This introductory episode of the Richard III Podcast offers an overview of the life of King Richard III upon which future episodes will expand.
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.
This introductory episode of the Richard III Podcast offers an overview of the life of King Richard III upon which future episodes will expand.
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.
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.
Or maybe none of this rings true.
What do you think?
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.
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.
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.
King Richard III held only one Parliament during his reign, spanning 27 days between 23rd January and 20th February 1484. It had been planned for 6th November 1483, but Buckingham’s uprising had led to its postponement. The legislation passed in the session, like everything else touched by Richard, is a source of passionate division. Was he an enlightened legislator for the benefit of the common man or a desperate usurper in need of support?
An unflattering review of my novel, Loyalty, recently disapproved of what the reader saw as my portrayal of Richard as some kind of ‘proto-democrat’. It is an element of his character and work that I reference a couple of times but I thought perhaps it could bear a little closer, more dedicated examination.
Luke 15:8-9 tells the Parable of the Lost Coin “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’” This parable formed the basis of the opening speech of Richard’s Parliament, made by his Chancellor, John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln. It towed the line of the disparaging language used to berate the rule of Richard’s brother Edward IV. Christ equates the woman’s elation at finding the coin to the joy felt by angels at a sinner’s repentance. In the search, she has also tidied her house and so is doubly rewarded with the finding and the cleanliness and order that results. It was used to define the purpose of Richard’s Parliament; to find that which had been lost, not only during his brother’s rule but throughout the civil unrest of the past 30 years, and to tidy England’s house. The implication was clear for all to see. England was a mess and Richard was going to sort it out.
Little is preserved for us of the composition of Richard’s Parliament in 1484. John Russell was his Chancellor, William Catesby, a man Richard was finding very useful, acted as Speaker, Dr Thomas Hutton was Clerk of the Parliament and the Master of the Rolls was Thomas Barowe, who Dr Anne Sutton notes was a cleric who had been in Richard’s service since 1471.
Of much more interest are the statutes passed. Controversy permeates these too. There were 18 private statutes, which included attainders against those involved in Buckingham’s Rebellion the previous autumn, settlements of land for people such as Henry Percy, who saw the return of confiscated lands, Lord Lovell and Sir James Tyrell. The most significant of the private statutes was Titulus Regius, which set out the basis of Richard’s claim to the throne due to the illegitimacy of his brother’s sons, and further berated Edward IV’s rule.
The public bills passed by this Parliament will become the crux of this discussion and I will try to place them in the context of their time. They broadly dealt with the removal of corruption and inequity that had permeated the legal system during the reversals and mass confiscations of the Wars of the Roses. It is worth bearing in mind who would be pleased with these statutes when examining Richard’s motives.
Significantly, the second statute of the Parliament put an end to benevolences, the practise created by Edward IV that allowed for extra-Parliamentary taxation by ‘requesting’ gifts of money from wealthy subjects. The statute simply and plainly states: “The subjects of this realm shall not be charged with any benevolences.” Parliament also enacted laws to curb corruption in the cloth trade and included anti-alien legislation that was popular throughout this period and was considered positive for English merchants.
All of these measures were immensely popular with the burgeoning merchant classes, especially in London. It was seen as a mark of Richard’s intention to manage his finances properly so that he would not have to resort to benevolences and to allow English trade to flourish. The wealthy merchants of London had fallen foul of Edward’s benevolences and these measures left them feeling more confident and free to reinvest their profits, encouraging the growth of trade.
A notable exemption from the anti-alien trade restrictions was the now well established printing trade. Books flowed into England and were not placed under the same restrictions as other goods. Richard’s own collection shows a devotion to books and this important exemption allowed the continued pouring into England of education and knowledge. It is difficult to say whether this was a deliberate personal commitment by Richard to books and learning but it is impossible to ignore the importance of the measure.
Other statutes sought to drive out corruption and fraud from land transfers and are considered vital developments in English land law. Jurors were required to be men of substance, holding freehold land worth 20s or more or copyhold land valued at 26s 8d or more. This sought to ensure that jurors were men less prone to bribery or bullying, thus offering fairer trials. It was not uncommon at this time for juries to be imported and either bribed or bullied into returning the desired verdict.
Then there is that whole bail issue. Richard III did not invent bail, but he made vital and seismic changes to the law as it existed. He extended the rules of bail to apply to those not yet indicted because, the Parliamentary Rolls tells us, “various people are arrested and imprisoned daily on suspicion of felony, sometimes out of malice and sometimes on vague suspicion, and thus kept in prison without bail or mainprise to their great vexation and trouble”. A suspect could be deprived of their goods and property, even the tools of their trade, before a judge had even weighed the evidence against them. If they were found innocent, there was no requirement to return the confiscated goods and men could be left unable to pursue their profession and make a living. A malicious charge with no base could therefore see a man left destitute. What Richard’s Parliament did was correct this inequity.
