Yikes!! The fantastic History Hit have released the documentary we did on the #PrincesInTheTower and #RichardIII. 😬😳
I’m somewhere bouncing between excited, terrified, proud, nervous, anticipating bad reactions, hoping it’ll go down well.
I hope you’ll have a watch. You can get a month’s free trial – what better time to use it and encourage more content like this?
I think it’s a pretty big step for Ricardianism to get something as revisionist as an exploration of the possibilities the The Princes in the Tower weren’t murdered in 1483, never mind that Richard III didn’t kill them. If this gets plenty of views and likes and lots of publicity, it should lead to more opportunities to tell a different story about Richard III. So if you can spare half an hour, please sign up for the free trial (you can cancel it before you get charged anything, or keep it and watch more) and watch the documentary.🤞
(And it was the first time I’ve done anything like this, so be gentle!)
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.
In my last blog post, A Perfect Coup, I discussed the situation that Richard III, as Duke of Gloucester and Protector of the Realm, may have found when he arrived in London in the summer of 1483. The one glaring issue that I didn’t address was the development of the story of the illegitimacy of the Princes in the Tower. So here goes…
The issue of the execution of Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughn has been inextricably linked to the declaration of the illegitimacy of the sons of King Edward IV, but what if that were a mistake? The executions have been regarded as brutal measures employed by Richard to clear a path to the throne; the declaring of the boys’ illegitimacy being the end game to which this process had aimed. Applying hindsight, it is easy to muddle events and apply an overarching scheme to events which may have been very separate at the time. If Richard arrived in London to find a squabbling mess and tried to resolve it, what if this was just another devastating piece of news to be dealt with? And what if someone unexpected was pulling the strings?
One of the biggest mud pies thrown at the story of the Princes’ illegitimacy is its convenience to Richard. I would argue that it was far from convenient, but many will see only Richard’s ambition. For now, it is enough to understand that a pre-contract of marriage was, in medieval England, under canon and common law, a marriage as though a church ceremony had taken place. Saying “I will marry you” was the precise equivalent of saying “I do” before an altar. If, therefore, a pre-contract existed it would, without doubt or room for argument, make the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville bigamous and any children of that union illegitimate and incapable of inheriting the throne.
Is it feasible that King Edward IV indulged in a clandestine ceremony equivalent to a marriage in his late teens and early twenties in order to get a lady, concerned for her own reputation and keen for a dream match, into bed? Well, yes. That is precisely how he became married to Elizabeth Woodville. I would not be surprised (though can only offer conjecture) if many women were wooed this way in those years but all remained silent to preserve a reputation that would otherwise be destroyed, to prevent their future marital prospects from being harmed and to avoid incurring the wrath of the young king. Perhaps Elizabeth Woodville was the last in a line, the one who simply would not remain quiet, or with whom Edward genuinely fell in love. Either way, they were married in secret with limited witnesses, including Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta, and the union was kept secret for several months, even from his closest friend the Earl of Warwick. Did Edward hope to extricate himself but found that he had finally played the game one too many times and with one capable of matching him?
Whatever the truth, the notion that Edward may have engaged in such a practise would surely not have been alien or repugnant to the people of London. When Edward returned to reclaim his throne in 1471, Philippe de Commines believed Edward was welcomed by London because the City’s merchants hoped for repayment of the debts that he owed them and the City’s wives hoped to return to his bed. His carnal reputation served him well in 1471 but doomed his son in 1483. Without a doubt this background made the allegations against him far more plausible than they otherwise may have been.
To return to 1483; the Crowland Chronicle tells us 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”. This sermon was delivered by Dr Ralph Shaa, half brother to the mayor of London on 22nd June 1483, the date set for the coronation of Edward V. The sermon was entitled ‘Bastard Slips Shall Not Take Deep Root’ and made public the alleged pre-contract of marriage. It appears that the sermon also questioned Edward IV’s own legitimacy, though this charge was swiftly dropped, whether for lack of truth, evidence or will to offend Duchess Cecily. It was also unnecessary if Edward’s children were proved illegitimate and Richard may still have wanted a relationship with his mother!
