I’m planning to do a series of talks online using Crowdcast. This year has seen all of my in person speaking engagements cancelled, so I thought I’d try to find a way around it. Engaging with audiences and talking about my research and books is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this historian and author lark, and I’ve missed it this year.
Yes. It’s also left a dent in my income that I need to fill. Although I still can’t deliver talks face to face, this seems like a good compromise which I hope you will be able to enjoy.
The first talk covers the year 1450, and serves as background to the causes of the Wars of the Roses, and to the birth of Richard III, who is sure to be the focus of later talks.
So, if you’d like to see the talk, please grab your ticket and I’ll see you there.
Whilst researching my biography of Richard, Duke of York I found myself drawn by a bitter feud that lasted for years and which in many ways was a kind of prequel to the Wars of the Roses. The more I learned about the acrimonious dispute between Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester the more it fascinated me and the more I began to see it as a pre-cursor to the troubles that followed. I found it almost impossible to tell Richard, Duke of York’s story without reference to the context provided by this relationship. It has been largely forgotten in the violent civil war that followed its shocking end but without the fall of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester there may never have been a Wars of the Roses.
Cardinal Henry Beaufort was born around 1375, the second son of John of Gaunt by his mistress (and later third wife) Katherine Swynford. His older brother was John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, whose descendants would become the infamous Dukes of Somerset who would rise to fame in the fifteenth century. His younger brother was Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, a very capable soldier, and Joan Beaufort, his younger sister, married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and became the matriarch of the Neville clan that rose to prominence as opponents of her brother’s Somerset descendants. Henry was half-brother to Henry IV, uncle to Henry V and great-uncle to Henry VI. As Bishop of Winchester he held the richest see in England and this made him invaluable to a Lancastrian crown perpetually short of money.
Henry Beaufort acted as Chancellor to his half-brother before they fell out, returning to influence under his nephew Henry V, who was close to his uncle. In 1417 Beaufort was created a Cardinal and papal legate, only for his nephew to place pressure on him to give up the Cardinal’s hat. The king feared the encroachment of papal influence but needed to keep his uncle, and not least his money, close. Henry Beaufort (no doubt grudgingly) agreed but in 1426, shortly after the accession of the young Henry VI, he was once more appointed Cardinal. This apparently conflicting role as Papal representative and senior royal counsellor would attract criticism, most notably from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
Humphrey was born around 1391, the fourth and youngest son of the man who would become King Henry IV. Created Duke of Gloucester by his brother Henry V in 1414, Humphrey took part in several campaigns in France, most notably fighting at the Battle of Agincourt. On his brother’s death Humphrey served as Regent in England for his nephew, though his power was severely limited by the Royal Council and was always subservient to the position of his brother John. Often viewed as reckless and bitter, Humphrey was almost permanently at odds with his half-uncle Cardinal Beaufort – and his behavior may have had another explanation as we shall see later.
After the annulment of his first marriage to Jacqueline of Hainult, Humphrey married Eleanor Cobham around 1430. The couple were popular and well liked, their court becoming a centre of poetry and learning. A part of Humphrey’s library was bequeathed to Oxford University and formed the basis of the Bodleian Library. When John died in 1435 it left Humphrey as heir presumptive to his childless young nephew and removed the one control on the rivalry between the duke and Cardinal Beaufort. From this point onwards the feud became ever more bitter and personal.
The first point of conflict came with the decision that had to be made quickly as to the identity of John’s replacement in France. The Cardinal wanted the prestigious position for his nephew John Beaufort, son and namesake of his older brother, as he sought to use his substantial influence to promote the position of his family in Lancastrian England. Humphrey was equally determined not to allow the Beauforts such power and promoted his closest legitimate royal relative, the young and powerful Richard, Duke of York. Humphrey won the argument and York was dispatched to France but the battle was only intensified.
When Parliament opened in November 1439 it was flabbergasted to hear a tirade of complaint from Duke Humphrey against his uncle Cardinal Beaufort just before Christmas. After Christmas the articles were presented in writing, nominally addressed to his nephew but clearly meant for a wide audience. Beginning by complaining about the release of Charles, Duke of Orleans, who had been taken prisoner at Agincourt and whose release Henry V had forbidden, Humphrey quickly launched into a sharp berating of his uncle’s actions over the last decade or so, not least his conflicted role as Cardinal and royal councilor. Charges rained from Humphrey’s pen but, perhaps reflecting the balance of power that was driving him to make his complaints, nothing came of his accusations and Cardinal Beaufort was not even investigated. Instead, the next strike would be made by the Cardinal’s faction.
Humphrey’s wife Eleanor Cobham was arrested and tried for treasonable necromancy in 1441, accused of having engaged the well-known ‘Witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne, to predict the death of Henry VI that would give her husband the throne. Eleanor claimed that she had only sought help to conceive a child but it is unlikely that any defense would have saved her. Although she escaped a death sentence Eleanor was forced to perform a public penance, divorce Humphrey and remain imprisoned for the rest of her life. She eventually died at Beaumaris Castle in 1452, still a prinoner, but the scandal of her arrest, trial and conviction forced Humphrey to retire from public life. It seemed that Cardinal Beaufort had won the war, but Humphrey remained a popular man, well loved by the general populace, viewed as a champion of their cause against a disinterested king and court party.
By 1447 the English conquests in France were in the final throes of a prolonged and painful demise. Henry VI’s government, by this point headed up by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was trying to hand back vast swathes of land won by Henry V and to the preservation of which John and Humphrey had dedicated their lives. There is little doubt that the government feared a backlash from Humphrey that could gather popular support and become dangerous. On 14 December 1446 Parliament was summoned to meet at Cambridge on 10 February 1447 but on 20 January the location was suddenly changed from Cambridge, where Humphrey was popular, to Bury St Edmunds in the heart of Suffolk’s power base. This clearly suggests that at some point over the Christmas period a plot to deal with Humphrey once and for all was crystalizing.
