Richard III: Champion of Equal Access to Justice - Articles

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Posted by: Russell Fowler on May 1, 2013

Journal Issue Date: May 2013

Journal Name: May 2013 - Vol. 49, No. 5

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, …

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face for all occasions.

I can add colours to the chameleon, ….

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?

Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.[1]

Richard III’s zeal for judicial reform included an added emphasis to what is now  called “legal aid,” that is, provision for the needs of poor persons who could not normally afford to go to law.

King Richard III, as presented in the writings of William Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More, and countless historians, is the greatest and most engaging villain of English history and literature. Yet it is probably not true that when he entered this world in the autumn of 1452, “The owl shrieked at thy birth. The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time.”[2] His modern defenders go further and claim he is the victim of Tudor propaganda and strive to recast him as an enlightened Renaissance ruler.

However, Richard of Gloucester, mistakenly entrusted as Lord Protector, most certainly murdered his way to the crown. Thomas More said, “Where his advantage grew, he spared no man’s death whose life withstood his purpose.”[3] The evidence does point to his culpability in the all-too-convenient disappearance of his young nephews imprisoned in the Tower of London, the elder (Edward V) being the rightful heir to the throne. Shakespeare would describe these princes’ disposal as a “tyrannous and bloody act … [t]he most arch deed of piteous massacre.”[4] And his play would pose to Richard the timeless, damning question: “Are you drawn forth among a world of men / To slay the innocent?”[5]

Richard’s demise two years later at the fateful Battle of Bosworth Field (an engagement he should have won except for his reckless daring) marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, fought between the contending Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York, and climactically concludes England’s Middle Ages. The discovery of his fallen crown at Bosworth, supposedly in a hawthorn bush, and its presentation to Henry Tudor ushered in a new and more robust dynasty that would include the monarchical superstars of English history: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The recent location of Richard’s battle-scarred bones under a Leicester parking lot has brought fresh attention to this last Plantagenet monarch, but his earthly remains only confirm that Richard indeed suffered from a misshapen back, thus putting to rest the suspicion that his enemies maliciously added the deformity to his description and portraits.

Understandably, the bloody beginning and ending of Richard’s brief reign is the focus of dramatists and historians from his era to ours. We shall, nevertheless, turn to another aspect of his ill-fated rule: his significant contributions to judicial reform, most notably his enactments designed to aid the poor seeking justice. This is not an attempt to prove him innocent, benevolent, or even misunderstood. As Richard admits in the play named for him, “Look, what is done cannot be now amended. Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes.”[6] This is only an effort to offer another dimension of his character and governance of particular interest to lawyers and all those who advocate for equal access to justice.

On June 26, 1483, the 30-year-old Richard III seated himself for the first time on the high marble throne of the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall and summoned the judges for all the various courts. Gazing down upon the scarlet robed jurists, he admonished “them in right strait manner that they justly and duly minister his law without delay or favor.”[7] He soon followed with a decree issued to the people of his power center and beloved city of York (in the cathedral of which he vainly hoped to be interred in death) stating: “The king’s highness is fully determined to see due administration of justice throughout this his realm to be had and to reform, punish and subdue all extortions and oppressions in the same.”[8] He went on to proclaim that every person … that find himself grieved, oppressed or unlawfully wronged do make a bill of his complaint, and put it to his highness, and he shall be heard and without delay have such convenient remedy as shall accord with his laws. For his grace is utterly determined all his true subjects shall live in rest and quiet and peaceably enjoy their lands, livelihoods and goods according to the laws of this his land, which they be naturally born to inherit.[9]

Once again, in December 1484, King Richard reaffirmed his love for dispensing justice and pledged that any person wronged by a royal official or anyone else should complain directly to him and “according to Justice and his laws they shall have remedy.”[10] These pronouncements, which were often repeated as he traveled in a triumphant royal procession through his war-weary kingdom, would prove to be more than the self-serving platitudes of a ruthless usurper seeking approval. As Dr. Thomas Langton, the Bishop of St. David’s, wrote to a friend:

I trust to God soon, by Michaelmas, the King shall be at London. He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince; for many poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given him which he hath refused. On my truth I liked never the conditions of any prince so well as his; God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.”[11]

Richard would return to the Court of King’s Bench to personally observe important criminal trials and would meet again with his judges in the Star Chamber in Westminster Palace. At this conference, he raised questions about the handling of specific criminal cases that he had witnessed and expressed his displeasure that some offenders escaped punishment.[12] Hence he demonstrated an unusual interest in the law for an English sovereign. And his inquiries may have been informed ones, for he may have had more than a layman’s legal knowledge. His father had seen to it that he was well educated, and experts believe that this instruction probably included some study of law.[13] It has been observed that “certainly, some legal knowledge was a desirable asset in any man called upon to control great estates in that land-hungry and litigious age.”[14]

Richard’s justice was not limited only to ad hoc adjudications coming before him and his justices. On Friday, Jan. 23, 1483, his only Parliament convened in Westminster Hall. The Lord Chancellor, the elderly Bishop John Russell, gave the opening address and recognized that it is the first duty for “the prince to give equal justice with pity and mercy.”[15] In energetic and creative fulfillment of this obligation, one enshrined in England’s ancient coronation oath, the new king directed that Parliament enact a series of unprecedented legal reforms that would survive his regime.

