Shakespeare's Richard III
covers events in the latter years of the Wars of the Roses — that is, from the attainder and execution of George, Duke of Clarence, in 1478, to the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485. That war, a prolonged, intermittent conflict between the two noble houses of Lancaster and York which began in 1455, was closer to Shakespeare and his generation than are the Napoleonic wars to the present generation. On the throne of England when the dramatist wrote sat the granddaughter of Richmond, the first of the Tudors, who, it was firmly believed, was the godly savior of an England long torn by dissension and civil war. Particularly because throughout the sixteenth century England had reason to fear civil strife as well as foreign invasion, Elizabethans continued to manifest a keen interest in the historical events of the preceding century. As has been now well established, Shakespeare's generation viewed history as a mirror in which could be read lessons important to ruler and subject alike. Moreover, the chronicle histories which provided materials for Shakespeare's play were written with a Tudor bias, presenting and interpreting character and event from the point of view accepted as orthodox in sixteenth-century England.
Since constant reference to earlier events in the conflict are found in Richard III, readers should review the story of the Wars of the Roses, which lasted for thirty years and in which some eighty princes of the blood, many members of the nobility, and at least 100,000 commoners were slain. This was the dynastic struggle between the house of York and the house of Lancaster. Actually, the Lancastrians never adopted the Red Rose as their symbol, it having been used first by Henry Tudor (Richmond) in 1485.
Head of the White Rose party was Richard Plantagenet, third Duke of York, whose claim to the throne was an impressive one. On his mother's side of the family, he was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, elder brother of John of Gaunt, from whom the Lancastrians were descended. Unfortunately for Richard, however, parliament had declared for the younger line, which had the advantage of straight descent through the males.
Richard of York was able to capitalize upon Henry VI's notorious weakness as a ruler and his misfortunes. Following Jack Cade's Rebellion (1450), he was hailed as a popular champion, particularly because of his opposition to the Duke of Somerset, who conducted affairs for the king. There was even a proposal that he be recognized as heir to the throne, the first suggestion of the devastating quarrel which became known as the Wars of the Roses. Taking some liberty with history, Shakespeare dramatized the origin of these two hostile parties in King Henry VI, Part 2, and continued the story of events in the third part, wherein the Yorkists emerged triumphant.
By the year 1453, when Henry VI became quite ill, the Duke of York succeeded in getting control of the government and was appointed "Protector and Defender of the Realm" by parliament. But the king recovered late in the next year, and York was replaced by his rival Somerset. He did not remain quiet for long. When a council was summoned to make provisions "for the safety of the King against his enemies," the duke led a force of his supporters in a march on London. Somerset, joined by the king and a host of nobles, led an army from London to meet the threat, and the two forces met at St. Albans. The Wars of the Roses had begun. Somerset was killed, and Margaret of Anjou, Henry's energetic queen, emerged as head of the Lancastrian party. During the next four years, England experienced a period of restiveness before warfare broke out again. Although York was supported by the powerful Earl of Warwick, head of the house of Neville, the Yorkists were defeated and the duke himself fled to Ireland.
But King Henry's government, now controlled by Margaret and her council, proved anything but efficient. Faced by poverty and disaster, the average Englishman yearned for the return of Richard of York. In June 1460, Warwick and Edward, Earl of March, the duke's eldest son, moved on London and were joined by York, who again claimed the crown. This time parliament ruled that the head of the house of York should be heir to the hapless Henry VI. But Margaret was not to be repressed. She succeeded in mustering a strong force in the north and met the Yorkists at Wakefield. In this battle, the duke lost his life. And, since Edward was just a youth of eighteen, Warwick became the head of the White Rose party. In the next year, the new leader was overwhelmingly defeated in the second Battle of St. Albans. Nevertheless, Warwick managed to join forces with Edward and to occupy London. Thus Margaret lost the fruits of her victory. Young Edward was declared king by the citizens and lords of Yorkshire and did not hesitate to take the throne, although this did not constitute a legal election.
Subsequent events worked in Edward's favor. Margaret's Lancastrian forces were defeated near Towton in York on March 29, 1461. Henry and his son fled to Scotland. By 1464, Edward was full master of England. Nevertheless, his position was jeopardized by his marriage to Elizabeth, a widowed daughter of Richard Woodville. Warwick, his chief supporter, was enraged, not only because the Woodvilles were of Lancastrian connection but because Warwick himself had all but completed a plan for the English monarch to marry the sister of Louis Xl of France. Edward IV aggravated matters by favoring his wife's relatives at the expense of the Nevilles. Henry had returned to England in 1465 and had been placed in the Tower of London. Not long thereafter, however, the former king was released, and Edward was forced to flee to Holland. Thanks to the support of Charles of Burgundy, Edward was able to muster a force and to return to England. Once more the unfortunate Henry was imprisoned, and Warwick's army was defeated, the earl himself being slain. To cap all this, the Lancastrians suffered a devastating defeat at Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471. Margaret was taken prisoner and the young prince was put to death. Henry VI was reported to have died "of pure displeasure and melancholy," but in all probability Edward IV ordered that he be put to death.
For The Tragedy of Richard III, Shakespeare picked up the story with the attainder of the Duke of Clarence, who had married a daughter of Warwick and had served his father-in-law from 1469 to 1471, and who had been involved constantly in quarrels with the king and with his other brother, Richard of Gloucester. Inevitably, there are frequent references to earlier events in the play.