Richard III and his last Christmas ... 1485
We all love to hate Richard III. We've speculated about his part in the murder of his nephews who were stashed in the Tower of London soon after the death of their father Edward IV. We're suspicious of his brother's dubious death because let's face it, there is no reason why a man in his prime at 41 should die so suddenly when he had always been in the best of health. And it's difficult to place a date on when Richard had a change of heart when his loyalty to his brother and family had always been taken for granted. But something definitely changed somehow and no one could actually put a finger on it. His story is not too different from many other monarchs in history. It's a story of ambition gone awry and the damage it leaves in its wake.
On 6th July 1483, Richard was dressed in blue and gold trimmed with ermine for his coronation. His wife Anne Neville accompanied him with five ladies-in-waiting led by Lady Margaret Beaufort and watched by his brother's widow, Elizabeth Woodville, who was hiding in the shadows in fear of her life. These three women all lived in a world full of treachery, and full of ruthless men. They had started off as allies but they had become calculating adversaries. As the violence escalated, they had found themselves in the middle of it all.
Neither prince was present during the ceremony.
To everyone present, it was a beautiful ceremony but very soon things began to unravel for Richard. Almost one year later, his only son Prince Edward died at the age of ten and his wife, Anne Neville, who could not bear any more children, was devastated. By then, Richard had become very aware of his niece, Elizabeth of York and rumours abounded of his quiet, but insistent, attention to her. They walked together in the gardens, and spoke quietly to each other, their heads together, almost touching, in the morning frost. And he was always quick with his praise of her witty conversation and her gracefulness.
From her chambers high in the castle, Anne would have seen the two of them far below as they idly walked to the river. She would have noticed how they talked animatedly and she would have wondered what had made the tall golden-haired beauty laugh and stop to put her hand to her throat coquettishly. She would have seen her husband draw her closer and whisper in her ear and she would have seen him smile widely and make her take his arm to walk on. Both of them had the York charm and they had turned it fully on each other. Even the courtiers walked a little distance behind them so that the couple could imagine themselves alone. She would have wondered why they would do that if they did not think Richard and Elizabeth were lovers? Unless they thought Richard was a lecher who was seducing his niece. Unless they thought that Richard had forgotten his marriage vows to the bereaved mother of his dead son.
Anne would have seen it all but I doubt that she would have cared very much. She was grieving for her son and her grief consumed her.
It was a high-risk thing for Richard to do. In France, Henry Tudor, who was betrothed to Elizabeth of York by both mothers, was gathering forces in Brittany while in England, Richard was seducing Henry’s bride-to-be and giving instructions to hold his mother, Margaret Beaufort, a virtual prisoner by her husband. But maybe that’s part of why Richard did it. To show Henry who was actually in charge.
Elizabeth became all but the first lady at court, dancing every night, her wrists bright with bracelets and her hair sparkling under a gold net. Anne must have felt extremely vulnerable. And Elizabeth Woodville seemed willing enough for the liaison with the stigma of bastardry apparently forgotten, along with the awful secret of her sons in the Tower. Every morning, gifts arrived for Elizabeth of York as she attended Anne and she would have shot guilty looks at Anne. Always with the gifts came a note.
Anne would have remembered when Richard gave her a present every day but I think she would have remembered with indifference. The light had gone out of her life when her son had died and her heart was permanently broken. Elizabeth’s virginity and happiness would have been the last things that she cared about.
For everyone at court, the Christmas feast was an opportunity to get close to the royal family but that year, Richard had vowed that it would be the grandest that London had seen. He instructed Anne that Elizabeth was to join her at dress fittings and side-by-side, seamstresses pinned furs, silks and cloth of gold on them both. He openly gave Elizabeth jewels: on her head was a gold coronet, in her ears were diamonds and around her neck were sapphires. If Anne had looked in the mirror, she would have seen herself, tired and fading, while Elizabeth fairly glowed. The age difference was only ten years but it could have been thirty. The year before, Elizabeth had been called a bastard and acclaimed as the bride-to-be of a traitor. That year she was unstoppable.
Christmas was everything Richard had guaranteed. Everyone dressed in their best, musicians played and Elizabeth danced with Richard throughout the night. When she wasn’t dancing, she was sitting beside Anne, who wore an indulgent smile on her weary face, as if she was tired of life.
Coincidentally, within two months of the Christmas feast and during an eclipse, Anne died of suspected poisoning. Have I mentioned, I don’t believe in coincidences? English people once more looked nervously at each other. In suspicious England, the eclipse was a sure sign that Richard had fallen from heavenly grace.
By the beginning of summer, after months of gathering together substantial people who had all been tiring of Richard’s reign, Henry was more than ready to launch his attack.
Eight months later, on 22 August 1485, in a marshy field near the village of Sutton Cheney in Leicestershire, Richard III led the last charge of knights in English history. With a circle of gold around his helmet, his banners flying, he threw his destiny into the hands of God in a battle that would be to the death.