One of the biggest problems with studying the Wars of the Roses, and Richard III in particular, is the sheer number of relentlessly sticky myths that cling to so many aspects of the story. It’s like finding a dried-on piece of chewing gum in the tread of your shoes. It defies efforts to pick at it, pull it away and dispose of it. Even if you manage to get rid of most of it, remnants linger to remind you that it isn’t ever completely gone.
For those who disagree with Ricardian, revisionist ideas, I’m sure Ricardians are the irritating chewing gum. We just don’t shut up about the holes we see in accusations laid against Richard. While writing my doorstep of a biography (plug, plug – buy it now), I tried to directly address as many of the myths as possible, but I also found a new one that serves to demonstrate some of the forces at work after 1485 and the problems with sixteenth century sources on Richard that are all-too-often relied on without question.
This moment revolves around one of the most infamous dates during 1483: 13 June, the meeting at the Tower of London that led to the execution of Lord Hastings. It doesn’t exactly relate to Richard, or indeed to Hastings, but I think it amply demonstrates the myth-building and distortion of truth in the early sixteenth century that has been widely accepted ever since.
Sir Thomas More’s account of the incident is infamous and relied on by a good many historians to this day. Aside from describing an odd story about strawberries and the revelation of a withered arm, that Richard did not have, which he claims has been inflicted by the witchcraft of Elizabeth Woodville, there is plenty to be said about this account. The specific problem to highlight here, though, relates to the eruption of violence and the arrest of Hastings. Here, More describes how Hastings is seized as a traitor by guards, as ‘another let fly at the Lord Stanley, who shrunk at the strokeand fell under the table, or else his head had been cleft to the teeth; foras shortly as he shrank, yet ran the blood about his ears.’
Writing around the same time, in the early sixteenth century, Polydore Virgil tells his reader that on 13 June, Richard ‘commanded to be sent for specyally by name Thomas Rotheram archebisshop of York, John Morton bysshop of Ely, Henry duke of Buchingham, Thomas lord Stanley, William lord Hastinges, John lord Haward, and many others whom he trustyed to fynde faythful ether for feare or benefyt.’ He goes on to explain that Richard ‘apprehendyd all at once William lord Hastinges, both the bysshops of York and Ely, and also the the lord Stanley.’
These sources appear important. We are constantly reminded that both writers had access to men who had lived through the events, so were working from eyewitness testimony that all but assures their veracity. If we look at the three contemporary, or very near contemporary, sources that discuss the events at the Tower on 13 June 1483, something leaps out at me.
The Crowland Chronicle, written in March 1486 by someone clearly close to Yorkist government, offers the following account of the Council meeting on 13 June 1483;
‘lord Hastings, on the thirteenth day of the month of June, being the sixth day of the week, on coming to the Tower to join the council, was, by order of the Protector, beheaded. Two distinguished prelates, also, Thomas, archbishop of York, and John, Bishop of Ely, being, out of respect for their order, held exempt from capital punishment, were carried prisoners to different castles in Wales. The three strongest supporters of the new king being thus removed without judgement or justice, and all the rest of his faithful subjects fearing the like treatment, the two dukes did thenceforth just as they pleased.’
Crowland, who was probably at the centre of the events in London in the spring of 1483, identifies the three strongest supporters of Edward V’s cause as Hastings, Archbishop Rotherham and Bishop Morton. Dominic Mancini offers even less detail, and is the only one to have Hastings cut down during a meeting at the Tower. In the build-up to the events of 13 June, Mancini notes that:
‘Having got into his power all the blood royal of the land, yet he considered that his prospects were not sufficiently secure, without the removal or imprisonment of those who had been the closest friends of his brother, and were expected to be loyal to his brother’s offspring. In this class he thought to include Hastings, the king’s chamberlain; Thomas Rotherham, whom shortly before he had relieved of his office: and the bishop of Ely.’
Mancini continues to describe the events at the Tower thus:
‘One day these three and several others came to the Tower about ten o’clock to salute the protector, as was their custom. When they had been admitted to the innermost quarters, the protector, as prearranged, cried out that an ambush had been prepared for him, and they had come with hidden arms, that they might be first to open the attack. Thereupon the soldiers, who had been stationed there by their lord, rushed in with the duke of Buckingham, and cut down Hastings on the false pretext of treason; they arrested the others, whose life, it was presumed, was spared out of respect for religion and holy orders. Thus fell Hastings, killed not by those enemies he had always feared, but by a friend whom he had never doubted.’
A third contemporary account of the events appears in a note from an anonymous London citizen, who wrote that:
‘the Lord Hastings was takyn in the Towur and byhedyd forthwith, the xiii day of June Anno 1483. And the archbeschope of Yorke, the bischop of Ele, and Olever King the secoudare (secretary), with other moo, was arestyd the same day and put in preson in the Tower.’
