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Richard of York

...and What-If History

The reburial of Richard III is in the news. I don't approve of burying Richard of York in Leicester, his only connections with the city being that he was murdered nearby and buried secretly in an abbey there. He was popular in Yorkshire and should have been buried in York Minster, or in his home town of Middleham in Wensleydale.

Of course, the discovery of the king's body under a car park was the result of the disuse of the land as Greyfriars Abbey which was the result of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. This led me to an interesting "what if?" line of thought.

What if Richard III hadn't lost the battle of Bosworth?

He had the largest army, after all. Richard's son had already died but he might have had more children, and if not would certainly have designated a member of his close family as his heir, and the Plantagenets would have remained on the throne for years longer, perhaps centuries longer. It was a time when there was endless tinkering with the validity or otherwise of marriages (which is how Richard came to the throne: the "princes in the tower" were still alive at that point, but declared illegitimate), and with the laws of succession. Something would have been worked out within the framework of the law.

The Reformation came about because Henry VIII was desperate to cement his family's claim to the throne, given the way they had seized it in battle rather than being there through legal succession. Henry VII's eldest son died before ascending to the throne - Henry VIII was the second son - and then Henry VIII's marriage produced no male heir. The argument that God must support the Tudors because he won it for Henry at Bosworth was looking very shaky. And so the break with the Catholic church followed Henry's excommunication. It surely wouldn't have happened if the house of York had stayed on the throne.

So without Henry VIII, England would probably still have its grand abbeys and be a largely Catholic country. Leicester cathedral, where Richard is being reburied, would still be Roman Catholic; but Richard's remains would probably be at Westminster. (London was already too well-deloped a city at that time to dream that Richard and his heirs might have moved the capital to York!)

What else? Without the sectarian divide, Ireland would surely have remained united, either as a Lordship as it was under Richard, or as a part of the "United Kingdom" if such a country ever formed. (I think it would have, by alliances of marriage.) It was Henry VIII who asserted the rule of English law in Wales too, so without him Wales might still have its own legal system like Scotland does. Ireland would have remained under a Lord Lieutenant for longer but it seems likely to me that the English monarchy would have asserted direct control sooner or later.

With other Protestant countries like the Netherlands as neighours, protestantism might well have taken root in Britain too, and if the monarchy hadn't been under threat it seems likely that we wouldn't have had the strife between protestants and catholics imposed by successive monarchs of different faiths - so I like to think we would still have developed into the welcoming, multicultural country that we did. Methodism would not have developed in the way it did (as a reaction to Anglicanism) but something similar might well have arisen. England would still have developed into a seafaring nation, with much the same history of empire and commerce, even if it wouldn't have been Elizabeth I who chartered the East India Company.

We might very well have had a revolution and become a republic like several other European countries. Even though it was the Tudors who pushed the idea of the "divine right of kings" to rule, some king sooner or later would have liked that idea and his subjects would have rebelled. Democracy is a tide in history much bigger than royal houses (I have lots more thoughts about that - a post for another day, perhaps).

So, if the battle of Bosworth had unfolded differently, the what-if Britain I imagine today would be a United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, culturally Catholic with abbeys and monasteries and vibrant murals on the walls of its many historic Catholic churches, and perhaps a scattering of more modern churches (not Anglican, but probably far more chapels in some tradition like Methodism). Not so very different from the world we have today, after all.