Was Henry III Autistic?


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Embarking on a biography of Henry III was an exciting but daunting task. He is a king many might struggle to place in English history. Men like William Marshal and Simon de Montfort have made more of a mark on the history of Henry’s reign than the man himself. Sandwiched in an almost non-descript period between the disasters of John and the towering figure of Edward I, there were nevertheless immediate pointers that there might be more to this man and his period wearing the crown than is attributed to him. He remained king for 56 years, a record until George III in 1816, Queen Victoria in 1893 and more recently Elizabeth II hit that milestone. His rule saw the finest hour of one of Europe’s most famous knights, the last great Justiciar in England, a role almost forgotten today, but equivalent to a Prime Minister today and a role not to find a true parallel until Henry VIII relied so heavily on Thomas Wolsey and the Thomas Cromwell, the emergence of a body taking the name ‘parliament’, a Second Barons’ War and a man (wrongly) dubbed the father of parliamentary democracy.

As I researched this elusive man I made my notes and filed things ready to organise my thought. It wasn’t until I began to draw these disparate threads together that an intriguing but ultimately unprovable notion began to stand out from the page. Individually, the items meant little, beyond being interesting and sometimes confusing snippets, but as I began to string them together, a question began repeating itself, nagging away at the back of my mind. As much as I was unable to offer it as a proven fact or even a provable theory, I couldn’t stop it repeating away.

Was Henry III autistic?

King Henry III

King Henry III

A diagnosis of autism can be notoriously difficult today, with an individual stood in front of a specialist, so I am under no illusion that this question cannot be definitively answered. However, I am also convinced that it cannot be completely discounted. When drawn together, the snippets of evidence can make an intriguing case that this is possible.

Matthew Paris, a key recorder of this period of English history, though frequently diverted by his own monkish prejudices and agendas, met Henry during the king’s visit to St Albans Abbey at the time bones believed to belong Saint Alban himself had been found and were being reinterred. Matthew quite proudly notes that he was able to spend time in personal conversation with the king and in recalling their discussions he noted that he had been impressed by Henry’s ability to recall complete lists of things such as German electors and English saint-kings. The recall and reliance on lists of known information, called rote memory, is a well-known ability of those affected by autism. Sadly, I could not find other examples of this being recorded to corroborate it or demonstrate it being a prominent portion of his personality, but it may be telling that when placed in a social situation with a person he did not know, Henry fell back on reciting lists.

In 1258, as England began to slide towards what became the Second Barons’ War, Matthew Paris recorded an encounter between the king and his troublesome brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. The interesting portion of the story for the purposes if this discussion is that Henry was rowing down the Thames when a thunder storm erupted. The king was so terrified of the noisy storm that he ordered his barge to put in at the nearest dock. The house in which he took shelter happened to be being used by Simon at the time and Matthew placed prophetic words into the king’s mouth, having him tell his brother-in-law ‘I fear thunder and lightning greatly, but by God’s head I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world.’ Nevertheless, Matthew might have struggled to write what he did if it was not the case that Henry was known to be scared by thunder and lightning. Perhaps Henry had a fear of storms unrelated to anything else. Perhaps Matthew even made up the story to allow his prophesy of trouble between the in-laws, but if sensory sensitivity is behind the episode it is another pointer to potential symptoms of autism. This might be supported by the fact that at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, although an old man, Henry was found curled into a ball shouting to be left alone, overwhelmed by the experience of being caught in the midst of the noise and chaos of the battle.

One thing that does reoccur is a trait that might point to a need to assert royal authority and keep unruly barons on their toes, but which could also contribute to increase the potential for a diagnosis of autism. When Henry’s first son, Prince Edward (later Edward I) was born in1239, gifts poured into the capital city to celebrate the momentous event. Henry made a point of asking who had sent each gift and if he didn’t think that the value reflected the wealth and position of the sender, he ordered it to be sent back and a more suitable replacement sent that met his expectations. Matthew Paris recorded that ‘the king deeply clouded his magnificence as a king’ and one joke reportedly doing the rounds in London quipped that ‘God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us’. Henry repeated this behaviour in 1254 when he returned from a rare successful venture to France. On his return to London, the city joyously gave the king a gift of £100 only to be dismayed when Henry told them flatly that it was not enough to recognise his achievements. There was much desperate scrabbling and Henry was only satisfied when a cup valued at £200 was added to the cash gift.

Henry did have a dire and deeply vested interest in establishing the authority and prestige of the crown, so these may have been displays designed to check and wrong-foot both the barons and a capital Henry always had an uneasy relationship with. However, high-functioning autism such as Asperger’s Syndrome is frequently accompanied by social awkwardness and a tendency to be honest and to say things those without autism might shy away from saying. Without understanding Henry’s true motive, it is hard to know whether this was a calculated strategy or an example of behaviour that might point further toward a degree of high-functioning autism.

King Henry III's Tomb Effigy

King Henry III’s Tomb Effigy

Henry’s long rule is notable for a complete lack of favourites. Several monarchs, particularly weaker ones, and Henry is frequently placed amongst their number, were plagued by favourites who were promoted to the chagrin of the nobility and caused immense problems within the kingdom. Henry’s rule, if anything, was marked by a lack of these close connections. He remained on the best of terms with his brother Richard and his wife and children throughout his life, but beyond that, there are no examples of lasting close favourites. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the failure to create lasting social connections might be another pointer suggesting autism. Henry’s relationship with his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort blew notoriously hot and cold, lurching from bosom buddies to arch enemies and back again with the changing of the wind. In September 1238, Henry was the target of an assassination attempt which is also quite revealing. Whilst staying at his palace at Woodstock, Henry was awoken in the night by a noise which turned out to be made by an armed intruder. Seemingly failing to equate the situation with any danger, Henry struck up a conversation with the would-be assassin. Their talking awoke Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor, who raised the alarm in panic. The man was arrested and admitted that he had been hired by some of Henry’s enemies to kill him in the night. The assassin was torn limb from limb, beheaded and once his limbs had been sent to major cities around England the remnants were hung from a gibbet usually used for thieves. The fact that Henry saw no danger in the situation points to a glaring lack of appreciation of a very dangerous situation and might suggest a degree of social awkwardness and an inability to discern the motives of others that is indicative of autism. Why else might that armed stranger have been in Henry’s bedchamber when he was asleep?

The final piece of suggestive evidence that I can offer is Henry’s often unhealthy obsession with Edward the Confessor. The saint-king fascinated Henry and drove many of his choices through his life. His first son was probably given the very Anglo-Saxon (and previously unused in Norman and Angevin royal circles) name of Edward most likely in homage to Henry’s hero. When Henry rebuilt the Confessor Abbey at Westminster with his gothic masterpiece, he had the Confessor’s bones moved to a central position of high honour and had his own tomb built over the exact spot on which Saint Edward had rested for two centuries. When Henry had the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace redecorated to use as a private bedchamber, he had a portrait of Edward the Confessor painted over his bed. It was a lifelong and deep obsession that is again a potential symptom of a high-functioning form of autism, though as with each other piece of the puzzle, far from confirmation.

Each of these pieces individually would mean nothing. Taken together, they begin to build a suggestion of a form of high-functioning autism but, with a definitive diagnosis difficult enough to confirm face to face today, trying to construct anything beyond a suggestive set of symptoms that might add to up possible autism. It is therefore impossible to state that Henry III had any degree of autism, but it is fascinating to consider what it might mean if he did. Henry ruled England for 56 years, in spite of frequent problems. He handed over a kingdom rescued from the brink of disaster and ripe for the consolidation and expansion of his son’s reign. The lack of a favourite, if due to a difficulty in forming close social connections, possibly worked in his favour. Weak kings tended to be dominated by unpopular favourites but Henry never suffered in this respect. He was at odds with Simon de Montfort as much as they were best friends. Henry tended to flip flop in his policy, one moment swearing religious oaths to support the Charters and then denying their enforceability, perhaps demonstrating that he was easily influenced and unable to discern the motives of others in social situations.