It is fascinating that one man plays a central and prominent role in sixteenth century records of this event but is entirely unmentioned by contemporaries: Thomas, Lord Stanley. Crowland is clear that only Hastings, Rotherham and Morton were under suspicion and mentions no other person being involved. Mancini identifies the same three as the men Richard would deem Edward V’s chief supporters, though he seems to suggest others may have been present. The anonymous record adds a fourth figure, Edward IV’s Secretary of the French Language Oliver King. Although he adds that others were arrested, he, like other contemporaries, fails to identify a man as well-known as Lord Stanley, whose arrest would surely have been a scandalous moment more noteworthy than that of Oliver King.
It has always struck me as odd and unlikely that Thomas Stanley was implicated in the business at the Tower enough to be arrested or injured. On 6 July, less than four weeks later, he would appear in a position of prominence and honour at Richard III’s coronation and his wife, Lady Margaret Beaufort, would carry the queen’s train. This seems like an odd way to treat a man who three weeks earlier had been central to a plot against Richard, or at least Richard was claiming there was such a plot and later sources claimed Stanley was at the centre of the storm. Rotherham and Morton remained under arrest, yet Stanley was free. Hastings was dead, but Stanley alive and at the coronation.
What I had failed to notice until researching this book was that no contemporary places Thomas Stanley at the Tower on 13 June 1483. He only appears at the meetings in the accounts penned in the early sixteenth century by More, Vergil and other Tudor writers. This is highly suggestive of a fabrication. It seems likely to me that Thomas Stanley inserted himself at the meeting to raise his profile as a dedicated supporter of Edward V. His family would use poetic devices like the Ballad of Lady Bess, which paints Thomas as a father figure to Elizabeth of York, the sister of the Princes in the Tower and queen to Henry VII. There was obviously a concerted effort to align the Stanley family with the House of York, though not with Richard III, after 1485.
The addition of a dramatic flourish that sees Stanley wounded in the scuffle at the Tower smacks of him trying to make out that he took one for the team that day, suffered because he sought to champion Edward V and prevent the evil of Richard III. It was a neat trick that allowed him to slide comfortably into Tudor England by virtue of his Edwardian Yorkist credentials, as a friend and protector of the queen, whose brothers he had tried desperately to save from their wicked uncle. It was a lie, if the evidence of those writing in the immediate aftermath is to be believed.
The importance of this episode is that it demonstrates precisely how later mythology has been layered up around Richard III’s story. If the witnesses used by More and Vergil were making things up, as Stanley seems to have been, then how reliable is the rest of their evidence? As the dust began to settle after the Battle of Bosworth, men needed to distance themselves from Richard III’s regime in order to find a place in the new order of Henry VII. It is for this reason that the composition of Richard III’s only parliament in 1484 is lost. Those who sat passed into law the act that confirmed Richard as king and made Edward IV’s children, including Henry’s queen, illegitimate. None would willingly admit to being a part of that.
Most distanced themselves from Richard III. Crowland conspicuously excuses decisions he was involved in by claiming all London was utterly terrified of a vast northern army that never arrived and which Richard never called for. A few hundred were mustering at Pontefract, but London would have been well able to keep them out. It is excuse-making by men who hoped to retain their positions of power in the new regime. Stanley is one of the few men who led his family through the Wars of the Roses to emerge not only unscathed but improved. His masterstroke as Henry VII got his feet under the table was not to fawn to the new king, but rather to align himself with the family of Edward IV, and to claim that his loyalties had always firmly laid there. He had been a defender of Edward V and positioned himself as a guardian of Elizabeth of York. It was another example of Stanley caution and intelligent planning.
In terms of Richard III, we can see clearly how and why myths emerged by the start of the sixteenth century. As early as 1485, after Bosworth, men were being careful to distance themselves from Richard III if they hoped to retain influence. Those who acted as witnesses for the accounts prepared by More, Vergil and others had agendas, and the willingness to fabricate incidents such as Stanley’s presence, arrest and injury at the Tower of London on 13 June are incredibly telling. What else was untrue, or at least embellished? The same regime, populated by these men, presented information to discredit Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, made a great deal of Richard III’s supposed plan to murder his wife and marry his niece. The same men and the same writers constructed the stories that many cling to today regarding the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.
If Stanley’s recorded part in the events of 13 June 1483 is a lie, fabricated to fit an agenda, how much more of the accepted, traditional story is similarly flawed?
The 13 June 1483 is a big day in the Ricardian calendar. For a long time, the events of the Council meeting that took place at the Tower of London on that morning have been a source of consternation for those with a positive view of Richard and of vindication for those who imagine him in a more negative way. I think it’s time this was put to bed and the arguing stopped.
If you want to get a real grip on the technical issues outlined here, you really can’t go wrong with Annette Carson’s Richard Duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and High Constable of England. It’s a heavyweight piece of academic work that essentially blows centuries of misunderstanding out of the water.
When Richard ordered the execution of Lord Hastings as the Council meeting descended into chaos, he was labelled a murderer and that particular piece of mud has stuck ever since. I have heard even the most die-hard Ricardian struggle to explain away this act and have to concede that it was his one proven act that can’t be excused. Well, here is how you excuse it.
