What do the Books of Richard III Reveal of the Religious Life of the King and his Immediate Circle?

Published: 2019/12/12 Number of words: 3611

The short reign of King Richard III in England (1483-5) was both violent and enigmatic. Richard is accused by later historians of the murders of Henry VI and his son, Edward, in 1471; of being an accomplice in the political mechanisms that led to the execution of his brother George, Duke of Clarence in 1478; the killings of members of the family of Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, including Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, Sir Richard Grey and Sir Thomas Vaughan; the elimination of his ally William, Lord Hastings; the murder of the young princes Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the sons of Edward IV; and finally of poisoning his own wife, Anne Neville. These claims have fuelled much historical debate on Richard III’s brief reign ever since. One avenue historians have taken in attempting to uncover the real Richard III from under the Tudor propaganda and Shakespeare’s infamous play is to look at his books and see what they reveal about his character and interests. In recent years several studies which focus on Richard III’s books have been published, such as The Hours of Richard III by Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, a study entirely devoted to Richard’s book of hours, whilst other books such as Jonathan Hughes’s The Religious Life of Richard III draw on these books to get a better picture of Richard’s life. This essay will examine what the books Richard owned can tell us about his literary and religious interests and those of his immediate circle.

By the fifteenth century it was expected that all Kings and high ranking nobility had some literacy; since around the reign of Edward III (1327-77) it is evident that the Kings of England could write as well as read. However as early as the twelfth century John of Salisbury in Polycratius stressed the importance of a King being literate:

Kings must not plead ignorance of the laws of God…by means of their military duties. They should read and think about this every day, and this they will not easily do unless they are literate. I recall a letter which the King of the Romans sent to the King of the Franks, in which he urged him to educate his children, giving as a reason, among others, that an illiterate King is a crowned ass.[1]

Therefore it was expected that Richard, a son of a Duke, would be literate. By the fifteenth century the nobility had become heavily involved in literary culture, both as patrons and as active participants within it. Firstly, there was a boom during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of texts written about and on how a prince should conduct himself and govern others. In John Tiptoft’s popular translation of The Declamation of Noblesse, printed by Caxton in 1481, one of the suitors, Flamineus, argues his merits and nobility thus:

…the some of all my labours hath restyd in this, to be a curious searcher for our weal publuque, merry at home, laborious outward, besy to atteyne science, piteous of them which had necessyte, namely to my fader, moder, & kynne…& devoute in thynges religious.[2]

Such good examples on how to be a good prince were widely available from the thirteenth century, when ‘mirrors’ or handbooks were specifically made to advise the prince; mirrors in the sense that the prince could find his image and understand how he ought to behave. Richard III himself owned the Guidance of Princes by Giles of Rome, which was one of the most famous and widely used books on the correct conduct of princes, as well as the mirror ‘masterpiece’, a Latin text of De Regimine Principum by Aegidius Colonna, a pupil of St Thomas Aquinas, which had previously belonged to his father, Richard, Duke of York. Colonna is particularly keen on the importance of upholding the law, the need for wise counsel, and the importance of towns and townspeople. He must also be virtuous and encourage virtue in his people.[3] Sutton also argues that Richard was keen on The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland, being able to quote from it and christening the castle of Nottingham his ‘castle of care’. Also, Richard’s motto, ‘loyalty binds me’, can be seen as being influenced by Piers Plowman, and the vision of law, loyalty and love, a place where when the world is governed in accordance to justice and loyalty it will be at peace.[4] As Colonna’s work also focused on the law it would not have been surprising if the law was important to Richard’s kingship. Another important ‘source’ on how a prince should conduct himself was histories; more than half of Edward IV’s library was histories and royal children such as Edward V were taught history as part of their curriculum in the hope that it would encourage positive endeavour.[5] Richard himself also owned several histories including the ‘Chronicles of St Denis’, a history of France from the earliest times until c.1400; the ‘Story of Troy’; and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. This canon of books also focused on the importance of religious instruction; for example, John Gower’s works state the importance of a king’s moral obligations:

So were it good that he ther fore

First un to rightwsenesse entende,

Whereof that he hym self amende

Toward his god and leve vice

Which is the chief of his office.[6]

Therefore, Richard’s own very public piety can be seen to link into being a good king and nobleman.

