King Richard III: History, Family Tree & Death

Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

Although he reigned for little more than two years, King Richard III is one of England's most widely known monarchs. He is regarded for his duplicity and ruthlessness. Learn how such a cruel and short-lived king rose to become a prominent historical figure.

Background and Family

Richard III was born in 1452. His mother and father were Richard Plantagenet and Cecily Neville, the Duke and Duchess of York. As such, Richard III was born into the House of York, an offshoot of the fractured ruling dynasty of England, the Plantagenet dynasty.

Prior to becoming King of England, Richard III was awarded the title Duke of Gloucester in 1461. This did little to appease Richard's ambition, however, as his elder brother, Edward IV, was King of England at this time. In 1472, just over a decade before he was to gain the crown of England, Richard married Anne Neville, the sister of his brother's wife. Contrary to popular interpretations of history, it seems that Richard III did not murder his wife; rather she died of ill health in 1485, just a few months before her husband's own demise.

Richard III, King of England
Richard III, King of England

The elder brother of Richard III, Edward IV, ruled as King of England from 1461 to 1483. During his reign, Edward IV struggled against both domestic and foreign threats and was even briefly deposed in 1470-1471. Edward IV died of ill health in April of 1483, and the crown of England passed to his eldest son, Edward V, who was just 12 years old. Upon the death of his brother, Richard III was appointed to be the new king's guardian until he came of age to rule.

Simplified family tree showing Richard III, his brother Edward IV, and his nephews Edward V and Richard
Family Tree of Richard III

Richard III Seizes Power

In 1483, the year of his brother's death, Richard III placed his nephew, the young King Edward V, along with his younger brother, Richard, in the Tower of London for protective care prior to the coronation ceremony of young Edward V. In actuality, however, this amounted to Richard III placing the two young princes in prison and clearing the way for his own rise to power. With the heir to the throne safely tucked away, Richard III and his supporters moved to question the legitimacy of Edward V's claim to the throne by invalidating the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The plot was successful, and Richard III was recognized as the true heir to the throne of England.

Edward V and his brother Richard in the Tower of London
Edward V and Richard

So it was that Richard III underhandedly claimed the throne for himself in June of 1483, just a few short months following the death of his brother. The fate of Edward V and his brother Richard are not exactly known, but it appears they were never released from the Tower of London. Rather than face potential challengers to his newly won throne, it is likely that Richard III had his two nephews murdered.

England in Turmoil and the Fall of Richard III

Richard III reigned for only two years and two months before he met a brutal death on the battlefield. He lived and reigned during a tumultuous era of English history, with rival dynastic factions vying for the throne. Richard III and the Plantagenet dynasty faced threats both at home and from abroad. Domestically, England was in the throes of a dynastic struggle for the crown, known as the War of the Roses. The War of the Roses had been raging since 1455 and was fought between two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty. Richard III's rise to power was the final chapter in this war, which pitted Richard's House of York against his relatives, the House of Lancaster.

The biggest threat to England from abroad at this time was France. France and England had been fighting sporadically since 1337, a conflict known as The Hundred Years' War. The long-running conflict was not between two nations but rather between the ruling Valois dynasty of France and the Plantagenet dynasty of England. Although the Hundred Years' War had come to a close in 1453, the expenses and social stresses caused by such a long and drawn out war destabilized society in England long thereafter and were a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the War of the Roses and fall of Richard III.

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