Henry was referred to by contemporary chroniclers as ‘simplex’, which has been used to suggest that he was not a clever man and perhaps suffered from mental problems. The word ‘simplex’ is also often applied to saints to demonstrate their lack of guile and unworldliness and it has been suggested that this was what chroniclers meant, but the truth perhaps lies in the subtleties in between. Henry may have frequently appeared to lack the intellectual acumen of others, though been capable of memorising lists of information. He might also have seemed to lack the guile of a politician if he was unable to make out people’s true motives when others may have seen plainly what was going on.

Henry’s reign is often overlooked within English history. I wrote this new biography because I believed there must be more to a man who lived, and retained his throne, through such a long and eventful reign. There is some tantalising, but ultimately inconclusive evidence to suggest that he achieved all of this with a high-functioning form of autism, which would shed a new light on his achievements and his failures alike. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the possibility that ‘simplex’, which is a word that has caused debate on Henry for centuries, was in fact an early diagnosis of an as yet unknown condition. What if ‘simplex’ can be directly equated to autistic?

A new biography of Henry III: Son of Magna Carta is available now from Amberley Publishing, seeking to uncover the true story of a king all too often forgotten to history.

Matt’s book Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, reveals a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and Facebook.

Margaret Beaufort and the Princes in the Tower


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Historical opinion often moves in circles on certain topics. Sometimes it’s a slow process and sometimes it happens quickly. The White Queen series stirred up the latent and under-examined but long-standing theory linking Margaret Beaufort to the disappearance and murder of the Princes in the Tower. In short order, the increased attention drew an onslaught of opinion denouncing the theory as impossible, implausible nonsense. The memes below offer a sample of the abuse drawn by the idea. So is this theory really devoid of merit?


Criminal investigations will frequently look for three elements when trying to establish if someone is a suspect; motive, means and opportunity. Richard III is quite rightly attributed with all three, though his precise motive is open to debate. There are other suspects, but if we concentrate on Margaret Beaufort, can any component be reasonably established for her, accepting that beyond a reasonable doubt is outside the realms of current knowledge?

Meme 01

Motive is often denied, since removing the Princes left too many other obstacles in her way to be a realistic attempt at getting her son onto the throne. The facts would tend to give the lie to this view though since her son ended up on the throne and as figurehead for a failed invasion in October 1483. At some point between Edward IV’s death in April 1483 and the rebellion of October 1483 the idea of Henry Tudor as a viable alternative to Richard III was birthed and grew. It cannot be considered beyond the bounds of possibility that the thought occurred to his mother early in the tumultuous events of that summer. It is known that Lady Stanley, as she was then, was in the process of negotiating her son’s return to England with Edward IV in talks that included the possibility of marrying him to one of Edward’s daughters (though probably not Elizabeth). A minority government, with all of its inherent insecurity, was unlikely to see those plans followed through for some time and when Richard became king in his nephew’s place there was also no sign of further talks on this matter. Margaret had come so close to securing her son’s return only to have the hope she nurtured snatched away at the last moment. Would she accept that circumstance willingly? It is true that she had endured the separation for years to that point, but having come so close must have made her more desperate for a reunion with Henry.

It might have become clear to Margaret that her son was not going to be allowed to return peacefully at any time soon and that an invasion was the only chance of getting him back. The aftermath of Richard III’s assumption of power presented an opportunity that the last ten years of Yorkist security had not for the pursuit of Margaret’s desire to have her son back by reigniting dormant Lancastrian sympathy and marrying it to the portion of Yorkist supporters unwilling to follow Richard III. It perhaps bears consideration that if Richard killed the princes with the motive of securing his position, he failed. If Margaret had it done to further her son’s prospects of a return, she succeeded. That fact proves nothing, of course, but it is food for thought.

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Lady Margaret Beaufort

As to means, this is every bit as contentious as the motive aspect. I have seen it argued that Margaret was a disgraced and punished nobody, married to an unimportant minor nobleman. This is rubbish. Margaret’s property was seized and given to her husband, but only after the October rebellion that aimed to put her son on the throne. A part of the reason that Margaret had been able to make three (if we ignore the first to John de la Pole as she did) good matches was that she was an immensely wealthy woman who controlled, or offered her husband control of, vast estates and income. The reason that she was deprived of her property after the rebellion was precisely that she had funded much of it, sending cash to her son in Brittany and then France. She had the means to orchestrate an invasion from within England, so why would access to the princes be beyond her? Far from being a woman restrained by sanctions, in the summer of 1483 Margaret could hardly have been closer to the centre of power. Perhaps Richard III felt the need to court or pacify the Stanleys, because at the joint coronation on 6th July, Margaret carried Queen Anne’s train, walking ahead of Richard’s own sister, the Duchess of Suffolk. Her husband, Thomas, Lord Stanley walked only a couple of places behind the king, bearing the mace of the Lord High Constable, a great office of state previously held by Richard himself and placed in the hands of the Duke of Buckingham, but which Thomas Stanley would acquire after the October rebellion.

Thomas, Lord Stanley

Thomas, Lord Stanley

Does all of this power and influence translate into the means to secure access to the princes for someone tasked with killing them? The denial of this relies on two more long-standing fallacies. The first is that the princes were thrown into a deep dark dungeon and treated as prisoners. There is simply no evidence of this. They were moved from the royal apartments where Edward V had been preparing for his coronation, as tradition dictated, because those apartments were in turn required for Richard and Anne to prepare for theirs. There is talk in contemporary accounts of them being withdrawn into the castle and seen less and less, but they were seen, exercising, shooting their bows and playing after Richard’s coronation – not languishing in a dank dungeon somewhere. Their servants were removed and replaced, most likely not because those servants were loyal to Edward V but to the Woodvilles, particularly Anthony, who Richard had arrested for treason and whose sister, the dowager queen, had fled into sanctuary and was refusing to talk to the government, even before Richard was asked to take the throne. None of this would necessarily prevent access to them being secured by a woman so close to the court that she had just carried the queen’s train at the coronation and not associated with the Woodvilles.

The other great misconception is that the Tower of London was a locked and bolted prison, a dark place with a sinister character. That was not true until the Tudor era, when palaces further along the Thames were preferred and the Tower earned its brutal reputation. The Tower was a functioning royal palace, a busy and bustling place where the Royal Treasury was frequently housed, Council meetings held and military provisions stockpiled. There must have been a steady stream of deliveries of food and goods as well as a standing staff to run the Treasury and the other more permanent functions of the Tower so that even when the royal household wasn’t in residence to swell the numbers further, it would hardly have been a deserted place impossible to access, even without the influence then wielded by Lord and Lady Stanley.

Opportunity is closely linked to the conditions above. If we accept that the princes were not closely guarded prisoners hidden deep within the bowels of the Tower, that in the summer of 1483 Lord and Lady Stanley were riding high in royal favour and were yet to attract suspicion and that access to the Tower, whilst perhaps not wide open to every resident of London, was not impossible in a working palace with regular comings and goings for people of such influence as Lady Stanley, then opportunity becomes easy to establish.

The Princes in the Tower

The Princes in the Tower

There is a clear indicator that Margaret Beaufort’s work on her son’s behalf in the late summer of 1483 was advanced, ran deep, was secret and relied on the death of the Princes in the Tower. It was Margaret who opened up a clandestine line of communication to Elizabeth Woodville in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Margaret used her physician Lewis Caerleon, who posed as Elizabeth’s physician, to pass messages between the two women. That is how Margaret secured Elizabeth’s agreement that their children should marry and together they should promote Henry Tudor’s prospects of taking the throne. For Elizabeth to agree to this, she must have believed her sons were dead and their cause lost, so that marrying her daughter to Henry Tudor represented the only course open to her out of sanctuary and back to power. Given that no one, contemporary or otherwise, knows for certain the fate of the Princes in the Tower, how could Elizabeth, from the isolated seclusion of sanctuary, have got news so definite that she gave up on her sons? The obvious answer is from Margaret Beaufort, via Dr Caerleon. If it was part of her plan to pass this story to Elizabeth to improve her son’s cause, then their murder was part of her thinking and she just might have planned to organise it too.

