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 stroke and fell under the table, or else his head had been cleft to the teeth; for as 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?
Matt Lewis is the author of several non-fiction histories on the Wars of the Roses period, including a biography of Richard, Duke of York, a biography of Richard III and The Survival of the Princes in the Tower. His Amazon Author Page, where all his books are available, can be found here.