An English Chronicle recorded that Humphrey arrived after the opening of Parliament, was met outside the town and that before ‘he came fully into the town of Bury, there were sent unto him messengers commanding him on the king’s behalf’. He was ordered to go straight to his lodgings and not to try to see his nephew the king, who seems to have been convinced that his fifty-six year old childless uncle was actively plotting to seize the throne, a notion probably promoted by Suffolk and Cardinal Beaufort, who spied a final end for his longtime nemesis. Humphrey was arrested on 20 February by Viscount Beaumont, accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham, the Marquis of Somerset (Edmund Beaufort), the Earl of Salisbury and Lord Sudeley. Either that day or the following Humphrey suffered what was reported to be a devastating stroke. He lingered until 23 February when he finally died. His body was placed on public display before being buried at St Albans Abbey but rumours quickly sprang up that he had been murdered, perhaps poisoned. There is no evidence to support this and a natural cause is entirely possible, but the belief that Humphrey had been wronged lingered for years and his death was undoubtedly convenient to the government.
Humphrey is often remembered as a reckless, petulant, unreliable and belligerent man who resented his lack of power compared to his brother and the Council. This reading of events is not entirely fair to my mind. At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 Humphrey had been injured and knocked to the muddy ground. As French knights raised their weapons to finish him off an armoured figure stepped across his prone body and beat the attackers away. So close was the combat that the man defending Humphrey had a fleur de lys cut from the crown atop his helm. Humphrey’s life had been saved by his brother, King Henry V. For the rest of his life Humphrey would devotedly try to see his brother’s aims in France realised, perhaps because he owed his life to the famous warrior. Watching the floundering of English fortunes must have been painful and seeing the Beauforts attempting to use the Cardinal’s wealth to benefit themselves in a way Humphrey probably felt did not benefit England may have been behind his animosity to the Cardinal.
Cardinal Henry Beaufort would appear to have won the long war with Humphrey, though his victory was short lived. He died on 11 April 1447, less than two months after Humphrey. A legend sprang up, probably originating from the Tudor antiquarian Edward Hall and embellished by Shakespeare, that Cardinal Beaufort became delirious on his deathbed and offered Death all of his treasure for a longer life, though the contemporary Croyland Chronicle records simply that he died ‘with the same business-like dignity in which for so long he had lived and ruled’. In his early seventies, he had lived under four kings and amassed huge wealth and influence, a basis from which the Beauforts would flourish further.
Perhaps the real impact of the feud between Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester lies in what was to come after both of their deaths. The Beaufort family were set on an upward trajectory and enjoyed the favour of the king that the Cardinal’s influence had won for them. Richard, Duke of York had been promoted by Gloucester as a legitimate member of the blood royal and was widely viewed as the successor to Humphrey’s position opposing the peace party at court, meaning that whether he wished it or not he became an opponent to the Beauforts, perpetuating the feud of a previous generation. This rift would eventually widen until civil war broke out. Humphrey’s name would be closely associated with York’s cause for more than a decade after his death, his rehabilitation promoted by Cade’s Rebellion and his name finally cleared in Parliament when York held power.
The House of York and the House of Beaufort appear to have been set on a collision course by the disputes between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Henry VI’s inability to force a closure to the rifts at his court meant that the bitterly opposed factions caused a rupture in the nation that we remember as the Wars of the Roses. It is because of the course that Richard, Duke of York was set upon by these events that I found it impossible not to tell this story in order to explain his actions and the events that surrounded him. Although it is lost in the vicious war that followed, the long battle between Humphrey and Cardinal Beaufort laid the foundations for the Wars of the Roses that followed their deaths and Humphrey’s fall marked the implosion of the House of Lancaster in a manner usually believed to be the preserve of their successors in the House of York.
Humphrey was a well-liked figure who was popular with the common man and retained sympathy for the House of Lancaster as the government of his nephew became increasingly unpopular and out of touch with the country. The policy of eliminating those closest to the throne thrust Richard, Duke of York to prominence as Humphrey’s natural successor, caused those who had looked to Humphrey for a lead to turn their focus from the House of Lancaster and made York, not unreasonably, frightened of meeting the same fate simply by reason of his position. Perhaps paranoia was a part of the makeup of Henry VI’s mental issues even at this early stage, perhaps the Beauforts were manipulating him to improve their own prospects or perhaps it was a little of both. Whatever the reason, it backfired on Henry and the Beauforts, dragging England into a bitter and prolonged civil war.
Matthew Lewis’s has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.
There is a glut of articles saturating the press at the moment posing some pretty unpleasant questions about Richard III. Maybe it’s time for some answers. We are constantly asked why we are celebrating a child-killing tyrant, or what Richard III ever did for us. Sadly many of the articles cannot answer their own questions because their content demonstrates such a fundamental lack of understanding of the real issues.
Richard III has divided opinion for over 500 years and shows no sign of ceasing to do so as he is laid to rest for the second time in his long and eventful after-life. The Richard III Society exists to promote the re-examination of Richard III and his times. Contrary to the popular impression, most Ricardians are not the ‘loons’ David Starkey sees or any of the other names bandied about, none of which are complementary and all of which are unnecessary and unpleasant.
I’ve been accused of presenting Richard III as a proto-democrat before now. I think it was meant as an insult, but it bears some examination. In the case of Catherine Williamson in 1472, Richard broke the rules of the bastard feudalism under which he lived to hand over men in his service for trial for murder when he would have been expected to protect them. In 1480 he found in favour of John Randson against Sir Robert Claxton, Randson’s social superior who also had a son and son-in-law in Richard’s service. There are a string of examples like these spanning his time in the north. Championing the common man in pursuit of justice unfettered by social rank or wealth? Isn’t that something we could applaud?