I don’t know that Margaret Beaufort was involved in the fate of the Princes in the Tower, but it is clear that she exploited the idea of their murder to further her son’s cause. Buckingham is as strong a suspect and Richard III must remain prime suspect (if we believe there was a murder at all, which is another matter). My point here is that all of those who sneer at the notion that Margaret Beaufort could have been involved are, in my opinion, wrong. Margaret had motive, means and opportunity, and that makes her a suspect.

Game of Thrones in 1483


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7 books

60 hours + of TV

1 year of history

Warning: Massive spoilers!!!

Game of Thrones is perhaps the most epic novel and TV series ever created. George RR Martin has woven a world Tolkien would have been proud of, managing to be filled with fantasy, but just recognisable enough to pull us in, to tug at some memory we have of something similar. So much has happened (I’m going to talk TV series for the sake of ease) that going back to the start seems like an age ago with long forgotten faces and actions with consequences still sending ripples through the Seven Kingdoms. There are many figures from the book and from history who can be paired together in different time periods. It’s amazing, though, how much of six series of world re-shaping can be crammed into the events of 1483 in England.

It’s not much of a secret that GRRM is interested in the Wars of the Roses and draws heavily on it in his writing. That is part what makes it feel so tangible. Several characters often represent a single real life person, and just as often, a character has traits that can be traced back to several real figures. The story begins with a larger than life king, more interested in hunting, feasting, drinking and womanising that the boring minutiae of government. He used to be a formidable warrior but not his armour doesn’t fit and he’s a bit too wheezy to fight. Edward IV, then. He goes to visit his best mate, most loyal subject, the man who fought at his side to win the throne and has since kept the wild north tamed in the king’s name. A man of honour, a strange kind of heightened honour some seem to find it hard to comprehend. Edward’s brother, the future Richard III fits that bill. The king dies in an accident – or is it an accident – matching Edward’s death in April 1483, which has since drawn unproven rumours of his wife’s mischief. His wife, the blonde from a family getting ideas above its station who wants to work its members into everything possible, fits with Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her family, who were viewed by the older nobility as commoners and interlopers, even though they weren’t.

Martin then seems to explore a few ‘what if’ scenarios as Robert’s young son prepares to become king. Joffrey = Edward V. Ned Stark, our fist Richard III, comes south and uncovers Joffrey’s illegitimacy. He is given a choice between covering up the truth and living or exposing it, backing a true king, a dying for his troubles. So, Martin suggests, Richard was in very real danger in the spring of 1483 and blind honour might get him killed. Rob Stark emerges as a King in the North, leading a military campaign south to enforce his rights. Another option for Richard, but one that also leads to Rob’s death. Rob is also an interesting parallel to the young Edward IV – undefeated in battle, seemingly charmed and invincible, his success is undone when he abandons an agreed marriage in favour of a commoner he falls in love with. Edward and Elizabeth Woodville’s story played out almost like a flashback, with the pre-arranged marriage perhaps a reference to Warwick the Kingmaker’s efforts to secure a French marriage or the pre-contract story that would lead to so much trouble in 1483.

In Martin’s 1483, Edward V becomes king, followed by his younger brother, who would be Richard, Duke of York. Both are overwhelmed and overtaken by the events and end up dead. Does Martin think the Woodville matriarch would have been unable to keep her hands out of the government and destroyed her sons’ chances? Jaime, as Cersei’s brother, would have to be Anthony Woodville, who, whilst there was no hint of incest (that, surely, refers to Anne Boleyn’s story), was a key influence in the early life of Edward V as his guardian. There is also the incident of Theon burning two farm boys and passing them off as the Stark boys, so that everyone thinks the Stark heirs are dead, only for them to have survived in secret. Another theoretical line for the Princes in the Tower.

The penultimate episode had a sense of a flashback to earlier Wars of the Roses events. The Battle of the Bastards, two men fighting for one thing – Edward IV and Henry VI? – pile onto a field in massive numbers, as they did at Towton in 1461, when 28,000 dead were reported by heralds to be piled on the field, with men crushed and suffocated. The battle was won for Edward by the late arrival of the Duke of Norfolk to the field – see instead the Knights of the Vale. At the Battle of Losecote Field in 1470, Edward IV had brought Richard Welles, father of Robert, leader of the men opposing him, onto the field before the battle. After ordering Robert to surrender and hearing his refusal, Edward had Richard executed in front of his son, much as Jon watched Rickon’s death.

The last episode of series six was probably the most epic yet, as Kings Landing imploded, almost literally, and even more ended than started. My head was spinning, but I was back in 1483, perhaps in the autumn now. Jon is that son of Lyanna Stark and, presumably, Rhaegar Targaryen, though we don’t know if they were married. The question of legitimacy is left open but clearly impacts the notion of who is the ‘rightful’ heir. Legitimate or not, Jon is Daenerys Targaryen’s nephew (we presume). Does that make his claim better as it is through a male line? What if he isn’t legitimate? Is he the one figure who could unite north and south? Many may have thought that about Richard III in 1483. Then there is the Mother of Dragons herself. She ends the episode at the dead of a fleet of ships, heading back to Westeros, a land she hasn’t seen since childhood, surrounded by dragons and the hopes of those disaffected by the politics of Westeros – the selfless Lord Varys and Tyrion Lannister (who might well bring another element of Richard III in the examination of the perceptions of being physically different on a man’s life from childhood to adulthood). Could it be any clearer that this is Henry Tudor, with his red dragon of Cadwaladr, crossing to challenge for the throne? We have Little Finger, too, a man who prides himself on being untrustworthy, yet seems to get himself trusted, admitting that he wants the Iron Throne. I think we just hit Buckingham’s Rebellion in October 1483.

Martin makes so many connections and suggestions that it is possible to pick every plot line into a thousand pieces. Therein lies his genius. Perhaps the point about 1483 and the Song of Fire and Ice series in that so much can happen in a short space of time. There aren’t goodies and baddies. Motives shift and morph and are revealed as the political landscape changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes seismically. I think it is safe to say that GRRM has a deep interest in Richard III, the politics of 1483 and even the Princes in the Tower. He may not have any more answers than anyone else, but his expansive worlds give him free reign to explore what might have happened in a number of permutations that all seem to revolve around ideas of legitimacy and the shades of light and dark in men’s (and women’s) souls. GRRM just might be the most famous Ricardian around at the moment.

One Year On, New Book News

It’s been a year today since The Wars of the Roses went on sale. It seems like ages ago, yet its flown by at the same time. Thank you so much to every who has bought a copy and I’ve been really pleased with all the positive feedback. Richard, Duke of York’s biography has also been well received and a biography of Henry III will be out in October this year in time for the 800th anniversary of this elusive man’s coronation.
This seems like a good time to let everyone know that I’ve signed the contract for a new book to be released in the autumn of next year, which seems a lifetime away but I don’t doubt it will creep up quickly.
I hope the new book will spark your interest. I have no doubt it will court more controversy than anything I’ve written so far and I look forward to that. I’m not sure I need to offer more than the title, so I’ll leave you with that, and my thanks for your support.

The Survival of the Princes in the Tower


Richard, Duke of York is here!


It’s here! Richard, Duke of York: King By Right is released in the UK today, 15th April,  and available to buy now.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest in this new examination of a man who has long fascinated me. The book will delve into the myths and reveal a complex man with wide ranging power and responsibilities to match.

Was he really a wildly ambitious man who sought to exploit a king’s weakness, or has he been painted in two dimensions, his true actions and motivations buried under myth?

If you read the book, and I hope some will find it on their doorstep today, I would love to hear what you think of it.



The Battles of the Wars of the Roses


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The Wars of the Roses was a prolonged period of civil unrest in England, focussed on a period of just over thirty years which saw seventeen battles between rivals, the initiative swinging swiftly between the sides and the crown changing hands four times as a direct result of battles won and lost. One of the most difficult question to answer is which, amongst those seventeen engagements, was the most important in determining the course of the wars?

