The Will of Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers

On 23rd June 1483, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the brother to Queen Elizabeth, brother-in-law to King Edward IV and uncle to King Edward V sat down at Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire to perform the ultimate reminder of his own mortality. If he needed any such reminder.

Anthony had been taken prisoner when Richard, Duke of Gloucester had taken possession of the person of the young King Edward V at Stony Stratford. It is impossible at this distance and with the remaining evidence to establish whether Anthony was indeed plotting against the Protector as Richard alleged. His family in London opposed plans to grant Richard the full powers his brother seems to have intended, but Anthony’s own part in this is unclear. He had headed the Prince of Wales’ household in Ludlow and was escorting the twelve year old to London, but his part in any plot remains unproven.

Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Anthony could have been in little doubt as to his imminent fate. It provided an opportunity for some reflection. Reflection upon a life of extraordinary advancement. Anthony’s grandfather, Richard, had been chamberlain to John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of England and France and uncle to King Henry VI. Shortly after Bedford died in 1435, Anthony’s father, also named Richard, married the duke’s widow, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. The marriage caused a scandal and the pair were fined for failing to obtain permission when the union became public knowledge.

Richard Woodville had married far above his station and once the dust had settled, he was created Earl Rivers to bridge this social gulf, transforming his family’s fortunes. The couple went on to have fifteen children together and it was one of their daughters, the eldest, who was to further invigorate the prospects of the Woodville clan. Elizabeth, the widow of a Lancastrian knight, Sir John Grey of Groby, who had been killed at the 2nd Battle of St Albans in 1461, had two sons and no way to provide for them. In seeking to secure their future from the new King Edward IV, she caught his eye and became his wife, promoting the Woodvilles to the status of royal relations. Anthony, like his father, had fought for the Lancastrians at Towton, but the family now tied their banner to the House of York.

Anthony married Elizabeth Scales and in her right became known as Lord Scales. He accompanied Margaret, sister of King Edward IV, for her marriage to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in 1468. On the sixth day of the wedding feasts, Anthony was to take part in a tourney against the Bastard of Burgundy, Duke Charles’s older half-brother. The Bastard, also named Anthony, just to confuse matters further, was a famed soldier and jouster. Anthony Woodville had also won for himself an enviable reputation in the lists. As a mark of respect, the Bastard of Burgundy would not oppose Lord Scales, a man he considered a brother in arms. Adolf de Cleve fought in the Bastard’s place and in the half hour contest broke seventeen lances to Scales’ eleven. Anthony lost, but was far from disgraced.

On his return to England, he indented to King Edward to provide five knights, fifty five men-at-arms, two thousand nine hundred and forty five archers, twenty four ship-masters and one thousand and seventy six mariners for a period of three months. This substantial force was meant to aid the Duke of Brittany against the French but was never used in that cause. On 25th October 1468, Anthony went to sea with five thousand men to patrol the coast against an invasion by Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife, rumoured to be preparing an attack from Harfleur.

On 12th August 1469, Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers and another of his sons Sir John were executed on the orders of the Earl of Warwick as rebellion against King Edward grew. Anthony succeeded to his father’s earldom and became entitled to the office of Constable of England, a prestigious position that he waived his right to in favour of the king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. In spite of the new Earl Rivers’ efforts in driving the Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick from the south coast into France, King Edward was eventually forced to flee. When he took ship for exile, Earl Rivers accompanied him, returning six months later to help the king retake the throne.

In reward for his commitment and aid, Anthony was made Governor of Calais and the Marches for seven years and created Captain-General of the king’s forces. In 1471, Anthony acted as ambassador to the Duke of Brittany, taking with him one thousand men to negotiate a truce. When King Edward’s oldest son was created Prince of Wales, Anthony was chosen to head up the young Prince’s household at Ludlow and made Chief Butler of England. In 1473, Louys de Bretaylles loaned Anthony a book to pass a journey. Earl Rivers translated “Les Dictes Moraux des Philosophes” whilst in the Prince of Wales’ household and had his “The Dictes and Saying of the Philosophers” printed by Caxton in 1477, beating Richard, Duke of Gloucester to patronise the new printing press in London with his own work.

In 1474, on the birth of the King’s second son, Richard, Duke of York, Anthony participated in a grand tournament which included his nephews Thomas and Richard Grey, his brother Sir Edward Woodville, James Tyrell and John Cheney. Later that year he returned to France in the king’s service with forty men-at-arms and two hundred archers.

In more peaceful times, Anthony was frequently at court and also devoted himself to the education of his nephew, the future king. This peace was shattered in April 1483 when King Edward IV passed away following a brief illness. Suddenly, it seemed that a race for London was on. Lord Hastings in the capital wrote to the dead king’s brother, Richard, that he should make all haste to London with a force of men to prevent the Woodvilles enacting their plans for domination against the last wishes of King Edward. Rivers readied the new young king to depart the comfort and security of Ludlow.

That Rivers was party to any Woodville plot is, as mentioned, uncertain, but we do know that he was in correspondence with Richard and arranged to meet him en route. Rivers then overshot the agreed meeting place and installed the young king at the Woodville manor of Stony Stratford. This served to heighten Richard’s edgy concern, but far from rushing ahead to exclude the Protector, Rivers doubled back to meet Richard and assure him that they only wished to leave room for his men to billet. In spite of the assurances offered, Rivers was seized the next morning and sent north as a prisoner of Richard, Duke of Gloucester where he was joined by his nephew Richard Grey and the Prince’s chamberlain Thomas Vaughan.

