I don’t do politics on social media, mainly because it’s such a minefield. I love politics and have my views, of course, but I choose to keep them firmly to myself. It’s hard sometimes, I don’t mind admitting, but it strikes me that the way the world is at the moment, the study of history has never been more important to the political world emerging around us all.
Article 50, beginning Britain’s exit from the EU, is triggered on 29 March 2017, the 556th anniversary of the Battle of Towton in 1461, the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil in which heralds reported 28,000 dead, as well as uncounted injured. Families were torn apart between two rival ideologies and leaderships as those at the top of society fought for supremacy. If that doesn’t offer a direct parallel from history, I’m not sure what does. Towton was apocalyptic, but it was also the culmination of years of trouble and it was a watershed in ending problems that had dogged the nation for a decade.
A perfect example can also be found at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, where a poster lists the early warning signs of fascism for all to see. When they begin to ring bells, alarms should sound loudly. It’s also important to remember that hitting one or more of these criteria doesn’t necessarily require immediate panic. The other point to consider is whether the sign at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which recently went viral, really exists. In an age increasingly dominated by fake news, we need more than ever to question what we read, and that is why the skills that are integral to the study of history are so vital.
It isn’t a question of needing to study a particular period or adopt a certain viewpoint, political, ethical or otherwise. History as a subject requires a set of skills invaluable to the navigation of the increasingly murky world of multi-media; instant news thrust in front of our eyes on every screen we look at, often unbidden. News breaks on Twitter in real time, provided by real people with no filter. In some ways, it’s attractive, but in many more ways it’s dangerous. Visceral images and unregulated, often unchecked, information can be more unwelcome than useful in moments of crisis and can prove dangerous if it hampers the efforts or investigations of the emergency services. Opinion is a dangerous and incendiary weapon in the hands of those with unpleasant agendas, particularly when it is masked as fact.
Part of the problem with the abundance of news and the proliferation of fake news is that it’s hard to decipher the truth. Studying the past might seem like a dead, useless subject, but the skills involved, even more than the lessons of comparison, are increasingly something every consumer of news today should arm themselves with to combat the waning influence of a fixed bank of ‘reliable’ news providers (because there isn’t, and never has been, any without an agenda of their own). There is more information than ever before, and that brings with it the need to question it more closely.
The study of history is the dissection of fake news. It really isn’t the new phenomenon many think it is. Many medieval sources are chronicles written by monks who had their own agenda for recording and reporting the things they selected, often noting outlandish weather events to mark years with political events the Church didn’t approve of. Ralph of Coggeshall discusses the discovery of a giant’s teeth and skull, Warkworth describes a headless man roaming the countryside moaning ‘bowes, bowes, bowes’. Roger of Howden recorded blood falling from the sky on the Isle of Wight, staining washing that was hung out to dry. The Melrose Chronicle describes comets as portents of doom, recording that ‘a comet is a star which is not always visible but which appears most frequently upon the death of a king; but if it has a streaming hair, and throws it off, as it were, then it betokens the ruin of a country’.
We might think these things bizarre and laughable now, suspicions from an age before science dispelled such ideas. Strange discoveries, weather phenomena and apparitions were portents of doom linked to political upheaval or social disaster. I’m left wondering, as we sneer at the belief of our forebears in the supernatural as a portent of evil, just how different we are as politicians make apocalyptic predictions to fill the vacuum of their knowledge of a matter. If they can’t fathom the end, they can paint a picture that fits their agenda and promise milk and honey if we follow their line and doom and destruction if we stray. They are becoming modern parallels of medieval monkish chroniclers.
The study of history teaches us to evaluate sources, to seek corroboration, to establish the difference between fact and opinion and to weigh the evidence based on our examination. It is a fact the William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066. It is a matter of opinion that his claim was the strongest or was rightful. It is a fact that Edward II was deposed as king, but an opinion that he was murdered by the insertion of a red-hot iron as punishment for his homosexuality. Many of the things we believe are historical fact are actually reported opinion or rumour with a political motivation that have simply been absorbed into a narrative. The same is happening at the moment as we question less and less and accept more and more.
Empathy is another key part of the study of history that the world could use a little more of. Understanding the position of others, trying to fathom their real motivations, not the ones they offer openly to the world, is vital to understanding why people act as they do. This aim is achieved by the evaluation of a range of sources and is a careful process of weighing and measuring to reach a view, not accepting at face value the version provided by the person trying to influence you. Empathy is also the only rout to understanding the position of those without a voice, or whose voice is drowned out too easily. We should question why we don’t hear these voices and try to understand the needs and problems fuelling silence as well as noise.