What did he ever do for us? More than you might think.
Richard III held only one Parliament during his brief, two year reign. Amongst its statutes were several that we might applaud and which were to have long-lasting impacts. The second statute of the Parliament of 1484 abolished benevolences, a system of forced gifts to the crown used extensively by Edward IV to circumvent Parliamentary taxation. During Henry VIII’s rule Richard’s law was being quoted to Thomas Wolsey when the second Tudor monarch tried to re-impose benevolences. Richard III bolstered Parliament’s power and control over the raising of money at the expense of the Crown’s independence. It was an attitude diametrically opposed to this that led to the fall of Charles I and the Civil War. The fact that you know what tax you will pay and are not at the mercy of HMRC knocking on your door to tell you that the government would like you to give them a large cash gift, which is not optional and will not be repaid, is thanks to Richard III.
Other statutes curbed the corruption rife in the cloth trade and drove out fraud from land transfers. It was not illegal to fail to declare a fault in a title to land when selling it, meaning that buyers could be tricked and defrauded. Richard’s law codified a requirement to be honest and open and is considered a bedrock of English land law even today. If you have ever bought land or property, you have done so in safety and security in part because of Richard III’s legislation.
Anti-alien legislation featured in Richard’s Parliament and was immensely popular. It sought to place restrictions on imports and foreign merchants to protect English trade and jobs and to improve the nation’s finances. Supporting and safeguarding English industry against cheaper imports is still an issue today. Richard III took a positive step to defend jobs. An exception to these constraints was allowed for the printing industry. Books flowed into England from the Continent to the profound benefit of knowledge and learning and the spread of the printed word in England. It is the nature of tyranny and tyrants to control access to information, to prevent its free flow, not to actively encourage it.
The composition requirements of jury membership were re-defined by Richard III’s Parliament so that men had to be worth a specified amount of money to sit on a jury. We may not recognise this as a pillar of our legal system today, but there are still rules defining those disqualified from sitting on juries. In Richard’s time the issue was corrupt juries, often imported and appointed by one of the parties to the case, or easy to bribe because they could not afford not to take the inducement offered. Fair and equitable justice was of concern to Richard III, just as it is of concern to us now. On a different playing field than we enjoy today, the principles applied might be ones we would approve of.
Have you, or anyone you know ever benefitted from legal aid? If so, you can add another item to the list of things Richard III did for us. He established an early form of legal aid that allowed those without the means to employ lawyers to appeal directly to the royal council to have their case heard. Tyrannical repression of the masses hardly fits with improving access to the law, which this Parliament, for the first time in England’s history, published in English. Rates of literacy may not have been high but the emerging merchant classes could read as well as the nobility and clergy – they had to in order to go about their business – and a law in English must have felt like it belonged to an Englishman more than one in prosaic, restrictive and elitist Latin or French.
Then there is that whole bail issue. Richard III certainly did not invent bail. What he did do was to make vital and seismic changes to the law as it existed. The Parliament Rolls record that ‘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. This is surely a right enjoyed by many today.
From his late teens, as Duke of Gloucester, Richard had displayed an interest in championing the cause of the common man and pursued equity unbounded by social class or wealth. Do these sound like the concerns of a tyrant? It bears more of the hallmarks of my proto-democrat. Those at risk of the greatest loss under Richard’s rule were those with the most to gain from the maintenance of the status quo – the nobility, the minority who ruled the majority. This view offers another explanation for the loss of noble support suffered by Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth. It was not his tyranny that drove them away, but the very opposite. Who knows what the political landscape of England might have looked like if Richard had longer to pursue his programme?
What of all of those evil crimes?
Usurper? No. It is simply a factually incorrect term for what happened in 1483. Richard was asked to take the throne by the leadership of the City of London and those members of Parliament who were in the capital. It is an important distinction to note that Parliament was not in session at the time, so Parliament didn’t make the request, but a committee of those assembled for the Parliament planned for later that month did. To usurp is to take the power of another illegally or by force. What Richard did was not illegal, nor did he use force. In legal terms, he didn’t steal the power of another either, since Edward V had been declared illegitimate and unable to succeed based on evidence that was presented to that Parliamentary committee and London’s elite. Many will scoff at this lost evidence, but why? Simply because it doesn’t fit with their view of the man and it is too difficult to question that belief.
Murderer? In the cases of Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Haute, probably, by today’s standards. Probably not by those of his own time. All five of those men were found guilty of treason based on evidence that was shared around London. It is true that they had no formal trial, but Richard was Constable of England and was entitled to act as judge and jury in cases of treason based on evidence that he had seen. He publicised this evidence and it was accepted by his contemporaries. Why is it, then, that some find it so hard to accept that evidence now? There doesn’t even appear to be room to discuss it for some.
The death of the seventeen year old Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales and only son of Henry VI is frequently attributed to Richard III whilst he was the eighteen year old Duke of Gloucester. Ignoring the fact that according to most contemporary sources Edward died during the battle and so murder is hardly an applicable label for his death, at least one eye witness account states that Richard’s vanguard were pursuing the Duke of Somerset while King Edward’s centre attacked the Lancastrian centre, where Prince Edward was stationed. It is most likely that Richard was nowhere near Edward when he died. It is also likely that Edward died during the fighting and was not ‘murdered’. It is possible he was executed after the battle, but given that the very point of the battle was to conclude matters between the Houses of Lancaster and York, and given the recent history of the Wars of the Roses, there could have been no other outcome. If Richard was involved, unlikely as it seems, it would have been in his role as Constable of England, dispenser of royal justice.
