In Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, Shakespeare traces the 15th-century dispute between the houses of York and Lancaster over the English crown. Richard III continues the history. Edward IV of the House of York is on the throne. The play opens with a bitter soliloquy by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester about being disabled, and revealing the plot he has laid to set the King against their other brother, the Duke of Clarence. The plan works and Clarence is sent to the Tower of London. Richard seduces Anne Neville (the grieving widow of Henry VI’s son, Prince Edward) and arranges Clarence’s murder. Grief and a sense of responsibility for Clarence’s death kill the already weak King Edward.
Edward IV’s son and heir is a child, so Richard takes the role of Lord Protector of the realm. He sends the two young princes to the Tower for what he claims is their own safety, though their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, mistrusts him. Richard has various political opponents arrested and killed, and promises the Duke of Buckingham an earldom if he helps him secure the crown. They spread rumours of the princes’ illegitimacy and eventually Richard, with feigned reluctance, accepts the crown.
Buckingham draws a line when asked to kill the young princes. He flees and is later captured and executed. In France, the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond (Henry Tudor) prepares to take the crown by force. Richard learns that Richmond plans to marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, to strengthen his claim to the throne. Richard murders Anne and tries to marry the young princess himself. Richmond invades and his army meets Richard’s at Bosworth Field. On the eve of battle, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. He is killed by Richmond in the battle the next day. Richmond is crowned Henry VII and looks forward to uniting the country by marrying Elizabeth of York.