Secondly, the patronage and dedication of books had become important to kings and high ranking nobility and had also begun to have political consequences. William Caxton, England’s first printer, set up his printing press around Westminster Abbey in 1476; he was particularly close to Edward IV’s and Richard’s sister Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, and the family of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s wife. The first book that came from his press was Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, which had been translated from the French by Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers. At the front of the books there is a picture of Earl Rivers and Caxton presenting the book to Edward IV, his wife and son Edward, the Prince of Wales. Richard is one of the most prominent figures standing in the background, showing how important his status was in Edward IV’s court and linking him to the literary movements of the day.[7] Caxton did not just dedicate books to his friends, however. After Richard had risen to power in 1483, and executed Caxton’s friend and patron, Anthony Woodville, Caxton was shrewd enough to dedicate his Order of Chivalry to the new king in 1484. Caxton’s dedication and preface to the book however offer some very interesting ‘advice’ to Richard and his son and heir, Edward, on chivalry:

I would it please our sovereign Lord that twice or thrice in a year he would do cry jousts of peace [bloodless tournaments]…command this book to be had and read unto other young lords, knights and gentlemen within this realm, that the noble order of chivalry be hereafter better used and honoured than it hath been in late days past.[8]

Despite his shrewd political manoeuvre of dedicating a book to the new king, Caxton was not above criticising the methods Richard had used to gain the throne, perhaps especially the execution of Caxton’s friend and patron, Anthony Woodville. The Order of Chivalry also harks back to the advice books and ‘mirrors’ on being a good prince, proof that by the fifteenth century literary culture was beginning to shape an ideal on how princes should rule.

Despite the close involvement of the Yorkist Court in ventures such as that of Caxton and the new printing technology, Richard’s literary interests did not veer to classical texts read by Woodville, Worcester and other members of Edward IV’s court; instead he was interested in the old-fashioned mystical literature of the north of England, a taste he shared with his mother and sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy. His interest in the religious culture and traditions of the north of England can be demonstrated by his ownership of a metrical paraphrase of the Old Testament, written between 1400 and 1410 in the north-east of England and influenced by the York Corpus Christi plays. Richard’s interest in the Old Testament and the guild plays can be seen in his membership of the York Corpus Christi Guild and his attendance of performances of the Creed and Corpus Christi plays in York on 7 September 1483 and 17 June 1484 respectively and another Corpus Christi play in Coventry on 2 June 1485.[9] Richard’s interest in northern spirituality can further be demonstrated by his inclusion of a collect of St Ninian in his Book of Hours. This short prayer asking for the saint’s intercession is as follows:

O God who has converted the peoples of the Britons and the Picts by the teaching of St Ninian your confessor to knowledge of your faith, grant of your grace that by the intercession of him by whose learning we are steeped in the light of your truth, we may gain the joys of heavenly life. Through Christ our lord. Amen.[10]

St Ninian was, according to an anonymous chronicle possibly owned and most certainly read by Richard, a Briton educated in Rome who returned to his native country to convert the Southern Picts to Christianity. He was the patron saint of the Western March towards Scotland, which Richard was warden of whilst Duke of Gloucester and where St Ninian may have come to his attention. His special devotion to this saint can be seen in the collect in his Book of Hours as well as in the worship of St Ninian in his own religious foundation at York, Middleham, Barnard Castle and Queen’s College, Cambridge.[11] The other main influence on Richard’s religious and literary life was his mother Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, whose piety was of particular renown in her day. The ‘Orders and Rules of the Princess Cecill’, the household ordinance of Richard’s mother, probably written between 1485 and her death in 1495, serves as an account of her daily religious devotions and shows what an important part books played in these. At lunch and dinner Cecily listened to readings of pious works such as Hilton’s Completive and Active Life or Bonaventure’s Life of Christ and sometimes works of mystics such as Bl. Matilda of Hackeborn, St Catherine of Siena or St Bridget of Sweden. Between lunch and dinner and business and patronage dealings Cecily retired to rest, sleeping no more than a quarter of an hour and spending the rest of her time praying and reflecting on what had been read to her.[12] Cecily’s piety certainly influenced the religious lives of her children, especially her daughter Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy and Richard himself. In Richard’s case his reading material can in some cases be seen to reflect his mother’s tastes. For example, both Richard and his wife, Anne Neville, owned a copy of Mechild of Hackenborn’s Booke of Gostlye Grace translated into English, a book also owned by his mother Cecily, showing an interest in female mystics. Anne Sutton comments that revelations of saints such as Mechild, Catherine of Sienna or Bridget of Sweden reflected a vivid piety with a strong emphasis on the Passion of Christ, with acute visualization of each of the Passion’s stages[13]; this interest in mysticism was also expressed in Richard’s interest in Corpus Christi plays.