The story was supposedly brought to Richard by Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Claiming to have been a witness to the pre-contract, Stillington presented his evidence to a Parliamentary committee who believed in it enough to declare the boys illegitimate and request that Richard take the throne as the only legitimate male heir of York. It is frequently contended that this revelation was too well timed to be true, that it came from nowhere at just the right time to win the throne for Richard. But there is more to it than that. It was not such a well timed coincidence.
If the pre-contract were true, no one during Edward’s lifetime would bring the allegation into the light for fear of retribution from both the king and his queen, not to mention her family. A lady (or ladies) would also have to consider their own prospects should they announce such an embarrassing disgrace. Eleanor Butler died in 1468, but was alive when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, so if the pre-contract were true there would be no doubt of bigamy. It seems likely that Edward’s death was required for this news to be made public.
In 1478, 5 years before his death, Edward IV had executed his brother George for treason. George’s rap sheet was as long as any man’s arms and it is hard to say that he didn’t bring his fate upon himself, but I wonder whether it might have relevance to this story. The Parliament Rolls record the charge the king brought against his brother, stating “a conspiracy against him, the queen, their son and heir and a great part of the nobility of the land has recently come to his knowledge, which treason is more heinous and unnatural than any previous one because it originates from the king’s brother the duke of Clarence”. The charge adds that “He also said that the king was a bastard, not fit to reign, and made men take oaths of allegiance to him without excepting their loyalty to the king.” In 1478, Stillington was closely associated with George, Duke of Clarence. When Clarence was arrested Stillington was too and spent time confined in the Tower of London for unknown offences believed to have been in connection with George’s treason.
So, as early as 1478 we have a brother of King Edward IV plotting against the king, queen and “their son and heir”, questioning the king’s legitimacy, and we have Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells closely enough associated with the plot to be imprisoned. George was also charged with retaining a copy of “an exemplification under the great seal of an agreement made between him and Queen Margaret promising him the crown if Henry VI’s line failed”, showing that he was seeking to assert a claim as the heir both of York and of Lancaster. Is it inconceivable that Stillington’s secret had found its way to the eager ears of Clarence and that this was what drove him to rebellion? Disposing of a clergyman was notoriously difficult and Stillington was eventually released.
If we step back in Stillington’s career, there is more coincidence. Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, when Stillington was an archdeacon and Keeper of the Privy Seal. In 1465 he became Bishop of Bath and Wells and in June 1467 he was appointed Edward’s Lord Chancellor, a role he held (excepting during the re-adeption of Henry VI) until 1473. It may mean nothing more than a steady career progression, but reward and promotion followed on from Edward’s wedding, perhaps because he knew Stillington held a secret that had to be preserved. After his dismissal as Lord Chancellor in 1473, Stillington seems to have grown close to George, Duke of Clarence, becoming embroiled in the duke’s treason by 1478 in a frustratingly unspecified manner. Perhaps it is unspecified because it would have destroyed Edward’s line if made public.
There is another figure who may have been at play too. Why did Stillington seek out Richard in 1483? I find it hard to except the ‘happy coincidence’ or questions about why it did not arise earlier. I can’t imagine a circumstance before 1483 when it could have arisen. Warwick may not have known and Clarence was silenced if he was threatening to reveal this secret. So why then? Well, Edward was dead so Stillington could expect a degree of impunity, though could not be sure how Richard might react to his news. The succession was about to take place and Stillington was about to watch the coronation of a boy he knew to be illegitimate. Before then, when Edward was alive, it was not an issue. Now it was. Perhaps Stillington, into his sixties by 1483, presumed he wouldn’t live to see the matter become a problem and would be excused from dealing with it. Maybe George had bound him to reveal the secret when the time was right. Or just maybe Stillington didn’t seek out Richard. Perhaps Stillington was sought out to deliver this news. By who? The very man More accused of revealing Lord Hastings’ plot to Richard.
