The DNA of Richard III and anonymous relatives of Henry Somerset (1744-1803) revealed two years ago that somewhere, in one of the lines of descent, there was a break in the male line that means at least one of those branches of the Plantagenet family tree was not in fact descended in the male line from Edward III. The rumour of this at least is nothing new and suggests that the whole House of York that participated in the Wars of the Roses in the mid-fifteenth century might not have been what it appeared to be.
Edmund of Langley was the fourth surviving son of Edward III. He was created Earl of Cambridge by his father on 13 November 1362 and given an annuity of 1,000 marks. Edmund received a few endowments through the 1370’s, including Fotheringhay Castle, which would become the family’s seat. Despite this, Edmund remained poor in lands compared to others amongst his father’s nobility. As part of the efforts of his older brother John of Gaunt to win the crown of Castile, Edmund was married to Isabella, a daughter of King Peter of Castile and younger sister of Constance, who married John. On 6 August 1385, Edmund was created Duke of York by his nephew Richard II during an expedition to Scotland. Edmund was trusted by his nephew, who left him in control of the kingdom several times when abroad, the last and most fateful time being in 1399 when another of Edmund’s nephews took the throne and became Henry IV with little resistance from his uncle.
Edmund and Isabella had three children. The first was Edward, born around 1373, who became 2nd Duke of York after his father, was a favourite of Richard II, a friend of Henry V and the highest profile English casualty at Agincourt in 1415. The couple’s daughter Constance was born a year later around 1374, married Thomas le Despenser, Earl of Gloucester and was great-grandmother to Queen Anne Neville, dying a year after her older brother in 1416.
The third child of Edmund and Isabella was Richard of Conisburgh, the toponym suggesting that he was born at Conisburgh Castle, but his date of birth is so poorly recorded that it might have been as early as 1375, a year after Constance, or as late as 1385. Richard held no title but nevertheless served the new Lancastrian regime after Henry IV’s accession. Like his brother Edward, Richard fought in Wales against the rebellions there and in May 1402 he wrote to the Council from Hereford to explain that his term of service and that of his men had expired and complaining that none of them, including him, had been paid. He was trying to keep his men together but was struggling to stop them drifting away, concluding the letter by ‘praying payment for himself and them’.
It was not until the Parliament of 1414 that Henry V bestowed a title on his cousin Richard. The Parliament Rolls record that ‘the king, of his special and gracious will, created and promoted Richard of York to be earl of Cambridge’. The title was the first given to Edmund of Langley and had been a long time coming, since Richard was somewhere between thirty and forty by this point. The title brought with it little financial gain or security for Richard, though, and as his brother Edward became a pillar of Lancastrian government, Richard seemed firmly out in the cold despite his service.
It was perhaps the sleight that Richard felt at his lack of reward or the embarrassment his relative poverty caused him, particularly in comparison to his brother, that led to his involvement just a year after his promotion to an earldom in a plot to murder Henry V. The plot was brought to the king’s attention whilst he was at Southampton preparing to leave for what would become the legendary Agincourt campaign. The aim of the plan was apparently to place Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March on the throne in Henry’s place. Edmund was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s second son and Henry from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward’s third son, but significantly, Edmund’s descent was through a female line. The question of the superiority of this claim would have to wait another forty-five years until Richard’s son brought it before Parliament in 1460, because Edmund himself lost his nerve and blurted out the details of the plot to the king.
Henry grabbed those involved and had them tried quickly.
Henry, Lord Scrope had been named and his claim that he only joined the plot to ensure that it failed did not save him. Sir Thomas Grey of Castle Heaton was also involved and all three were executed., Grey on 2 August 1415 and Lord Scrope and Richard, Earl of Cambridge on 5 August. Significantly, Richard was not attainted and his son, Richard, was able to inherit. This became more important when Edward, 2nd Duke of York was killed at Agincourt just weeks later. With no children of his own, his nephew Richard became the new Duke of York and one of the most important magnates in the land at the age of just four. Little Richard was also an orphan. His mother, Anne Mortimer, sister of Edmund, Earl of March, had died not long after his birth in 1411. This connection was to become vital when Edmund also died in 1425 without children, leaving his nephew as heir to the wealthy earldom of March and the line of descent from Edward III’s second son.
Quite why Richard of Conisburgh was not well-rewarded or provided with enough income to support himself properly is a mystery. Certainly, the House of Lancaster was nervous of its newly won position in the opening years, even decades, of the fifteenth century and might have feared rewarding too many of royal blood too well. Richard’s marriage to Anne Mortimer appears to have been conducted in secret and the union of the two lines from Edward III would have been a cause for concern to the Lancastrian kings, but it came towards the end of Richard’s history of being overlooked and might have been his own petulant rebellion against it.
There was a well-known rumour that the reason for Richard of Conisburgh’s long history of being ignored was that he was illegitimate. Edmund did not leave Richard anything, concentrating all of the York inheritance on Edward. In her will of 6 December 1392, his mother Isabella listed several gifts she wished to make before bequeathing the remainder of her estates to King Richard II on the condition that the king provide her youngest son Richard, the king’s godson, with an annuity of 500 marks. Isabella was clearly worried that Richard would otherwise not be cared for.
T.B. Pugh described Edmund and Isabella as ‘ill-matched pair’ and the King of Castile’s daughter was to develop a reputation. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham considered her to have somewhat loose morals and T.B. Pugh believed that the possibility that Richard was illegitimate ‘cannot be ignored’. The duchess was most closely associated with John Holland, who has been speculated to have been Richard’s real father.