Some have speculated that Richard’s ownership of an English translation of the New Testament by Wycliffe could mean he had an interest in Lollardy; however Sutton notes that most great nobles and kings of the fifteenth century owned one and several privileged persons were licensed by Bishops to read the Bible in English. Armstrong comments that The Mirrour of the Blessed Lyf of Jesu Christ by Nicholas Love (written in English and owned by Richard’s mother, Cecily) was praised by Archbishop Arundel as an antidote for Lollardy.[14] In Richard’s time religious devotion and piety had become an increasingly private and personal pursuit; many such as his mother Cecily and sister Margaret lived lives of personal devotion and piety similar to that of a monk or nun. The church encouraged the pious, however busy they were in their daily lives, to cultivate a rich, pious inner life devoted to God, and of course there were plenty of books available to instruct them in this. The best indication we have of Richard’s inner religious life is his Book of Hours.

The book of hours Richard used as king was not made especially for him, being produced in London c.1420 for an unknown author, most likely a male cleric. Much has been made of the book’s lack of decoration and the four additions Richard made to the book of hours, which are, firstly, his birthdate to the calendar; secondly, a collect of St Ninian discussed earlier; a long prayer (commonly known as ‘Richard III’s prayer’; and lastly, a long devotion or litany personally compiled for him, which can be seen to show an interest in the crusading ‘movement’. Of these Richard’s so-called ‘prayer’ has aroused the most interest, and led some to speculate that it might indicate Richard was suffering from a particular sense of guilt, whilst others claim it is an entreaty of a soul distressed by sorrow. Part of the text runs:

Lord Jesus Christ, deign to free my, your servant King Richard, from every tribulation, sorrow and trouble in which I am placed…hear me, in the name of all your goodness, for which I give thanks, and for all the gifts granted to me, because you made me from nothing and redeemed me out of your bounteous love and pity from eternal damnation to promising eternal life.[15]

Despite historians in the past claiming that the above prayer was made specially for Richard, more recent scholarship has discovered that similar prayers were devised in the fourteenth century; two of these appear in hours cum missals, one of Franciscan and the other of Roman origin, pointing to a possible Franciscan origin for Richard’s prayer. The other two copies are a book of hours made in the 1380s in Bruges for a client from Catalonia in Spain and, more significantly, in the Grandes Heures of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (died 1404). The latter book shows intensive use and was passed down to Philip’s descendants, the Valois Dukes of Burgundy and their wives, meaning that Richard’s sister Margaret could have been a possible source for the prayer. The other versions of the prayer also have two other things in common; firstly they are all said to have been authored by St Augustine (often in a longer introduction which may be missing from Richard’s book); and secondly, they contain testaments to the effectiveness of the prayer, such as the one in Philip the Bold’s Hours:

…let him say it…on thirty consecutive days in honour of God and Our Lady and he shall be uplifted in such a way (exauchies tellement) that his sadness will turn to joy.[16]

Sutton and Visser-Fuchs conclude that the prayer was meant to bring comfort and relief to whoever recited it; despite claims that it indicated feelings of guilt it is clear that the common nature of the prayer and Richard’s bereavements during his time as king, i.e. the deaths of his wife and son, are reason enough for its inclusion in his Book of Hours.