Shortly after the Battle of Tewkesbury, Henry VI died in the Tower of London. In spite of the story put out, exemplified by The Arrival of King Edward the Fourth’s assertion that Henry died of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’, it seems certain that he was put to death. Contemporary chronicles, including Warkworth, state that Henry was put to death, ‘being then in the Tower the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many other’. Phillipe de Commyne, a Burgundian writer who never visited England, asserted that he heard that Richard ‘slew this poor King Henry with his own hand, or caused him to be carried into some private place, and stood by while he was killed’. This may well be true. As Constable, it was Richard’s function to see the king’s justice dispensed. Who else might Edward trust to see this unpleasant job done, especially considering that it almost certainly had to be done. If Richard did the deed, or oversaw its completion, it cannot have been done without Edward IV’s instruction.
Then, of course, there are The Princes in the Tower. It is one of history’s greatest and most enduring murder mysteries precisely because it is a mystery. I can freely admit that Richard might have had his nephews killed. He has to be the prime suspect if there was a murder. Could you convict him in a court of law? No. Not even a civil court using a balance of probabilities test. You might think you could, but you really couldn’t. There are other suspects, other outcomes, every bit as likely and fascinating to examine. Yet for some it’s easier just to deny any possibility but Richard’s wilful guilt, however unlikely, unnecessary and out of character it can be argued the murders would be.
All of the fuss about the re-interment of Richard III bemuses some, but Richard himself would have recognised the process his remains are undergoing and indeed might well have expected it sooner. In 1476, whilst Duke of Gloucester, he was chief mourner when the mortal remains of his father Richard, Duke of York and his brother Edmund, Earl of Rutland were transferred from their original burial place near Wakefield, where both had died in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. Over a period of nine days a funeral procession made its way in pomp and reverence to the family mausoleum at St Mary and All Saints Church, Fotheringhay. In 1484, as king, Richard organised the re-interment of Henry VI’s remains, translating them from their humble resting place at Chertsey Abbey to the royal splendour of St George’s Chapel. He certainly wouldn’t have found anything, with the exception of Protestant ceremony, odd or disconcerting about the treatment he is receiving now.
Why do we care about Richard III? The British love an underdog, a wronged man, and for many Richard has been wronged by history. The myths obscuring his character don’t stand up well to scrutiny and it is this that interests Ricardians. In an age where labels are discouraged and we pride ourselves on tolerance, how is it that a person can be called a ‘Ricardian loon’ on live television simply for believing a man might not be the evil murderer he is accused of being? Ricardian baiting has become a national pastime, but it only works because some Ricardians will always take the bait. There are Ricardians who take their views to an extreme and are as unreasonable and sometimes as unpleasant as those who refuse to re-examine the evidence available about Richard III.
The interesting place is the quiet, reasonable space in the middle where there is a real story to be told and a debate to be had.
The shame is that this space is lost to the sensationalist, noisy extremes with more volume than knowledge.
Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth. Both novels are just 99p or 99c each until Sunday 29th March 2015 to celebrate re-interment week.
The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube
So, there’s more news and more debate on Richard III’s remains, two years after they were discovered. It seems his story, as well as his bones, cannot be laid to rest. At least I welcome the first of these two things.
We are now to be 99.999% certain that the remains found under the Leicester car park are Richard’s. We can also be quite confident that he had blue eyes and that, at least as a child, he had blonde hair. I have to confess that this changes my mental picture of him a little, but it’s at least news.
The fact that there are two breaks in the paternal line is also news. Of a sort. Someone, somewhere (well, okay, two people), in the course of four centuries was unfaithful. I’m not sure that’s really news. That rate is beaten on a daily basis on Jeremy Kyle. It’s interesting, but the report can’t point to which branch of the family has the break, whether it was before or after Richard III, and it could run into the 18th century as easily as date back to the 14th.
What does this mean for the current royal family? Nothing.
What does it mean for previous monarchs? Nothing.
What does it mean for the Tudor’s legitimacy? Nothing.
It’s no more questionable than before!
What is being overlooked at every step is that no monarch has ever been illegitimate. The current Queen is selected and ratified by Parliament, not by her father or the blood in her veins. This has been true for several hundred years now.
More importantly, the coronation ceremony, in which the monarch is anointed with holy oil, appointed before God and swears their oath, corrects any flaw in a monarchs title. If I was anointed King, it would be beyond doubt that I would be the rightful king. The action of anointing has created a monarch for centuries.
Henry Tudor claimed the throne of England thanks to his defeating of the reigning king. His blood meant nothing. The same was true of Edward IV, who deposed an anointed king. And Henry IV, who was the first to break the Plantagenet line of descent. Even William the Conqueror became king in this manner, yet we doubt none of them as monarchs. In each case, the coronation ceremony corrected any flaw in their right, title or blood.
Had Richard III decided to allow his nephew Edward V to be crowned and anointed, he would, in the eyes of canon and common law, have been the legitimate king. The marking of the cross on his forehead with holy oil would have driven any fault and any doubt away.
The same is true of the Queen today. It is sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake to question this.
There have been several rumours about illegitimate medieval royals. John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III used to fly into rages at the contemporary rumour that he was a butcher’s son. The fact that Edward III did not attend his birth is cited as evidence that something was amiss.
Edward IV was rumoured in the French court, and later in England, to have been the son of an archer named Bleyborne, a huge man whose frame matched that of the tallest king in English and British history. Edward’s father’s departure on campaign eleven months before his birth is also suspicious, if no chance of his return were possible. Edward was christened in a quite ceremony in a side chapel. Yet Edward’s coronation corrected any flaw that may have existed. That is probably part of the reason Richard III switched his allegations from questioning Edward’s paternity to challenging the legitimacy of his children. Edward IV had been anointed. Edward V had not. His flaw was raw, uncorrected.