John Holland became Duke of Exeter in 1397 and had been Earl of Huntingdon since 1388. He was a half-brother to King Richard II, both men being the sons of Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. John was a child of Joan’s first marriage to Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent and Richard II of her third marriage to Edward, the Black Prince. Joan herself was the granddaughter of Edward I. Pugh described Holland as ‘violent and lawless’, but if he was Richard of Conisburgh’s real father, it might go a long way to explaining why Richard was overlooked by his father, his brother and the Lancastrian kings. It would also explain why Isabella might have believed Richard II was the person best placed to provide for Richard, since he would have been the childless king’s nephew, though she might simply have had no other way to provide for her youngest.
There is no way of resolving this matter, beyond finding remains that could be DNA tested. If Richard of Conisburgh was not Edmund of Langley’s son, then the male line of the House of York became extinct at Agincourt when Edward died without any children. Richard, 3rd Duke of York would not have been descended from the fourth son of Edward III, though he would still have been descended from that king’s second son in the female line and from Edward I’s second son, Edmund of Woodstock, via Joan of Kent. Was this the break in the male line DNA of the Plantagenet family? Maybe it was one of the breaks.
As part of the DNA testing, a man named Patrice de Warren came forward to provide a sample. He could trace his male line descent to an illegitimate son of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry II’s father, so should have been a match for both Richard III and the relatives of Henry Somerset. He matched neither Y chromosome DNA, suggesting a further family secret in either his line or Henry Somerset’s. Perhaps the question is not whether someone somewhere along some line was the result of an extramarital affair, but just how prevalent such slips might have been. In the days before DNA testing on Jeremy Kyle, how many secrets were easily hidden? The danger is that it is possible to see hints of illegitimacy all over the place and it is important not to get drawn into considering every child to be possibly illegitimate. Nevertheless, the science tells us it happened in at least two cases….
A new biography of Henry III: Son of Magna Carta is available now from Amberley Publishing, seeking to uncover the true story of a king all too often forgotten to history.
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.
The Wars of the Roses was a prolonged period of civil unrest in England, focussed on a period of just over thirty years which saw seventeen battles between rivals, the initiative swinging swiftly between the sides and the crown changing hands four times as a direct result of battles won and lost. One of the most difficult question to answer is which, amongst those seventeen engagements, was the most important in determining the course of the wars?
I’m going to count down my top five and see how it compares with yours.
5. The Battle of Ludford Bridge – 12th October 1459
I know – there wasn’t even any fighting, so how did this make my top five? This battle represented a watershed moment in the escalating conflict and was the first engagement that really pitched King Henry VI against his most powerful subject, Richard, Duke of York. Henry headed an army much larger than York’s though the numbers on each side are unknown. York was joined by his brother-in-law Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, who had encountered a force sent by Queen Margaret at Blore Heath on his way to Ludlow. Also within Ludlow’s stunning fortress were Salisbury’s namesake son the Earl of Warwick who would be remembered as the Kingmaker and York’s own family, his two oldest sons Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland ready for their first taste of battle.
The magnates arrayed against each other were not dissimilar from St Albans four years earlier. With the exception of those ensconced within Ludlow noble support was vested entirely in the king, headed by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. The big difference, and the reason for Ludford’s impact, was Henry VI’s position at the front of his army under his banners. The defection of the Calais garrison under Andrew Trollope during the night left the Yorkist force exposed and caused their retreat into the night. Ludlow was sacked by the king’s army in punishment for the town’s support of its lord.
The importance of Ludford lies in the confrontation between King Henry and York. No longer was this about control of the king, a war between magnates claiming to know what was best for Henry. York was forced to back down from confronting the king himself. This may have been the very point of the court faction’s efforts to place Henry at their head and if it was, it worked perfectly. Ludford’s real impact lay in its aftermath. Even before the royal army arrived at Ludlow a Parliament had been summoned, later known as the Parliament of Devils, to punish the rebel lords. York, his two oldest sons, Salisbury, Warwick and even Salisbury’s wife were attainted and deprived of all of their titles and lands forever. The move left the Yorkist lords with nothing to lose and forced them into a corner from which attack was their only option. Ludford, or at least its aftermath, was the first battle that changed the entire landscape of the conflicts in England and made the civil war a dynastic question of the right to the throne.
4. The Battle of Stoke Field – 16th June 1487
The inclusion of this battle may surprise some, too. It is often no more than a footnote in the telling of the Wars of the Roses, which are frequently described as having ended two years earlier. It suited the fledgling Tudor regime of Henry VII to underplay the importance of Stoke Field to detract from the very real threats that remained to his crown and so Stoke Field has been consigned to the tiniest footnotes of history, swept under the carpet.
Stoke Field’s importance is twofold. It was the last armed confrontation of the Wars of the Roses. Bosworth did not end the fighting, Stoke Field did. Never again would a Yorkist army challenge for the throne. How can the Wars of the Roses possibly have ended in 1485 when there was a battle between invading Yorkist and royalist forces in 1487? It is true that the Yorkists had around 8,000 men to the Tudor’s 12,000 and that the majority of the Yorkist army was ill-equipped Irish kerns who fell quickly under arrow fire but it is important to remember the other reason that Stoke Field was important.