The books of Richard III reveal to a certain extent the religious and literary preoccupations and interests of both Richard and his contemporaries. Richard’s own religious interests manifest themselves in his books of hours; for example his interest in the spirituality of the north of England is represented in his prayer to St Ninian, and arguably an interest in the Franciscans is shown in the origins of his prayer for comfort and relief. The religious influence of his mother, Cecily, Duchess of York, is obvious in his interest in mysticism and reading material such as Mechild of Hackeborn. Richard’s somewhat pious and old-fashioned religious interests and choice of reading material were also obviously at odds with those of his brother Edward IV’s court which was at a similar time more focused on chivalric romances and the patronage of the new technology of printing. In the case of printing, books can even be seen to represent the different political factions present in England in the early 1480s through Anthony Woodville’s patronage of Caxton and Caxton’s grudging attempt to make peace with Richard through the dedication of a book in 1484 after it was obvious Richard was to remain on the throne, despite it being clear that Caxton was none too pleased by the execution of his patron the year before. Also Richard’s literary and religious tastes may have had little to do with his seeming lack of interest in printing, his sister Margaret, the Duchess of Burgundy, held similar religious tastes and devotion to Richard and was certainly an active patron of Caxton and his works.

On the one hand the books of Richard III reveal the very private and individual piety expressed by devout laymen in the fifteenth century. It is clear from his mother’s ‘Orders and Rules of the Princess Cecill’ that mystical works such as Booke of Gostlye Grace were meant to induce private prayer and contemplation and that all laymen were encouraged to make time for such private devotions. As king, Richard would have been expected to make a public spectacle of his piety, which he did on many occasions, notably making donations at Middleham, patronising York Corpus Christi plays and even, according to historian Jonathan Hughes, backing up his claim to the throne by means of his obvious piety and religious fervour. The only problem in Richard’s piety and choice of reading material was how much it differed from his contemporaries at Edward IV’s court, such as Anthony Woodville and the literary enthusiasm centred around Caxton and the new invention of printing. Perhaps these differences and Richard’s lack of a close political ally in Caxton contributed to Richard’s eventual downfall in 1485.




Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992).

Galbraith, V.H., ‘The Literacy of the Medieval English Kings’, Proceedings of the British Academy 21 (1935), pp.201-38.

Hammond, P.W., ed., Richard III: Loyalty, Lordship and Law (London, 1986).

Hughes, Jonathan, The Religious Life of Richard III: Piety and Prayer in the North of England (Stroud, 1997).

Meale, Carol M., ed., Woman and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500 (Cambridge, 1993).

Painter, George D., William Caxton: A Quincentenary Biography of England’s First Printer (London, 1976).

Sutton, Anne F., and Visser-Fuchs, Livia, The Hours of Richard III (Stroud, 1990).

Woodruff, Douglas, ed., For Hilaire Belloc: Essays in Honour of his 72nd Birthday (London, 1942).


[1] V.H. Galbraith, ‘The Literacy of the Medieval English Kings’, Proceedings of the British Academy 21 (1935), pp.212-3.

[2] J. Tiptoft, The Declamation of Noblesse, quoted in A.F. Sutton, ‘“A Curious Searcher for our Weal Public”: Richard III, Piety, Chivalry and the Concept of the “Good Prince”’ in P.W. Hammond, ed., Richard III: Loyalty, Lordship and Law, p.58.

[3] Ibid, pp.59-60.

[4] Ibid, pp.61-2.

[5] Ibid, p.59.

[6] J. Gower, Works of John Gower, Confession Amantis quoted in ibid, p.63.

[7] J. Hughes, The Religious Life of Richard III, pp.29-31.

[8] Order of Chivalry quoted in G.D. Painter, William Caxton, p.142.

[9] J. Hughes, The Religious Life of Richard III, p.106.

[10] A.F. Sutton & L. Visser-Fuchs, Hours of Richard III, p.41.

[11] Ibid, pp.41-4.

[12] C.A.J. Armstrong, ‘The Piety of Cecily, Duchess of York: A Study in Late Medieval Culture’, in For Hilaire Belloc, pp.78-80.

[13] A.F. Sutton, ‘A Curious Searcher for our Weal Public’ in P.W. Hammond, ed., Richard III, pp.64-5.

[14] C.A.J. Armstrong, ‘The Piety of Cecily, Duchess of York: A Study in Late Medieval Culture’, in For Hilaire Belloc, p.84.

[15] http://www.r3.org/rnt1991/bookofprayer.html

[16] A.F. Sutton & L. Visser-Fuchs, Hours of Richard III, p.69.

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