John Ashdown-Hill, in his book Eleanor: The Secret Queen, examines the issue of the pre-contract in great detail. One relationship that he picks out fascinated me and seems to fit in with the events of this and my previous post. Eleanor Butler nee Talbot was the daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, a veteran of the wars in France who had worked there alongside Edward’s father the Duke of York. John Talbot had a niece named Alice Talbot (c1390-1436) who married Sir Thomas Barre of Burford. One of their daughters, Jane, married, as his second wife, Sir William Catesby Snr, becoming step-mother to Sir William Catesby Jnr, the lawyer who may have reported against Lord Hastings to Richard. John Ashdown-Hill asserts that there is evidence that Eleanor and Jane knew each other quite well. On 4th June 1468 Eleanor gifted a manor at Fenny Compton to her sister Elizabeth and Sir William Catesby Snr was a witness to the document (Eleanor: The Secret Queen, J, Ashdown-Hill p140). Sir William Snr had been attached to the Lancastrian household and cause and may even have fought at Towton for Henry VI. His uncle Robert did and William was attainted after the battle and briefly exiled. Through the 1460’s Catesby Snr became attached to the Earl of Warwick and began to expand his land interests veraciously. At the readeption of Henry VI the combination of Warwick and Lancaster sang to Catesby and he was appointed Sheriff of Northamptonshire during the brief period. He was pardoned after Edward IV’s return and remained as Sheriff until his death.
So the Catesby family are linked in a professional capacity and by marriage to the Talbots and directly to Lady Eleanor Butler. Could Sir William Catesby Jnr have heard a Talbot family tale of Eleanor’s ‘marriage’ to the king? Could he or his father have been engaged to offer legal advice on the matter? Perhaps this ambitious family held onto the story until it could serve them best. If that were the case (though obviously it is beyond proof and can only ever be conjecture), and if Catesby informed against Hasting to Richard in search of self promotion, it is possible that he deemed the time right to seek out the old Bishop of Bath and Wells. He may have believed Richard would be pleased with the news that would make him king. Certainly his rewards flowed once Richard was king and he became a hugely wealthy landowner and powerful political being. Could Sir William Catesby have found Robert Stillington and encouraged him to bring this story to Richard? It would surely explain the ‘convenient’ timing. If Catesby believed that it would ingratiate him to Richard, could he even have fabricated the pre-contract, making a plausible case with believable evidence from an old family connection to the Talbots and dredging up Clarence’s old ally Stillington to add credibility?
It is impossible to know the truth of the pre-contract story at this distance. John Ashdown-Hill’s book is well worth a read on the subject. It is apparent that such an act is not beyond the bounds of Edward IV’s character, though to allow one or more pre-contracts to stand would have been incredibly reckless. Although the evidence is lost to us now, what was presented to Parliament was complete and convincing enough for them to find that Edward’s children were illegitimate. This much is irrefutable. It is impossible to tell how or from where the story originated. It may have been the true cause of George, Duke of Clarence’s downfall. Stillington may have kept his secret until conscience forced him into the daylight or William Catesby sought him out to tell his story. Richard may have had prior knowledge of the story, may have been shocked to hear it, or may have been party to its fabrication. We can never know and I will leave you to make up your own mind which of these seems the more likely.
I am left wondering one more thing. If Sir William Catesby was really behind the reporting of a plot by Lord Hastings to Richard and he was also at work in the emergence of the pre-contract story, what else was he willing to do to secure his position at the new king’s right hand? Is there another suspect emerging from this murky episode whose fingerprints might be found upon the fate of the Princes in the Tower? Did Catesby take a further step in his bid to win favour? If he sold out Lord Hastings and used an old story to procure the illegitimacy of a king, was he beyond arranging the deaths of two boys if he thought it would suit his new, all powerful, grateful and generous master? If he was involved, it would beg the question as to what Richard knew. Catesby’s rewards suggest he was not out of favour in any way, so either Richard did not know or he was complicit. Perhaps Buckingham lost faith with a man who couldn’t control his own lawyer, or maybe Catesby pinned the deed on Buckingham and Richard refused to believe that the Duke was innocent.
That King Richard III seized the throne from his young nephew during the intrigue and confusion of the summer of 1483 is well known, as is the short, turbulent time that he was to spend upon the throne. Was Richard’s problem that his coup was, in fact, too good?
In early April 1483 King Edward IV, the first king of the House of York, lay on his deathbed aged 40 after over two decades as king, the second of which had seen more peace than the country had known in a generation. Although his death was coming early and his son was only a boy of 12, the peace that he had secured should have nurtured the Prince until he became a man. But all was not as it seemed.