I’m going to count down my top five and see how it compares with yours.


5. The Battle of Ludford Bridge – 12th October 1459

I know – there wasn’t even any fighting, so how did this make my top five? This battle represented a watershed moment in the escalating conflict and was the first engagement that really pitched King Henry VI against his most powerful subject, Richard, Duke of York. Henry headed an army much larger than York’s though the numbers on each side are unknown. York was joined by his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, who had encountered a force sent by Queen Margaret at Blore Heath on his way to Ludlow. Also within Ludlow’s stunning fortress were Salisbury’s namesake son the Earl of Warwick who would be remembered as the Kingmaker and York’s own family, his two oldest sons Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland ready for their first taste of battle.

The magnates arrayed against each other were not dissimilar from St Albans four years earlier. With the exception of those ensconced within Ludlow noble support was vested entirely in the king, headed by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The big difference, and the reason for Ludford’s impact, was Henry VI’s position at the front of his army under his banners. The defection of the Calais garrison under Andrew Trollope during the night left the Yorkist force exposed and caused their retreat into the night. Ludlow was sacked by the king’s army in punishment for the town’s support of its lord.

The importance of Ludford lies in the confrontation between King Henry and York. No longer was this about control of the king, a war between magnates claiming to know what was best for Henry. York was forced to back down from confronting the king himself. This may have been the very point of the court faction’s efforts to place Henry at their head and if it was, it worked perfectly. Ludford’s real impact lay in its aftermath. Even before the royal army arrived at Ludlow a Parliament had been summoned, later known as the Parliament of Devils, to punish the rebel lords. York, his two oldest sons, Salisbury, Warwick and even Salisbury’s wife were attainted and deprived of all of their titles and lands forever. The move left the Yorkist lords with nothing to lose and forced them into a corner from which attack was their only option. Ludford, or at least its aftermath, was the first battle that changed the entire landscape of the conflicts in England and made the civil war a dynastic question of the right to the throne.

Inner Bailey of Ludlow Castle

Inner Bailey of Ludlow Castle

4. The Battle of Stoke Field – 16th June 1487

The inclusion of this battle may surprise some, too. It is often no more than a footnote in the telling of the Wars of the Roses, which are frequently described as having ended two years earlier. It suited the fledgling Tudor regime of Henry VII to underplay the importance of Stoke Field to detract from the very real threats that remained to his crown and so Stoke Field has been consigned to the tiniest footnotes of history, swept under the carpet.

Stoke Field’s importance is twofold. It was the last armed confrontation of the Wars of the Roses. Bosworth did not end the fighting, Stoke Field did. Never again would a Yorkist army challenge for the throne. How can the Wars of the Roses possibly have ended in 1485 when there was a battle between invading Yorkist and royalist forces in 1487? It is true that the Yorkists had around 8,000 men to the Tudor’s 12,000 and that the majority of the Yorkist army was ill-equipped Irish kerns who fell quickly under arrow fire but it is important to remember the other reason that Stoke Field was important.

The Yorkist army was led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, a grandson of Richard, Duke of York, nephew to Edward IV and Richard III and cousin of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. The aim of the invading army has become somewhat muddied but they intended to place Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last grandson of Richard, Duke of York through the male line, on the throne. The thousands of Irish soldiers were led by Thomas Fitzgerald, younger brother of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare and their presence was a powerful reminder of the latent Yorkist sympathy that would remain in Ireland for years to come. There was a professional element to the Yorkist army too; Swiss mercenaries led by Colonel Martin Schwartz, they were a very real threat, though Colonel Schwartz would fall amongst around 4,000 other Yorkist soldiers at Stoke Field. These expensive mercenaries were funded by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, a sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Margaret was wealthy, influential and utterly committed to dislodging Henry VII from the throne he had won at her family’s expense.

Stoke Field deserves more attention than it usually receives not only because it was the last battle of over thirty years of civil war but because it reminded the fledgling Tudor dynasty that it was far from secure and that it was surrounded by enemies, from Ireland, the continent and Yorkist blood within the kingdom. Stoke Field has been largely forgotten because the early Tudor government wanted it forgotten, but Henry VII was probably never able to shake the threats that it made all too clear to him.

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3. The Battle of Bosworth Field – 22nd August 1485

One of the most famous battles in English history, Bosworth’s inclusion is not contentious. Its importance lies in the demonstration of opposition to Richard III’s brief rule amongst the nobility and gentry and in the ending of the 331 years of Plantagenet rule. As we have seen, it was not the end of the Wars of the Roses, but it was the close of Plantagenet rule, the end of the House of York’s time on the throne and the dawn of the Tudor age, a period that would have an immense impact on England (whether for good or ill is a matter for discussion).

The defeat of Richard III at Bosworth had a huge impact on English history because of the questions it left unanswered too. Would Richard III have been a good king? Was he socially progressive? Would a marriage into the Portuguese royal family, who had Lancastrian blood, have served to heal the wounds that Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York’s union sought to? Would the mystery of the fate of the Princes in the Tower have been solved if Richard had lived a little longer (and precisely how would it have been solved?)? Bosworth Field left us with these questions and they are still hot topics for debate over 500 years later.

Just as Stoke Field served to remind Henry VII that he had not been accepted by all, Bosworth exposed unhealed wounds across a nation that must have believed the wars were long gone. There had been no battle for fourteen years, yet disaffected Edwardian Yorkists still viewed war as the route by which they could vent their frustration. Lancastrian sympathies, lacking a figurehead for fourteen years, were swift to emerge from hiding and gather behind Henry Tudor, drawing unhappy Yorkists to them to swell opposition to Richard. Bosworth therefore demonstrated that resorting to the field of battle had become ingrained in the English psyche as a legitimate way to resolve disputes. Many taking the field had lived and grown through the troubles of earlier years and this was something the Tudor regime would have to deal with, as Stoke Field demonstrated.

Bosworth was a defining moment in English history, but only makes number three in my list of battles of the Wars of the Roses. Its impact on wider history may be larger than my other two suggestions, but in terms of this civil war, two battles strike me as more crucial.

Richard III's Cavalry Charge at Bosworth Re-enactment 2013

Richard III’s Cavalry Charge at Bosworth Re-enactment 2013

2. The Battle of Towton – 29th March 1461

England’s Apocalypse really needs no justification for making the list. For many, Bosworth and Towton might be vying for the number one rank and there is certainly an argument for both to take the top spot. Towton is renowned as the largest battle ever to take place of English soil, around 100,000 men possibly taking the field, with possibly slightly more on the Lancastrian side than the Yorkist. Edward, Earl of March (by now Duke of York and legal heir to the throne) led a force also made up of the Earl of Warwick and Duke of Norfolk. The Lancastrians were led by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and contained Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.

The battle was cataclysmic. It was fought on Palm Sunday in driving snow, the wind favouring the Yorkist archers but the subsequent fighting too close to call until the Duke of Norfolk’s army arrived late to the field and broke the Lancastrian’s resolve. Heralds and other reports gave a shocking figure of 29,000 casualties when the battle ended. Mass graves had to be dug in the frozen earth to house the battered corpses that littered the field.

Towton broke Lancastrian resistance to Edward and allowed him to assume the throne with a degree of security that lasted almost a decade (barring two of the civil war’s least important confrontations at Hexham and Hedgeley Moor). The crown of England had sat upon a Lancastrian head for 62 years but was now lowered onto the head of the first king of the House of York. Most people within England had known nothing but Lancastrian rule and Towton radically altered the political landscape. It tarnished anew the notion of kingship as divine and unquestionable and meant none knew what to expect from a dynastic change. Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had not enjoyed his crown and it must have seemed likely that Edward would suffer the same continual threats and uncertainties.

What battle could have been more important than either Bosworth or Towton?

Bear with me on this one…..

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1. The Battle of Wakefield – 30 December 1460

Not an obvious choice, I know, but one I think I can justify. I should probably declare an interest here, since I have a biography of Richard, Duke of York due for release on 15th April 2016, but it was researching this that convinced me of Wakefield’s crucial position within the conflicts of the Wars of the Roses.

