BBC History Magazine


On 1 October 1472, Richard Williamson was on his way back from Riccall, near York, to his home in Howden. As he waited for the Barnaby ferry, he was set upon brutally by three brothers who cut off both his hands, severed one arm at the elbow, hamstrung him, robbed him of all he had and left him at the roadside to die. His widow, Katherine, managed to get the case heard in parliament because her local lord, the younger brother of King Edward IV, had taken an interest (and he would later campaign to bring the murderers to justice, as part of his attempts to cast out corruption).

More than a decade later, that brother – then Richard, Duke of Gloucester – would become King Richard III, one of England’s most controversial monarchs. Although the Williamson case happened before he was king, it helps to scratch beneath the surface of what was going on in Richard’s only parliament, held between 23 January and 20 February 1484. It is a thread that allows us to stitch together an image of a progressive king whose policies caused his downfall. Not because he was a tyrant. Quite the opposite.

Richard had not been groomed for kingship from birth. He was the youngest son of Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Born in 1452, his childhood was a rough ride through the early Wars of the Roses. His family was dispossessed in 1459, then restored in 1460 when his father was made heir to Henry VI – making Richard suddenly fifth in line to the throne. By the end of that year, his father and brother Edmund were dead, and in the early months of 1461 his oldest brother deposed Henry VI to become the

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