On 21st May 1471, 17 days after Tewkesbury, King Henry VI died in the Tower of London. On that same day King Edward IV returned to London in triumph. The White Queen showed us one version of this event, but it did not sit well with the source material available. The official story released, encapsulated within the Yorkist source ‘The Arrivall of Edward IV’, was that Henry died of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’ at hearing of the loss of his son and his cause. Henry’s mental instability had been the primary cause of the years of civil strife that had preceded his death and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a stroke or heart attack at the news ended his frail life at the age of 49.
The Tower of London
It is far more likely, though, that he was killed. Edward had kept him alive, a prisoner before his brief restoration. Now, with his son gone, he was a threat, a lose end. No doubt Edward preferred Henry as the Lancastrian figurehead; he was older than Edward, a failed king prone to prolonged periods of catatonia. All of this made the primary Lancastrian claimant a sorry leader. His son, though, was a different kettle of fish altogether. Younger than Edward, active, tutored by his single minded mother. Killing Henry any earlier would have set the bellows blowing and the Lancastrian cause may well have caught fire again behind the Prince.
Working forward through the thread of this story in the source material reveals a pattern which is becoming familiar. Warkworth’s ‘Chronicle’, Lancastrian in its sympathies, tells us that Henry ‘was put to dethe … beynge thenne at the Toure the Duke of Gloucester … and many others’. So, we have the first mention that Richard was in the Tower at the time of Henry’s death along with many other people. Polydor Vergil, Henry VII’s personal historian, later wrote ‘Henry the sixt … was put to death in the tour of London. The contynuall report is, that Richard Duke of Gloucester killyd him with a sword’. Vergil now lays the blame at Richard’s feet, but is careful to allow that he does so only by virtue of rumours that he has heard. Sir Thomas More in his ‘History of King Richard III’ confidently proclaims that Richard ‘…slew with his own hands King Henry the Sixth, being prisoner in the Tower’ yet then cannot help himself, adding ‘as men constantly say’. Still it is only a rumour with which to tarnish Richard’s name. By Shakespeare’s play, we have him happily admitting the murder. Lady Anne, his future wife, asks him ‘Didst thou not kill this king?’ to which Richard glibly replies ‘I grant ye’.
Richard was Lord High Constable of England by this time. The role is the seventh in precedence of the nine Great Officers of State, standing just below the Lord Great Chamberlain and above the Earl Marshall. Since the fall and execution of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham in 1521 the role has been left vacant, only being temporarily resurrected for coronations. However, in mediaeval England it was a vital and significant position. The Constable was responsible for the king’s military activities and was, in effect, the commander of any army the king raised. The role also encompassed the function of Master of the Horse and, most significantly for the purpose of this discussion, the overseeing of the Court of Chivalry.
The White Tower
Richard had presided over a session of the Court of Chivalry following the Battle of Tewkesbury, a show trial that had convicted Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset, who was then executed. Edmund was the last of that male line and a cousin to Margaret Beaufort, who was to align herself against the House of York in later days. This is just a hint of the kind of grudge that fuelled the fire of these wars.
As Constable, it would have been Richard’s responsibility to deliver the warrant from King Edward ordering King Henry’s death. This at least explains his ‘sinister’ presence within the Tower at the time the deed was done. Yet the order would necessarily have come from King Edward. He could not tolerate, particularly so shortly after returning to power, any other person to be permitted to order the death of a king beyond his control. The precedent that this would set would be beyond acceptance. Henry VI’s own grandfather had deposed Richard II. A year later, following a plot to release Richard, Henry IV had allowed the former king to starve to death in prison. Now, Henry VI was to be undone by his own grandfather’s demonstration that such a rival was, in the long term, intolerable. One thing is, I think, beyond doubt; that the order for King Henry’s death was given by Edward IV. I believe that there would have been fallout had anyone taken this matter into their own hands, so the blame, if any exists, for the killing of Henry VI lies ultimately with Edward IV.
If giving the order to kill a king was tricky enough, though, having it carried out brought a whole new set of problems. Who was to be allowed to actually perform the deed, to strike and kill God’s anointed king? It is possible that an executioner was left to do it, but I doubt that it would be permitted. Henry IV’s solution was to starve Richard II to death, possibly to prevent anyone from physically laying their hands on him to kill him. Edward IV would surely have been forced to consider this very carefully. It is entirely possible that Edward took on the responsibility himself, not least to deny it to another. He was a warrior, fresh from two battles to reclaim his throne. Killing was not new to him and doing it himself would maintain the mystique of kingship – only a king may kill a king.
But what if Edward chose to delegate the task? Who could he possibly call upon to do it? Who could he trust with the mammoth responsibility, not of the physical act, but of the power that the enactor would gain over the office of king? I can think of only one person. Certainly, Edward had friends he trusted, not least William, Lord Hastings, but this was little better than allowing a commoner to do it. No, it would have to be someone of the blood royal whose loyalty to Edward would be uncorrupted by the act. Edward had another option, George, but that would have been madness given his recent betrayals. It would always have come back to only one option. Richard.
I will therefore concede that it is entirely possible that Richard himself personally killed King Henry VI. Possible, but far from proven. Edward may have seen no way around doing it himself and I remain certain it is highly unlikely anyone else would have been allowed to kill a king. Even if Richard did do it, he still acted on the orders of the king just as any other executioner. To find him guilty of a murder would be to condemn anyone who ever executed another person for the state. I believe that Henry’s death was Edward’s long term plan, indeed desire, and only awaited the death of his son Edward to make it an immediate certainty.
During his reign Richard III had the body of Henry VI moved from its resting place at Chertsey Abbey to St George’s Chapel at Windsor. As with almost everything to do with Richard, it is impossible to determine his motivation for certain and interpretation of his actions depend wholly upon the view of the king that you take. It is possible that he felt guilty for his part in the killing of Henry and wished to make amends. It is equally possible that he felt Edward had failed to do the right thing by the old king. Alternatively, Richard perhaps wished to tap into the cult of sainthood that was growing up around the pious Henry. We may know the options, but it is hard to see the truth.
Which leaves us once more with the question of how and why this act became attributed to Richard. How he went from being in the Tower at the time it happened, to being the rumoured killer, to finally being Shakespeare’s murderer. The answer fits the pattern of the foundations being laid for Richard’s reputation, foundations that must be deep and broad to support the weight that they must soon bear. He had already killed a young man, a prince. Now he had escalated his killing to include a king. Adding regicide to the killing of young innocents is the second piece of a jigsaw in place. The third was to follow and was to set the seal upon the character of a man demonised for 500 years.