Wakefield sits between two of the other crucial battles I have listed above, taking place after Ludford Bridge but before Towton. It came about because of the consequences of Ludford Bridge, which saw Richard, Duke of York return to England to sensationally lay claim to his cousin’s throne. The act was not welcomed and produced a stalemate that was shelved by the unsatisfactory device of parliament that allowed Henry VI to keep his throne but disinherited his son Prince Edward, making Richard and his descendants legal heirs to the crown of England. York and his sons swore loyalty to Henry and Richard was granted the trappings associated with the position of Prince of Wales. Crucially, it was made treason to attack Richard and his heirs.

In the north, Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, was gathering a huge force with the support of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and others. This was the beginning of the massive force that would arrive at Towton to face Richard’s son, Edward but it was the Duke of York who marched north to confront them whilst his oldest son gathered reinforcements on the Welsh border. Richard stopped at his northern stronghold of Sandal Castle at Wakefield when it became clear that he was hopelessly outnumbered.

Sources are unclear precisely what happened next but it is likely that a truce was agreed for the Christmas period. Richard seems to have been tricked into believing men were joining his side when in fact their sympathies were with the queen so that he thought he had more men than he ever did. There was possibly an attack on a foraging party from Sandal Castle that caused Richard to sally out to confront the Lancastrian army who had probably broken the truce. Those he believed were with him instantly turned on Richard and the battle was brief and decisive. Richard was killed, as was his 17 year-old son Edmund. The Earl of Salisbury was captured but beheaded the following day. The three heads were famously placed on spikes outside York, on Micklegate Bar, with a paper crown mockingly fixed to York’s head.

It might be significant enough that Richard, Duke of York fell at Wakefield. He was the most powerful man in England and legally heir to the throne, but the impact was far wider than that. The Battle of Wakefield took place at a time when matters were at their most complex. Richard, Duke of York held the legal right, granted by Parliament and enshrined in statute. Queen Margaret surely felt that she held the moral right. Her son had been disinherited by the force of York’s will and was still the rightful heir.

Margaret may have been acting to protect her son, but in legal terms her attack on Richard was treason. It made her and her army outlaws, legitimate targets for reprisals and it damaged their position and cause. The first engagement of the Wars of the Roses at St Albans had left the sons of the Duke of Somset, Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford swearing to have their revenge. Five years later they each got it. Somerset saw York killed. Northumberland’s old enemy Salisbury was executed and Clifford supposedly took great delight in slaying the seventeen-year-old Edmund. In satisfying their long quest for vengeance, these men unleashed more sons baying for revenge. Edward, Earl of March would seek to avenge his father and brother. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick wanted revenge for his father’s treatment. Neither were men to wait five months, let alone five years, for what they wanted.

Towton was a direct consequence of Wakefield. Edward and Warwick were whipped into a frenzy and had the law on their side. Wakefield escalated the conflict to a new level, giving Edward permission, as he saw it, to unseat Henry and slaughter his followers. Margaret believed she had the initiative after destroying a foe she had feared for a decade or more, certain that right was on her side as she sought to win back her son’s birth right. It was Wakefield that caused Edward to proclaim himself King of England and bring the dynastic rivalry unsatisfactorily shelved by his father into sharp focus.

Both sides had a degree of right on their side, but neither would back down. This was now a war for the crown between Lancaster and York in a way it had never been before. Wakefield’s impact did not end there, though. York was almost certainly killed during the fighting. His body was then posthumously beheaded and mocked with the paper crown. Edmund was captured but rather than being held and ransomed he is killed in an act of simple vengeance. Salisbury was reportedly dragged from his prison cell by a mob and beheaded without trial or the intervention of any Lancastrian noble to protect him. Warfare was being radically altered by the queen’s army. Chivalry was dealt a fatal blow at Wakefield. No longer would the bodies of the most noble dead be respected – they were weapons in a propaganda war. Capture did not afford valuable individuals the protection of their captor but risked summary murder. Even those taken prisoner could be left to mob justice at a point when traditional chivalry required their captor to protect them. Nobles, previously targets for capture rather than killing, were targeted for death above the common soldiery. Wakefield was a clear demonstration of the changing nature of warfare in England in the mid fifteenth century.

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So there you have it; my top five battles of the Wars of the Roses. I’m not suggesting my choices are definitive and I’d love to hear what you think. Probably the most notable omissions, sitting at numbers six and seven respectively, are Tewkesbury and Barnet. They saw the deaths of hugely important figures – Prince Edward at Tewkesbury, ending the Lancastrian male line, and the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick at Barnet, a man who dominated politics in England for over a decade. My choices were made within the context of the civil war and taking account of their wider impacts on the political situation and it is clear that some of the less well-known encounters probably had the widest bearing on future events.

What would you consider to be the most important battle of the Wars of the Roses?

Matt’s latest book, Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, is released by Amberley Publishing on 15th April 2016 and will reveal a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses.

Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MattLewisAuthor.

The Forgotten Art of Allegory


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Much of Jonathan Swift’s seminal ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships’, or Gulliver’s Travels as it is more popularly known, is metaphor and allegory. Swift had lived through the troubles of James II’s dalliances with Catholicism, the Glorious Revolution and wrote his work during Queen Anne’s reign. He didn’t get on with Anne and was denied political and clerical advancement, spending time in Ireland where he took up the Irish cause, writing propaganda pamphlets for them.

When Gulliver extinguishes the fire in Lilliput by urinating on it, the intention may have been to refer to Tory policy, achieving a good result by bad means. The war that rages between Lilliput and Blefuscu revolves around which end of an egg should be cracked to eat it. Gulliver takes up the Lilliputian cause simply because he lands on their shores. This is surely a thinly veiled stab at the religious turmoil that still reared its head in Britain and Europe. The fighting between Catholics and Protestants over how to worship God is like arguing over which end of an egg to crack. It doesn’t matter – you still get egg. The same could apply to political feuding. The side most take is an accident of birth, simply a matter of which shore you wash up on.

Swift was drawing on a long history of allegory to make political statement indirectly. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written in 1678, almost 50 years before Gulliver’s Travels is a classic piece of allegory of the spiritual journey of man. In many classic pieces of literature commentators have seen allegory used to represent the politics of the writer’s day or to make a moral point within the vehicle of the story. The Oxford Dictionary defines allegory as ‘A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one’. It is an art that we have perhaps lost to more direct satire so that allegory passes us by as we impose our luxury of literal criticism of the establishment, political and religious, on those who wrote in a time without such indulgence.

Much of what has become the historiography of Richard III was most likely written as allegory but has been passed into culture as truth, as literal history. The moral tale is forgotten or ignored to read only what we would describe as a history, a narrative of the facts of a past that can be interpreted within the confines of their own limits. Thomas More wrote his History of King Richard III and Shakespeare his history plays at a time when written history was not what we would recognise it as today.

Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III was begun around 1513. More had first come to prominence in a parliament of Henry VII’s in 1504 when he had criticised the king’s policies. At the request of a tax of three fifteenths, More made so eloquent a speech in opposition that the tax was reduced by about two thirds. The victory for the idealistic and outspoken lawyer saw his father imprisoned in the Tower until he paid a hefty fine. Perhaps Thomas learned that he could not be so direct in his criticism of the monarch.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

Amongst the first acts of Henry VIII on his accession in 1509 was the arrest and subsequent execution of Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, his father’s chief instruments of financial policy toward the end of his reign. They were unpopular and Henry thought that he would buy some instant acclaim with their blood. It was an early glimpse of a disregard for human life that suggested tyranny at the very outset of the eighteen-year-old’s rule and More perhaps envisaged his work as a piece of allegory for the king to show the dangers of tyranny and how it could cut a rule short. Richard III was an obvious personality to hang over this lesson. He had only reigned for a brief time and had been painted as something of an unpopular tyrant by the Tudor regime. More might have meant his work to be a lesson for the new king on the dangers of veering so close to tyranny so early in his rule. More’s work is littered with errors which, as I have suggested in a previous post here, may well point to its own deliberate inaccuracy.