The Yorkist army was led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, a grandson of Richard, Duke of York, nephew to Edward IV and Richard III and cousin of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. The aim of the invading army has become somewhat muddied but they intended to place Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last grandson of Richard, Duke of York through the male line, on the throne. The thousands of Irish soldiers were led by Thomas Fitzgerald, younger brother of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare and their presence was a powerful reminder of the latent Yorkist sympathy that would remain in Ireland for years to come. There was a professional element to the Yorkist army too; Swiss mercenaries led by Colonel Martin Schwartz, they were a very real threat, though Colonel Schwartz would fall amongst around 4,000 other Yorkist soldiers at Stoke Field. These expensive mercenaries were funded by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, a sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Margaret was wealthy, influential and utterly committed to dislodging Henry VII from the throne he had won at her family’s expense.
Stoke Field deserves more attention than it usually receives not only because it was the last battle of over thirty years of civil war but because it reminded the fledgling Tudor dynasty that it was far from secure and that it was surrounded by enemies, from Ireland, the continent and Yorkist blood within the kingdom. Stoke Field has been largely forgotten because the early Tudor government wanted it forgotten, but Henry VII was probably never able to shake the threats that it made all too clear to him.
3. The Battle of Bosworth Field – 22nd August 1485
One of the most famous battles in English history, Bosworth’s inclusion is not contentious. Its importance lies in the demonstration of opposition to Richard III’s brief rule amongst the nobility and gentry and in the ending of the 331 years of Plantagenet rule. As we have seen, it was not the end of the Wars of the Roses, but it was the close of Plantagenet rule, the end of the House of York’s time on the throne and the dawn of the Tudor age, a period that would have an immense impact on England (whether for good or ill is a matter for discussion).
The defeat of Richard III at Bosworth had a huge impact on English history because of the questions it left unanswered too. Would Richard III have been a good king? Was he socially progressive? Would a marriage into the Portuguese royal family, who had Lancastrian blood, have served to heal the wounds that Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York’s union sought to? Would the mystery of the fate of the Princes in the Tower have been solved if Richard had lived a little longer (and precisely how would it have been solved?)? Bosworth Field left us with these questions and they are still hot topics for debate over 500 years later.
Just as Stoke Field served to remind Henry VII that he had not been accepted by all, Bosworth exposed unhealed wounds across a nation that must have believed the wars were long gone. There had been no battle for fourteen years, yet disaffected Edwardian Yorkists still viewed war as the route by which they could vent their frustration. Lancastrian sympathies, lacking a figurehead for fourteen years, were swift to emerge from hiding and gather behind Henry Tudor, drawing unhappy Yorkists to them to swell opposition to Richard. Bosworth therefore demonstrated that resorting to the field of battle had become ingrained in the English psyche as a legitimate way to resolve disputes. Many taking the field had lived and grown through the troubles of earlier years and this was something the Tudor regime would have to deal with, as Stoke Field demonstrated.
Bosworth was a defining moment in English history, but only makes number three in my list of battles of the Wars of the Roses. Its impact on wider history may be larger than my other two suggestions, but in terms of this civil war, two battles strike me as more crucial.
2. The Battle of Towton – 29th March 1461
England’s Apocalypse really needs no justification for making the list. For many, Bosworth and Towton might be vying for the number one rank and there is certainly an argument for both to take the top spot. Towton is renowned as the largest battle ever to take place of English soil, around 100,000 men possibly taking the field, with possibly slightly more on the Lancastrian side than the Yorkist. Edward, Earl of March (by now Duke of York and legal heir to the throne) led a force also made up of the Earl of Warwick and Duke of Norfolk. The Lancastrians were led by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and contained Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.
The battle was cataclysmic. It was fought on Palm Sunday in driving snow, the wind favouring the Yorkist archers but the subsequent fighting too close to call until the Duke of Norfolk’s army arrived late to the field and broke the Lancastrian’s resolve. Heralds and other reports gave a shocking figure of 29,000 casualties when the battle ended. Mass graves had to be dug in the frozen earth to house the battered corpses that littered the field.
Towton broke Lancastrian resistance to Edward and allowed him to assume the throne with a degree of security that lasted almost a decade (barring two of the civil war’s least important confrontations at Hexham and Hedgeley Moor). The crown of England had sat upon a Lancastrian head for 62 years but was now lowered onto the head of the first king of the House of York. Most people within England had known nothing but Lancastrian rule and Towton radically altered the political landscape. It tarnished anew the notion of kingship as divine and unquestionable and meant none knew what to expect from a dynastic change. Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had not enjoyed his crown and it must have seemed likely that Edward would suffer the same continual threats and uncertainties.
What battle could have been more important than either Bosworth or Towton?
Bear with me on this one…..
1. The Battle of Wakefield – 30 December 1460
Not an obvious choice, I know, but one I think I can justify. I should probably declare an interest here, since I have a biography of Richard, Duke of York due for release on 15th April 2016, but it was researching this that convinced me of Wakefield’s crucial position within the conflicts of the Wars of the Roses.
Wakefield sits between two of the other crucial battles I have listed above, taking place after Ludford Bridge but before Towton. It came about because of the consequences of Ludford Bridge, which saw Richard, Duke of York return to England to sensationally lay claim to his cousin’s throne. The act was not welcomed and produced a stalemate that was shelved by the unsatisfactory device of parliament that allowed Henry VI to keep his throne but disinherited his son Prince Edward, making Richard and his descendants legal heirs to the crown of England. York and his sons swore loyalty to Henry and Richard was granted the trappings associated with the position of Prince of Wales. Crucially, it was made treason to attack Richard and his heirs.
