All of us were born into families that consist of 2 parents and 4 grandparents, plus many of us have siblings, uncles and aunts and cousins and in-laws. Some of us count a lot of people in these categories. Richard III had six siblings, whereas his enemy Henry Tudor was a posthumous child and an only child. In those days it was unusual for three generations of a family to be alive simultaneously. All Richard’s grandparents had died before he was born and one sister was already married. In the absence of contraception, fertility was high. Also high, however, was mortality at all ages. Life expectancy was low and marriages took place early (often being childhood matches). Taken together, these factors caused the personnel of the family to constantly change. The caste flickered past kaleidoscopically. Complex households abounded of full, half and stepchildren, the flotsam of vanished unions. Death rather than divorce broke up homes, many of which contained the half and stepchildren of vanished unions. We are all aware, of course, of how our families today evolve like concertinas – as the nest is filled, and emptied as offspring leave home, pair off and people their own nests which in turn become their priorities. Brothers and sisters head successor households. Such progression was and is eternal and inevitable. This concertina effect is charted in my latest book, The Family of Richard III.

of Richard III
His father Richard, Duke of York and brother Edward IV

Richard III was the fourth son and seventh child of Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville to achieve maturity. He had sixteen uncles and aunts and scores of cousins, most of whom surely were unaware of him. Their shared kinship clashed with other obligations – allegiance to the king, other blood relationships, landed interests, personal charm and incompatibilities. Brother Nevilles notoriously contested their inheritances from common ancestors in court and with force. Even the brothers and brothers-in-law of the child Richard fought on different political sides. The Wars of the Roses sharpened the lines of division. Not all of Richard’s kinsmen ended on the same side. His father and brother were killed by his uncles and his cousins in vengeance for the killing of their own fathers.

Anne Neville, queen consort of Richard III

The House of York proved particularly dysfunctional. It flouted contemporary standards of sexual morality. Adulterous liaisons, dubious marriages and breaches of promise, mistresses, bastards and incest litter the York family tree and cast doubt on the royal succession. Although united by blood, upbringing and common interests in the crown, the three York brothers – Edward IV, Clarence and Richard III – were rivals for their inheritances and ultimately all aspired to the crown. No holds were barred. Edward IV had no more insubordinate subjects than his brothers. There were a succession of public scandals. What was more shocking than Clarence’s defiant marriage, rebellion and subsequent deposition of his brother King Edward IV? What was more shocking than the struggle of the two younger brothers for the Warwick inheritance, in defiance of the rights of other heirs? It was a national issue from 1471 to 1475. What was more shocking than Edward’s fratricidal elimination of his brother Clarence? Surely even worse was Richard III’s bastardisation of the children of his brother Edward IV and probably the killing of his nephews the Princes in the Tower. That was the verdict of posterity. And what of Richard’s plan to divorce his queen and to marry his niece?

The Elizabethan tomb of his parents at Fotheringhay

For some years it appears that Richard headed a small but normal family of three – two parents bound by affection to Edward of Middleham, their hope for the future. Richard apparently had a stable relationship with a mistress who bore him the bastard son (and daughter) whom, unusually, he acknowledged and endowed as king. That family expired, however, as Prince Edward and Queen Anne died off. Replacements were planned. Although wifeless and childless, Richard III possessed a mother and mother-in-law, sisters, nephews, nieces and in-laws, less often sources of strength and service than impelled by blood to his destruction. But once he was dead, he had several nephews who aimed for his crown for another fifty years. And now, 540 years later, a host of distant relatives – the Plantagenet Alliance – claim to be the devoted heirs that Richard lacked in life.

The Family of Richard III shows how families were expected to operate – very like how we expect them to today.