Saturday 24 March 2012

Richard III - The Prosecution Sums Up

A point which I think is not sufficiently often brought out is that to Richard III's contemporaries, from every social level, his seizure of a throne rightfully belonging to his nephew, of whom he had been appointed Protector or guardian, was not solely a matters of high politics. The issues raised by the Protectorate and usurpation were matters of everyday inheritance law, problems which the entire population had experience of in their own lives. The rules which governed the succession to the crown were the same as those which governed the inheritance of land, and in a society where land was the principle source of prosperity these were profoundly important to everyone. Every landowner or would-be landowner, however small his property, knew these rules and depended on them - breaking them threatened every man's own title or prospects, and they would have been profoundly uneasy at the rules being broken in relation to the greatest estate of all.

The law was very clear on who should succeed to any property, including the kingdom - a man's heir was his eldest son, not his brother. In a world where early death was commonplace, so too was inheritance by children whose existence was inconvenient to covetous uncles or other close relations, and the common people would have been familiar with Richard's situation. They would also have been familiar with the usual solutions to his problem - that the inconvenient nephews must become either illegitimate or dead - and would not have been surprised to see Richard adopt each solution in turn, first 'discovering' that Edward IV's marriage to Anne Woodville had been invalid, thus making the princes bastards, and then, to make certain, having the princes murdered.

Of course, they could not know for certain that the princes had been killed, or that it was done on Richard's orders, but the disposal of inconvenient minor heirs by wicked relatives was widely believed to be a common occurrence. Indeed the common law applying to land held by socage tenure specifically stated that the guardian of a minor heir should not be the person who would inherit if the minor should die - Richard could never have been appointed Protector if his nephews had been the heirs only to a socage tenement. In c.1470 the judge Sir John Fortescue, explaining this rule in his De Laudibus Legum Angliae, commented that "to commit the care of a minor to him who is the next heir-at-law is the same as delivering up a lamb to the care of a wolf".

By Dr. Matthew Tompkins, University of Leicester