William Shakespeare’s Richard III is similarly littered with errors, including switching the geographical locations of Stoney Stratford and Northampton in early version to have Richard ambushing Rivers rather than Rivers overshooting the meeting point and heading back without the king. Earlier in the history cycle of the Wars of the Roses, Richard is at the 1st Battle of St Albans committing dastardly murders even though he as under three years old at the time. Shakespeare may well have laid the foundations early for his masterpiece in the examination of Machiavellian plotting very early and had a very clear message for his audience that related not to the past, but to the present and very near future, as I have outlined in this previous post. Shakespeare was writing at a time of political upheaval when the succession was in doubt and the government controlled by the Cecils. Robert Cecil, son and successor to William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s lifelong councillor, was affected by kyphosis – in the unpleasant parlance if the time, he was a ‘hunchback’, just like Shakespeare’s villain.

Shakespeare Richard III First Folio

The bones that currently rest in an urn in Westminster Abbey claiming to belong to the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York are perhaps another example of allegory. The remains were unearthed during building work at the Tower of London in 1674. An anonymous writer, published three years later but naming John Knight, Charles II’s surgeon as his source, recorded;

In order to the rebuilding of the several Offices in the Tower, and to clear the White Tower from all contiguous buildings, digging down the stairs which led from the King’s Lodgings, to the chapel in the said Tower, about ten foot in the ground were found the Bones of two striplings in (as it seemed) a wooden chest, upon which the survey which found proportionable to the ages of those two Brothers viz, about thirteen and eleven years. The skull of the one being entire, the other broken, as were indeed many of the other Bones, also the Chest, by the violence of the labourers, who cast the rubbish and them away together, wherefore they were caused to sift the rubbish, and by that means preserved all the bones.

Charles II had returned the monarchy to Britain following the Civil War in 1660 and in 1674 Parliament was refusing to vote Charles funds for foreign war and religious policy so that the king was in danger of being forced to seek peace where he didn’t want it. It is worth noting that the bones were broken up and cast on a waste pile and had to be sifted out again later, meaning that they were open to contamination and no longer in the condition they were found in.

The Urn within Westminster Abbey

The Urn within Westminster Abbey

It is possible that talk of some bones thrown out of the pit had worked its way back to ears that saw an opportunity in their discovery in a location not dissimilar to that in which More had recorded them buried, though later moved from. Men were sent to pick them from the spoil and this might have been because a chance for an allegorical tale was spied. Reference to Richard III along the lines of that made by More and Shakespeare would surely serve to remind Parliament of what happened when a legitimate king was supplanted by a tyranny – for Edward V read Charles I, for Richard III see Oliver Cromwell. Charles II’s position was far from certain and as his relationship with Parliament rocked he might have feared a repeat of his father’s fate. The bones were perhaps an instrument with which he could bolster himself by reminding the country of the distant past, the far more raw and recent past and the threat he perceived to himself.

I devote the final chapter of The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy to the bones found within the Tower – not least that these are far from the only set found and not even the only set claimed to belong to the Princes. Their placement in Westminster Abbey may have served Charles II well but only cemented the reputation of King Richard III set in stone by More and Shakespeare. What if none of these pieces often used as evidence was ever meant to tell history as we would recognise it today, but only to help make a political, moral or religious point about the writer’s present? What if everything that is relied upon to condemn Richard III over centuries has been simply misunderstood and taken out of context? We have the luxury of criticising the establishment freely and openly and perhaps forget the time when to do so was to risk life and limb and allegory provided the shield with which to make those observations and complaints.

I’ve seen a fair bit of talk recently about what constitutes a Ricardian and who has the right to use that word. Examining and questioning the material to re-evaluate its meaning and stimulate a deeper investigation of the life, times and reputation of King Richard III makes a Ricardian and all should be welcome to use that name. As long as opinions are based solidly in fact, not fiction, irrespective of the conclusion each individual draws, Ricardianism should, in my opinion, be a welcoming forum for discussion.

Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions. A biography of Richard, Duke of York, father of Edward IV and Richard III is due for release in April 2016.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MattLewisAuthor.

Usurpation, Murder and More


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I read a series of blog posts recently that sought to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Richard III ordered the deaths of his nephews. Whilst I don’t take issue with holding and arguing this viewpoint I found some of the uses of source material dubious, a few of the accusations questionable and some of the conclusions a stretch. There are several issues with the narrow selection of available sources that continually bug me. It is no secret that any conclusive evidence one way or another is utterly absent but I have issues with the ways the materials are frequently used.

There are four main sources that are often used, two contemporary and therefore primary sources and two near-contemporary which are habitually treated as primary. The farthest away in time from the events that it describes is also the one traditionally treated as the most complete and accurate account, which in itself should urge caution. Sir Thomas More is believed to have started writing his History of King Richard III around 1513 when he was an Undersheriff of London and the first thing to note is that he never actually published the work. It was completed and released in 1557 by More’s son-in-law William Rastell. It is unclear what parts of the History Rastell finished off but More’s account became the accepted version of the murder of the Princes in the Tower for centuries, heavily informing Shakespeare’s play on the monarch. More was just five years old during the summer of 1483 but may well have had access to people still alive who were better placed to know what had happened – or at least, crucially, what was rumoured to have happened, for much of the work reports rumour and opinion rather than fact and is quite open about that.

The next thing that screams out from the opening lines of More’s work is an error, unabashed and uncorrected. We are informed in the very first sentence that ‘King Edward of that name the Fourth, after he had lived fifty and three years, seven months, and six days, and thereof reigned two and twenty years, one month, and eight days, died at Westminster the ninth day of April’. Edward IV actually died nineteen days shorts of his forty-first birthday. This glaring error is frequently excused by the suggestion that More must have meant to fact check his work later but this proposition is usually made by the same readers who insist that More was a fastidious, trustworthy man who would not have lied nor scrimped on ensuring the veracity of what he wrote. These two arguments appear to me to be mutually exclusive. This is the first sentence of More’s work. Would he really have guessed, giving such a precise figure that he didn’t know was correct, as the first words of his work? Edward was king for twenty-two years, one month and five days (ignoring his brief sojourn in Burgundy), so More shows us that he can get these things right if he wants to (albeit still 3 days out). Why not insert a placeholder of ‘about fifty-three years’ or a gap to be filled in when the correct number could be found? The number of years is wrong, the number of months is wrong and the number of days is wrong. How could this have happened?

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

In a previous post I have investigated the idea that Shakespeare’s Richard III was never meant to be viewed literally and could have possessed a very different meaning to a contemporary audience. What if More was, in fact, signposting his work as factually inaccurate at its very opening? His other famous work, Utopia, deals with notions of political and sociological ideals. The Utopian society has many aspects More must have been at odds with – euthanasia, divorce, married clergy – yet he intended it to be the perfect society. His commentary suggests that a perfect society cannot exist while private property is held by citizens, but also that true communism is not achievable in the real world, his conclusion appearing to be that a perfect society is unattainable. Utopia was published in 1516, around the time More was also writing the History of King Richard III.

What if More’s work on Richard III was also intended to be allegory? Perhaps it was too unsubtle or proved unsatisfactory and was replaced by Utopia, or maybe they were meant to be read side by side. Like Shakespeare, was More using Richard III, a figure from the near past who could be vilified in any way that suited the writer because he had no connection to the throne any longer. Henry VIII had Yorkist blood from Edward IV but not Richard III, so he was fair game and so close in time that his story could be an almost tangible warning against tyranny and the murder of innocents. It is frequently overlooked that Henry VIII’s tyranny began at the very outset of his reign, not after a couple of decades. One of his first acts on succeeding his father was to arrest Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, two of his father’s closest advisors and most effective revenue generators. This had made them deeply detested and Henry grasped an opportunity to make a popular statement as soon as he became king. A tyrant will bypass justice for two main reasons; security and popularity, and Henry VIII executed these men ostensibly for doing as his father had instructed them, even though they had not broken any law, whilst still in his teens simply for the popularity it would bring him. What, then, if More began his History of King Richard III as a renaissance tract on the dangers of tyranny and the murder of innocents? Was he warning Henry VIII that killing men without the due process of law could only end badly? His failure to publish it might be explained by his promotion to the Privy Council in 1514. More was never afraid to criticise the Tudor establishment, opposing Henry VII in Parliament, and perhaps he felt he could now get close enough to deliver the message of his book in a more direct way.

