In a particularly hagiographic passage in Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall writes, "[O]ften Richard scattered small gifts like a benevolent agent of Providence . . . to Anne Caux, 'once the nurse of Edward IV,' he gave £20 yearly 'in consideration of her poverty'; Katherine Vaux, the faithful lady in waiting to his old enemy Queen Margaret, received an annuity of 20 marks. He relieved the distress of wives of rebels whose property had been forfeited: he granted an annuity to the Duchess of Buckingham, ordered Lady Rivers' tenants to pay her their dues, gave the Countess of Oxford a pension. 'For her good and virtuous disposition' he took Florence, wife of the rebel Alexander Cheney, into his protection and granted her the custody of her husband's lands. For his times, Richard reveals a surprising sense of women as people in their own right." Earlier in his biography, Kendall notes that following the execution without trial of William, Lord Hastings, Richard swore to take his widow, Katherine, under his protection and to defend her against "any attempt by intimidation or fraud to deprive her of her rights."
Following Kendall's lead, modern-day admirers of Richard have continued to praise his chivalry toward women. But is this reputation really deserved?
First, grants like the ones to Anne Caux and Katherine Vaux, though certainly praiseworthy, are hardly unique to Richard: other medieval kings--and even, horrors, the Tudors!--can be found making them. Edward II, for instance, gave his old nurse (who had cared for him only briefly) five pounds a year and 73 acres of land for life, as Alianore notes. Henry VII gave an annuity of 10 marks to Joan Hill, the mother of his bastard relation Charles Somerset. Katherine Vaux lived into Henry VIII's reign and received an annuity of 20 marks from the new king.
As for the wives of rebels, Richard III did indeed give the Countess of Oxford, Margaret Neville, £100, but this was a continuation of a grant from Edward IV, who is not given any particular credit for generosity. In any case, as David Baldwin notes, Richard had been given the Earl of Oxford's estates following the Battle of Barnet and could presumably afford to part with £100. (Back in the 1470's, the young Richard had bullied Margaret Neville's mother-in-law, Elizabeth de Vere, the dowager Countess of Oxford, into giving him her own estates for an inadequate consideration, but this inglorious episode doesn't find its way into Kendall's biography.)
Richard III did give Katherine Woodville, Duchess of Buckingham, an annuity of 200 marks in 1484, but as Katherine points out rather testily in The Stolen Crown, Buckingham had assigned her a jointure of 1,000 marks, and as both J.R. Lander and Anne Crawford have noted, a wife's jointure was exempt from a husband's attainder. Thus, by ignoring Katherine's right to jointure from Buckingham's confiscated lands, Richard with his gift of 200 marks was saving himself 800 marks.
Florence Cheney, as the wife of an attainted but living rebel, had no right to her husband's lands, so here Richard can be credited with genuine generosity. But Lady Rivers (Mary FitzLewis, widow of Anthony Woodville)? The order in question, found in British Library Harleian Manuscript 433, Vol. 2, commands that the occupiers of "the lyvehood belonging unto the Lady Riviers by reasone of hure joynture" pay what they owed to Lady Rivers. In other words, by ordering that Lady Rivers' tenants pay to her what she was owed by virtue of her jointure, Richard III was merely enforcing the law. It seems rather extravagant to praise Richard simply for doing his duty as king. In any case, Mary FitzLewis remarried George Neville, a natural son of the Earl of Westmorland. George was favored by Richard III, so Richard III might have had George Neville's interests in mind when he was enforcing Mary's rights.
Richard gets a great deal of credit for his generous treatment of Katherine Hastings (who as a Neville was a close relation of both Richard and his queen), which in the eyes of some of his admirers has more than compensated for what some might term his less generous treatment of beheading Hastings without a trial. (Whether Katherine would share this roseate view is doubtful.) Unfortunately, although Richard kept his promise not to attaint Hastings, he proved less than diligent in his role as Katherine's protector and defender. As David Baldwin has pointed out, Richard took Katherine's most valuable property, the manor of Loughborough, for himself at the same time he made his promise to her, and more troubles were to follow. Francis Lovell, Richard III's close associate, soon set about claiming Katherine's manors of Ashby and Bagworth, along with other properties, for himself. Lovell, in fact, had quitclaimed his interest to Ashby three years before, and his father had sold Bagworth to the Hastings family. To retain Ashby and Bagworth and the residue of the Beaumont inheritance claimed by Lovell (of which Lovell's family had been deprived through an act of attainder of Viscount Beaumont during Edward IV's reign), Katherine was obliged to give Lovell 200 marks in cash, plus Beaumont lands totaling a maximum 200 marks per annum. The settlement, reached through the mediation of unspecified friends, came with the caveat that it could not be final during the minority of Katherine's eldest son, Edward Hastings. Lovell, as Baldwin points out, was probably planning to force an even more lopsided deal once Edward came of age. As it was, Lovell's plans were upset by the Battle of Bosworth. In this transaction, there's no evidence that Richard did anything to protect Katherine Hastings' rights, despite his promise to her to do exactly that.
Finally, back in the 1470's, Anne Beauchamp, widow of Warwick the Kingmaker, had been treated as if naturally dead so that her lands could be divided between her daughters, Isabel, Duchess of Clarence, and Anne, Duchess of Gloucester. The chief beneficiaries, of course, were the duchesses' husbands, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard himself. The countess's protests at being stripped of her inheritance went unheeded. When Richard became king, putting him into a position to treat his queen's mother more generously, he gave the countess a whopping £80 per year. By contrast, Henry VII gave Anne Beauchamp 500 marks per year, granted her life estates in over two dozen manors and lordships, made her principal keeper of the forest of Wychwode, and appointed her principal keeper of the forest of Wychwood.
So all in all, while Richard certainly was capable of generosity toward women, his treatment of them hardly seems exceptional, and in the cases of the dowager Countess of Oxford, Katherine Woodvile, Lady Hastings, and his own mother-in-law hardly qualifies him as a paragon of chivalry.
Ian Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491–1499. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1994.
David Baldwin, The Kingmaker's Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2009.
Anne Crawford, "Victims of Attainder: The Howard and de Vere Women in the Late Fifteenth Century," Reading Medieval Studies, 1989.
C. Given-Wilson et al., eds., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. CD-ROM. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester: 2005.
Michael Hicks, Anne Neville, Queen to Richard III. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2006.
Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study in Service. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Rosemary Horrox and P.W. Hammond, eds., British Library Harleian Manuscript 433. Richard III Society, 1979-83.
Michael K. Jones and Malcolm G. Underwood, The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
J. R. Lander, Crown and Nobility 1450–1509. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976.