The traditional story tells us that Lord Hastings wrote to Richard in the north to tell him of the death of his brother Edward IV, the suggestion at least being that the Woodville family of Edward’s wife were planning to keep the news from Richard and have the Prince of Wales crowned as Edward V before Richard knew what had happened, thus bypassing the Protectorate that Edward IV had wanted to put in place to secure the kingdom for his son. Lord Hastings was personally at odds with Thomas Grey, one of Elizabeth Woodvillew’s sons from her first marriage, and possibly feared a diminishing of his own position if the queen’s family snatched power.
Lord Protector is a peculiarly English position that doesn’t seem to have any parallel in medieval Europe. Regents would usually be installed to wield the power of the monarch whilst they were underage, but when Henry V died, a very different arrangement was established. Power was separated for the minority of Henry VI into three discreet silos. The person of the infant king and responsibility for his education was given to Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter (and Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick after Exeter’s death). The Council would operate the government day to day and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was to be Protector of England. The final settlement was not quite what Henry V had envisaged, which demonstrates the immediate end of a king’s authority on his death.
The key point about the role of Protector was that it had no responsibility whatsoever for either the person of the king or the operation of government, though the Protector was expected to also sit on the Council and be a prominent member. The responsibility of the Protector was nothing more or less than the security of the nation. The Protector essentially had military authority in domestic and foreign affairs, though in Humphrey’s case his brother John, Duke of Bedford actually acted as regent in France.
So, although Richard was supposedly appointed Protector in a codicil to Edward IV’s will (which has not survived, so cannot be verified) and was certainly appointed Protector by the Council, this gave him no authority or responsibility for the person of Edward V or for the operation of government. It only gave him authority in military matters.
That means it has little to do with the events of 13 June 1483. I just wanted to set it out anyway.
The key consideration for Richard dealings with Lord Hastings is his position as Lord High Constable of England, an office he had held since October 1469, when he was appointed for life. Apart from the period of the readeption, Richard had acted as his brother’s Lord High Constable for almost fifteen years, since he was seventeen. He had wielded the powers of this office for the entirety of his adult life and would have been utterly familiar with them and completely confident in their application.
For the purposes of this incident, the significant power of the Lord High Constable was the authority to conduct a summary trial for treason, decide a sentence and enact it based on evidence that he had seen. The Lord High Constable could legitimately and legally act as judge, jury and executioner. It’s an inequitable arrangement that may jar with modern sensibilities, and indeed with medieval ones too, but it was designed to empower the Lord High Constable to protect the monarch from the threat of treason.
On 13 June 1483, most of the Council met at another location as Richard, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Stanley, Lord Hastings, Bishop Morton and Bishop Rotherham gathered at the Tower, nominally to conclude arrangements for Edward V’s coronation. Thomas More dramatized the events that followed as Richard left the meeting, returned and almost immediately cried treason. A scuffle broke out as guards entered the room, Lord Hastings was arrested, dragged outside and beheaded in the Tower grounds.
The important part here is Richard’s cry of treason. Interestingly, even later Tudor chroniclers seem to concede the Lord Hastings was up to something behind Richard’s back. Polydore Vergil wrote that even before Richard arrived in London, Lord Hastings ‘called together unto Paul’s church such friends as he knew to be right careful for the life, dignity, and estate of prince Edward, and conferred with them what best was to be done’.
Grafton wrote that ‘Lord Stanley sent to him [Hastings] a trusty and secret messenger at midnight in all the haste, requiring him to rise and ride away with him’. Thomas More claimed that the lawyer William Catesby went to Richard and that ‘Catesby’s account of the Lord Hastings’s words and discourse, which he so represented to him, as if he had wished and contrived his death’. Furthermore, Grafton added that Richard gathered the aldermen on London together immediately after the execution and provided them with evidence ‘that the Lord Hastings and other of his conspiracy had contrived to have suddenly destroyed him and the Duke of Buckingham there the same day in council’, which satisfied them.
Was the evidence fabricated? Some will claim every piece of evidence in June and July 1483 was. Were the stories that reached Richard’s ears lies? If so, he might still have legitimately believed them in the tense and confrontational atmosphere of London, a city and political animal he was unfamiliar with, at least compared to others he might have been told were aligning themselves against him.
These questions are hard to answer and will ultimately be influenced by your own perception of Richard. Whether his actions were morally right or wrong is open to debate, but the legality shouldn’t be. Richard had the power and authority for every action that he took, given to him, ironically perhaps, by his brother Edward IV in most cases. His powers as Constable mean that he could call a Court of Chivalry and summarily try, judge and execute William, Lord Hastings based on evidence that he had seen, and which he reportedly shared subsequently with the authorities in London so that they offered no protest at his actions. If reports were reaching him of treason, along with the evidence he shared, then he was perfectly within his rights to act decisively. Those were the powers Edward IV gave him and which he had exercised for his entire adult life.