On the death of Henry VI, More wrote of Richard III that ‘He slew with his own hands King Henry the Sixth, being prisoner in the Tower, as men constantly say, and that without commandment or knowledge of the King, who would, undoubtedly, if he had intended such a thing, have appointed that butcherly office to some other than his own born brother.’ Still More only reports rumour – ‘as men constantly say’ – and the claim that Edward IV was unaware that Henry VI was to be killed is ludicrous. It remains possible that Richard, as Constable of England, arranged the death and perhaps even that he carried it out himself, but Edward must have given the order. If he hadn’t, where was the punishment or censure for unauthorised regicide? Richard was the natural choice. Who but a brother of the king might be permitted to perform the deed? A commoner could not be allowed to kill a king, for he might chose to do it again and the majesty of the position would be dangerously undermined. Richard was not only Edward’s brother he was a man the king trusted implicitly. Is this another signpost that More was not writing the whole truth but something that needed to be looked at a little closer?

Returning to 1483, More wrote of the sermon on the illegitimacy of the Princes that ‘the chief thing, and the most weighty of all that invention, rested in this: they should allege bastardy, either in King Edward himself, or in his children, or both, so that he should seem unable to inherit the crown by the Duke of York, and the Prince by him. To lay bastardy in King Edward sounded openly to the rebuke of the Protector’s own mother, who was mother to them both; for in that point could be none other color, but to pretend that his own mother was one adulteress, which, not withstanding, to further his purpose he omitted not; but nevertheless, he would the point should be less and more favorably handled, not even fully plain and directly, but that the matter should be touched upon, craftily, as though men spared, in that point, to speak all the truth for fear of his displeasure. But the other point, concerning the bastardy that they devised to surmise in King Edward’s children, that would he be openly declared and enforced to the uttermost.’ More claims, then, that there was some subtle suggestion that Edward IV was a bastard but, to avoid offending his mother, Richard did not make this too plain nor did he rely upon it. The charge that the princes were illegitimate was the crux of his plan. More makes another error by naming the subject of the pre-contract as Dame Elizabeth Lucy rather than Lady Eleanor Butler. Another blatant error in an account we are supposed to rely upon completely by a man above reproach?

On the murder of the princes, More details Sir James Tyrell’s part in the deed on behalf of a king terrified for his own security (a man who becomes more and more like Henry VIII himself). This has long been the accepted and authoritative account, used to prove Richard’s guilt and that the human remains resting in Westminster Abbey are those of the Princes in the Tower, discovered precisely where More said they would be. Of course, that completely ignores what More actually said, which was ‘ he allowed not, as I have heard, the burying in so vile a corner, saying that he would have them buried in a better place because they were a king’s sons. Lo, the honourable nature of a king! Whereupon they say that a priest of Sir Robert Brakenbury took up the bodies again and secretly buried them in a place that only he knew and that, by the occasion of his death, could never since come to light.’ More categorically states that the bodies were not left beneath a staircase in the Tower of London. If he had this wrong, then how are we to rely on his other evidence (if we were ever meant to)?

Sir Thomas provides further detail to back up his story of the murder, claiming ‘Very truth is it, and well known, that at such time as Sir James Tyrell was in the Tower – for treason committed against the most famous prince, King Henry the Seventh – both Dighton and he were examined and confessed the murder in manner above written, but to where the bodies were removed, they could nothing tell.’ I was once told that anyone who begins a sentence with ‘To be honest’ is probably lying. There is no record other than More’s claim that Tyrell was ever even questioned about the murder of the boys, let alone that he confessed. The holes in the story are compounded when More writes of the killers ‘Miles Forest at Saint Martin’s piecemeal rotted away; Dighton, indeed, walks on alive in good possibility to be hanged before he die; but Sir James Tyrell died at Tower Hill, beheaded for treason’. Wait – Dighton walks the streets? The Dighton who confessed to murdering two young boys, two princes, with Sir James Tyrell? So, after his confession he was sent on his way? Surely that is beyond ridiculous. Perhaps it is more likely that this is some political comment on the state permitting killers to roam free. A story recently emerged suggesting that Elizabeth of York and Henry VII’s attendance at Tyrell’s trial at the Tower of London prove a connection with the princes. Henry and Elizabeth were at the Tower at the time of the trial. Why else but to find out the fate of her brothers? For this to stack up we would need to ignore the fact the Tyrell was tried at the Guildhall.

It is frequently claimed that More had inside knowledge as well as access to those alive during 1483. Thomas was, for a time, a member of the household of Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and nemesis of Richard III. It has been suggested that More’s manuscript was actually the work of Morton or at least that Morton gave More vital information. To accept this is to believe that Morton deliberately withheld crucial information from Henry VII whilst allowing him to suffer constant threats from Warbeck and other pretenders. Not that I think Morton above such a manoeuvre.

The second near-contemporary source was written by Polydore Virgil. Its veracity is questionable because Virgil was commissioned by Henry VII to write it, but it is often given plenty of weight. His story differs from More’s in relation to the sermon delivered by Dr Ralph Shaa, of which Virgil wrote ‘Ralph Shaa, a learned man, taking occasion of set purpose to treat not of the divine but tragical discourse, began to instruct the people, by many reasons, how that the late king Edward was not begotten by Richard duke of York’, claiming only that the charge was of Edward IV’s illegitimacy and making no mention of the pre-contract. Why might he have claimed his patron’s father-in-law was a bastard? Probably because it was not a charge that was taken seriously, but the illegitimacy of the princes led to their removal from the line of succession and would have tainted Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth and their children too.

Polydore Virgil

Polydore Virgil

On the murder of the princes, Virgil claimed to know that Richard ‘took his journey to York, and first he went straight to Gloucester, where the while he tarried the heinous guilt of wicked conscience did so fright him every moment as that he lived in continual fear, for the expelling whereof by any kind of mean he determined by death to dispatch his nephews, because so long as they lived he could not be out of hazard; wherefore he sent warrant to Robert Brackenbury’. The story is similar to More’s account in that Brackenbury refuses to see it done. ‘Richard understood the lieutenant to make delay of that which he had commanded, he anon committed the charge of hastening that slaughter unto another, that is to say James Tyrell, who, being forced to do the king’s commandment, rode sorrowfully to London, and, to the worst example that hath been almost ever heard of, murdered those babes of the issue royal. This end had Prince Edward and Richard his brother; but with what kind of death these sely children were executed it is not certainly known’. Unlike More, Virgil could not uncover the method of the princes’ death and Tyrell is a sorrowful, unwilling killer. Writing earlier than More and with access to those who lived through 1483, Virgil could not obtain the detail More claims to provide. His patron also had a deeply vested interest in making sure everyone believed that the boys were truly dead.

The two contemporary sources are, in many ways, equally problematical. Dominic Mancini was an Italian visitor to London during the spring and early summer of 1483 and his evidence is usually considered of particular value because he was a foreign eye witness with no axe to grind on either side. This easy reliance ignores key aspects of Mancini’s work, not least its title. Usually given as ‘The Usurpation of Richard III’, the full Latin title is actually ‘Dominici Mancini, de Occupatione Regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium, ad Angelum Catonem Presulem Viennensium, Libellus Incipit’. Two things are significant here. ‘De Occupatione’ does not translate as The Usurpation but as The Occupation – The Occupation of the Throne of England by Richard the Third. Latin has words for usurpation, but none are used here and the title becomes a whole lot less sinister when the word Occupation is used.