King Edward knew that strife lay ahead for his kingdom and for his son. Grafton’s Chronicle reports that as the king lay near to death he called about him his friends and family. “My Lords, my dear kinsmen and allies,” Edward reportedly began, “in what plight I now lye, you see, and I well feel.” There are other reports too of Edward pleading with those around him to unite for his sons’ sakes and to put aside their petty quarrels. He could see what was coming. “For it sufficeth not that you love them, if each of you hate other.” Lord Hastings, firmest of the king’s friends, was required to take the hand of his enemy Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, the king’s step son, and swear that they would cease their rivalry. “Such a pestilent Serpent is ambition, and desire of vain glory and sovereignty,” Grafton reports that the king continued, “Ambition, which among states where once entered, creepeth so far forth, till with division and variance he turneth all to mischief. First longing to be next to the best: Afterward equal with the best, and at the last chief and above the best.” The sick king pleaded with those about him “from this time forward, all griefes forgotten, each of you love other, which I verily trust you will“, though it seems that he did not trust in this at all. When he could speak no more, Grafton tells how he “laid down on his right side, his face toward them: and none was there present that could refrain from weeping. But the Lords comforting him with as good words as they could … each forgave other and joined their hands together, when (as it after appeared by their deeds) their hearts were far asunder.” Edward was not blind, nor was he naive. This situation required a different solution.
The answer at which Edward IV arrived was that neither of these parties could be trusted with power, for they would, by nature of their hatred of the other, use the position against their enemies. His solution, on his deathbed, was to name his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Protector. It is often forgotten that this is the situation into which Richard was imported from his estates far in the north. There was hatred and bitter rivalry in London before he was summoned. That is why he was summoned. To believe that he created an atmosphere of edgy, nervous partisan politics is to ignore the fact that such an atmosphere already existed in London. Edward’s personality and intense likeability had been the glue that had held the parties together and without him, he knew that it could swiftly descend into conflict. For this, he must bear the blame. He had not prepared sufficiently for a world without him. In relying solely on his personality and not a less personal form of solid governance he denied his son safe stability. Perhaps less of an issue had it happened a few years later, he must have known that his death while he son was 12 was a recipe for certain disaster. No more could be done, and on the 9th April 1483, the tallest king in English history, King Edward IV, passed away.
To my mind, this prevailing situation in London must colour our view of Richard’s role and his actions (which is different from excusing him of the worst crimes of which he is accused if he were guilty). Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset and half brother to the new king was supposedly bragging to the Council that his family held such power that they would rule without Richard. There must have been fear in the opposition camp that this was true because Lord Hastings wrote to Richard that he should come to London with all haste to stop the Queen’s family.
The new King Edward V was already in the care of his mother’s family, who had been a part of his household at Ludlow, led by his uncle Anthony, Earl Rivers. It is entirely possible, perhaps one might even concede reasonable, that Richard might fear that the Woodville family would indeed try to use their hold over the king to secure the authority that his brother had not wanted for them. They were generally disliked and mistrusted for their use of Queen Elizabeth’s position to secure some of the best positions at court and to corner the marriage market. They would have real reason to fear the loss of this position and if Richard believed the rumours of their posturing then securing the person of the king from them was the natural response. It matters less whether a Woodville plot against Richard was real or not than whether Richard had cause to genuinely believe it real. When Rivers overshot their agreed meeting place and took the king to a Woodville manor at Stony Stratford, that can only have served to add to Richard’s suspicion that some kind of plot may be very real.
What of Lord Hastings’ position in all of this? That he wrote to Richard pleading him to hurry to London suggests that he felt his own position weak. This would, to anyone’s eyes, make him dangerous. Even before his arrival in London, Richard must surely have been every bit as wary of Hastings and his motivations as he was of those of the Woodvilles. The execution of Lord Hastings is often viewed as the one undeniable blot on Richard’s character and reputation amid the fog of rumour. I am about to try and deny it, I’m afraid.
William, Lord Hastings was a close personal friend of King Edward IV, devoted to the cause of York. They shared good times and bad, food, drink and women, the last three to excess. Edward and Hastings famously both had Jane Shore as their mistress, as did the Marquis of Dorset, Edward’s step-son and Hastings’ rival. It is frequently asserted that Hastings was removed by Richard because of his fierce and unswerving devotion to his friend’s son, Edward V. It is claimed that Richard concocted a story of treason as an excuse to remove Hastings, who was a hurdle between him and the throne that he coveted. As with the Woodville plot, the question is less whether it was real and more whether Richard might have genuinely believed it to be.