What does this mean?
At the most, it suggests that every castle had a tradesman’s entrance.
As the sun rose on the morning of 2nd May 1450, it revealed a grisly sight on Dover beach. A headless body lay on the sand, dried blood staining the butchered neck. Beside the body, atop a stake, the vacant eyes of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stared out over the sea where he had met his fate, a fate that many felt he deserved. His family had risen from humble beginnings, a fact that had contributed to the odium that caused those of more noble families to turn their noses up at them. From such a height, the fall was devastating.
In the mid 14th century, William de la Pole, great grandfather of this duke, was a successful and wealthy wool merchant, lending money to the crown under Edward III. His sons enjoyed favour at the court of King Richard II, the eldest, Michael, becoming Chancellor on 1383 and being elevated to the peerage as Earl of Suffolk in 1385. Michael’s younger brother Edmund served in the prestigious position of Captain of Calais.
The family’s star was in the ascendant, but was closely aligned now with that of King Richard II. As his popularity plummeted, Michael took the brunt of the hatred as a figurehead of his government. Criticising God’s anointed king was not an option, and so his closest advisors must take the wrath of a nation. In 1387 the Lords Appellant accused him of treason and before the Merciless Parliament sat in February 1388, Michael fled to Paris, where he died the following year aged about 60.
Michael’s son, another Michael, father to our duke, was 22 when his father died and found himself without the lands and title that his father had been stripped of. He was more closely aligned to the Lords Appellant, which left him out of favour with Richard II. He fought for the restoration of his lands and properties over the years that followed his father’s death, finally being restored as 2nd Earl of Suffolk in 1398, shortly before Richard II fell. Although Michael heeded the Duke of York’s call to arms to defend the kingdom from Henry Bolingbroke, he eventually embraced the cause of Henry IV.
As a part of Henry V’s campaign in France, Michael died of dysentery in September 1415 at the Siege of Harfleur, not yet 50 years of age. Michael had been blessed with five sons and three daughters but the king’s efforts in France were to decimate his family after claiming his life. His oldest son, Michael, had travelled to France with his father and was one of the few notable English casualties at the Battle of Agincourt. Aged only 19, he had been 3rd Earl of Suffolk for only a month before his death.
William de la Pole became 4th Earl of Suffolk on his brother’s death. His other brothers were all to perish over the next two decades in France. Alexander was killed in 1429 at the Battle of Jargeau, the first encounter with a resurgent France led by Joan of Arc. John died a prisoner in France in the same year and Thomas perished while acting as a hostage for William.
When he returned to England, William grew ever closer to the meek and peaceable King Henry VI. By this time William was nearing forty and had been fighting in France for most of his adult life, almost twenty years. It would be interesting to know what this old soldier thought of his king, son of the Lion of England, but described as a lamb who had an acute distaste for war. Whatever their differences, Suffolk grew close to his king and, as his grandfather had done, he was soon to find his fortunes all too closely tied to a failing king.
Suffolk’s first major contribution to English politics was to organise a marriage for King Henry VI in 1444, by which time the king was 22. Suffolk selected Margaret of Anjou in a match that was to cause outrage. The king’s uncle Humphrey was dismayed that he intended to ignore the contracted union to the Duke of Armagnac’s daughter. Grafton wrote that “Humfrey Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the realme, repugned and resisted as muche as in him lay, this newe alliaunce and contrived matrimone: alleging that it was neyther consonant to the lawe of God nor man, nor honourable to a prince, to infringe and breake a promise or contract” (Grafton’s Chronicle (Richard Grafton) (1569) p624).
Baker wrote of the problems that this match created for Suffolk. “In the mean time the Earl of Suffolk, one of the Commissioners for the Peace, takes upon him beyond his Commission; and without acquianting his fellows, to treat of a Marriage between the King of England, and a Kinswoman of the King of France, Neece to the French Queen, Daughter to Rayner Duke of Anjou styling himself King of Sicily and Naples: In which business he was so inventive, that it brought an aspersion upon him of being bribed” (A Chronicle of the English Kings (Baker) p187). It was soon to be revealed that, due to the poverty of Margaret’s father, not only was there no dowry for the marriage, but Suffolk and the king had agreed to hand a quarter of England’s territory in France back by ceding Maine and Anjou. For his part in the arrangements, William was further elevated as Marquess of Suffolk.
After the death of John, Duke of Bedford in 1435 and the emergence of Henry VI’s personal distaste for fighting, the campaign in France had ground to a halt, frequently deprived of funding and commitment. It is possible that this situation led to Suffolk’s negotiation. Marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the French king Charles VII, would bring the peace that Henry craved. Giving back Maine and Anjou would sweeten the deal and might also have been intended to make English territory in France more manageable. If that was the intention, it was to fail spectacularly. The effect of the handover of the vast tracts of land was to embolden the French and lead them to seek to drive the English from France altogether. Suffolk was blamed for opening the door through which the English would be expelled from France so that within a few years only Calais remained in English hands.
The king’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester died in 1447, with many believing that he had been murdered at the queen’s behest. Gloucester had been Protector during Henry’s minority and his loss saw the end of an era as the last son of King Henry IV passed. Suffolk, it seems, stepped into the void quite willingly, but suspicion grew all about him, not least that he had been the instrument of Humphrey’s destruction. By 1448 William had been created Duke of Suffolk, reaching the pinnacle of the nobility and attaining a title previously reserved for princes of the royal blood. His ascendancy was complete, and that brought him enemies.