In the north, Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, was gathering a huge force with the support of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and others. This was the beginning of the massive force that would arrive at Towton to face Richard’s son, Edward but it was the Duke of York who marched north to confront them whilst his oldest son gathered reinforcements on the Welsh border. Richard stopped at his northern stronghold of Sandal Castle at Wakefield when it became clear that he was hopelessly outnumbered.
Sources are unclear precisely what happened next but it is likely that a truce was agreed for the Christmas period. Richard seems to have been tricked into believing men were joining his side when in fact their sympathies were with the queen so that he thought he had more men than he ever did. There was possibly an attack on a foraging party from Sandal Castle that caused Richard to sally out to confront the Lancastrian army who had probably broken the truce. Those he believed were with him instantly turned on Richard and the battle was brief and decisive. Richard was killed, as was his 17 year-old son Edmund. The Earl of Salisbury was captured but beheaded the following day. The three heads were famously placed on spikes outside York, on Micklegate Bar, with a paper crown mockingly fixed to York’s head.
It might be significant enough that Richard, Duke of York fell at Wakefield. He was the most powerful man in England and legally heir to the throne, but the impact was far wider than that. The Battle of Wakefield took place at a time when matters were at their most complex. Richard, Duke of York held the legal right, granted by Parliament and enshrined in statute. Queen Margaret surely felt that she held the moral right. Her son had been disinherited by the force of York’s will and was still the rightful heir.
Margaret may have been acting to protect her son, but in legal terms her attack on Richard was treason. It made her and her army outlaws, legitimate targets for reprisals and it damaged their position and cause. The first engagement of the Wars of the Roses at St Albans had left the sons of the Duke of Somset, Earl of Northumberland and Lord Clifford swearing to have their revenge. Five years later they each got it. Somerset saw York killed. Northumberland’s old enemy Salisbury was executed and Clifford supposedly took great delight in slaying the seventeen-year-old Edmund. In satisfying their long quest for vengeance, these men unleashed more sons baying for revenge. Edward, Earl of March would seek to avenge his father and brother. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick wanted revenge for his father’s treatment. Neither were men to wait five months, let alone five years, for what they wanted.
Towton was a direct consequence of Wakefield. Edward and Warwick were whipped into a frenzy and had the law on their side. Wakefield escalated the conflict to a new level, giving Edward permission, as he saw it, to unseat Henry and slaughter his followers. Margaret believed she had the initiative after destroying a foe she had feared for a decade or more, certain that right was on her side as she sought to win back her son’s birth right. It was Wakefield that caused Edward to proclaim himself King of England and bring the dynastic rivalry unsatisfactorily shelved by his father into sharp focus.
Both sides had a degree of right on their side, but neither would back down. This was now a war for the crown between Lancaster and York in a way it had never been before. Wakefield’s impact did not end there, though. York was almost certainly killed during the fighting. His body was then posthumously beheaded and mocked with the paper crown. Edmund was captured but rather than being held and ransomed he is killed in an act of simple vengeance. Salisbury was reportedly dragged from his prison cell by a mob and beheaded without trial or the intervention of any Lancastrian noble to protect him. Warfare was being radically altered by the queen’s army. Chivalry was dealt a fatal blow at Wakefield. No longer would the bodies of the most noble dead be respected – they were weapons in a propaganda war. Capture did not afford valuable individuals the protection of their captor but risked summary murder. Even those taken prisoner could be left to mob justice at a point when traditional chivalry required their captor to protect them. Nobles, previously targets for capture rather than killing, were targeted for death above the common soldiery. Wakefield was a clear demonstration of the changing nature of warfare in England in the mid fifteenth century.
So there you have it; my top five battles of the Wars of the Roses. I’m not suggesting my choices are definitive and I’d love to hear what you think. Probably the most notable omissions, sitting at numbers six and seven respectively, are Tewkesbury and Barnet. They saw the deaths of hugely important figures – Prince Edward at Tewkesbury, ending the Lancastrian male line, and the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick at Barnet, a man who dominated politics in England for over a decade. My choices were made within the context of the civil war and taking account of their wider impacts on the political situation and it is clear that some of the less well-known encounters probably had the widest bearing on future events.
What would you consider to be the most important battle of the Wars of the Roses?
Matt’s latest book, Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, is released by Amberley Publishing on 15th April 2016 and will reveal a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses.
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.
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
Before I begin, I have two words of warning. The first is that a huge spoiler for my novels Loyalty and the sequel Honour unavoidably follows. Just so that you know!
Secondly, the following is my telling of the theory researched and expounded by Jack Leslau, an amateur art enthusiast who believed that he stumbled across the answer to the riddle of the Princes in the Tower hidden in Hans Holbein’s stunning portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family. I am not seeking any credit for the facts and ideas below and am relying upon Jack Leslau’s work entirely. Since he passed away, his theory seems to have sat somewhat unattended. I have tried to make contact using the details on the website (that still exists, but is extremely hard to read) to no avail. I am not aware that this work is for sale anywhere and do not intend to breach any copyright. If I do so inadvertently, I am sorry and will remove this as soon as I am made aware of such an infringement.
My reason for writing this is threefold. Firstly, I was fascinated a long time ago by the compelling nature and originality of Jack Leslau’s work. Secondly, in no small part it inspired my novel, Loyalty, for which I owe the late Mr Leslau a debt. Finally, this work is becoming less and less accessible and I find this a great shame.
I do not say that what follows is an indisputable truth. Much of Leslau’s theory can be, and frequently is, contended. Perhaps you will find it interesting, even compelling. In the absence of other evidence, it certainly bears some consideration. Richard III is so frequently condemned on hearsay and supposition, I think this might offer an alternate reading of events worthy of contemplation. I hope that you will join me for this fight of fancy. There is no quick way to impart this detail, I’m afraid, so strap in, and if you are sitting comfortably…..