Henry Tudor’s historian Virgil offers an interesting insight into this question. During the reign of Henry VII he wrote;
“But the lord Hastings who bore privy hatred to the marquis and others of the queen’s side, who for that cause had exhorted Richard to take upon him the government of the prince, when he saw all in uproar and that matters fell out otherwise than he had wenyd [wanted], repenting therefore that which he had done, 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. Here divers of them who were most offended with this late fact of Richard duke of Gloucester, adjudged it mete with all speed to procure the liberty of prince Edward, whom they accounted as utterly oppressed and wronged by force and violence, that so the fire, which was kindling, might be put out before it should spread further abroad.”
Was it Richard’s plan to seize the throne that caused such a desperate meeting? No. The matter that “fell out otherwise than he had wenyd” was the news that Richard had taken possession of the person of the king at Stony Stratford. This was precisely what Hastings had written to Richard to achieve, yet Virgil claims that on hearing of it, Hastings reaction was to call a meeting of powerful men to discuss what they might do against Richard on his arrival in London. Whilst Virgil may not be the most reliable source of unbiased information on Richard, he appears here to be offering substance to the notion that Hastings was plotting against Richard. Perhaps not against his life, but plotting nevertheless. Virgil concludes the matter of this meeting at St Paul’s by saying that “All the residue thought that there was no need to use war or weapon at all, as men who little suspected that the matter would have any horrible and cruel end.”
So, if Virgil is to be believed, most at the gathering did not share Hastings’ fear of Richard. The episode, if true, is perhaps reported to demonstrate Hastings precognition that Richard would turn to evil on arrival in London. What it in fact shows is that Hastings was measuring opposition against the Protector before he even arrived in London. If Hastings wished to preserve his own position, he may well have known that Richard, pious, priggish, upright Lord of the North, would not approve of Hastings lifestyle and may not wish that kind of influence upon his young nephew. Perhaps Lord Hastings had his own agenda that has been overlooked.
So it was that at a Council meeting in the Tower of London 13th June 1483 the deed was done. More recounts how Richard “came about nine o’clock to them, and having saluted all the lords very courteously, excused himself for coming to them so late, saying merrily, that he had played the sluggard this morning“. He jovially asked John Morton, the Bishop of Ely, for some of his “very good strawberries” for them to enjoy during the meeting.
“A little after this, the protector obliging them to go on in their councils, requested them to dispense with his absence awhile, and so departed. In the space of little more than an hour he returned again, but with such an angry countenance, knitting his brows, frowning and biting his lips, that the whole council were amazed at the sudden change. Being sat down, he said nothing for a good while, but at length spoke with great concern, and asked them this question : “What punishment do they deserve who had plotted his death, who was so near in blood to the king, and by office the protector of the king’s person and realm?” This question he had raised out of 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.”
Here, More, the supposed root of Richard’s criminal reputation, which he no doubt acquired tales of from John Morton himself, claims that William Catesby informed Richard that Hastings plotted against him. Catesby was a lawyer who had been in the service of Lord Hastings and who Richard had allegedly sent to sound out Hastings about Richard’s intention to seize the throne. It is reported that Catesby may never have actually raised the matter with Lord Hastings, but did report to Richard that Hastings would not join him. In fact, More is claiming here that Catesby in fact told Richard Hastings was plotting against him. So the question arises again: is it unreasonable to believe that Richard earnestly believed in a plot against him? If Hastings’ own man was informing him of one, it does not seem unreasonable.
Furthermore, Grafton reports that the night before this Council meeting, “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“. It would seem that Stanley had endured such a nightmare about a crazed boar chasing him that he was convinced Richard, whose emblem was the boar, was out to get them. To this messenger, Hastings teased “leaneth my Lord thy master unto such trifles, and hath such faith in dreams, which either his own fear fantasiseth, or do rise in the night’s rest, by reason of the day’s thought. Tell him it is plain witchcraft to believe in such dreams, which if they were tokens of things to come, why thinketh he not that we might as likely make them true by our going, if we were caught and brought back, (as friends fail ﬂyers) for then had the Boar a cause likely to raise us with his tusks, as folks that tied for some falsehood“.