The remaining public statutes outlawed fraudulent collection of the dismes, the tenth granted to the king by the clergy which had seen imposters unlawfully collecting this money, spying an opportunity created by the misrule prevalent during the period, and reversed grants made to Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville.
So, to business. Richard is frequently charged with cynically courting popularity with his measures. Polydore Vergil tells how he “began to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he might be accounted more righteous, more mild, more better affected to the commonality.” So was this approach to the lot of the lower classes new? It certainly was not.
In 1473, a petition to Parliament told how Richard had unknowingly taken into service the father of Katherine Williamson of Riccall’s husband’s murderers. When Richard discovered that the man had aided and abetted his sons he ordered that ‘the said Thomas should be brought unto the gaol of York, there to abide, unto the time that he … were lawfully acquitted or attainted’. At this time, it would have been usual for those wearing the livery of a lord to expect their protection from such a charge, but Richard was not swayed by such concerns in his pursuit of fair justice for all.
A John Randson appealed to Richard in 1480 against Sir Robert Claxton of Horden, a leading member of the local gentry, who Randson claimed was preventing him from working on his own land. Not only was Claxton of higher social rank, but he was father to one of Richard’s retainers and father-in-law to another. These social and family ties would have been expected to see Claxton’s cause championed by the Duke. However, Richard found in favour of Randson, warning Claxton ‘so to demean you that we have no cause to provide his legal remedy in this behalf’.
Ardent detractors might suggest that this whole history was a decade or more or cynical populist stunts but I find that hard to accept. It is at this point that I would return to a consideration of who Richard was trying to woo if he was waging a propaganda war. What did he have to gain by courting the disenfranchised, powerless common man? Nothing really, and so it would be an odd tactic. Consider also at whose cost he operated these policies. Each advance for the common man came at the expense of ancient rights, privileges or corruptions enjoyed by the gentry and nobility, the very manna that kept them in their lofty position. By eroding this, Richard alienated the powerful upon whom, particularly as king, he must have relied. It is intriguing to extrapolate these considerations onto the battlefield at Bosworth and consider their impact on the nobles who did not come to their king’s aid and those who did in spite of his actions in this arena.
Another oft questioned aspect of this Parliament is how much credit Richard can personally take for its legislation, even if it is accepted as good, or even enlightened. His supporters will say that it was all his own doing. His detractors will tell us that Parliament probably did most of the work itself, the council mopping up the rest. As with so much involving Richard, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. As we have seen, Richard displayed a genuine concern for justice for the common man, but it is likely that he worked alongside the council and that some of the measures applied to trade were brought by merchants of London for the king and council’s consideration. So, I suspect, this good work was a collaborative effort but the end result was a raft of positive legislation which surely had the king’s support. It is striking that other monarchs are not subject to similar debate. Who doubted that Henry VIII personally drove the legislation that broke with Rome?
One thing is undeniable about Richard’s Parliament. It was the first time that the laws of England were published in English. Was there a cynical agenda at work here? If so, I struggle to see it. The law suddenly became more accessible to the populace at the same time that it became more concerned with their rights and providing them with justice. Equity was the watchword. Previously, the law had been published in Latin and so was the preserve of the clergy and the nobility able to speak Latin. Although literacy was not yet universal more could read English than Latin and knowing the law as it applied to you no longer required an education beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority. If the law was in English, it must have, at least symbolically, felt more like an Englishman’s law. What greater, more equitable gift could a king give to his subjects?
Interestingly, this is one aspect of Richard’s rule upon which there is more consensus throughout history than most others, though not all are sympathetic. There is a well reported story that in 1525 Cardinal Wolsey sought to extract a benevolence from Londoners on behalf of Henry VIII, only to be reminded by the crowd that Richard III had made them illegal. Wolsey derisively retorted “I marvel that you speak of Richard III which was a usurper and murderer of his own nephews.” The representatives of the crowd replied that “…although he did evil, yet in his time were many good acts made.” It must be accepted that these men were trying to avoid being deprived of their money but that they would cite Richard III as a defence in Tudor London is telling.
Lord Bacon, a man well versed in Parliamentary history, wrote at the outset of the Stuart era in the early 17th century that Richard III “was a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people.” Sir Richard Baker wrote in his Chronicles of the Kings of England that “In no king’s reign were better laws made than in the reign of this man.” As Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell wrote in the nineteenth century: “We have no difficulty in pronouncing Richard’s parliament the most meritorious national assembly for protecting the liberty of the subject and putting down abuses in the administration of justice that had sat in England since the reign of Henry III.”