Even if Richard fabricated the plots and the evidence, the deception was made a legal execution, not a murder. There had been due process, even if we wouldn’t recognise it as such today. If Richard is given the benefit of the doubt, and the reports of later Tudor writers suggest there was plenty going on behind his back in London at the time, then he was reacting to threats that he perceived in order to protect the safety of the monarch, which was precisely why Edward IV gave him those powers. He might not have envisaged them being used against one of his best friends, but he might not have complained either if Richard could prove it was necessary – and according to Grafton, he could, and did.
So, nothing illegal here as far as I can see. Moral judgement is another matter, but Richard did not act illegally in the death of William, Lord Hastings. It was an execution, not a murder, and that fact should no longer be a matter of debate.
You can get a copy of Annette Carson’s Richard Duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and High Constable of Englandhere – and I thoroughly recommend that you do!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had a fairly regular replacement history teacher when I was at school. A retired teacher, his passion for the subject was plain and undiminished. There were two things he would frequently teach his class. He would walk into the classroom, wipe the floor with his finger and then stick it in his mouth, to choruses of (vaguely admiring, form the boys at least) shocked disgust. He would then loudly ask a random student ‘What did I just do!’, to which the stunned pupil blurted out ‘Wiped the floor with you finger and licked it, sir.’ ‘No I didn’t,’ he would reply, and slowly demonstrate that he used one one finger to wipe the mucky floor and then licked a different one. ‘Not everything is quite what you might think at first glance.’ This, obviously, only worked once per class, but it shouts of a need to interrogate what we see and hear.
His other great mantra was that there are only three things that you need to know about history. ‘Evidence, Evidence, Evidence’. It is a constant cry, too, of those who argue about elements of 1483, never more so than around the pre-contract story. There is no direct evidence of a pre-contract, but neither is there direct evidence to deny it. We must, instead, examine the limited circumstantial evidence that exists. Many write that the lack of direct evidence proves conclusively that there was no pre-contract, but that is to ignore the circumstantial evidence that remains.
There are three key elements to the spring of 1483 that cannot be decisively proven either way. The first is a Woodville plot against Richard, which would explain his arrest of Rivers, Grey and Vaughan, Elizabeth Woodville’s flight into sanctuary (making it an act of guilty fear), and Richard’s desire to drive them from government. What evidence is there that such a plot existed? Several sources state that Hastings called Richard to London because the Woodvilles were planning a coup in defiance of Edward IV’s last wishes. Thomas Grey, son of Elizabeth Woodville and half-brother to Edward V, is supposed to have told the Council that his family were powerful enough to rule without Richard and that they would not wait for his arrival to set a date for the coronation.
Dominic Mancini, notably one of the few contemporary, eye witness accounts to survive, wrote that on his arrival in London Richard provided evidence of the Woodville plot that he had thwarted. ‘For ahead of the procession they sent four wagons loaded with weapons bearing the devices of the queen’s brothers and sons, besides criers to make generally known throughout the crowded places by whatsoever way they passed, that these arms had been collected by the duke’s enemies and stored at convenient spots outside the capital, so as to attack and slay the duke of Gloucester coming from the country.’ Mancini continues to offer his opinion that the plot was not real, ‘Since many knew these charges to be false, because the arms in question had been placed there long before the late king’s death for an altogether different purpose, when war was being waged against the Scots, mistrust both of his accusation and designs upon the throne was exceedingly augmented.’ The veracity of the existence of a plot is different to a lack of evidence of one. This is documented evidence of a plot. You may believe Mancini in judging it a trick, but it is evidence nonetheless.
If the plot existed, it explains Richard’s subsequent actions. If not, and Mancini’s proposition that these were arms stockpiled for war against Scotland were true, it is an early sign of less than noble intentions on Richard’s part. War with Scotland had taken place the previous year. Richard had led it, which might mean he would know where weapons were stockpiled. This, though, is to assume Richard’s early evil intent. What if the weapons were being prepared for a Woodville bid for power? Stony Stratford, where Rivers had taken Edward V, was a Woodville manor, an ideal place for an ambush. Is it really impossible? I can’t say that the plot was real, but I can’t say that it wasn’t. Is it unreasonable to think Richard could have believed in a plot? Probably not. There is evidence of it. Four wagon loads of evidence.
The issue of Lord Hastings’ execution is another troublesome incident for the lack of decisive evidence. We know that Hastings was at a small Council meeting in the Tower when he was accused of plotting against Richard, hauled outside and beheaded. The discussion of Richard’s right to act in this matter is detailed in a previous post, but what about evidence? Polydore Virgil, writing around twenty years later for Henry VII and not an eye witness, claimed that ‘the Lord Hastings … called together unto Paul’s church such friends as he knew to be right careful for the life, dignity, and estate of prince Edward, and conferred with them what best was to be done.’ This seems to indicate that Hastings was, in fact, plotting against Richard even before he arrived in London. Virgil is certainly no apologist for Richard III, yet he offers evidence suggestive of a plot by Hastings. If news of this meeting reached Richard, perhaps via William Catesby, is it unreasonable that he might believe Hastings plotted to his own end, just as he had accused the Woodvilles of doing? Hastings perhaps fell foul of the paranoia he himself had sown in the Protector’s mind.