Another crucial element of history is the understanding that the weighing of evidence results in an opinion, not a fact. Historians take a view, based on their evaluation, but historians cannot create facts, only uncover them. Thus, many historians hold the opinion, based on their study and measuring of the evidence available, that Richard III ordered the murders of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Others, with the same evidence, reach the opposite view. If an historian tells you they know the truth of the disappearance of those two boys, they aren’t telling you the truth because the facts are unclear and can only lead to the forming of a view that cannot be proven or disproven. When you buy a non-fiction history book, you are buying an historian’s assessment and opinion on a topic or a person. There will be facts that are used to formulate a view and politicians do the same thing, yet we accept their assertions as fact all too easily.
The ability to form polar opposite assessments of the same evidence means that the study of history is also the art of disagreeing constructively, responsibly and politely. I want to say dispassionately, but that might not be entirely accurate. Raise almost any topic on social media and an onslaught of opinion will follow that is none of these things. Trolls are cowards who hide behind a profile, there is no doubt about that. Plenty of trolls operate behind an agenda too that requires the bullying or inflaming of others.
I also think that the wider world, who are in no way trolls, has also lost the art of polite disagreement. Displaying passion is all well and good, but it is no excuse for being impolite, belittling the opinions of others or shouting down those with a newly sprouting interest that might require more information to build upon a foundation. No flower was ever grown by stamping it down. A flower requires nurturing with care and it needs feeding. We, as a wider society, seem to have lost the art of disagreeing with each other politely. We don’t debate, we try to shout down. We don’t freely give our view to be used as a building block in the construction of another’s opinion or even a wider understanding. Instead, we jealously guard and defend it.
The United Kingdom is entering a new phase, or more correctly, taking a step back forty years and returning to an old state of being. Some will see that as a retrograde move, a withdrawal from engagement beyond our own shores. Others will believe it is the undoing of forty years of a wrong direction or stepping away from an organisation teetering on the brink of collapse or a step forward to engage with the whole world instead of just the EU.
The truth is that no one knows what will happen. Those sounding portents of doom may be proven correct, but the delight some seem to take in that prospect is a self-destructive narcissism that risks real people’s futures in a desire to be proven right and to be able to say ‘I told you so’. Equally, those who paint a rosy future are guessing and hoping, which might at least be a positive position to take. The truth is that predicting doom or glory is pointless. The effort now needs to be focussed on achieving the best possible result because whether this is a direction you wanted or not, all of our futures rely on making it a success.
So, for what my opinion is worth, I think the skills involved in the study of history are more important now than ever before. We need to learn to question what we consume, to seek out corroboration, to look for agendas, to weigh and measure what we are exposed to and to build our views based on as wide an understanding as possible. Always ask who is showing you something and why they want you to see and believe it. We also need to understand that our opinion is just that. It’s not necessarily correct, not everyone needs to share it and it is strength, not weakness, to allow our opinion to be examined, questioned, modified and even changed. There is no need to shout. The truth is not necessarily spoken by the loudest voice. Sometimes it cowers in silence.
After the apocalyptic Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461, the new king, Edward IV, reached out to his enemies. He offered reconciliation, even making peace with Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the military leader of the Lancastrian faction opposed to Edward. It was temporary and Henry eventually ended up back at odds with the House of York, but those we judge as less civilised than us knew the importance of unity in the building of a brighter future and saw the need to put old rivalries to bed. As Article 50 is triggered on 29 March 2017, I think it’s a lesson we need to learn again.
Game of Thrones is perhaps the most epic novel and TV series ever created. George RR Martin has woven a world Tolkien would have been proud of, managing to be filled with fantasy, but just recognisable enough to pull us in, to tug at some memory we have of something similar. So much has happened (I’m going to talk TV series for the sake of ease) that going back to the start seems like an age ago with long forgotten faces and actions with consequences still sending ripples through the Seven Kingdoms. There are many figures from the book and from history who can be paired together in different time periods. It’s amazing, though, how much of six series of world re-shaping can be crammed into the events of 1483 in England.