We are stuck with the oft-sounded lament that Richard was deprived of time to see how far his legislative program may have gone. It is possible to mire him in charges of detachment from Parliament’s activities or cynical plays for popular support, for he is doomed to take all of the blame but none of the credit. Yet his laws favoured the weak over the strong, the poor over the rich and the oppressed over the oppressors. Why would he do this when it was the strong, rich oppressors who would keep him on the throne? Indeed, his favouring of their social antithesis probably cost him vital support at Bosworth.
What of the tenth coin? Would Richard have found it? He certainly set about cleaning England’s parlour. I think that his policies may have been too far ahead of their time, and that is meant not as a plaudit but as a criticism. He misjudged the mood of the establishment in his concern for the country and he alienated those he needed to bring into the fold for his reforms to have any hope. His intentions, I believe, were good, but his methods reflected his intractable, blunt nature and lacked the subtlety they might require.
What of my ‘proto-democrat’? I still see him and still see it as yet another captivating facet of the character of a man who has sparked and fuelled debate for over 500 years. Perhaps it is a fanciful flight. Perhaps England would have needed no civil war a century and a half later to curb the misuse of royal authority had Richard’s legislative program seen fruition.
It’s a tantalising thought.
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.
Research and Further Reading
“The Tenth Coin – Richard III’s Parliament and Public Statutes” – Susan Troxell: http://www.r3.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Rebuttal-Richard_s-Parliament-Laws.pdf
“The Statutes of Richard III’s Parliament” – D Woodger http://home.cogeco.ca/~richardiii/statutes.html
“His Parliament” – Dr Anne Sutton http://www.richardiii.net/2_3_0_riii_leadership.php#parliament
“Richard III The Lawmaker” – Boar and Banner http://www.richardiiiboarandbanner.com/richard_iii_lawmaker.html
The 2nd October 2013 marks the 561st anniversary of the birth of one of England’s most controversial monarchs, King Richard III.
On the throne for just 2 years, he has spent more than half a millennium dividing opinion and is still doing just that today, perhaps more than ever. With a judicial review of the decision to reinter his remains at Leicester Cathedral due to take place on 26th November, I wonder what King Richard might make of all of the controversy surrounding him on his birthday.
Do you know what?
I think he’d quite like it.
Richard, as Duke of Gloucester and as king, was no stranger to controversy and can often be found courting it. The first glimpse of this can be seen in his dealing with the feud between the Stanley and Harrington families. I have written a separate blog about this dispute entitled ‘Hornby Castle – The Price of Power’ so I won’t go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that Richard took a side and made it very clear that he was doing so. When Lord Stanley sought to blast the Harringtons out of Hornby Castle with his immense canon Mile Ende, the 17 year old Richard can be found issuing a warrant on 26th March 1470 signed ‘at Hornby’. He had clearly placed himself in the way of Stanley’s ambitions to defend a family I think he viewed as far more loyal and more deserving of his brother the king’s rewards.
When the Earl of Warwick rebelled, Edward IV was forced into exile in Burgundy. He boarded a ship at Lynn on the Norfolk coast for an uncertain future. With him, amongst others, was his youngest brother Richard. The date that they took ship is recorded as 2nd October 1470. Richard’s 18th birthday. I don’t think that he would have hesitated a moment to sail with his brother though it seems likely his mentor Warwick and the brother to whom he was probably much closer, George, were on the other side and staying may have seemed an easy option at the time.
When Edward IV invaded France in 1475 there was no fighting. Edward signed Louis XI’s Treaty of Picquigny which effectively bought off the English king and his nobles with hefty bribes, termed pensions by Edward, who was keen to put a positive spin on the campaign. A few dissented from the Treaty. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was amongst them. Louis had a private interview with Richard before he left France and gave him gifts. He doubtless used the opportunity to measure this intractable young man. What did he find? When Edward had been keen to accept Louis peace terms, Richard argued that, in spite of Burgundy’s failure to provide the promised aid, they had enough of an army to defeat the French in the field. Then, if he still wished, Edward could negotiate a better peace from a position of power and return to England having achieved martial glory. I suspect Louis, The Universal Spider King, found a man willing, even keen, to fight for what he believed in. Fiercely loyal to his friends and prone to seeing things in black and white, right and wrong, with no room for shading or half measures.
1482 saw Richard handed command of a campaign against Scotland that Edward IV lacked the drive to pursue personally. As well as retaking the strategically vital border town of Berwick for the final time, the campaign saw Richard marching his army all the way to Edinburgh without the loss of a single man. This was in part due to the meltdown of Scottish internal politics, but Richard gave orders that his men were not to sack the city and so it was. He controlled his army so completely that there was no looting or unruly behaviour whilst he occupied Edinburgh before withdrawing to England having achieved his aim. Edward IV wrote to Pope Sixtus IV after this Scottish campaign with unrestrained praise for his brother; ‘Thank God, the giver of all good gifts, for the support received from our most loving brother, whose success is so proven that he alone would suffice to chastise the whole kingdom of Scotland. This year we appointed our very dear brother Richard Duke of Gloucester to command the same army which we ourselves intended to have led last year, had not adverse turmoil hindered us.’ Of Richard’s control and mercy, Edward wrote; ‘The noble band of victors, however, spared the supplicant and prostrate citizens, the churches, and not only the widows, orphans, and minors, but all persons found there unarmed.’ The temptation, and the popular choice, would surely have been to allow his men to run riot in Edinburgh in vengeance for years of border raids to enrich themselves and blow off steam, but Richard opted for honour and strict control instead.