Sir Thomas More (who I am loath to classify as a provider of evidence) wrote, later than Virgil, that ‘for the further appeasing of the people’s mind, he sent immediately after dinner in all the haste, one herald of arms, with a proclamation to be made through the city in the King’s name, containing that the Lord Hastings with diverse others of his traitorous purpose had before conspired the same day to have slain the Lord Protector and the Duke if Buckingham while sitting in the Council’. This story is backed up by the eye witness Mancini, who reported that ‘to calm the multitude, the duke instantly sent a herald to proclaim that a plot had been detected in the citadel, and Hastings, the originator of the plot, had paid the penalty’. This proclamation is, in itself, evidence. No copy or note of the content survives, but following its circulation there was no widespread outrage or fallout over the execution of a man who was personally very popular in the City. This offers at least circumstantial evidence that the content of the proclamation provided enough to satisfy those listening that Hastings had been guilty of the plot he was accused of.
I have read much recently about the pre-contract story. Many pieces are quite insistent that the reader should demand evidence of the pre-contract (which is quite right) because there is none (which is quite wrong). I have read several times recently that it is foolish nonsense to believe in the pre-contract story. Once more, there is a complete lack of definitive evidence in either direction and what we have is circumstantial, but should not be completely ignored.
Thomas More mentions the pre-contract story, but has the name of the lady involved wrong, just one of many errors that mark his work as something other than a genuine retelling of history for the perpetuation of knowledge. Virgil noted the sermon given by Dr Ralph Shaa, writing that ‘there is a common report that king Edward’s children were in that sermon called bastards, and not king Edward, which is void of all truth; for Cecily, king Edward’s mother, as is before said, being falsely accused of adultery, complained afterward in sundry places to right many noble men, whereof some yet live, of that great injury which her son Richard had done her.’ Virgil insists that the pre-contract did not feature in Shaa’s sermon and was created later because the insinuation against Edward IV and Cecily Neville was not well received.
Here, Virgil is directly at odds with our eye witness, Mancini, who noted that when Shaa gave his sermon ‘He argued that it would be unjust to crown this lad, who was illegitimate, because his father King Edward on marrying Elizabeth was legally contracted to another wife to whom the [earl] of Warwick had joined him.’ Mancini, certainly no apologist of Richard’s, specifically tells us that the pre-contract was the basis of Shaa’s sermon, in direct opposition to Virgil’s version of the same sermon. Who should we offer greater weight to? Both writers were not friendly to Richard. Mancini was in London in 1483 and writing for a foreign audience. Virgil was not an eye witness and wrote twenty years later for the man who deposed Richard. My vote would go to Mancini’s version.
The Italian further writes that ‘On the following day all the lords forgathered at the house of Richard’s mother, whither he had purposely betaken himself, that these events might not take place in the Tower where the young king was confined. There the whole business was transacted, the oaths of allegiance given, and other indispensable acts duly performed. On the two following days the people of London and the higher clergy did likewise. All important matters are deliberated, and decrees made law by these three orders, whom they call the three estates. This being accomplished, a date was fixed for the coronation’. We may be able to confidently say that Parliament was not in fact in session at this time, but Mancini clearly intimates that deliberation took place before a decision was made, a decision upon which all of those gathered were agreed, for he does not note a single dissenting voice at this point. What was deliberated if not evidence of a pre-contract that proved Edward V’s illegitimacy?
On a side note, it strikes me as odd, too, that Mancini’s work, De Occupatione Regni Anglie Per Riccardum Tercium, is always referred to as ‘The Usurpation of Richard III’, when the title in fact translates as ‘The Occupation of England by Richard III’. Where did the word ‘usurpation’ spring from? In Latin that would be ‘usurpatione’, but that word does not appear in Mancini’s title.
The Parliament Rolls provide further evidence of the pre-contract’s existence. Titulus Regius, enrolled in the Parliament of 1484, is believed to hold the text of the petition asking Richard to take the throne in June 1483. On the subject of the pre-contract, it claims ‘that at the time of the contract of the same pretended marriage, and before and long time after, the said King Edward was and stood married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the said King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony’. Here is a legal document, enacted by Parliament, stating that the pre-contract existed. It is a frequent criticism that this cannot be relied on because it was enacted by Richard’s Parliament. This is true, and has to be taken into consideration when weighing the evidence, but it should not be dismissed. It provides clear evidence that the story of a pre-contract was the reason that Edward V was declared illegitimate and Richard asked to take the throne.
The final piece of evidence comes from the pen of Philip de Commines, a man who served first the Dukes of Burgundy and then the Kings of France. In the 1490’s he wrote his memoirs, covering decades of political activity. He is the first to name the source of the information on the pre-contract that reached Richard as Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Commines recalled ‘This bishop affirmed, that King Edward being in love with a certain lady whom he named, and otherwise unable to have his desires of her, had promised her marriage; and caused the bishop to marry them’. He wrote that ‘His [Stillington’s] fortune depending upon the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained secret.’ This was why the story was not known until after Edward’s death, when Stillington told it to Richard.