Sir Thomas More was one of the most influential men in Henry VIII’s England in the 1520’s. A close friend to the king, this lawyer’s star was on the ascendant when artist Hans Holbein arrived in England. Probably in 1527, Holbein was commissioned to execute a group family portrait for Sir Thomas. He made a sketch, which he probably took back to the Continent with him to translate into the final painting. The painting includes Sir Thomas, his son, his daughters, including his adopted daughter, his second wife and his late father. There are also a few other figures who may not attract the eye, but it is upon one of these figures that Jack Leslau built his fascinating theory.
The figure toward the right at the back marked as ‘Johanes heresius Thomae Mori famul: Anno 27‘ has long been believed to represent John Harris, Sir Thomas More’s long standing secretary. Leslau, however, uncovered several interesting anomalies that he believed pointed to a different occupant for this position, and the unravelling of England’s greatest mystery. Leslau believed that this figure was, in fact, Dr John Clement, the husband of Margaret Giggs, Sir Thomas More’s adopted daughter, and, more controversially, that Dr John Clement was the assumed identity of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower.
Let us begin with what is known of Dr John Clement. His date of birth is uncertain and a matter of debate. He is widely believed to be the ‘puer meus’ of Sir Thomas More’s seminal political tract Utopia. This led many to believe that he had been born around 1500, which would be consistent with the age offered for ‘Johanes heresius’ of 27. It is believed that Clement attended St Paul’s School under the tutelage of William Lily, though Leslau was unable to find evidence of this. Clement is first recorded in More’s household in 1514 and he may have gone with More on his 1515 embassy to Bruges and Antwerp. It was in More’s household that Clement met his future wife, Margaret Giggs, Sir Thomas’s adopted daughter. She was born around 1508 and they married in 1530.
At some time between 1518 and 1519, Clement was appointed as Cardinal Wolsey’s reader of rhetoric at Corpus Christi College, the foundation of Bishop Richard Foxe that was dedicated to humanist study. Clement later became a reader of Greek at Oxford before leaving there during the 1520’s to study medicine in Italy. It is known that Clement travelled via Louvain and Basel, where he met Erasmus, and that he delivered a copy of Utopia to Leonico at Padua in 1524.
By March 1525 he had received his MD from Siena. On his subsequent return to England, Clement aided his successor at Oxford, Lupset, in completing the Aldine edition of Galen and later in 1525 he appears in the royal accounts as a Sewer (Server) of the Chamber in the Royal Household, as he did again in 1526. On 1st February 1527 or 1528, Clement was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and in 1529 was sent, along with two other physicians, under Dr Butts to treat the ailing Cardinal Wolsey following his fall from grace.
In 1535, Dr Clement was consulted on the treatment of John Fisher’s liver during his imprisonment in the Tower. 1538 saw him granted a semi-annual income of £10.00 from the royal household, though this appears to have been cancelled in 1539. In 1544, Clement was made President of the College of Physicians and Leslau discovered, and confirmed, that Clement is unique amongst the long history of Presidents of the College of Physicians in that no copy of his signature exists in the possession of the College, nor any record of his origin or background. Every single other President has a preserved copy of their signature. This may, of course, be coincidence, but it set Jack Leslau along an interesting road.
There is more of Clement’s story to come, but perhaps we should return our attention now to the painting and some of the anomalies that Leslau uncovered, along with the meaning that he attributed to them.
Jack Leslau became fascinated by Sir Thomas More’s involvement in the story of King Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Why, he asked, would a man as learned and respected as More, a lawyer and theologian, lend his name and reputation to the collection of inaccuracies and rumours that comprise his Historie of King Richard III? If the Princes were murdered, why did no-one, including even their own mother, ever raise hue and cry or point the finger at King Richard after his death? Leslau believed that Holbein’s portrait unlocked this mystery.
Jack Leslau compared Holbein’s preparatory sketch, made around 1527, with the post-1532 portrait and found 1 major and 80 minor changes, each of which was relevant to the ‘hidden secret’ he believed was contained in the painting.
The major change was the addition of the controversial figure in the doorway, who was omitted from the sketch. There are several interesting and compelling anomalies that revolve around this figure. The first thing to consider is the writing above his head that identifies the man, which is more cryptic than at first appears. It reads ‘Johanes heresius Thomae Mori famul: Anno 27“. ‘Johanes heresius‘ is usually assumed to refer to John Harris, yet if ‘heresius‘ is intended to equate to ‘Harris’ then it is the only surname in the painting that is not designated by a capital letter. The word ‘famul‘ has been assumed to be an abbreviation of famulus, meaning secretary, but these two words have possible other meanings.
In the Latin vocative, heresius can be translates as heres – heir, ius – right or rightful, so that heresius could translate as rightful heir. Suddenly, we are presented with John, the rightful heir.
Secondly, John stands, literally, head and shoulders above the More family. Leslau contends that it was traditional in portraits of this era for the person of highest status in a painting to be placed in the highest position. Infrared photography has been used to prove that the top of John’s hat is the highest of any in the picture.
Add to this the fact that above John’s head is a row of fleur-de-lys, the traditional symbol of French royalty. One of Holbein’s famous optical illusions also means that the structure is simply part of the door frame when seen from the right, yet from the left it appears to be a half open door. John therefore stands before a vanishing door, or an impossible door.