In 1483 Richard acted (rightly or wrongly) decisively and definitively when he took the throne. If he truly believed his nephews were technically illegitimate, then that left no option but for him to take the throne. If he really feared a Woodville takeover to his own exclusion, then he felt that left him no option but to seize power, and so he did it. If it was the opportunity he had awaited for so long then he grabbed it with both hands and would not let go. The easy option? Well, that might have been to dissolve back into the north and defend his power base, from his power base, and hope for the best. Taking the throne, whatever the real reason he did it, was not the easy option.
Then, of course, there is the greatest controversy that surrounds his name, even to this day. What to do with his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. The rebellion at the end of the summer of 1483 involving the Duke of Buckingham surely provided Richard with the perfect opportunity, if he wished the boys dead, to blame Buckingham, mourn them and move on. He could join the nation in sorrow, even apologise that he had failed to protect them from a snake in the bedchamber and the problem would be over with. He would know what was coming in terms of a public outpouring of sorrow and would be able to manage it. This was not the path that King Richard chose. Silence was far from the easy option. It allowed rumour to ferment and grow. Uncertainty was no friend to a mediaeval king. Why,then, did King Richard choose silence? Was it because he didn’t see why he should explain himself? Or perhaps because there was no murder to report and he simply wanted the boys to melt into forgotten obscurity; safe, but no threat. But that’s a whole different story!
It certainly was not the case that Richard was in the habit of keeping silent on big issues. When rumours began to grow at the beginning of 1485, as his wife of over ten years suffered from failing health, that he was poisoning her to speed her to her grave so that he could marry his (now legally illegitimate) niece, Richard did not hold his tongue. After taking the advice of Sir William Catesby and Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the king addressed the great and good of London to deny the foul rumour that he was causing the death of his wife. The easy road at such an emotionally fraught time might have been to ignore the nonsense and hope it went away. Richard chose rather to confront the matter head on and set the record straight.
Richard was not a man to shy away from controversy or confrontation.
Bosworth is the perfect, tragic demonstration of that. When Richard heard of Tudor’s landing whilst at Nottingham he was supposedly elated and keen to march on the impudent invader immediately. Some have attributed this reaction to a nervous overcompensation but I think that this is to apply hindsight to the matter. Richard would surely have been confident that he would win. Why mess about? Let’s get it over and done with now!
On the field at Bosworth, Richard led the famous, thundering charge of his household knights across the battlefield to attack Tudor himself. It is understood that Richard saw a chance to end the matter once and for all. No prolonged chase. No fleeing and regrouping for either side. It would end that morning, one way or another. We know how it did end, but this is a final demonstration of his willingness to confront issues head on, to throw himself in the way of harm for what he believed in and not to take the easy path. At the very end, offered the chance to escape the field on a horse a squire offered, Richard refused to be chased away. He refused to cower. He refused to back down from the fight. He stood, prepared to die, his spirit unbroken even as his body was crushed.
The arguments over his final resting place rumble on with no sign of diminishing in passion. E-petitions are closing with large numbers signing to show their adherence. Some are becoming increasingly vehement and angry as they fight for his bones. Most seem to feel it is a real shame that it has descended into such an undignified tug of war over the mortal remains of an anointed King of England. I thought that too. Then I thought something else.
Now, on the 561st anniversary of his birth at Fotheringhay Castle, 550 years after his time at Middleham in the Earl of Warwick’s household, 541 years after the founding of the Council of the North which he ran for his brother from Middleham for a decade, 528 years after his death at Bosworth, hasty burial at Greyfriars, Leicester and York’s recording that “King Richard late mercifully reigning upon us…was piteously slain and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie”, 1 year after his bones were dug up and examined, I have one question.
What would Richard make of all the controversy surrounding him?
I think he would smile to himself.
I think that he would think it was right and proper for people to fight for what they want and believe in (within the bounds of acceptable modern behaviour – no dragging canons the length of the country please!).
I think he would be quite pleased that over half a millennium after his death people are still talking about him.
To all sides, to Leicester, to York, to those who want to press their point, to those who think we should show more dignity, to all who love him and to those who hate him, I think he would say:
“Stand strong and true for that which you believe in. Do not be silenced.”
And I don’t think he would hesitate a moment to tell us where he really believes he should be buried.
Which is, of course, …………
Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.