The second significant item within the title is the identity of Mancini’s patron. Angelo Cato was Archbishop of Vienne and it was for him that Mancini’s report was penned. This is significant because Cato was a member of the French court, serving as personal physician to Louis XI for a time. This connection is crucial because Richard was a figure known to the French court and of interest to the cunning and wily Louis, who must have marked Richard as a man to watch after Edward IV’s campaign to invade France. Richard had disagreed with his brother’s decision to make peace and refused to attend the signing of the peace treaty. Louis had managed to secure a private meeting with Richard later, probably to size him up. Mancini was writing for a man close to Louis who would have had an image of Richard coloured by that relationship and this must impact both Mancini’s account and the reliance that we can place upon it. Mancini makes several errors that betray a lack of understanding of English society, politics and culture that lessen his reliability but the identity of his patron cannot be ignored too.

Louis XI

King Louis XI

Mancini recorded the sermon given by Ralph Shaa by noting that Richard ‘so corrupted preachers of the divine word, that in their sermons to the people they did not blush to say, in the face of decency and all religion, that the progeny of King Edward should be instantly eradicated, for neither had he been a legitimate king, nor could his issue be so. Edward, said they, was conceived in adultery and in every way was unlike the late duke of York’. Like More, and unlike Virgil, Mancini records the dual accusation that Edward IV was a bastard and that his children were illegitimate too. It is highly significant that the stories of Edward IV’s illegitimacy are believed to have originated in France, at the court of Louis XI, where it was a standing joke. Mancini may have been aware of the story and included it for Cato’s benefit, or even, since Mancini tells us he is writing his memories later at Cato’s request, been fed the story by Cato to include. Having left England before events moved on, Mancini offers no evidence regarding the fate of Richard’s nephews.

Our other contemporary source is the redoubtable Croyland Chronicle. Although the author is anonymous he is understood to be very close to the Yorkist government and has been tentatively identified as Bishop John Russell, Richard III’s Chancellor. A trusted member of Edward IV’s government it is believed that Russell accepted the position of Chancellor only reluctantly after Bishop Rotherham was dismissed. Russell remained Chancellor until Richard III dismissed him in July 1485, shortly before Bosworth. The Croyland Chronicle continuation with which he is credited is believed to have been written shortly after Bosworth at the outset of Henry VIIs reign. Certainly the Croyland Chronicle is not favourable to Richard, criticising the vices of his court, particularly at Christmas, though this was the conventionally pious opinion of the Church.

On the subject of the sermon by Ralph Shaa, Croyland recorded that ‘It was set forth, by way of prayer, in an address in a certain roll of parchment, that the sons of king Edward were bastards, on the ground that he had contracted a marriage with one lady Eleanor Boteler, before his marriage to queen Elizabeth; and to which, the blood of his other brother, George, duke of Clarence, had been attainted; so that, at the present time, no certain and uncorrupted lineal blood could be found of Richard duke of York, except in the person of the said Richard, duke of Gloucester’. The coldly factual account makes no mention of an accusation laid against Edward IV, though this might be because Russell (if he was the author) would not give credence to such a claim against his former master. However, if that were the case, why record the allegation regarding his marriage and his sons? Why one and not the other when surely, if both were made, both or neither would have been recorded? Croyland’s evidence, when weighed with the other accounts available, would lead me to conclude that Ralph Shaa preached on the existence of a pre-contract and the illegitimacy of the princes but made no mention of Edward IV’s illegitimacy.

On the fate of the princes, Croyland offers the story that in late summer ‘public proclamation was made, that Henry, duke of Buckingham, who at this time was living at Brecknock in Wales, had repented of his former conduct, and would be the chief mover in this attempt, while a rumour was spread that the sons of king Edward before-named had died a violent death, but it was uncertain how’. Croyland seems to be explaining that a rumour that the boys were dead was deliberately created and spread as part of Buckingham’s Rebellion (which was, in fact, Henry Tudor’s Rebellion as discussed in a previous post). Nowhere does he, well-informed as he undoubtedly was, possibly at the very centre of Richard’s government, state that they were dead or that Richard ordered them killed. Writing under Henry Tudor, he would have nothing to fear from the accusation and everything to gain from a new king keen to know the fates of potential rivals. Why would such a well-informed man never once state that they were murdered? Perhaps because he knew a secret his new king would not like, that would only increase his insecurity. There is another source, uncovered amongst the College of Arms’ collection in the 1980’s that refers to a story that princes were murdered “be [by] the vise” of the Duke of Buckingham. Though there is discussion as to whether ‘vise’ should mean advice or device, there is nevertheless more evidence to relate Buckingham and his revolt to the death of the boys. Perhaps this ties in with Croyland’s tale but the rumour became confused, or perhaps it is the truth.

A Chronicle naming the Duke of Buckingham

A Chronicle naming the Duke of Buckingham

The conclusion of this brief tour of the sources available is that they offer no conclusive evidence. I doubt that Sir Thomas More meant to tell a factual history of King Richard III, but signposted the fact that he was writing in allegory and offering a moral tale. Virgil had his own agenda and his evidence contradicts that of a contemporary eye witness regarding Shaa’s sermon whilst he confesses to having no real knowledge of the fate of the princes beyond being certain that King Richard had them killed. Mancini’s evidence is brought into question when his patron and audience is considered. The allegation regarding Edward IV’s illegitimacy included by Virgil and More may have originated from Mancini’s account, created for a man at the centre of the origin of that story. Croyland, no fan of Richard’s, states that the pre-contract was the sole subject of the sermon and that the death of the princes was a deliberately concocted rumour to garner support for a rebellion. His evidence is dispassionate and devoid of agenda, making it the most reliable available to us.

Based upon what Croyland says, the pre-contract story was the reason the princes were declared illegitimate, was the only story given and must have been in circulation and widely believed enough to cause men of power to petition Richard III to take the throne. His silence on the matter of the fate of the princes is also frustrating but revealing. He claims that there was only ever a rumour of their deaths as part of a planned rebellion, never actually stating that they were dead, let alone that Richard ordered their murder.

Our only other guidance is the actions of those living through the spring and summer of 1483 in London. For example, Elizabeth Woodville’s eventual emergence from sanctuary in 1484 has always been problematical. If she knew that Richard had murdered her sons by Edward IV, why hand over her daughters like lambs to the slaughter? Richard promised to take care of them, but what does the word of a child murderer mean to their mother? The fact that Richard had, in fact, ordered the killing of one of Elizabeth Woodville’s sons is often cited and the question asked as to whether she would have valued a royal son more highly than a non-royal son, but this question is frequently asked by the same people who believe that Elizabeth Woodville emerged because she was so utterly ruthless that even knowing Richard had now killed three of her sons she could not bear to stay in sanctuary indefinitely even to keep her daughters safe. The executions of Richard Grey, along with Anthony her brother, were very different matters. They were not, as I have seen stated, illegal, since Richard was still Constable of England and within the law to order their executions. They were found guilty of treason and their deaths far more legal than those of Elizabeth’s father and another brother at Warwick’s hands. Richard had used the law to publically kill Richard Grey. If he had killed the princes it would have been utterly illegal and illicit. Elizabeth might have been able to stomach the loss on the former basis that had characterised her life, but surely not the second. She might feel comfortable giving herself and her daughters over to a man who would kill if the law allowed or required it, but surely not to a cold killer of children in secret. Her actions make far more sense if she had some concrete evidence that her sons by Edward IV had not been harmed in secret and outside the law. Only then could she be sure her daughters were in no danger. Girls were no threat, some say. That is to ignore the fact the Henry Tudor had sworn to use one of them to take Richard’s throne from him. They were every bit as much of a threat as their brothers.

Then there is the fact that Richard did not, by any measure, usurp the throne of England. He was petitioned to take it by a delegation nominally representing Parliament (though it is important to note that Parliament itself was not in session at the time). If these men had seen evidence of the pre-contract then they accepted it and asked Richard to be king because he was the only rightful candidate. I don’t buy the idea that they cowered in fear from an armed force that was on its way. Powerful men in the country and the City were never so easily cowed.

There is one more reason that Thomas More might have written such a condemnation of Richard III. What if it was a smokescreen, as suggested by Jack Leslau and detailed in a previous post?

Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and on Facebook.