One writer tells how “Many now recollected how stoutly the duke of Gloucester had stood up against the surrender of those provinces from which the king of France had made his attack” (History of England Volume II (A Clergyman of the Church of England) (1830) p524), further accusing Suffolk “of plotting to get the English crown into his own Family, by marrying his infant ward, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to his own son;- she being, they observed, the presumptive heiress of the royal house of Lancaster, as long as the king had no children.” William had married his son to the Beaufort heiress Margaret. Although the marriage was annulled by Henry in 1453, it drew accusations that by promoting Margaret as a potential heir to the throne while Henry remained childless, he was seeking to see his son made king. The unlikely scenario of her accession though suggests that the attraction may have been the same financial one that saw Edmund Tudor marry her soon after the annulment.
By 1450, Suffolk was unable to fend off the charges of treason any longer. He was accused of meeting with the French in an attempt to have England invaded. Baker wrote “That he had Traiterously incited the Bastard of Orleance, the Lord Presigny, and others to levy War against the King to the end that thereby the King might be destroyed; and his Son John who had married Margaret Daughter and sole Heir of John Duke of Somerset, whose Title to the Crown the said Duke had often declared, in case King Henry should die without issue, might come to be King.” (A Chronicle of the Kings of England (Baker) p189). Henry could no longer protect his favourite and even the indomitable queen could not save him. He was arrested and charged with treason. Before Parliament, a long list of charges were laid before him, each of which he denied fervently. But his defence was never going to prevail.
At this point, Henry intervened on behalf of his favourite, exercising his prerogative to deal with the matter personally in the same way as Richard II had intervened on behalf of the duke’s grandfather. Henry refused to find Suffolk guilty of treason but found against him on some other more minor charges. Henry sentenced Suffolk to banishment for a period of five years, beginning on 1st May 1450. As he tried to move to his London home Suffolk was mobbed in the streets. Driven from London by the furious crowds, he retired to his manor at Wingfield. His son John was now 8 years old. William, fearing that he was to miss the formative years of his only son, wrote him a letter before he left which is filled with the kind of fatherly advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius was to employ. He counselled John as follows;
My dear and only well-beloved son,
I beseech our Lord in heaven, the Maker of all the world, to bless you, and to send you ever grace to love Him and to dread Him; to the which as far as a father may charge his child, I both charge you and pray you to set all your spirits and wits to do and to know His holy laws and commandments, by which ye shall with His great mercy, pass all the great tempests and troubles of this wretched world.
And also that weetingly ye do nothing for love nor dread of any earthly creature that should displease Him. And whereas any frailty maketh you to fall, beseech His mercy soon to call you to Him again with repentance, satisfaction, and contrition of your heart, nevermore in will to offend Him.
Secondly, next Him, above all earthly things, to be true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, unto the King, our elder, most high, and dread Sovereign Lord, to whom both ye and I be so much bound; charging you, as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything that were against the welfare and prosperity of his most royal perity of his most royal person, but that so far as your body and life may stretch, ye live and die to defend it and to let His Highness have knowledge thereof, in all the haste ye can.
Thirdly, in the same wise, I charge you, my dear son, always as ye he bounden by the commandment of God to do, to love and to worship your lady and mother: and also that ye obey alway her commandments, and to believe her counsels and advices in all your works, the which dread not but shall be best and truest for you.
And if any other body would steer you to the contrary, to flee that counsel in any wise, for ye shall find it nought and evil.
Furthermore, as far as father may and can, I charge you in any wise to flee the company and counsel of proud men, of covetous men, and of flattering men the more especially; and mightily to withstand them, and not to draw nor to meddle with them, with all your might and power; and to draw to you, and to your company, good and virtuous men and such as be of good conversation and of truth, and by them shall ye never be deceived nor repent you of.
Moreover, never follow your own wit in any wise, but in all your works, of such folks as I write of above ask your advice and counsel, and doing thus, with the mercy of God, ye shall do right well, and live in right much worship and great heart’s rest and ease.
And I will be to you, as good lord and father as mine heart can think.
And last of all, as heartily and as lovingly as ever father blessed his child on earth, I give you the Blessing of Our Lord, and of me, which in his infinite mercy increase you in all virtue and good living and that your blood may by His Grace from kindred to kindred multiply in this earth to His service, in such wise as after the departing from this wretched worlde here, ye and they may glorify Him eternally amongst His angels in Heaven.
Written of mine hand,
the day of my departing from this land,
Your true and loving father
With that, Suffolk took ship to head into exile on 1st May 1450, the date appointed for the beginning of his five year expulsion. As his boat crossed the channel a huge ship of the royal fleet, The Nicholas of the Tower, intercepted him. William Lomner wrote to John Paston on 5th May that men of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and “the master badde hym, ‘Welcom, Traitor,’ as men sey”. He described Suffolk’s fate, continuing “and thanne his herte faylyd hym, for he thowghte he was desseyvyd, and yn the syght of all his men he was drawyn ought of the grete shippe yn to the bote; and there was an exe, and a stoke, and oon of the lewdeste of the shippe badde hym ley down his hedde, and he should be fair ferd wyth, and dye on a swerd; and toke a rusty swerd, and smotte off his hedde withyn halfe a doseyn strokes” (The Paston Letter 1422-1509 Volume II James Gairdner 1904 Ed).