Hastings advised against leaving lest they appeared guilty of some crime. If report of this reached Richard, what was he to make of these two discussing fleeing from London to their estates? Hastings had a large affinity in the East Midlands and Stanley could command an immense host from the North West. Could reports of this really be ignored, especially if they accompanied news of Hastings’ meeting at St Paul’s before Richard arrived.
Richard cursed Hastings as a traitor and had him dragged outside for execution, telling him “by Saint Paul, I will not dine till I see thy head off” (Grafton). Fabyan’s Chronicle reports that “there without judgement, or long time of confession or repentance, upon an end of a long and great timber log, which there lay with other for the repairing of the said Tower, caused his head to be smitten off“. Curiously, not allowing “long time” of confession implies that confession and last rites were in fact allowed, as it is often asserted they were not. As to the matter of “without judgement” there is an issue here too. Richard had, for many years, been Lord Constable of England, making him president of the Court of Chivalry and the Court of Honour. It is my understanding that the Constable was entitled to try matters without trial by peers based upon evidence that he had seen. I stand to be corrected if this is not true, but if it is, then Richard did not act illegally or outside of his jurisdiction by pronouncing judgement and sentence upon Hastings if he had evidence of a plot.
After the execution, Richard summoned the aldermen of London and, Grafton states, “Then the Lord Protector showed them, 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, and what they intended farther was yet not well known, of which their treason he had never knowledge before ten of the clock the same forenoon“. As with the evidence Richard presented to Parliament of his brother’s pre-contract and his nephews’ illegitimacy, many will claim that he invented the tale, but it is just as likely that he did not. London did not rise in opposition, perhaps because Richard showed them compelling evidence of the plots, the same evidence that he had been made aware of that morning, including, no doubt, Stanley’s call to Hastings to flee; evidence now lost to us.
In short order, the story of the illegitimacy of the Princes was circulated and Richard was asked to assume the throne. Having gone on at great length already, I will save the discussion of that matter for another time, but Richard was king. Earl Rivers, his nephew Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughn were executed at Pontefract. When Richard had arrived in London, Lord Hastings had supposedly congratulated him on securing the kingdom (for Edward V) without spilling so much as a thimbleful of blood. I can’t help wondering whether this very achievement ended up costing Richard his throne.
If he arrived in London in May 1483 to find a nest of vipers, a fraught atmosphere of plotting, intrigue and uncertainty, what should he have done? In short measure, Richard had dealt with it. He cut the heads from the two opposing factions; Lord Hastings and Earl Rivers. It is often assumed that he did so as part of a grand scheme to seize the throne, but what if he truly believed the plots were real and acted swiftly to prevent them progressing? This would explain why he continued to prepare for his nephew’s coronation, issuing edicts in the name of Edward V, minting coin for the new king and swearing his fealty repeatedly until the tale of their illegitimacy was given light. Perhaps it is hard to see the reversal of this man’s previous good character because it did not happen.
Thomas More also reports that during the Council meeting at which Hastings was arrested Richard bared his arm to show it withering, claiming witchcraft was being used against him. Since we now know that Richard did not have a withered arm , it is hard to know how much of these sources can really be believed, but it is intriguing that these are Tudor writers, trying to condemn Richard III, who in fact appear to give substance to the suggestion that he was surrounded by plotting.
That King Edward IV foresaw such turbulence from his deathbed is testament to the fragility of the peace that he had won and his realisation that without him it would not be likely to be maintained long. He would not apportion power to Woodville or Hastings, but turned to Richard, who he must have trusted to do what was required to resolve the tension. Would Edward IV have objected if he knew that the price of securing his son’s succession was the death of his best friend and his brother in law? I do not know. If any of the above has convinced you, then Richard was the right man for the job and Edward was only undone by his own previous wilful indiscretions.
The reason that I ask whether the coup was too perfect is that it was achieved with the death of four men; Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughn. Edward IV took the throne after years of bitter fighting and battles that decimated the nobility and gentry. Perhaps if Richard had killed more people, crushed more potential opposition and allowed attrition to work for him, he would have better secured his throne. That he did not, and that he tried to make peace with the likes of Thomas Stanley, at least suggests that he was a more genuine character during the summer of 1483 than he is given credit for.