Commines is frequently criticised as unreliable, never having visited England and writing a decade after the event. He was, however, politically active throughout the 1460’s, 1470’s and 1480’s. He met Edward IV, knew the Earl of Warwick and many of the other key figures in the Wars of the Roses. This is evidence from the pen of a man active in the political sphere at the time and certainly not partisan, at least not in Richard’s favour. If we must negate his evidence because he wrote a decade later, we must also utterly discount Virgil and More, upon whom many still base their views of these events unquestioningly. Commines gives evidence of a pre-contract story, told to Richard by a man involved in the proceedings, naming Stillington, yet this is not accepted as evidence of the pre-contract. If such compelling evidence cannot be offered for proper evaluation, then none will ever suffice.
It is worth asking another question at this stage. Where is the evidence that Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville? No banns were read, there is no record, legal or chronicle, of the ceremony. We don’t even know what date it is supposed to have happened on. It reportedly took place with two witnesses, one of them Elizabeth’s mother, and a priest. Edward supposedly announced its existence several months later in Council, probably to irritate Warwick. There is no decisive evidence that it actually happened other than Edward’s assertion that it did. How is it that this is unquestionably accepted as having taken place when the idea that a similar ceremony had taken place earlier with another lady, evidence of which emerged in 1483, strong enough evidence to convince those in London at the time that they should disinherit Edward’s son, is dismissed so completely?
Edward’s word is good.
The combined word of Richard, Buckingham, many lords spiritual and temporal, officials of London, Dominic Mancini, Philip de Commines and an Act of Parliament are dismissible, and dismissed.
Looking from the point of view of evidence, the marriage to Eleanor Butler is easier to prove than that to Elizabeth Woodville.
Of course, evidence is very different to proof.
Matthew Lewis’s latest book, The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing) is a detailed look at the key players in the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century.
The first serious threat to Richard III’s kingship came in mid October 1483, just four months after his coronation. It is hard now to properly judge the popular reaction to the new king and his seizure of power, but the fact that such a real threat came so swiftly points to some disaffection even during the honeymoon period. As Richard was progressing around his new kingdom refusing gifts of money and contenting “the people wher he goys best that ever did prince”, as Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s enthused, others were clearly less upbeat about the new king.
When rebellion came, it was famously to involve Richard’s closest and most powerful ally of the last few months, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The Duke was to give his name to the uprising, but was this simply an early sleight of hand trick by … well, more on that anon.
Although Buckingham’s Rebellion would fail it is important to understand just how large and well organised a threat it really was and how fortunate Richard was when it finally broke. It is the nature of regimes, especially new ones seeking to put down roots, that rebellion should be understated, but we should not let that blind us to the size and complexity of what was planned.
The rebellion was to take place on 18th October, St Luke’s Day. It is likely people took less notice of the calendar date than feast days in mediaeval times and it is telling that huge royal events always coincided with feast days. So word would have spread that the Feast of St Luke was the day. Kent was set to rise and attack London from the south east, drawing Richard’s attention that way as men of the West Country, Wiltshire and Berkshire, swelled by Buckingham’s Welsh army crossing the Severn and Henry Tudor’s force of Breton mercenaries landing, probably, in Devon moved in from the west. With Richard’s attention on Kent, they would fall on him, catching him unawares, and bring down the might of their combined dissatisfaction upon him.
But how had Richard come to this so swiftly? In June his coronation had been a triumph. He had been well received all around the country, particularly in the north. Perhaps this is precisely where the problem began. Richard was something of an unknown quantity in London, and after the troubles that seemed barely behind them, few can have looked favourably on more uncertain times and more regime change, especially when this new arrival descended from the north and openly favoured the region. There will come a question of self-fulfilling prophecy to add to the cauldron of confusion.
The mystery of Buckingham’s turning of his coat is as fascinating as it is impossible to solve. He may have fallen out with Richard over the fate of Edward IV’s sons, though even this possibility is sub divided, since Buckingham may have been appalled by a plan outlined by Richard to do away with the boys, or Buckingham may have vehemently argued that it must be done only to be denied by Richard. Perhaps Buckingham saw some revenge against the Woodville clan he had been forced to marry into by killing two of its matriarch’s sons. The sources offer as much weight to a prevailing view that Buckingham had killed the boys as Richard had, and Buckingham had lingered in London for several days after Richard left on his progression. Simply, we have no answer to this, only possibilities that warrant examination.
We do know that Buckingham had long coveted the return of the vast Bohun inheritance, withheld from him by Edward IV. Richard was in the process of restoring this to Buckingham, awaiting only Parliamentary approval, but perhaps this was too slow for Buckingham’s liking and fed a niggling doubt that he would ever get it back.