The figure attracts further intrigue when considering that he is dressed in an Italian style, unlike the English dress of the other sitters, pointing to Clement’s Italian medical training. Not only does he hold a roll of parchment, but he also sports a sword and buckler, extremely odd for a secretary, but the traditional trappings of a warrior, which fits neither secretary nor doctor. One oddly bent finger touches the pommel of his sword and the buckler has a polished rim and spokes.
To these anomalies, Leslau applied the principles of French courtly language that Holbein apparently frequently used. The French for optical illusion, as used on the vanishing door, is porte-a-faux, which literally translates as false door, pointing to tricks or hidden falsehoods within the scene. ‘He holds a parchment‘ in French is ‘il tient le parchemin’, which, in courtly French, can mean ‘he holds the right and title of nobility‘. The spoke of a wheel, as seen on the buckler, is ‘rai‘ and the rim is ‘jante‘, which Leslau identified as a split homophone of ‘rejente‘, which translate to regent.
Furthermore, Leslau points to the fact that the ceiling timbers are out of alignment at the top of the painting. Applying the same principles to this anomaly, a line fault becomes a faute de ligne or fault de linage, which equates to a fault in the lineage.
The sideboard in the background of the picture is covered by a carpet. ‘To hide the sideboard under the carpet‘ in French is ‘cacher la credence sous le tapis‘, with Leslau pointing to the word ‘credence‘ being used in French courtly language to mean ‘confidential matters‘. Are confidential matters being hidden from view in the painting, swept under the carpet?
If all of this were true, it points toward the figure named John being of importance; he is marked by fleur-de-lys and occupies the highest station in the painting. Some French courtly language tricks could be used to further mark him as someone demanding closer attention. No secretary would carry a sword and buckler and he is potentially named as a rightful heir.
At the centre of the picture, at the top, is a beautiful clock, a symbol of wealth and status at this time. Yet even this clock holds hidden meaning to Leslau. The pendulum is missing, an important factor relating the ceasing of the passing of time which we will revisit later. The clock’s door is open, which suggests that the time has been altered too. This might also have importance to the person of John. The dial has only one hand, which points to the number eleven, perhaps denoting the eleventh hour and also the one remaining prince, a matter we shall also return to in a while. Above the clock face, a solar eclipse is shown. Given that the Sunne in Splendour was the emblem of the Princes’ father, Edward IV, its eclipse is perhaps relevant. Leslau identified that John is perpendicular to the arc of the sun’s corona, a symbol that forms part of the Duke of York’s arms, and suggests that this points to John’s identity as Richard, Duke of York.
Jack Leslau also believed that code within the painting identified the recent death of the elder of the Princes in the Tower, Edward V. The curtain at the back is drawn, there is a black eclipse and More appears unshaven, all of which are symbols of death and mourning. At a point in the painting higher than John stands an arrangement of purple and gold flag iris. The colours of these flowers do not exist in nature and are well known symbols of royalty. Leslau even points to the fact that More’s chain of S’s sits off centre, over his heart, and that this forms a perfect right angle from the flowers at the end of the weight on the clock. This left angle is used by Leslau to suggest that the recently deceased royal is ‘left quartered’ in the heart of Thomas More and the royal Duchy of Lancaster.
Sir Thomas More wears the Duchy of Lancaster chain around his neck. Close examination shows that the ‘SS’ symbols of the chain are reversed on More’s right, but correct on his left. Once more applying the principles of French courtly language, Leslau contended that the following statement could be created;
“D’un cote, est-ce (esses) gauche?
De l’autre cote, reflection faire,
Est-ce (esses) adroit (a droite).”
This can be translated thus;
“On the one hand is it gauche (clumsy, or left)?
On the other hand, upon reflection,
Is it adroit (clever, or right)?
Is this a cunningly constructed reference to More’s attempts to hide the continued existence of the Princes in his outrageously inaccurate story of Richard III? The artist is uncertain whether it was clumsy or clever, suggesting perhaps that only time will tell. Interestingly, Thomas More shows only three fingers, perhaps also a reference to Richard III.
Other figures in the portrait also contribute further to Leslau’s theory. The two women sitting toward the front on the right of the picture are identified as Margaret Roper (on the right) and Cecily Heron (on the left), More’s daughters. The book that is open on Margaret Roper’s lap show two pages from Seneca’s Oedipus. Margaret points at the word Oedipus, suggesting a tragedy relating to a king, while beside her, Cecily counts on her fingers. Does she count tragedies? Or kings? Or both?
The lines on the opposing page of Oedipus show a speech by Seneca’s Chorus from Act 2, which begins “Fata, si liceat mihi fingere arbito meo“, which translates as “If it were permitted to me to change Fate according to my will…” and the speech continues that he would have things other than they currently are if it were within his power. Does this point to More’s desire to see the House of York restored as the rightful kings?
The top of the page on Margaret Roper’s left shows “L. AN. Seneca”, which may refer to Lucius Annaeus Seneca. However, ‘L. AN’ in French is 50 years, More’s age in 1527 and the age shown above his head in the painting. Leslau believed that this suggested the fact that the portrait was not actually painted in 1527 but pointed to events in the More family and household in that year, that this was when the clock was stopped.
Two dogs sit on the floor before the family. Sir Thomas More has central placement in the picture. Above him, the clock is central, perhaps marking the importance of its hidden message, and the odd looking dog at More’s feet is also on that central line, marking it as also of some import. Leslau notes that the German for ‘fetch the bone’ is ‘hol bein’, a homophone for Holbein, perhaps marking the strange little dog as a devise representing the artist. If this is the case, then the dog’s cocked left ear suggests that some news has reached Holbein’s ear, perhaps even that he is like a dog with as bone.
