The March from Leicester
THE MARCH FROM LEICESTER by Graham Turner
King Richard III leads his army out of Leicester, past Austin Friars and over Bow Bridge, en-route to Bosworth and his fateful confrontation with the invading army of his adversary for the throne, Henry Tudor.
A stone marks the place where I was born, and a stone the place where I breathed my last. The old walls that heard my sighs and caught a smile have long since dissolved into dust. The soil of the land I loved no longer holds my bones, and I have no descendants to watch over and guide. The tide of centuries has washed them away. You may wonder, then, why it is that I return.
I return in search of the justice denied me in the realm of the living. For in my youth, I, an honorable knight, a true and loyal subject of my brother the King, in accepting the throne that I had no desire to take, had thought to bring peace to my land, and to redress human wrong by fashioning a kinder world—one where the law did not serve as an instrument of oppression, but alleviated human misery. Alas, by my action, I rained down doom on all that I loved, and to my good name attached the vile calumny of infant murder.
There are those who call me hideous—a deformed monster guilty of regicide, fratricide and the shedding of infants’ blood. They have stripped me of the honor for which I sacrificed so much while still alive. They say that, propelled by greed and raw ambition, I usurped my brother’s throne and murdered his sons. That I lusted for my niece, and poisoned my wife in order to wed her. They say that I died a coward in battle.
No doubt, this is the face you recognize, for I am Richard III, last of my Plantagenet line, by God’s grace King of England. But fellow countrymen, citizens of the world—I come to tell you that the truth has been twisted in the hands of my enemies, and I am not that villain! Perhaps you already know this and count yourself a friend—one who has judged me innocent of the charges laid against me. If so, I am heartened that you draw to my side, much as this artist has done who captured the moment in time when I marched to battle across the old bow bridge in Leicester, on the eve of my death. He does not depict me as the fanged hunchback with the gnashing teeth, talons and tail that my successor, Henry Tudor, claimed I was. Instead, with uncanny accuracy, he renders me much as I remember myself on that day—erect in the saddle, but tense, focused on what lay ahead, and saddened that it had come to this.
The bridge is gone now, and another has been raised in its place, but the plaque remains to relate how a peasant woman seated there as we crossed foretold my fate. Two days after her prophesy, it did befall as she had promised. My dead body, stripped naked with a noose around the neck, was slung over a horse’s back, and taken across that same bridge on its way to an ignoble burial and a nameless grave. As she foretold, where my spur had struck as I crossed the bridge, there did my head strike on the way back.
Thus began my descent into the abyss of immortal infamy. But enough of my protestations! Allow me, gentle lord, fair lady, to take you by the hand, move aside the centuries, and show you my memories of that day. Then, perhaps, you may judge me for yourself . . .
Saturday, the twentieth of August, dawned bright and windy.
To the marching tunes of drummers and pipers, my royal cavalcade trooped out of Leicester where we had spent the night and headed to Market Bosworth, clarions blaring, baggage carts rumbling, pennants flying. In the narrow streets, the townspeople watched us silently. They had seen too much of war; too much of Lancaster killing York and brother killing brother. Rivers had run red with English blood for over thirty years, and my poor people hungered for an end to war. They did not know—and I could not tell them as they watched me pass—that peace was coming to England, for I had vowed to fight but one more battle. Either I would prevail, or it would be Henry Tudor, the champion of Lancaster. Then the land I loved would at last find rest. This was my gift to them, whether I lived, or died.
Clad in full armor and riding my proud war horse, Barbary, I left Leicester that sunny morning in August, my heart heavy with memories. Above me floated my banner of the White Boar, displayed along with the Cross of St. George and the White Rose in the sunburst of the House of York. Ahead fluttered the Dun Cow of the Nevilles, my little nephew’s banner, carried by a herald in a tabard quartered with the royal lilies and leopards. Edward, Earl of Warwick, son of my dead brother, George, Duke of Clarence, had fashioned it for me with my niece Elizabeth’s help. Well do I remember, even after the passage of so many centuries, the last time I saw the child. We were in the palace at Westminster, and I was bidding Elizabeth and the young ones farewell. Dressed in black velvet, Edward had stood at Elizabeth’s side. He was ten years old, and nothing in his face or manner resembled my brother, George, or his mother Bella, or even his proud grandfather, Warwick the Kingmaker, for there was nothing gay, or proud, or bright about him, and he did not dream great dreams. But his heart was gentle and would always remain so, since his mind would forever retain the blessed innocence of childhood.
“You must go to Sherriff Hutton, you’ll be safe there,” I had said thickly, overcome by emotion. Elizabeth had nudged little Edward forward. “Uncle, I would s-seek… a favor of you,” he had stuttered.
“Dear nephew, whatever it is, you know I will try to grant it,” I replied, my heart aching for the boy.
“I w-w-wish I c-could fight for you— ” He drew a deep breath, made fists with both his hands in an effort to suppress his stammer and, after a long moment, the words poured forth like a waterfall, “I wish I could fight the bastard Henry Tudor, dear lord Uncle, but as I am too young to help you slay him, will you take my banner into battle instead of me—?” He hung his head, embarrassed by the effort it had taken him to get the sentence out.
Elizabeth placed her arms around his little shoulders and nodded to a servant in the corner of the room. The man brought forth the folded banner and unfurled it before me. A blaze of gilded tassels and golden embroidery on white silk shot across the tiled floor. In the center stood a nut-colored cow.
When last I’d seen the emblem of the Dun Cow of Warwick, it had been in the fog of Barnet, and I’d fought on the opposing side.
