The image of King Richard III has been influenced by centuries of Tudor propaganda so you may be forgiven for thinking of England’s most controversial king was a bit of a tyrant. Look deeper and you find that a more complex picture starts to appear: that of a law maker driven by a sense of fairness and justice, every bit the image of chivalry that he always aimed to be.
Our February Half Term event is about medieval crime and punishment so we have researched some of the changes Richard III made to the laws that might change your mind about this most famous of kings!
Medieval ‘justice’ before Richard III
Medieval justice is best described as unjust. For hundreds of years criminal ‘courts’ had been little more than an accuser and the accused stating their cases and a decision being made by a local lord over what to do.
Power played an important role: if a peasant was accused by a lord, it was certain not to go well for the peasant. Those with wealth and means tended to hold a lot more sway than those without and it came down to a case of the accusation itself being enough for a conviction.
The introduction of a basic juror system by Henry II helped to improve the situation, making England’s legal system far more forward thinking than most on the continent at the time but by the 15th century progress had stagnated.
Jurors were often corrupt and there were no standards in place as to how they were selected. Richard III saw the corrupt system and sought to reform the whole thing.
For the first time in English history, a standardised criterion for selecting and vetting jurors was put into place. Those with a vested interest in the case could no longer freely fill the jury with “yes men”, who would guarantee that the trial would go a certain way.
Court of Requests
A far more dramatic reform that Richard brought about was the introduction of what would become the Court of Requests. This was Richard’s attempt at redistributing the balance of power and influence within England’s legal system.
Prior to this landmark change, peasants had few options when accused of a crime: they could not afford legal advice, would have little or no literacy skills to understand charges laid against them and overall had little influence over the court that would determine their fate.
The Court of Requests allowed those in poverty access to legal advice regardless of their financial means. Suddenly, the poor had the chance to get real legal advice and the real possibility to impact their own court hearings!
The final change that Richard brought about to the legal system was his strengthening of the bail system.
Before Richard’s reign, bail was an existing but rarely used and even more rarely abided by system. Richard’s reform to the bail system meant that the accused could no longer be imprisoned indefinitely before they had received sentencing.
The reform also protected the accused’s property and titles from seizure until after a verdict had been agreed upon. No longer could corrupt land lords forcibly confiscate property based on flimsy accusations without due process being observed!
And it wasn’t just laws that Richard changed during his short reign:
Books, literature and the English language
Richard III often has a reputation as a warrior king and little more. However, it’s very important to note that, in addition to his legal acumen, Richard was also a proponent of literature and the freedom of the burgeoning printing industry.
Where previous kings had often heavily regulated the printing and reproduction of books, Richard introduced measures to ensure the printing of literary works would be free from government censure. Contrary to the image of the tyrant king, Richard actually had a soft hand when it came to the written word.
Additionally, the English language began to flourish during Richard’s rule. English had started to become a mainstay of literature and the royal court back during the reign of Edward III, with French taking a backseat in response to the ongoing Hundred Years’ War.
This period saw the rise of English as a literary language with works by Chaucer becoming amongst the first popular literary works printed in English. However, until the reign of Richard III, law and legislation was still drafted in Latin.
Richard did away with this convention with his new legislation being written in English, the first time in the country’s history! Furthermore, he ordered that the existing set of laws in England be translated from French and Latin into English.
Despite the reputation of the Tudors establishing English as the language of England, the great irony is that the work was begun by the king that they ousted to seize power!
Trade and bartering had been a consistent bugbear for merchants and customers alike throughout the medieval period. Savvy traders could use any number of underhanded tactics to inflate the value of their goods or sell inferior products.
Due to constant international and civil warfare, little had been done before 1483 to tackle a growing level of corruption within the commercial sector. Richard III attempted to tackle this issue with a new system of standardised weights and measures that would be enforced for once.
Specific laws regarding the dubious sale of wine, alcohol and cloth were introduced. The efforts to regulate the cloth industry were particularly important as England’s economy largely relied on the sale of sheep’s wool and purchase of dyed cloth to and from the Low Countries respectively.
Whether or not you believe the Tudor hype of the tyrant king or have a more sympathetic view, it’s hard to argue against the idea that Richard introduced some forward-thinking legislation that was clearly intended to benefit a large proportion of the population.
The fact that these laws were beneficial to the most vulnerable in society, offering little in the way of political or personal gain for himself, paints a very different picture of the much-maligned king. Indeed, if these laws are anything to go by it seems fair to say that Richard III was a man who held justice and fairness in the law for all men very close to his heart.