Edward IV was over six-feet tall and very handsome, which might explain some of the anxiety Shakespeare’s Richard felt about his appearance. He was born in Rouen on April 28, 1442 to Cecily Neville, the aunt of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, making them cousins. The very young hero of Mortimer’s Cross and Towton, Edward was crowned on Palm Sunday, 1461 at the age of eighteen. There are many good things to say about Edward and his reign: He was good with the state’s money. He reformed the salaries of his officials, successfully purposed foreign trade, and asked little taxes of his people. He was also serious about peace with France, sealing the Picquigny Treaty in 1475 with Louis XI, despite an earlier alliance with Burgundy. He was also a very loyal brother to Richard, who returned this loyalty and received many posts and estates as a result. He liked to read, and kept a large library where he copied manuscripts and later became interested in the new art of printing.
On the other hand, Edward also enjoyed women to the extent that it caused problems. One of Edward’s contemporaries, Dominic Mancini, wrote that, “he pursued with no discrimination that married and the unmarried, the noble and the lowly: however he took none by force. He overcame all by money and promises” (Fraser 77). Edward, for example, agreed to marry Lady Eleanor Butler, or Lady Lucy, as Richard calls her in the play, in order to sleep with her. He tried this again in 1464 with Lady Elizabeth Woodville, only this time he actually had to go through with it before she would give in (they were apparently in bed for four hours after the wedding). When his secret marriage got out, Warwick, who had been negotiating a marriage alliance with the French princess, he was furious. It was at this point that Warwick began conspiring with Clarence to dethrone the King. And we cannot forget the infamous Jane Shore, his favorite mistress.
Edward’s successful maneuvering of Warwick’s rebellion among other military victories suggests that he was an effective soldier and strategist. But, Edward could be a callous guy. He approved the practice of impaling traitors, he loved hunting, and was known to some “despotic tendencies” later in his reign (Hallam 231). It was Edward who was responsible for his brother Clarence’s death after trying for and attainting him of treason. By 1482, he had seriously provoked his subjects, who were annoyed by his failure to support Burgundy in the conflict with France and more taxes to pay, all magnified by a bad harvest and harsh winter.
If Edward’s biography reveals a few blemishes, Clarence’s is worse. Born in Dublin, October 21, 1449, George grew up with his brother Richard and sister Margaret at Fotheringhay Castle, although much of his youth was spent fleeing the bloody battles as his father attempted to take the throne. Like Edward, George was also a strong and handsome young man, charming, well-spoken and extremely ambitious.
In addition to his fight with Richard over Warwick’s lands, going to great lengths to try and prevent Richard’s marriage to Anne involving an alleged kidnapping, Clarence wanted a new wife in 1477 after Isabel died in childbirth (they had a daughter, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, and a son, Edward, Earl of Warwick). This time, he was after Mary, the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, who was a very wealthy heiress. Edward flat-out refused to allow the match, probably because he did not think Clarence good enough, and instead promoted the Queen’s brother, Anthony, Earl Rivers. As if Clarence had not resented his upstart in-laws enough already, now he was furious. He attempted to make Edward and the Woodvilles look bad by brutally implicating a servant woman in the death of his wife, only to receive equally harsh retaliation from Queen Elizabeth. At Clarence's bidding, a member of his household was hung for sorcery and treason against the crown and then Clarence himself spread rumors that the king was engaged in witchcraft, that he was a bastard with an illegitimate marriage, and stirred a rebellious uprising. Finally, Louis XI told Edward that Clarence had only sought Mary’s hand in Burgundy to secure the crown for himself. Clarence was kept in the Tower until he was tried of treason and found guilty, though Edward waited ten days before finishing the sentence, possibly due to Richard’s pleas. Although nobody really knows how he was executed on February 18, 1478, it is said that he was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. While this is probably just a historical addition to suggest that Clarence was a heavy drinker, it underscores his bizarre history.
It becomes clear that Shakespeare did not just manipulate the facts, but entirely rewrote the story of these brothers. If Richard was in fact relatively close to both of his brothers throughout his youth, then it means that his motivation to murder his brothers and go after the crown was not hatred of Edward and Clarence. It is more likely that Richard, like his brother Clarence had before him, saw the threat that the Queen and her family posed to his position as Lord Protector and saw no alternative but to assert his own claim.
Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1956. Print.
Hallam, Elizabeth. The Wars of the Roses: From Richard II to the Fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field—Seen Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. NY: Weidenfeild and Micholson. 1988. Print.
“Wars of the Roses.” Luminarium Encyclopedia Project. 2009. Web. Accessed 2-22-10. <http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/warsoftheroses.htm>