It was an ignominious end for a duke, a man whose family had risen in four generations from merchants to the height of England’s nobility. Perhaps the only consolation that William could have taken was that his son seemed to have heeded his words. John became 2nd Duke of Suffolk and has been nicknamed The Trimming Duke, perhaps for his ability to trim his sails to suit the prevailing political winds. He married a sister of the Yorkist King Edward IV and lived into the Tudor era without ever finding himself in any trouble. It was not to last though. John’s son, the Earl of Lincoln was appointed heir to Richard III and rebelled unsuccessfully against Henry VII. Another son, Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, took up the cause of the White Rose. He was imprisoned by Henry VII and finally executed by Henry VIII in 1513. Edmund’s youngest brother, Richard de la Pole continued the fight from the continent until he was killed fighting at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 to the delight of Henry VIII. The brother between Edmund and Richard, Sir William de la Pole holds a most dubious record. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1502 and remained there for 37 years until his death in 1539. No one else has remained imprisoned in the Tower for longer in all of its history.
It is hard to determine whether William, Duke of Suffolk acted out of greed or well meant service, doing what he determined was best in spite of the consequences. As with most things, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the space between the two extremes. His letter to his son has been cited as proof of his good character, yet a man can be a father, a warrior and a politician without any of his facets overlapping. There is no room for the contemplative advisor of his letter on the field of battle, yet I suspect that a man would need something of the warrior about him to survive the politics of Henry VI’s court, particularly if his background allowed others to sneer upon him.
William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stood at the apex of his family’s power. It took four generations of work to get to where he was. In two further generations the family was destroyed. As his empty eyes stared out across the Channel toward the land where his fortune had been made, he would never again look upon the country that had turned its back on him, nor would he see the bitter civil war that followed. His place was swiftly filled by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and it is this, and the conflict it was allowed to breed, that lays the blame for the fate of so many at the clasped, praying hands and bowed head of the Lamb of England, King Henry VI.
War was on that horizon that William gazed upon without seeing.
What if we suppose that King Richard III did, in fact, order the killing of his nephews, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Let us suspend arguments about his previous character and the events that surrounded him in 1483 and presume him guilty of the killing of the Princes in the Tower. Controversial, I know, but since no one can currently prove him guilty or innocent, the argument is moot. It makes for fascinating debates and it never ceases to amaze me the passions it rouses, but without the sudden discovery of a lost cache of documents or perhaps Richard III’s diary (imagine the questions that might answer!), we will never be able to shed any more light on this mystery than has kept it gloomily illuminated for over 500 years.
This impasse provides an opportunity that I think receives less examination than it merits. If we were to presume that King Richard III had the boys killed, can his actions be justified? Clearly, by modern standards, no. But this did not take place in modern times. By the standards of his time, can any justification be offered if Richard III did order their deaths? If so, it takes some of the heat out of the debate about whether he did it or not.
The first thing to mention is that there is no evidence that medieval people would have been any less repulsed by the killing of children than we are now. Murder was still murder. It was a crime. Children were just as precious to our ancestors as they are to us. Richard III’s time was more brutal and death more common place perhaps but the murder of children was no less revolting then than it is now. By this measure, there can never be any excuse for Richard if he killed the Princes in the Tower in 1483, aged 12 and 9 (or 10, depending upon when it happened).
These were not, however, ordinary children. They were political beings. In this period of English history, ravaged by war and rivalries, this alters the landscape a little. Can this help to explain King Richard’s ‘actions’? It cannot be doubted that recent history would have warned Richard against allowing a child to sit upon the throne. Edward III’s grandson Richard II had ascended to the throne aged 10 in 1377. His father, the Black Prince, had died the year before Edward III and Richard’s powerful uncles, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Edmund of Langley, Duke of York were apparently not trusted. A regency was avoided and a system of continual councils put in place to assist the king during his minority. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 saw the 14 year old Richard emerge onto the political stage for the first time. He agreed terms with the rebels only to go back on his word and hunt them down. The harsh response was initially applauded by his nobles but it set a precedent that would see Richard descend into a period of tyranny, surrounded by unpopular advisors until, in 1399, he was relieved of his crown by his cousin, Henry Bollingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, who became King Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king. In 1400, amid plots to restore Richard, he was killed, possibly starved to death in his prison at Pontefract Castle. He could not be allowed to continue to live.
Henry IV’s own grandson was to provide the next lesson at the expense of the peace of a nation. Henry IV’s son, the mighty Henry V of Agincourt renown, died on campaign in 1422 aged 35, leaving his nine month old son, Henry VI, to take the throne amid raging wars in France. This time, with the prospect of well over a decade of royal minority, the new king’s uncles were vital to his security. John, Duke of Bedford acted as regent of France and
oversaw the wars there with some success, eventually defeating Joan of Arc and halting French resurgence. In England, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester acted as his nephew’s Protector. Henry VI was declared of age in 1437. In 1441 Humphrey’s wife was arrested for sorcery and he was forced to retire from public life. In 1447 he was himself arrested and died in prison 3 days later. He may have suffered a stroke but there were whispered rumours that he had been poisoned.
Henry VI’s rule was to see the loss of all English territory in France apart from Calais and the eruption of the divisive and brutal Wars of the Roses. He surrounded himself with advisors that proved deeply unpopular and grew to be a weak and ineffectual king. Edward IV took his crown for the House of York and despite a brief reclaiming of his throne, once Henry’s only son was dead, Henry himself had met his end within the Tower of London. His continued existence could also no longer be tolerated.
If Richard sought a lesson from this period, it was that pretty clear.
Child kings did not bode well, not least for Protectors who were Dukes of Gloucester…..
When we look at Richard’s conduct in 1483, it must be against the backdrop of these events and all that they meant for England, because that is the only way in which Richard could have viewed them. The country had seen two changes in the ruling family in less than a century, both brought about by the failings of kings who had come to the throne as children. A third such event was potentially imminent and it was Richard’s family who stood to lose everything. No one could really be sure where a threat might come from. The Tudor family in exile, other vestiges of Lancastrian blood in Portugal or Spain. Louis XI, the Spider King, still ruled in France and may chose to seize upon any weakness he spied across the channel.