It’s not much of a secret that GRRM is interested in the Wars of the Roses and draws heavily on it in his writing. That is part what makes it feel so tangible. Several characters often represent a single real life person, and just as often, a character has traits that can be traced back to several real figures. The story begins with a larger than life king, more interested in hunting, feasting, drinking and womanising that the boring minutiae of government. He used to be a formidable warrior but not his armour doesn’t fit and he’s a bit too wheezy to fight. Edward IV, then. He goes to visit his best mate, most loyal subject, the man who fought at his side to win the throne and has since kept the wild north tamed in the king’s name. A man of honour, a strange kind of heightened honour some seem to find it hard to comprehend. Edward’s brother, the future Richard III fits that bill. The king dies in an accident – or is it an accident – matching Edward’s death in April 1483, which has since drawn unproven rumours of his wife’s mischief. His wife, the blonde from a family getting ideas above its station who wants to work its members into everything possible, fits with Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her family, who were viewed by the older nobility as commoners and interlopers, even though they weren’t.
Martin then seems to explore a few ‘what if’ scenarios as Robert’s young son prepares to become king. Joffrey = Edward V. Ned Stark, our fist Richard III, comes south and uncovers Joffrey’s illegitimacy. He is given a choice between covering up the truth and living or exposing it, backing a true king, a dying for his troubles. So, Martin suggests, Richard was in very real danger in the spring of 1483 and blind honour might get him killed. Rob Stark emerges as a King in the North, leading a military campaign south to enforce his rights. Another option for Richard, but one that also leads to Rob’s death. Rob is also an interesting parallel to the young Edward IV – undefeated in battle, seemingly charmed and invincible, his success is undone when he abandons an agreed marriage in favour of a commoner he falls in love with. Edward and Elizabeth Woodville’s story played out almost like a flashback, with the pre-arranged marriage perhaps a reference to Warwick the Kingmaker’s efforts to secure a French marriage or the pre-contract story that would lead to so much trouble in 1483.
In Martin’s 1483, Edward V becomes king, followed by his younger brother, who would be Richard, Duke of York. Both are overwhelmed and overtaken by the events and end up dead. Does Martin think the Woodville matriarch would have been unable to keep her hands out of the government and destroyed her sons’ chances? Jaime, as Cersei’s brother, would have to be Anthony Woodville, who, whilst there was no hint of incest (that, surely, refers to Anne Boleyn’s story), was a key influence in the early life of Edward V as his guardian. There is also the incident of Theon burning two farm boys and passing them off as the Stark boys, so that everyone thinks the Stark heirs are dead, only for them to have survived in secret. Another theoretical line for the Princes in the Tower.
The penultimate episode had a sense of a flashback to earlier Wars of the Roses events. The Battle of the Bastards, two men fighting for one thing – Edward IV and Henry VI? – pile onto a field in massive numbers, as they did at Towton in 1461, when 28,000 dead were reported by heralds to be piled on the field, with men crushed and suffocated. The battle was won for Edward by the late arrival of the Duke of Norfolk to the field – see instead the Knights of the Vale. At the Battle of Losecote Field in 1470, Edward IV had brought Richard Welles, father of Robert, leader of the men opposing him, onto the field before the battle. After ordering Robert to surrender and hearing his refusal, Edward had Richard executed in front of his son, much as Jon watched Rickon’s death.
The last episode of series six was probably the most epic yet, as Kings Landing imploded, almost literally, and even more ended than started. My head was spinning, but I was back in 1483, perhaps in the autumn now. Jon is that son of Lyanna Stark and, presumably, Rhaegar Targaryen, though we don’t know if they were married. The question of legitimacy is left open but clearly impacts the notion of who is the ‘rightful’ heir. Legitimate or not, Jon is Daenerys Targaryen’s nephew (we presume). Does that make his claim better as it is through a male line? What if he isn’t legitimate? Is he the one figure who could unite north and south? Many may have thought that about Richard III in 1483. Then there is the Mother of Dragons herself. She ends the episode at the dead of a fleet of ships, heading back to Westeros, a land she hasn’t seen since childhood, surrounded by dragons and the hopes of those disaffected by the politics of Westeros – the selfless Lord Varys and Tyrion Lannister (who might well bring another element of Richard III in the examination of the perceptions of being physically different on a man’s life from childhood to adulthood). Could it be any clearer that this is Henry Tudor, with his red dragon of Cadwaladr, crossing to challenge for the throne? We have Little Finger, too, a man who prides himself on being untrustworthy, yet seems to get himself trusted, admitting that he wants the Iron Throne. I think we just hit Buckingham’s Rebellion in October 1483.