The lady at the far left of the portrait also requires our attention. She is Margaret Clement, nee Giggs, wife of Dr John Clement. I would point out the since John and Margaret apparently did not marry until 1530 yet the portrait is ‘set’ in 1527, marking her as Mrs Clement at this point seems significant. Margaret is placed on the far left, on the outskirts of the family, left on the fringe, and wears a cheap rabbit skin hat, whereas the other ladies wear expensive headdresses. She is also painted unflatteringly, which Leslau suggests points to the artist taking a dislike to her for some reason. Her finger is pushed into the spine of a book – in French, ‘le doigt dans l’epine‘ can also mean ‘she keeps going on at him’, suggesting disharmony between John and Margaret. This is further supported by the lute behind her, pointing to her back, since ‘lutte‘ is French for ‘to fight’. The vase behind her, ‘vase d’election‘ (‘the chosen one’), is covered – ‘la vase est covert’ in courtly French means ‘the Chosen One is justified’, perhaps suggesting that Holbein believed John Clement to be in the right in whatever arguments they engaged in. Margaret’s book is blank, perhaps suggesting that they argue over nothing, or even that she is unaware of the secret of the painting, that she does not know who her husband really is. The placement of an untidy flower arrangement behind Margaret points to an untidy arrangement – perhaps her marriage to Clement – and includes purple peony, a flower with double significance which will be further examined shortly.
Although Leslau describes several other anomalies, some do not relate directly to the identity of John Clement and I am already conscious of the length of this blog. With much still to say, I am skipping some of these items. I will just point out the man at the far rear of the painting, apparently outside on a balcony. He is reading and has the short hair of a monk, though he is missing the tonsure, the shaved bald spot. ‘Hair is there‘, Leslau suggests, is a homophone for ‘Harris there‘. John Harris, More’s secretary, is included for good measure.
We may return now to the life of Dr John Clement and his age, which seems to offer some controversy and even support for Leslau’s theory. Clement’s identification as the ‘puer meus’ of Utopia led many to believe he was born around 1500. However, Leslau uncovered an entry in the register of enrolment at Louvain University from 13 January 1489 for ‘Johannes Clement’, marked ‘non juravit’ (‘not sworn’). Another entry in the Louvain register from January 1551 read ‘Joannes Clemens, medicine doctor, anglis, noblis (non juravit ex rationabili quandom et occulta sed tamen promisit se servaturum consueta)’. This could be translated as ‘The Lord John Clement, doctor of medicine, English, of noble birth (has not sworn the oath for a reasonable hidden cause, but has nevertheless promised to keep the customary oaths).’
These entries are 62 years apart. Could they refer to the same person? If so, Clement was clearly born before 1500. Interestingly, Richard, Duke of York was born in 1473, so would have been approaching his 16th birthday at the time of the first entry in 1489. This age would be consistent with the correct age for university enrolment at this time.
The second entry records John Clement as both a ‘Lord’ and as ‘of noble birth’. No noble Clement family existed in England at this time, so the entry is either wildly inaccurate or was made in the knowledge that John Clement was the assumed identity of an English nobleman. The bracketed note after the entry is also interesting. John Clement had not ‘sworn the oath’, as he had not in the 1489 entry, though this time a reason is offered; ‘for a reasonable hidden cause’. Leslau’s research discovered that such an explanation is unique between the periods 31st August 1485 and February 1569, a period during which 49,246 entries were made. If Clement was, indeed, using an assumed identity, then swearing the oath under a false name would have been perjury. The fact that the University may have lost its right to the privilegium tractus in such an event might explain the acceptance of the failure to swear, whilst simultaneously implying that the University was aware that Clement was living under an assumed identity, and doing so for an acceptable reason – at least implying no fraud.
Further weight is given to the theory that Clement was older than a birth date in 1500 would allow by an entry in the Letter and Papers of Henry VIII, 1, Part 2, Appendix, page 1550. This note refers to a set of challenges and answers for a feat of arms planned for Wednesday 1st June 1510. The list runs thus;
King – Lord Howard
King – John Clement
Knyvet – Earl of Essex
Knevet – Wm Courtenay
Howard – Sir John Audeley
Howard – Arthur Plantagenet
Brandon – Ralph Eggerton
Brandon – Chr Garneys
Of the ten participants (beside the king, Henry VIII), five (Lord Howard, Thomas Knyvet/Knevet, Henry Bourchier Earl of Essex, William Courtenay Earl of Devonshire and Arthur Plantagenet) were close relatives to the king either by blood or marriage. Additionally, Charles Brandon was probably Henry’s closest friend and would later become his brother in law and Duke of Suffolk. Leslau points to this as evidence that Clement could not possibly have been born in 1500, since he would only have been 10 years of age at the time. I would also add that it creates the significant possibility, if this set of challenges was filled with Henry’s closest friends and family, that Clement was amongst that elite set and that he held his position there because Henry knew who he really was. Was Clement’s true identity an open secret amongst Tudor England’s ruling class? At least in Henry VIII’s youth, while he brimmed with confidence.