After affirming Richard’s sudden ascension to the throne, and recognizing his small, sickly son as heir apparent, Parliament approved measures to undo numerous fraudulent legal methods used during the upheaval of the dynastic wars to gain title to land and causing a quagmire of litigation. It even outlawed royal demands for money, called benevolences, employed during the previous reign of Richard’s pleasure-loving brother, Edward IV.[16] Parliament then turned to the reforming of the administration of justice.

First, reform of the “courts of piepowder” was achieved. Originally, these minor medieval courts could only deal with petty offenses committed at fairs, but through the abuses of local officials, they had begun to assert unwarranted jurisdiction and therefore undermined the King’s centralized court system. These inferior courts were reigned in. Next, Richard’s Parliament passed laws guaranteeing the selection of honest jurors in the wake of the discovery of unqualified people being able to secure jury service in order to indict the innocent and quash indictments of the guilty. Of immediate and timeless benefit, the modern bail system was born. Justices of the peace were authorized to grant bail, thereby ending the imprisonment of the accused without release when “of light suspicion.” Furthermore, a reform was approved ending the practice of seizing the personalty of those held on suspicion of committing a felony prior to conviction.[17]

Dominic Mancini, an Italian visitor to England during Richard’s reign, wrote that “he kept to his own domains and strove to make himself popular with the people round about by granting favors and in his administration of justice.”[18] And in keeping with the critical Mancini, some modern historians attribute Richard’s legislative achievements to a public relations ploy or “a desperate anxiety to demonstrate that he was worthy.”[19] One observes that even “Emperor Nero was capable of good law-making.”20 Yet another takes the balanced position that “it was at once morally laudable and publically shrewd.”[21] Conversely, Richard’s leading 20th century biographer concludes that these reforms were not self-serving at all:

To the commons and the gentry these laws offered a prospect of fair dealing in the courts which they had not seen for decades; but they undoubtedly were one of the chief reasons why Richard did not retain the support of a number of the nobility and upper gentry. For these laws were aimed directly at curbing the practices by which this class had overawed and preyed upon its weaker neighbors throughout the past century. By striking at the evils which were mainly the result of the system of livery and maintenance, Richard was serving justice at the risk — a risk he must have realized — of alienating the men whose military power he would need in the day of battle.[22]

Richard III’s zeal for judicial reform was wide-ranging. A modern scholar found that “an extension of this was the added emphasis which Richard gave to what is nowadays called ‘legal aid,’ that is, provision for the needs of poor persons who could not normally afford to go to law, a form of redress that later developed into the Tudor Court of Requests.”[23] The genesis of this Court of Requests was Richard’s appointment of John Harington as clerk of the King’s Council, the Curia Regis, for the purpose of addressing petitions of the poor in legal matters.[24] In the same manner as the High Court of Chancery two centuries before, from the Council sprang lasting institutional innovation, but this time in the form of a court of equity solely devoted to helping the poor and known unofficially as “the court of poor men’s causes.” This tribunal, with “its swift and cheap procedure,” would survive until 1642.[25]

Considering the briefness of his reign and that its days were “a world of care”[26] filled with political intrigue, rebellions, and the deaths of his son and wife, Richard III’s legal achievements are all the more impressive, whatever his motives. These accomplishments should not be obscured by time or his evil image. Regardless of whether his goals were good government and compassion or simply gaining the credit for good government and compassion, the positive impact on society was the same. Henry VII, the Lancastrian victor at Bosworth, did not dismantle Richard’s reforms, despite his hatred of his fallen Yorkist predecessor. In fact, Henry wisely permitted them to crystalize as parts of the powerful Tudor constitution, serving his insatiable desire for order and the preeminence of royal authority over dangerous local baronial power centers. Ironically, Richard III’s popular vilification, most effectively pursued by William Shakespeare, and Richard’s unhonored legal reforms strengthened the Tudor leviathan.

A reexamination of Richard III, occasioned by the sensational discovery of his disrespected bones, makes it even more difficult to confirm whether the desperate cry in Shakespeare’s play is wholly true: “O’ Bloody Richard! miserable England!”[27]


  1. William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act III, Scene 2 (1592).
  2. William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III, Act V, Scene 6 (1590).
  3. Desmond Seward, Richard III: England’s Black Legend (1983), 54  (quoting Sir Thomas More).
  4. William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act IV, Scene 3 (1592).
  5. Id. at Act I, Scene 4.
  6. Id. at Act IV, Scene 4.
  7. Charles Ross, Richard III  (1981), 173.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Paul Murray Kendall, Richard the Third (1955), 303 .
  12. Charles Ross, Richard III (1981), 174.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. Paul Murray Kendall, Richard the Third (1955), 338 .
  16. Id. at 339-40.
  17. Id. at 340-41.
  18. Desmond Seward, Richard III: England’s Black Legend  (1983), 71 (quoting Dominic Mancini).
  19. Id. at 149.
  20. Charles Ross, Richard III (1981), 187.
  21. Id. at 175 (1981).
  22. Paul Murray Kendall, Richard the Third (1995), 341-42.
  23. Charles Ross, Richard III (1981), 174.
  24. Id. at 174 n. 18.
  25. L. B. Curzon, English Legal History (2d ed. 1979), 183.
  26. William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act III, Scene 7 (1590).
  27. Id. at Act III, Scene 4.

Russell Fowler RUSSELL FOWLER is associate director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has more than 40 publications on law and legal history, including works for the American Bar Association, the Smithsonian Institution, the New England Law Review, the Journal of Supreme Court History, and the Tennessee Bar Journal.