Martin makes so many connections and suggestions that it is possible to pick every plot line into a thousand pieces. Therein lies his genius. Perhaps the point about 1483 and the Song of Fire and Ice series in that so much can happen in a short space of time. There aren’t goodies and baddies. Motives shift and morph and are revealed as the political landscape changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes seismically. I think it is safe to say that GRRM has a deep interest in Richard III, the politics of 1483 and even the Princes in the Tower. He may not have any more answers than anyone else, but his expansive worlds give him free reign to explore what might have happened in a number of permutations that all seem to revolve around ideas of legitimacy and the shades of light and dark in men’s (and women’s) souls. GRRM just might be the most famous Ricardian around at the moment.
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.
The article is entitled “Richard III fans are the medieval equivalent of 9/11 truthers” and displays a portrait with the caption ‘Richard III: a monster’. So we’re pretty clear where this is going. This type of article is hardly unusual but I thought this time I’d put the record straight, for a number of reasons.
Ed West, the author of the piece and deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, then launches into a savaging of Richard III that traditional historians would be proud of. It isn’t hard to work out where the ideas come from as Mr West announces that he has read Dan Jones’ recent Wars of the Roses tome The Hollow Crown. Interestingly, he mentions The Daughter of Time but doesn’t appear to have read it, nor does he reference any revisionist history to offset the known dislike Dan Jones maintains for Richard III.
It is asserted that attempts to review Richard III’s reputation began in the early 20th century with the foundation of The Fellowship of the White Boar. It is not such a new phenomenon. Sir George Buck published his revisionist The History of King Richard the Third in the early 17th century. Jane Austen famously wrote that she felt Richard III had been hard done to by history, musing;
“The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to believe true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.”
Mr West summarises the Wars of the Roses as told by Dan Jones as “mostly a good fun read about aristocratic psychopaths chopping each other’s heads off” before warning that “the story becomes very, very dark in April 1483”. Richard seizes the throne, kills Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Lord Hastings and then, following Dan Jones’ conclusions, all but definitely murders his nephews. Richard’s coronation feast is meant to appear disgustingly opulent when it was, in fact, an integral part of a coronation until 1830 when William IV abandoned the idea as too expensive. Elizabeth Shore wasn’t paraded at the coronation, she was made to walk through London from St Paul’s as penance for harlotry and then put in prison, and all of this had more to do with being Edward IV’s mistress than Lord Hastings’ (and Edward IV’s stepson Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset too for good measure).
Let’s take a little look at how much darker things really got in 1483. Four men died to secure the throne for Richard III. Precisely four. Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. None of these executions were illegal, whatever anyone may say. Richard was Constable of England and entitled to execute men for treason based on evidence that he had seen. Whether Richard was rightfully king or not, just four men. Thousands and thousands died to win the throne for Edward IV. Towton was a truly dark day. Thousands more perished to prise him off and see Henry VI restored only to have Edward IV back in place six months later. Who then was rightful king? We are seriously supposed to believe that four deaths are worse than many thousands. Four lives lost by men at the heart of the political turmoil threatening England are portrayed as being worth so much more than thousands of innocent men dragged from field to field around England to fight battles that had nothing to do with them for lords who didn’t care about them. I don’t buy that.
Even if we allow that he may have killed his nephews this is only so distasteful because of their ages and ignores a long history of murdering political rivals. If he did it, it is inexcusable, but it isn’t the only stand out crime of history, as it is painted by those convinced of Richard’s monstrous presence, haunting the annals of England’s history. Arthur, Duke of Brittany, a nephew of King John with a stronger claim than his uncle, mysteriously disappeared in 1203 after being imprisoned at Rouen by John. No one talks about this mystery. In 1470, just before he lost the throne, Edward IV had some of Warwick’s men executed. John Tiptoft, then Constable, oversaw the trials. The men were beheaded and then impaled on spikes, left on display with their severed heads atop the spikes driven through their backsides. When Charles II became king he had Oliver Cromwell and others exhumed, their rotten corpses beheaded, the bodies thrown into unmarked pits and the gory heads placed on spikes at the end of Westminster Hall where the men had sat in judgement on his father. This after promising no retribution. The murder of the Princes in the Tower, if it happened, has obtained such currency not only because it involved children, but because it is a morality tale that suited the Tudors and subsequent generations. Whenever the story rears its head there is an important context to consider.