There are two figures who probably do feature prominently in Buckingham’s defection, and possibly play a role that burrows much deeper into the foundations of Richard III’s rule. This inseparable and unstoppable duo are John Morton, Bishop of Ely and Margaret Stanley (nee Beaufort). I know that much is made of Margaret Beaufort’s involvement or lack thereof in, for example, the fate of the sons of Edward IV, but it remains too little examined for me. I have no doubt that many will take objection to what I offer, but I do not present it as fact, merely as a possible interpretation of what happened. I disagree with the view that Margaret Beaufort could not possibly have been involved in anything that went on as much as I do with the view that she definitely killed the boys.
The Tudor antiquary Edward Hall wrote some 60 years later that Margaret Beaufort had chanced to meet Buckingham on the road near Bridgnorth as she travelled to Worcester and he returned to his lands in Wales. She supposedly pleaded with Buckingham to intercede with Richard on her behalf, to use his influence to secure the safe return of her son and his marriage to a daughter of Edward IV, an arrangement that had been close to fruition when Edward suddenly died. There is little of rebellion herein, except that, if this discussion ever took place, Margaret was making it clear to Buckingham that Richard was not one who seemed willing to deliver what had been hoped for under Edward, sowing seeds of doubt that Richard would deliver anything. Of little consequence to Buckingham, perhaps, but he was still hoping for those Bohun lands.
If a seed was sown, it was keenly tended by Bishop Morton when Buckingham reached Brecon Castle. The Bishop had been released from the Tower following the events surrounding Hastings’ execution into Buckingham’s care under a gentle form of house arrest. Morton was mentor to a young Sir Thomas More and it seems likely that More’s version of Richard stems from Morton, a man who seems to have hated Richard with a passion. An ardent Lancastrian, Morton had been reconciled to Edward IV’s rule after Tewkesbury and the death of the line of Lancaster. Buckingham’s family had been staunch Lancastrians too, his grandfather dying at the Battle of Northampton fighting to protect Henry VI. Morton apparently tugged at latent Lancastrian sympathy, perhaps even giving Buckingham hope of the throne for himself. The seed was fertilised and shooting. The Bishop must have been pleased with his work.
This is where many will disagree with my suggestion, but I think it is possible that more cultivating was going on in London at the same time. Margaret Beaufort wanted her son back. She seems to have decided that he would return best by seizing upon the discontent that bubbled around Richard to make himself king. I don’t subscribe to the view that she spent his entire life plotting to make him king, only that she desperately wanted him back and saw an opportunity to good to miss. An all or nothing gamble. But if she was going to gamble her precious only son, she would need to swing the odds as far in his favour as possible.
It is known that Margaret opened a channel of communication to Elizabeth Woodville in her sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Unable to risk personal visits, Margaret’s physician, Dr Lewis Caerleon acted as a go between, serving Elizabeth as her physician too. By this medium a pact was reached. Elizabeth Woodville would call out her family’s support and, far more importantly, her late husband’s loyal followers, in support of Henry Tudor’s bid for the throne in return for an assurance that Henry would marry her daughter Elizabeth, making her queen if he were successful.
This is a momentous moment in 1483. It marks the acceptance by Elizabeth Woodville that her sons’ cause was dead, and probably her acceptance that they were dead too. She must have been certain of this to offer all of the support she could ever muster to another claimant to what she would have viewed as her son’s throne. Surely she would only do this with certain knowledge of their death. How did she come by this knowledge? Since it was not known throughout London and the country what had become of the boys, and still isn’t to this day, she clearly had ‘information’ we do not. Where did this information come from? It seems likely to me that the source was Dr Lewis Caerleon, passing on sad news from Margaret Beaufort. This does not mean I’m accusing Margaret of doing the deed, or of having it done (though I don’t think that’s as impossible as many like to make out). I am suggesting that she saw an opportunity to improve her son’s chances by feeding a story to a desperate, lonely mother in sanctuary, starved of information and desperate for news of her son. What would better turn the former queen and all of the Edwardian Yorkist support against Richard than news of the death of her sons whilst in his care? The suggestion was probably more than enough.
There, I said it! Margaret lied to Elizabeth Woodville about her sons to secure her support.
As the Feast of St Luke approached, the rebellion looked in good shape. It was large and was a very, very real threat. But then it began to fall apart. The rebellion relied too heavily on everything going to plan. When a spanner was thrown into the works, the carefully constructed machine fell apart. That spanner was thrown when some of the rebels in Kent showed their hand too early. They marched on London on 10th October for some unknown reason, eight days too early. John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Richard’s loyal friend, was in London. He swiftly saw off the rebels, capturing enough of them to get details of the rebellion planned for the following week.
Richard III was at Lincoln when news reached him on 11th October of the false start, and of the rest of the plan. He called a muster at Leicester and set out to crush the rest of the waiting rebels. Orders were sent for bridges over the Severn to be destroyed to prevent Buckingham from leaving Wales and the border region was ordered to resist any attempt by Buckingham to cross it.
