Richard III’s French Connection
by Peggy M. Baker
In 1340, Edward III claimed the French throne and ignited the Hundred Years War. Huge swathes of French territory were won. By the end of the war, most of those gains had been lost with only a small toehold at Calais remaining English.
Later, in the War of the Roses, it was France’s turn to meddle in England’s affairs! And meddle they did, gleefully and effectively. It was due to French support that Henry Tudor was able to topple Richard III from his throne.
The tangled “French connection” that led to Richard’s downfall began during the reigns of Edward IV of England and Louis XI of France. Both of them ruled between 1461 and 1483.
Edward IV had taken the throne from the inept Henry VI. During the early years of his reign, his sole focus was on establishing himself and his new dynasty firmly on the throne.
Louis, in contrast, succeeded his father Charles VII and could immediately plunge into efforts to expand French sovereignty into the independent duchies of Burgundy and Brittany. In response, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Francis II, Duke of Brittany, formed alliances with Edward IV.
Louis XI retaliated by supporting the deposed king Henry VI. He brokered reconciliation between Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, and the rebellious English Earl of Warwick, and then funded Warwick’s invasion of England in September 1470. Henry VI was briefly returned to the English throne and Edward IV forced to flee overseas. Several months thereafter, with Burgundy’s help, Edward returned to England and reclaimed his throne.
Once Edward IV was undisputed king, he sought to revive the English claim to the French throne. In 1475, he led an army across the Channel. Louis XI offered a settlement. By the Treaty of Picquigny, signed 29 August 1475, a truce was declared and free trade established. Edward accepted an immediate 75,000 crowns and an annual pension of 50,000 crowns to leave France.
Edward’s brother Richard, later Richard III, was critical of this mercenary approach and made his disapproval known. Edward was not deterred. He happily collected his money and sailed home with his army.
Supporting Henry Tudor
Louis had a realistic fear, therefore, that Richard III might mount yet another English invasion of France. In Louis’ view, the best way to avoid reigniting the Hundred Years War was to keep England unsettled and Richard fully occupied at home.
And Louis had the perfect tool in the person of Henry Tudor, the sole remaining Lancastrian claimant to the English throne.
Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper Tudor had fled England in 1471 after Edward IV’s decisive victory over the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury. Intending to land in France, they instead arrived in the autonomous duchy of Brittany. They remained in Brittany for the next thirteen years, comfortably but firmly sequestered and thereby neutralized by Duke Francis.
Francis made his allegiance clear, however, when he betrothed his heiress, his daughter Anne, to Edward IV’s son and heir, young Edward Prince of Wales.
Once Edward IV was dead, however, and it became clear that his son Edward would never wear the crown (meaning neither would Anne of Brittany!), relations between England and Brittany soured. And, with Richard III a new and unproven monarch, Henry Tudor became increasingly significant. Henry was not exactly the most viable candidate for the throne, but he was a means to destabilize England by fomenting unrest.
So, in July 1483, one of Richard III’s priorities was neutralizing the troublesome Tudor.
Wily Duke Francis of Brittany
Richard sent an agent to Brittany. Wily Duke Francis, who played the double-sided game of diplomacy well indeed, pointed out that he was being pressured by Louis XI to turn Henry Tudor over to France.
Duke Francis also pointed out that the decision was not entirely his. French expansionism was a real and ongoing threat to Brittany’s independence and, if Louis gained control of Brittany, he would automatically gain control of Henry Tudor. Francis, therefore, strongly requested significant military help from Richard in defending Brittany against any encroachments by France. In return, Francis would NOT relinquish Henry to Richard, but he would guarantee that he would not turn him over to Louis.
Richard was not impressed with the offer.
Brittany’s situation vis-à-vis France was soon to improve dramatically. On 30 August 1483, Louis XI died. His 13-year-old son succeeded him as Charles VIII and a regency government was installed. France now had internal issues to consider and would not be threatening Brittany for the foreseeable future.
Duke Francis, who no longer needed Richard’s assistance, changed course. He now gave low-key but positive assistance to Henry Tudor, who was planning a two-pronged attack on England.
Henry’s invasion from Brittany was to be coordinated with an internal uprising by the Duke of Buckingham. The venture was a total failure. Richard III defeated Buckingham, who was beheaded for treason before Henry Tudor even made landfall. Henry, hearing the news, turned around and sailed back to the Continent.
The following year, with Duke Francis ailing and his treasurer Peter Landois in charge, Richard III again opened negotiations with Brittany. This time Landois agreed that, in exchange for England’s support if France attacked Brittany, he would turn Henry Tudor over to Richard.
Word leaked out. Henry Tudor fled to France and the court of the young king Charles VIII. The French were happy to give him limited support. For no great expenditures of funds, they just might be able to influence England’s future to their own benefit.
In the winter of 1484/5, serious preparations for an invasion began. France’s financial contribution was slight. They probably had no expectation that Henry Tudor would actually be victorious. With his small funds augmented by a few loans, however, Henry Tudor was able to assemble a fleet, invade England and – against all expectations – win the crown. Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485.
What happened to the other players in the Continental chess game?
Francis II, Duke of Brittany, died in 1488 and was succeeded by his 11-year-old daughter Anne. Desperate to keep Brittany independent, the young duchess entered into a proxy marriage with Maximilian I of Austria. The French, intent on establishing their own sovereignty, invaded.
Anne’s proxy marriage was simply ignored and, on 6 December 1491, she was married to Charles VIII of France. It was agreed that, if Charles died without male heirs, Anne would marry his successor. (France really, really wanted to hang on to Brittany!) Seven years later, Charles VIII died, without heirs.
Anne was now required to marry Charles’ cousin Louis of Orleans, who had been crowned as Louis XII. The problem was that Louis already had a wife, Jeanne.
Jeanne was the daughter of Louis XI and sister of Anne’s first husband Charles VIII. Louis sought a papal annulment. He could, gallantly, have claimed consanguinity, as the couple was indeed closely related. Instead, he claimed Jeanne was deformed and barren, and that he had been forced to marry her as part of a plot to ensure that his line would become extinct. Jeanne underwent a humiliating public examination. The annulment granted, she was allowed (and it may have been a relief!) to enter a convent, where she died in 1505. In very, very posthumous compensation, she was canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1950.
Louis was now free to marry Anne of Brittany. Before the ceremony, however, this strong-minded and patriotic lady did considerable dickering. She won Louis’ agreement that the traditional rights and privileges of the Bretons would be respected.
The only surviving child of their marriage was a daughter, Claude, born in 1499. Anne of Brittany died in late 1513. By the laws of Breton inheritance, Claude inherited the title Duchess of Brittany.
The laws of French inheritance were very different from those of Brittany! Louis’ daughter, Claude, could not inherit the throne of France. Instead, Louis’ heir as king of France was his cousin, Francis of Angouleme. Louis ensured that his daughter married his heir.
A year later, on 9 October 1514, in a final futile effort to sire a son, 52-year-old Louis XII married 18-year-old Princess Mary of England, sister to Henry VIII. Less than three months later, on 1 January 1515, he was dead.
Francis of Angouleme became king. His wife Claude, by birthright Duchess of Brittany, became by marriage Queen Consort of France. When Claude died in 1524, her oldest son, Francis, inherited her right to Brittany as the last duke of an independent Brittany. He died before his father, so he never inherited the French crown. When Claude’s son, Francis, died in 1536, Brittany became simply another French province.