and apparently both mother and son rarely disagreed about anything (Crawford 148). As a result of this lost time and the way they got along so well, Margaret Beaufort was able to gain a lot of influence over her son. She used this influence to take lands that had either previously belonged to her or she thought she had a right to (Crawford 145, 148). While some of the land had previously been hers, both Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII claimed that much more land belonged to them then in actuality. Their “avarice and determination to pursue their rights” (Crawford 148) did not make Henry VII and his mother particularly popular, especially amongst those whom they took the land from.
Both Richard III and Henry VII were tyrants in their own right. Both men fell under the medieval ideas of tyrants, being kings who really had no right to the throne, as well as the modern-day idea of a tyrant: a ruthless leader who will do whatever it takes to stay in power. Now, while Richard was certainly more of a tyrant then Henry VII, especially in regards to eliminating his enemies, Henry VII was not so innocent himself. He too executed his competitors, but at least Henry VII waited until his political enemies were done with puberty (this being somewhat literally in the case of the earl of Warwick). Both Richard III and Henry VII had favorites as well, but what is really telling is the fact Richard III was overthrown within two years of taking the throne, while Henry VII was able to pass the throne down to his son. Perhaps that makes Henry VII more of a tyrant than Richard III or perhaps it means that Henry VII’s opponents were not willing to go as far as Henry VII did when he usurped the throne.
Carpenter, Christine. “Henry VII and the English Polity.” The Reign of Henry VII. edited by B. J. Thompson. 1995, pp. 11-30.
Crawford, Anne, editor. Letters of the Queens of England. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002.
Cunningham, Sean. Henry VII. Routledge. 2007.
Horrox, Rosemary. Richard III: A Study in Service. Cambridge University Press. 1989.
Mancini, Dominic. The Usurpation of Richard the Third. translated by C. A. J. Armstrong. Clarendon Press. 1969.
Pollard, A. J.. “The Tyranny of Richard III.” Journal of Medieval History, 3. 1977, pp. 147-165.
Ross, Charles. Richard III. Methuen. 1981.
Kingsford, C. L., editor. “Vitellius AXVI Chronicle.” Chronicles of London. 1905, pp. 189-232.