In 1534, Clement appears to have imprisoned in Fleet Prison at the same time that More was incarcerated in the Tower. Perhaps not unusual for a family member who may have shared More’s views, but we can find John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland, writing on 11th October 1534 to Thomas Cromwell commenting on Clement’s case. He writes;
“farthermore as towchyng maistr Clements mattr I beseche your maistership not to gyve to much credens to some great men who peraventure wyll be intercessours of the matter and to make the best of it for Mr Clement by cause peraventure they theym selves be the greatest berers of it as by that tyme I have shewed you how whotly the sendying of Mr Clement to the flete was taken, by some that may chawnce you thinke to be your frende you wyll not a little marvayle”
Dudley’s intercession is of interest because Leslau contends that Edward V survived as Sir Edward Guildford, who happens to be John Dudley’s father in law. Dudley is also clearly under the impression that “some great men” will take interest in Clement’s case.
Clement’s later life is also interesting, and some portions are relevant to this discussion. In 1549, as Edward VI’s Protestant rule became established, Clement and his wife quit England for Louvain. Although he returned during Queen Mary’s reign, Clement was unable to regain the extensive 180 book library he had lost when he left. The motive for this departure and return is not hard to discern. The Public Record Office in Chancery Lane holds an inventory of Clement’s Marshfoot house, showing property seized by Sir Anthony Wingfield with the approval of Sir William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley. The Chapel Chamber contained many Catholic artefacts, including “an awlter, a picture of our Lady, a picture of the V woundes” (the sign of the five wounds featured prominently as the badge of the popular uprising against Henry VIII, the Pilgrimage of Grace).
On the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, Clement left England for the last time in 1558. In March 1562, an entry appears in the Louvain register for “Dominus Joannes Clemens, nobilis, Anglus” and he appears for a final time in the register in 1568: “Dominus Joannes Clement in theologia“. In total, these entries span an incredible 79 years.
John Clement died on 1st July 1572, two years after his wife of some 40 years. In a final significant act, he was laid to rest near the high altar of St Rombout’s Cathedral in Mechelen, a spot traditionally reserved for members of the House of Burgundy, Margaret of York’s family by marriage. If he was Richard, Duke of York, he lived to the ripe, improbable, but not impossible age of 98.
So, we have a man who, by circumstantial evidence, appears to have been a nobleman living under the assumed identity of Dr John Clement and who may appear in a family portrait as a rightful heir of some kind. There is more that this painting can tell us yet.
When compared to the figure beside him, John appears to have very waxy, pale skin, whereas Henry Patterson (More’s fool) has a more natural tone. Leslau tells us that on two well known, well documented occasions, Holbein used the technique of waxy skin to show people at half their true age. This fits with the clock’s suggestion that time has been not only stopped, but also altered. John is marked as ‘Anno 27’. If this is in fact half his true age, he would be 54. Richard, Duke of York’s date of birth in 1473 would make him 54 in 1527, the year to which the portrait appears to refer.
I would add as my own observation that the figure of Henry Patterson, More’s fool, bears a striking resemblance to Henry VIII. He also appears to sport a red and white rose, separated, on the top of his hat. Henry also stands just below John in terms of height in the portrait. If the height is used to mark precedence, then the order would appear to be: A missing royal who has just died (Edward V), John (Richard, Duke of York), Henry (Henry VIII). This appears startlingly blatant to me, dangerous for both Holbein and More, particularly if Henry VIII knew who John Clement was, yet perhaps Henry was in on the joke?
Level with John’s head is a purple peony, a colour of this flower which apparently does not exist in nature. Purple is a colour denoting royalty, and Paion was the physician to the Greek gods in myth, and a nickname applied to doctors at this time. Hence, the purple peony, an impossible flower, marks a royal doctor. Clement was not made President of the College of Physicians until much later, so perhaps this refers instead to a doctor who is royal?
So, Leslau’s conclusions seem to run thus. The painting tells us that there are secrets hidden within it (the sideboard under the carpet). The figure of John represents Dr John Clement, a member of More’s household, husband to his adopted daughter and a person of significance. The household is in mourning for the recent (in 1527, at least) death of a royal. This death entitles John Clement to be addressed as the ‘rightful heir’. The flower selections within the painting are impossible, attracting attention, and point toward royalty, by using purple and gold and fleur-de-lys, and to medicine in the use of the peony. The clock tells us that time has been stopped, even altered, and that this is important, whilst also referencing the House of York. John is shown at half his real age, making him 54 in 1527, the precise age of Richard, Duke of York.
Though long, this is a pared down version of Leslau’s complete research.
Put simply, Leslau’s conclusion is that the painting contains code that tells us very clearly that Dr John Clement is the assumed identity of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, younger of the Princes in the Tower, and that both boys lived long into the reign of Henry VIII, the younger surviving until 1572 in the rule of Elizabeth I. It would also appear that the younger lived within the household and under the protection of Sir Thomas More and it is perhaps clear that Henry VIII knew of this fact.
Did this contribute to Henry’s growing paranoia and panic as he failed to produce a male heir, then seemed set to die when his only son was a young boy? Was knowledge of this secret the reason Henry could not allow More to live as a private citizen following his resignation as Lord Chancellor?
Or is all of this a mere flight of fancy, seeing things because one is looking for them rather than because they are really there? Could a prince live to be 98 years old keeping his existence a secret, even though plenty seemed to know?
I don’t know, but given that Richard III is frequently convicted of murder based upon no evidence at all, surely some potential positive evidence in this elusive case must be given due consideration. Of course, that the Princes survived cannot tell us by whose hand this was achieved. Richard III may have laid the foundations that became the arrangements for their incognito existences. It may have been a reaction to Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth. They may also still have been rescued from a plan by Richard to murder them. Some questions cannot be answered by this theory, but perhaps some can.