“We have been working on it all winter,” Elizabeth said. “Cousin Edward helped in the design. He is talented in things artistic.”
I knelt and took the child’s hands in my own. “I shall bear your banner at my side and my thoughts shall be of you, Edward, and of your noble grandfather, Warwick the Kingmaker, and all those of the House of Neville whom I loved so well.” A loud sob escaped from the boy. I pulled him close in a final embrace. As I did so, I felt the wet of his tears against my cheek, and realized that they were not Edward’s, but my own.
A shout broke into my thoughts, jarring me back to the present. “Good King Richard—may God grant thee victory!” In grateful acknowledgment, I raised a gauntleted hand to the old man who waved to me from a blacksmith’s shop. I was not without friends, yet I had felt hopelessly alone since the loss of my beloved queen, and my son. All were gone now—my father, my brothers, my cousins—all of my blood whom I had cherished. My eyes, moving to the sky in prayer, caught again on young Edward’s banner. If I lost the battle and Henry Tudor took the throne, what would become of this child who stood close to me in the line of rightful succession? I blinked to banish the thought. In the outcome of battle lay God’s judgment. His will would be done.
All around me the colorful pennants of my gathered knights flapped in the wind. I was keenly aware of one notable absence. Lord Thomas Stanley, the mightiest of my lords, had sent no response to my summons to arms, though Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, had finally arrived—albeit late the previous evening, and with his customary excuses. Many other nobles had not answered my plea, but Howard and his son had been waiting in Leicester with their contingents, true to their word. Good, trusty Howard had always been faithful to York, I thought, warmed by affection as I glanced at the barrel figure riding a short distance behind me. He rose bareheaded, his thick mane glistening with crystalline brilliance in the sun. I had a sudden sense that I’d been here before, done this before. Aye, indeed I had; as a twelve-year-old I’d ridden to Bosworth with Howard at my side, just so, leading an army to my brother King Edward. We had shared much together since then, and with his caring ways and jovial manner, the old duke had done much to fill the hollow space in my heart that my father, and later my cousin John Neville, had left behind.
I turned in my saddle to look at my many friends. All the northern lords and most from the midlands had answered my call: Zouche; the Scropes of Bolton, of Upshall, of Masham; Ferrers of Chartley; and Dacre. As for Greystoke, that good man had brought a mighty contingent with him. Even Brackenbury was here, though the gentle knight had had to lash his horse all the way from London to reach Leicester in time. My gaze ran along the length of pikes and spears stretching behind me as far as the eye could see. Men had streamed in to join the royal army until late into the night. Loyal men. And tomorrow, many of them would pay for their loyalty with their lives. I glanced at my boyhood friend, Rob Percy, riding at my side. “Since Roman times armies have marched along this road, men to kill other men, Rob. When will it end?”
“When greed ends, Richard. And that, I fear, will be never.”
Greed, I reflected, swaying in the saddle to the rhythm of my horse’s hoofs. Greed for power and material gain had driven Marguerite d’Anjou and Edward’s Woodville queen, splintering the realm. Greed had fueled my cousin Warwick’s ambitions, and my brother George’s follies. Now greed propelled the bastard Tudor to reach for a crown to which he had no right. “Aye, Rob, my friend. Greed is surely the root of all evil.”
We were nearing the west bridge over the River Soar. All at once Barbary balked. Rearing and plunging as if he’d seen a phantom, he neighed wildly and refused to cross. I slammed my knee and struck my golden spur against the parapet as I fought to restrain my spirited destrier in the narrow space. At length I subdued the proud beast and we clattered across. Barely had we cleared the bridge when a disturbance made me turn. Amid shouts, someone had raised a sword. “Halt!” I roared over the din of marching men and music of minstrels. The sword froze in its hand and was lowered. A young knight galloped up through the ranks.
“What happened there, Clarendon?” I demanded.
“My lord,” said Clarendon angrily, out of breath, his armor glinting in the sun. “There was a wise-woman sitting by the bridge, and I asked her of the success of our enterprise.”
I looked at him steadily. “And what did she say?”
“My lord, she said—the accursed witch said that where your spur struck the stone,” the knight swallowed visibly, “your head will be broken on the journey back.”
I sat very still, remembering another wise-woman who in my youth had foretold my early death, just as ancient prophecies had warned the legendary King Arthur of his doom. What had been Arthur’s reply?
But let what will be, be.
I squared my tense shoulders, ignoring the old wound from Barnet that ached again. I glanced towards Leicester’s bow bridge that White Surrey had refused to cross, then at Clarendon whose eyes blazed with outrage. “For this, you wished to strike her dead?”
“Aye, my lord, for she lies!”
“Soon enough you’ll have your fill of bloodshed.”
With a jerk of my tasseled bridle, I spurred my war horse westward, to Market Bosworth.
Such was that day, long since passed into history . . .
If you wonder why I return to dwell on what cannot be changed, I answer thus. The cry for justice is eternal. Though you know it not, what happens in the sphere of the living matters to those who no longer breathe, and ’tis to find the truth seekers that I come—those whose hearts can be touched, and who care enough to right a wrong, no matter how old it be. With hope in my breast, I follow them into the dawn and past the break of day into the rays of the sun. Sometimes my whispers reach them on the night wind, and sometimes I take their hand and show them my memories, as I did with you, on this old bridge in Leicester. Time reveals all, and so I wait for justice, as I have waited for over five hundred years. One by one, I watch the truth seekers lift a candle to let in the light, and I find solace that some day, by their efforts, all the darkness will be cast out and I shall rise up to take my rightful place in human history.
Gentle Reader, whoever you are, bestow on me your prayers.