Once in London, Richard swiftly sought the consent of the Council to execute the three on charges of treason. The council declined on the basis that Richard had not, at the time, been installed as regent and so treason against him was not possible. This was a clear warning shot and Richard’s intentions toward the men were not hard to discern. Therefore, on 23rd June 1483, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers sat down at a table within the walls of his captor’s fortress at Sheriff Hutton to compose his last will and testament.

“In the name of our Lord, Amen. I, Antony Widevile, in hole mynd and fressh memory, in the Castell of Shiryfhoton the xxiij day of Juyn, and the vigill of Seint John Baptyst, the yere of our Lord Mi cccclxxxiij, make my testament and last will in the forme folowyng.”

Signature of Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers
Signature of Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers

The will reads more like a stream of consciousness rather than a carefully prepared document, which is perhaps not surprising in the claustrophobic circumstances. Anthony deals initially with any Woodville lands that he held:

“I will that all such land as was my lord my faders, remayne holy to his right heyres ; with my cupp of gold of columbyne, which was lefte me by bequest to that entent it shuld’ remayne to the right heires of my seid lord my faders”

Anthony’s next concern was the paying of his debts. To the medieval mind, temporal debts were a weight that held the soul in purgatory for an increased time, something all were keen to avoid. It is clear in reading the will that Anthony was racking his brains as he wrote, stripped of his “boke” of debts, which would be found “in my closett in London“. He recalls debts owed to the Bishop of Worcester, one Lomner, a London mercer, Ocles Mayce, “goldsmyth“, the Mayor of Lynne and Abrey, a draper from Norwich.

Rivers provided for the selling of “my fee simpill lond, that is to sey the maner of Tyrington hall in Middylton with the hundreth of Frebrigge, the maner of Wolv’ton with thadvowson in the counte of Norfolke, the maner of Rokey in Barway in the counte of Hertford“. These were to provide funds for the establishment of a hospital at Rochester for “xiii pour folkes” and for “other dedes of charite“. He also later requests that his armour and horse harness be sold “and with the money therof be bought shyrtes and smokkes to pouer folkes“, bequeathing “my gowne of tawney cloth of gold” to the Prior of Royston, adding “my trapper of blakk cloth of gold I geve to our Lady of Walsingham“.

Anthony provided for his wife, who he requested have “all such plate as was the same Henry Lowes, and other my plate to the value of asmoche thing as I hadd of his; also that she have all such plate as was geven hyr at our mariage, and the sparver of white sylke with iiii peyre of shetes, ii payre of fustians, a federbed, i chambring of gresylde“. He also willed that all of his servants should be paid in full for the Midsummer quarter, asking that each of them be provided with a “blak gowne“, and requested “that Tybold my barbor have v marks“.

Two further points of note leap from this document. Firstly, in light of recent controversy over the contested chosen place of burial of King Richard III, especially Chris Skidmore’s very recent release of a letter it is claimed points to his desire to be interred at York Minster, some of Anthony, Earl Rivers requests are significant. That Richard III established a chantry at York Minster is well known. The recent letter firmly insists that the priest there be properly paid to ensure their prayers for Richard’s soul. This is not, however, the same as proving he intended a mausoleum to be created there for him.

Earl Rivers wills his “grete gilt basons, and such a somme of money as myn executirs shall think goode” to Saint Mary’s in York “to pray for my soule“. He bequeathed a further sum of money at Bewdley, requesting that they “pray for the sowles of my seid lord my fadre, my lady my modre, my brother Sir John, me, and all Christen sowles“. He further left money to Wittington College in London “to pray for my soule“. In spite of these many requests for prayers, Anthony firmly states “My will is now to be buried before an Image of our blissid Lady Mary , with my lord Richard, in Pomfrete (Pontefract)“. It is clear that ensuring prayers were said for one’s soul was not a direct indication of an intention to be interred in a location. It may well point to places important to an individual, that hold a special place in their heart, of fond memories or some family tie, but there is not a direct correlation with a desire to buried in a place paid to offer prayers for a soul.

The second point of interest is Anthony’s selection of executors. He names the Bishop of Lincoln, then Chancellor of England and a close ally of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the Bishop of Worcester, William Tunstall, Robert Poynz, Richard Hawte, William Catesby (a lawyer in the service of Richard), Andrew Dymmock (Anthony’s attorney) and Thomas Thorysby. There is perhaps little remarkable in these selection, apart from the inclusion of men close to the man responsible for Anthony’s arrest and who he must have feared would soon order his death. Anthony continues “Over this, I besech humbly, my Lord of Gloucestyr, in the worshipp of Cristes passhion and for the meryte and wele of his sowle, to comfort help and assist, as supervisor (for very trust) of this testament, that myn executours may with his pleasure fulfill this my last will“.

Anthony elected to appoint Richard supervisor of his executors. The two men were similar in many ways. Their reputations were almost mirrors, less Richard’s lack of interest in tournaments. Yet Richard was Anthony’s gaoler. This provision is frustratingly elusive and open to interpretation. Did Anthony simply accept that to see his wishes met he would have to go through Richard, who was so clearly now in control? Did he offer a little barb that Richard should take care for the “meryte and wele of his sowle“? Was it some sort of admission of his own guilt in seeking to plot against Richard? Or was it simply an act of friendship between two men, at odds now, but for so long on the same course?

The rambling nature of the writing is touching to read. Anthony is clearly a man fighting to recall all that could hinder his passage to Heaven and writing disparate provisions as they occur to him. He was obviously working hard through the fear and knowledge of what was surely to come. It seems clear that whatever the reason for appointing him supervisor of his executors, Anthony trusted Richard would do the right thing for him after his impending death. There is no sign of a man who feared the Protector meant the nephews they shared any harm.

This will was never proved. Perhaps Anthony Woodville was fooled by Richard, or perhaps he saw a truth lost to us now. That is for you to decide.