On 18th October, the plan swung into action, but the weather now seemed to work in the king’s favour, no doubt a sign of God’s favour in the days when men were keen to see signs wherever possible. A tremendous storm battered England. It rained for ten solid days. The River Severn was swollen and ferocious, bursting its banks at many points. With bridges slighted, Buckingham could find no crossing and his less than keen Welsh levies were happy to desert him in favour of home and hearth.
In the Channel, Henry Tudor’s fleet had been scattered by the same storm. When his ship, possibly alone, at most with one other left for company, finally reached the south coast, he was hailed by a group of soldiers as a victorious conqueror. Buckingham had, they called from the shore, succeeded in full and now keenly awaited Henry’s arrival. Ever astute and suspicious, it is not hard to picture Henry narrowing his eyes in the driving rain just off the coast. If it sounded too good to be true, it probably was. Henry turned his ship about and aimed it back at Brittany. His shrewd caution doubtless saved his life.
Buckingham was forced to flee, taking refuge in the house of one of his men, Ralph Banastre. Before long, the promise of a hefty reward caused Banastre to hand Buckingham over to Sir James Tyrell, who escorted the Duke to Salisbury. Buckingham supposedly begged for an audience with his erstwhile friend the king. Richard resolutely refused to allow the Duke into his presence. The feeling of betrayal was plain when, at news of Buckingham’s part in the rebellion, Richard wrote from Lincoln to John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, requesting that he send the Great Seal, raging in his own hand against “the malysse of hym that hadde best cawse to be trewe, th’Duc of Bokyngham, the most untrewe creatur lyvyng”, adding that “We assure you ther was never false traytor better purvayde for”. To a man who seems to have seen things in black in white, this betrayal of trust was utterly unforgivable. Though this facet of Richard’s character was to cause him great problems in other ways, it probably served him well in this case. Buckingham was beheaded as a traitor in Salisbury market square on 2nd November.
So, it seemed, Richard had swiftly, decisively and effectively crushed the first uprising against his rule. Buckingham was dead. Tudor had scurried back to Brittany, though evaded capture. It was clear that Morton and Margaret were heavily involved in the plot, and it must have seemed as though God had sent the storms to thwart Richard’s enemies, proving that he was the true king, chosen by God.
How Richard dealt with the aftermath of this rebellion was to be key. And I think that he dealt with it poorly.
Morton escaped, fleeing first to the Fens and then taking a ship to Flanders where he hid from Richard’s vengeance and continued to plot. Margaret Beaufort, though, was cornered. Richard’s response to her part in the scheme to place her son upon his throne is remarkable, particulary for those who view Richard as a merciless, ruthless tyrant. Margaret was, in effect, let off. Her lands were forfeit, but were granted to her husband, Thomas Stanley, the same man Richard had arrested as a traitor in June. She was placed under house arrest in her husband’s care. He was to make sure that she made no contact with her son. I can’t imagine what assurances Stanley offered to make Richard believe that he would do as instructed. It was Richard’s mercy, and perhaps naivety, that sealed his fate. Beheading women would have to wait for the Tudor era.
My suggestion is that from the very outset of Richard’s rule, Margaret Beaufort spied an opportunity. If she could not have her son returned to her by peaceful means, then she would craft for him the opportunity of the grandest possible return to England. Perhaps she fed Elizabeth Woodville lies to make her believe that Richard had killed her sons, whether Margaret was aware of their true fate or not. The revelation of the truth could then be what drew Elizabeth and her daughters from sanctuary to Richard’s court a few months later. Whether that revelation was of her sons’ murder at the hands of another, perhaps Buckingham, or of their survival we cannot know, but this version of events at least helps to make her actions more understandable.
This is to view Buckingham’s rebellion as a thin veil drawn over a Tudor plot. His name given to protect others because his life was lost. The extent of these roots may be larger than we know and stretch right back to the very beginning of Richard’s rule. How much of the disaffection against Richard in the south was stirred up deliberately, planting and cultivating opposition to Richard in order to reap support for Henry? It took two years longer than hoped, but the harvest came in finally.
Opposition to and resentment of Richard’s rule only grew when he reacted to the south’s revolt by planting his loyal northern allies across the south. This is perhaps the self-fulfilling prophecy that I mentioned earlier. If men feared Richard would force his northern friends into their region, they made it a certainty by rebelling. If Margaret had used this fear to ferment opposition, Richard played into her hands by doing precisely what the southern gentry feared most – taking their land, money and power away from them. But what choice was Richard really left with? Already, he was being forced to paint himself into a lonely corner. I just wonder how much of this was some overarching Tudor scheme.
I remain unsure whether the sleight of hand here was the work of Richard, to disguise Tudor’s threat, making Buckingham the prime mover and demonstrating his fate, or that of Margaret Beaufort, Thomas Stanley and Henry Tudor, concealing the threat they still hoped and intended to pose.
Ricardians will lament the missed opportunity to remove Stanley in the Tower in June and Margaret following this uprising in October. Without their driving force, determination and resources, would Tudor ever have reached England again? It is testament either to Richard’s naivety, their cunning, or both that they survived to see him fall at Bosworth two years later.