Richard’s illegitimate children are given a mention to further smear his character. That Richard “fathered several illegitimate children” is a stretch. It was two (that are known of), both believed to have been born before he was married. John and Katherine were acknowledged as his natural children and provided for. Is that not to be applauded? No mention is given to Edward IV’s four or five illegitimate children, nor to the record of (approximately) 24 fathered by Henry I. Of course, mention of this would make Richard look positively chaste and that isn’t the aim of the article.
All of Richard’s well attested bravery and progressive legislation is given a cursory mention, but only to point out that it all counts for nothing because, at the end of the day, “he murdered his nephews”. Somewhere, we lost the ‘probably’ or ‘I would conclude from the evidence’. This is something that always frustrates me. I can’t tell you that Richard III didn’t kill his nephews. I don’t try to. I like to explore alternatives, but it is undeniable that if they died, Richard is the prime suspect. This does not make him guilty, but neither can he be proved innocent. When Dan Jones tells you Richard did it, he’s offering his opinion, nothing more. The same is true of Alison Weir. Educated though it may be, it remains an opinion rather than a fact. We are confidently informed that by late 1483 ‘everyone thought the princes dead’. Oh, apart from Henry VII who was worried by several pretenders until the end of the century. And apart from Sir William Stanley, executed in 1495 for saying that he would not fight against Perkin Warbeck if he really was the son of Edward IV. I could go on, but it was not a known fact then, and it isn’t now.
We are told that the “odd thing about Ricardians is how unlikely Richard’s innocence is”. It is this that makes us “late medieval equivalents of 9/11 truthers”. I’m sure that’s meant to be an insult, but if being accused of looking beyond someone else’s superficially presented opinion to explore an issue and reach a well-researched, well-reasoned conclusion of my own is an insult I’d suggest that this would say more about the article’s author than me. Fear of the truth and of investigation are hardly pinnacles of freedom and democracy. That conclusion, when reached, may well be that Richard did do it. Most Ricardians will freely concede that the possibility, perhaps even the probability, cannot be denied. Re-evaluation is what Ricardianism is about, not whitewashing. Some hold the view that Richard was innocent more passionately than others, just as some, including traditionalist historians, cannot see beyond his guilt to discuss the matter openly.
For me, the odd thing about traditionalists is their unwillingness to re-evaluate anything. For every Facebook group in which you will be rounded upon for accusing Richard of the murders there is another in which any mention of his innocence will be equally strongly opposed.
Mr West should perhaps read a few more books that might balance his views before peddling incorrect fact and second hand opinion. The same could be said for many people on both sides of the arguments. Catholics have been moved and upset by the lack of Catholic rites planned for Richard III’s re-interment but The Catholic Herald does not embrace the religious aspect of this debate but chooses instead to judge and condemn a man they demonstrably lack the knowledge to legitimately pillory. Ask questions, investigate possibilities, offer opinion. Don’t present poorly formulated conjecture as fact.
I have heard plenty about the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester. Some positive, including the recent architectural award that the centre won, but plenty that was less complimentary. I finally made it there to judge for myself with my daughter and, for those who may be interested, here are my thoughts on the exhibition, entitled Dyansty, Death and Discovery.
After buying our tickets, the first room to which we are directed is a flag stone floored chamber containing a throne, on which sit two discarded roses facing defiantly away from each other. This room offers an introduction to the Wars of the Roses from key figures in the life of Richard III – Cecily Neville, his mother, Richard Neville, the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick, Richard’s guardian as he grew to manhood, Vincent Tetulier, an armourer creating harness for Richard, Anne Neville, Richard’s wife and Edward IV, his brother and king. The brief tales they tell us mark stepping stones in Richard’s passage through the Wars of the Roses.
The throne was a cause of some controversy, with talk of the floor running with blood as a marker of Richard’s crimes. This was most likely taken out of context. Throughout the video, landmarks of the Wars of the Roses are projected onto the floor before the throne – the Battle of Towton etc – and shadowy blood seeps down from the throne. This very clearly relates to the prolonged bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses and caused me no offense. With a map of the battles of the Wars of the Roses and a family tree tracing the lines from Edward III to those involved in the troubles, this marks the Dynasty element of the display.
To the left of this room is an exhibition of the fabulous work of artist Graham Turner, whose medieval paintings are stunning. There is a fine array of his work here and it is a display not to be missed.