Personally, Richard’s position was precarious too. Edward IV had entailed his Neville inheritance, acquired through his wife Anne Neville, to male issue of the body of George Neville, Duke of Bedford. George had been disinherited to make way for Richard and this was meant as a mechanism for his protection. If the line failed, Richard’s interests would revert to life interests in the lands and titles so that he would be significantly weakened and his son would have no inheritance. Having spent so long so far north, Richard barely knew his nephew. He had been appointed Protector of the Realm for a boy he did not know and who did not know him. All of young Edward V’s ties and bonds were to his mother’s family who had raised him at Ludlow Castle. There is no real record of conflict between Richard and the Woodville’s before the summer of 1483 but their hold over the new king would have been a cause for concern to Richard if he was to act as Protector. Edward IV’s Chamberlain Lord Hastings had sent word to Richard even before he left the north that Elizabeth Woodville was planning to have her son crowned quickly in order to exclude Richard. Elizabeth’s son from her first marriage, Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, was supposedly boasting that their family could rule without Richard, such was their grasp on power. What was he supposed to make of this situation?
Shortly after his arrival in London, word reached Richard that George Neville had died aged 22 without issue. His personal power base was significantly weakened at precisely the time he would need it the most. How could he act as Protector from a position of weakness? The next issue to rear its head was the legitimacy of Edward V. This was either a genuine concern that was allowed to reach Richard’s ear because of the death of Edward IV, or Richard concocted the story that his brother was already married when he secretly wed Elizabeth Woodville. Either way, the outcome was the same; Richard claimed the throne for himself. This was either an act of duty, of self-preserving or of self-advancement. That is a debate that will rage on too, but the purposes of this discussion it is not important. Even the latter views, though, perhaps becomes a little more understandable.
The reality is that Richard was no longer Duke of Gloucester. He was now King Richard III. What had recent history taught him about this position? The greatest danger to him now was a rival. What sat within the royal apartments of the Tower of London? Two rivals. How must they be dealt with? Only one option was available. The one taken be Henry IV and by Richard’s own brother, Edward IV. If he allowed the boys to survive, they would always be a source of unrest and rebellion, a focus for disaffection and an opportunity for opposition to his rule. Richard’s personal security was now tied up with that of the country. Any threat to him was a threat to the national stability for which he was now responsible and vice versa. Any such threat must be dealt with. There was only one way to deal once and for all with this issue. If this was what Richard came to believe, then he was to be proven right when, at the end of the summer of 1483, there were reports of an attempt to free the boys and then the Duke of Buckingham rebelled, initially on the pretence of returning Edward V to the throne.
Is the peace and stability of a nation worth the lives of two princes?
Can such a sacrifice be measured?
Probably not, but in Richard’s world, it was kill or be killed.
The Wars of the Roses erupted when he was 3 years old. He knew no other world and perhaps saw this as a justifiable sacrifice to secure a lasting peace. A means to an end, an end that may, given time, justify those terrible means. He was not to be given that time and so many truths are lost to history, clouded in myth and legend, that all that is left is supposition fuelled by passion.
So, if Richard III did order the deaths of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, should he have been demonised for 500 years on the basis of that one act? Was it so far beyond the pale that it cannot be deemed necessary or acceptable in the context of the times, even if we cannot condone such an act today? It is true that are no real parallels to draw with it, but there are a few near contemporary instances that bear examination.
When Henry VII took the throne after Bosworth in 1485 there was a claimant of the male line of the House of York still alive. Edward, Earl of Warwick was the son of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III. He was 10 years old in 1485. As the prime threat to Henry he was placed in the Tower of London where he was kept, without trial or opportunity for release, until 1499 when he was implicated in an alleged plot with Perkin Warbeck to escape his prison. At his trial, he pleaded guilty and he was executed. It has been suggested that Warwick was framed to create a pretence for his execution as part of Henry VII’s negotiations to marry his son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon because her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, would not tolerate the continued existence of one who possessed a better claim to the throne than Arthur and who was a real and viable potential source of opposition. Henry effectively kept Warwick imprisoned from the age of 10 only to execute him when he was 24. He never had any hope. He was kept as a fatted calf and offered in sacrifice for the security of the Tudor dynasty. Is that really any worse than the colder but more pragmatic approach of killing him immediately?
George’s other child, Margaret, survived into the reign of Henry VIII. She was married to a Tudor loyalist and had several children who eventually came to be viewed as a threat to Henry VIII. In 1539 her son Henry was executed and Margaret was imprisoned. In 1541 she too was executed at the age of 67, her inexperienced executioner taking eleven blows in total to kill her. This is viewed as a low point of Henry VIII rule. He was probably concerned at his own failing health and his son’s young age and was seeking to eradicate any potential threat. Does this justify the execution of an elderly lady on very flimsy evidence?
In Ecclesiastes 10:16, Solomon offers the lament “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!” Whilst this is probably not meant to speak to the age of the ruler but rather their approach, ability and outlook, and the advisors with which they surround themselves, the message applies to this situation. Child kings before had fallen foul of unpopular advisors – Richard II had Robert de Vere, Henry VI relied on William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and then successive Beaufort Dukes of Somerset. Was this the likely road down which Edward V would have taken the country, ruled by his jealously sneered upon Woodville relatives? And what of Richard once his duties as Protector had been discharged? Was he to be consigned to the political wilderness with no influence and no inheritance to leave for his son? History cautioned him that once he was no longer needed, a king, possibly falling back under the influence of his mother, would struggle to tolerate the continued existence of a man who had once exercised kingly power.
So I would ask the question again. Assuming that Richard III did in fact order the deaths of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the Princes in the Tower, can the act be excused or accepted as a necessary evil?