Life in the Time of Richard III?
By Alex Marchant
My title ends in a question mark for good reason.
Some years ago, to celebrate the Quincentenary (500th anniversary) of the coronation of King Richard III, the early music group the York Waits released a compilation of tunes entitled ‘Music from the Time of Richard III’. Clearly it was designed to appeal to the many people who are Ricardians (those who, like me, believe the King has been unfairly maligned in the centuries since his death). However, in their sleeve notes they freely admitted that, given that Richard reigned for little more than two years (June 1483 to August 1485), finding music that could be said with any confidence to have been composed during his reign would be nigh on impossible. Their solution was to record a selection of songs and instrumentals that might possibly have been heard by the King and at his court.
Similarly it perhaps makes little sense for me to attempt to write about life in the time of Richard III (because that is when my books The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man are set), as opposed to the time of Edward IV or Henry VII, as for the great majority of people little would have changed in those years. Outside the royal court, with its politicking and rumours, and perhaps the complex lives of the higher nobles with their shifting alliances and allegiances, life would no doubt have gone on in an ordinary way. Though we have become accustomed to think of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 that ended Richard’s reign (and his life) as the end of the medieval period and the start, with the advent of the Tudor dynasty, of the early modern, there was of course no clear, definitive boundary between the two eras. How much were the ‘common’ people really affected by ‘the twilight between the golden sun of Yorkist rule and the dark unknown of the Tudor future’ that occurred in late August of that year?
The hero of my books, Matthew Wansford, was one of the ordinary folk living through those times. As sometime page of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in the months before he became King, Matt’s life was perhaps influenced more than many others by the alteration wrought by the Year of the Three Kings of 1483, or the change of dynasty two years later. Born the middle son of a middling-level merchant in the provincial city of York, he might otherwise have lived out his life barely touched by what appears to us now as a seismic shift. In reality, though, perhaps the true shift came fifty years later, under the second Tudor king, Henry VIII, with the religious and cultural earthquake of the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries.
Matt, only a twelve-year-old boy in 1483, lived long enough to witness all those upheavals, and must have been among the many bewildered by them – more by the cataclysmic change in the way he was expected to worship and envisage his God and saviour than by any change of ruler or way of ruling. His days and years were from birth regulated by religious services and holy days – when he should work or rest, make merry or attend church, eat meat if he could afford it or fish alone. For the poorest, their diet presumably changed little, except perhaps during Lent and on special feast days. The church ruled much of life, including marriage and even what possessions could be willed to whom at death, and a local priest or other church official could be a valuable protection against the whims of local secular leaders. None of this changed under Edward IV, his son Edward V, Richard III or indeed Henry VII.
Much speculative fiction has been written about Richard III over the years. ‘What might have happened if …?’ The big one is probably ‘… if he had won at Bosworth’ – or ‘… if he had retreated at Bosworth – as he was urged to do and as his brother Edward had once done – and had lived to fight another day’. (I was sorely tempted to take this route – but had to remind myself as I approached the writing of the battle and the fateful charge at its end, that my sole aim was to tell the true story of the real Richard for younger readers… Any such flights of fancy would have to wait for another project. My favourite is ‘What might have happened if Edward IV had married Elizabeth Woodville legally after the death of Eleanor Butler?’ – but perhaps Richard would have disappeared into relative obscurity as just the younger brother of a king whose elder son legally succeeded him and successfully continued the Plantagenet dynasty for any number of subsequent generations… which might not make much of a story.)
In such speculative fiction, with Richard perhaps ruling for decades with his enlightened law-making and equitable dispensing of justice, how much would the lives of ordinary people really have changed? Would Richard have succeeded in curbing the power of local lords through his methods, rather than through Henry Tudor’s means of impoverishing his once over-mighty subjects through his financial demands? Would individuals really have had increased access to justice through Richard’s improved bail system and being able to understand the laws now that they were published in English? Would local industry and commerce have continued to flourish, freed from excessive foreign competition through Richard’s 1484 legislation? And would the book trade and ordinary people’s educational opportunities have continued to benefit from the upsurge in foreign supplies and foreign printers setting up in England that were allowed by the exemptions Richard himself ensured were included in that same legislation? How would the Reformation have happened under Richard or his heirs? Would it perhaps have occurred as evolution rather than revolution given his interest in use of vernacular English for secular purposes – or would any Reformation have happened at all, given his known Catholic piety?
I guess we will never know what life might have been like for common folk in the time of Richard III – if that time had been extended to a more normal lifetime of sixty years or more, rather than the scant thirty-two he was allowed. But for an increasing number of people, it would likely have been very much like one or other part of what Matt experiences in the different stages of his life – as a church-educated son of a petty-bourgeois in a provincial city (York), as a servant in a nobleman’s household on his country estate (Middleham Castle), as apprentice to a merchant in the commercial capital (London), as … but no more, or I’ll be straying into ‘spoiler’ territory for the third book of Matthew’s adventures. And as anyone who knows the story of the real King Richard is aware, that sadly will take Matt well beyond the time of the life of Richard III…
Born and raised in the rolling Surrey downs, and following stints as an archaeologist and in publishing in London and Gloucester, Alex now lives surrounded by moors in King Richard III’s northern heartland, working as a freelance copyeditor, proofreader and, more recently, independent author of books for children aged 10+.
The King’s Man
How well do you know the story of the real King Richard III?
It's April 1483, and the death of his brother King Edward IV has turned the life of Richard, Duke of Gloucester upside down, and with it that of his 13-year-old page Matthew Wansford.
Banished from Middleham Castle and his friends, Matt must make a new life for himself alone in London. But danger and intrigue lie in wait on the road as he rides south with Duke Richard to meet the new boy king, Edward V – and new challenges and old enemies confront them in the city.
As the Year of the Three Kings unfolds – and plots, rebellions, rumours, death and battles come fast one upon the other – Matt must decide where his loyalties lie.
What will the future bring for him, his friends and his much-loved master? And can Matt and the Order of the White Boar heed their King’s call on the day of his greatest need?
The King’s Man, the eagerly awaited sequel to The Order of the White Boar, continues the story of Richard Plantagenet for readers aged 10 to 110.