From the other side of the entrance display, the Visitor Centre walks us through the events of 1483 and Richard’s ascent to the throne. We are presented with the facts and offered opposing conclusions that can be drawn from these. Was Richard out for the crown from the beginning? Or was he reacting to events that happened around him? Whilst the displays may point out that most historians believe Richard was driving the events of that Spring and Summer (which, let’s face it, they do), it proffers the opposing view for the visitor to make up their own mind.
As you would expect from an exhibition that has seen input from the Richard III Society amongst others, the facts offered are just that – facts. I couldn’t fault any of them and there was no malevolent undercurrent dragging the viewer’s opinion of Richard down. A fine example of this is the display relating to the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, which goes no further than noting that their uncertain fate cast a shadow over Richard’s reign. There can be no doubt that it did, and still does, but the exhibition does not lead the visitor to a pre-determined solution to the mystery.
I gave a talk in a local village recently on the life of Richard III, and told those listening that I couldn’t provide them answers to most of the questions that I would ask. It isn’t an easy approach to take because it sets the message up to be unsatisfying, creating more questions than it answers. The easy thing for the Visitor Centre to do might have been to perpetuate the shadowy myths many believe they know. They have not taken this easy route and I applaud them for taking the risk inherent in not providing definitive answers and presenting the controversy as just that.
As we moved through Buckingham’s Rebellion and displays detailing the influence on events of France, Brittany and Henry Tudor’s rise, and with Bosworth looming, I was struck by the incredible design work done within the displays. Each is crisp, clear and well presented. The information is accessible and the presentation clever. I even raised a smile at the Stanley ‘Swing-o-Meter’, and it’s not very often that that name paints my face happy!
The display unashamedly informs us that the precise events at Bosworth are not clearly known, but that a view of the battle can be assembled from the fragments that have come down to us. Richard’s cavalry charge is dealt with as either a planned gambit, or an opportunistic reaction to the course of the battle, but a miscalculation either way. Is there much there to disagree with? The installation of pole-arms gives pause for thought. It is stark and brutal, just as Richard’s end was.
My one and only criticism of the exhibition comes here. It is a missed opportunity, an unfortunate perpetuation of a long-standing myth and a pet peeve of mine. We are told that ‘Shakespeare puts into Richard’s mouth an APPEAL for means of escape’ (display’s emphasis). No he doesn’t. The ‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ quote is almost always taken out of context as a display of cowardice. In the context of the whole speech, it’s meaning is perfectly clear:
KING RICHARD III: A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
CATESBY: Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.
KING RICHARD III: Slave, I have set my life upon a cast, And I will stand the hazard of the die: I think there be six Richmonds in the field; Five have I slain to-day instead of him. A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Richard calls for a horse. Catesby thinks that he means to flee, or at least encourages him to do so. Richard responds vehemently that he has cast the die of fate and will face the consequences. He has no intention of fleeing. He tells Catesby that there must be six Henry Tudors on the battlefield, because he has killed five men who he had mistaken for his enemy. He calls once more for a fresh horse, but he wants it to return him to the fray, to allow him to continue hunting Tudor, not to flee. Even Shakespeare, like every other writer on Richard’s end at Bosworth, concedes Richard’s bravery amongst the plethora of faults he imbues his character with. Even Shakespeare cannot deny him this. It would have been nice to have seen this misconception challenged rather than reinforced.
From here, the exhibition moves upstairs and it is a clear demarcation between the Death and the Discovery elements of the exhibition. The downstairs area has a thoroughly medieval feel that fits perfectly with its story. Upstairs is bright and crisp, telling the story first of Shakespeare’s version of Richard III and theatrical depictions through the ages. Revisionists such as Josephine Tey and Paul Murray Kendall get a look in at this point to, presenting both sides of Richard’s reputation through the centuries with equal weight.
The connection between Shakespeare and Richard III is something many wish to disentangle as the main source of a conceived and incorrect image of Richard. I don’t think that this is necessarily required. It is the way in which many will first come into contact with Richard III and a proportion will go no further. Ricardians can harness Shakespeare to increase exposure to the truth. I have never viewed Shakespeare’s Richard III as anything but a masterpiece and I will never alter that opinion. But it is fiction. And the exhibition does a very good job of pointing that out to the visitor. For example, the story, we are told, draws upon an ancient notion of the evil uncle. It is clearly presented as fiction and I have to applaud this.
The story then moves through to the Discovery section, with details of the Looking for Richard Project’s initiation of the work, continuing through the University of Leicester’s involvement in the dig. I didn’t feel that the contributions of the Looking for Richard Project were belittled or sidelined. We listened to interviews with Philippa Langley and, although they didn’t occupy as much space as the details of the dig itself, which focussed on the University, their contribution was well presented.
Then there is the now infamous ‘Stormtrooper’ white suit of armour. It is, indeed, very white. Numbered blue stickers relate to a key beside the suit that names each of the pieces of armour that Richard would have worn. I didn’t feel that it created the impression that this was Richard’s actual armour, nor that his armour was bright white. Perhaps it might allow that misinterpretation I suppose. Museum curators have pointed out that such techniques are accepted and not uncommon teaching methods which, if anything, prevent the impression that this is an original suit of armour worn by Richard. That kind of suggests that the display couldn’t win either way. It’s either a Stormtrooper or creates a false impression of having Richard’s actual armour. Which is the lesser of those two evils? A decision had to be made. I didn’t find it ridiculous, though it didn’t quite seem natural either. Maybe it wasn’t meant to. It would certainly have been out of place downstairs, but fits in upstairs.
We also saw the 3D print out of Richard’s spine and then the 3D recreation of the full skeleton with details of the wounds found on the remains. The marks detailed and clearly visible were powerful reminders of a savage death in a time we barely understand now. It was not only Richard that suffered this fate. Many others did at Bosworth, and many thousands had over the previous decades of civil war, countless further suffering similar fates in France. Neither was Richard the last to suffer in such a way, but it is a very personal and poignant moment to see what was done to a named individual, especially one who I have studied and tried to understand for so long.
Moving back downstairs, the final part of the exhibition leads to a quiet room with a glass section of flooring which overlooks the still-exposed site of the grave in which Richard III was found. Across the back wall is carved a verse from a prayer that can be found in his personal Book of Hours, a common prayer in his day, asking for God’s help in time of trouble, and offering him thanks for the gifts that He grants. I thought that this room was beautifully done. I don’t know quite what I expected, but I was thoroughly impressed.
I was fortunate enough to visit the dig site during one of the open days, though we couldn’t see this site at the time. At intervals, a projection of the skeleton identifies the exact spot that the remains were found and how they were laid out. Although I think I see the need for this, I am glad that it isn’t on all of the time. The vacant space was enough for me. Looking into it, surrounded by buildings of so many eras, it reminds me how close the grave site must have come to complete destruction and eternal loss plenty of times.
The discovery of Richard III’s remains is an opportunity that was realised against all odds by a dedicated team at the Looking for Richard Project. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for their work. The University deserve a good deal of credit to for their technical expertise and experience in carrying out the dig. What has followed has often been unseemly and, in my opinion, unnecessary. I thoroughly understand that many deem it more than necessary and I do not seek to diminish their conviction nor challenge their right to it. If we seek to present Richard III as a more tolerant figure than history has passed to us, shouldn’t we also be more tolerant of differing views amongst ourselves?
I recently wrote to The Leicester Mercury and they were kind enough to publish my letter on their website. My call was to stop trying to portray Richard at either pole of the ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’ scale but to seek out and try to understand the real man. The discovery of his remains has been far more divisive than I wish it had been. I think, if I’m honest, I was dreading the Visitor Centre pouring fuel onto the fire, kindling the destructive flames and peddling unreasonable, traditional nonsense in a sensationalist bid to cash in on the discovery.
I was very, very pleasantly surprised.
Okay, an ardent Ricardian may not learn anything new about Richard’s story, but for me, this should be aimed squarely at challenging what those who are less interested believe they know about Richard III.
The Visitor Centre achieves this.
By presenting the options without defining the conclusion the visitor should reach.
By using stunning graphics in a well defined and delineated space.
By pitching a message at exactly the right level.
By rounding it all off with a stunning, peaceful place to contemplate all that you have seen whilst reminding you that this is a very human story.
The story of a man.
I would thoroughly recommend going to see the exhibitions at the King Richard III Visitor Centre. An informative experience if you know little of the truth about Richard III.
A poignant space if your interest runs deeper.
Whatever you fear – misinformation, a lack of respect – lay those fears to rest. Richard III is done justice in that space. At least, I believe he is. Why not visit and see what you think?
Perhaps it is time for an end to York v Leicester, and a time for united Ricardians v the lies.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of the Centre.
The 4th May 1471 marked a watershed in the civil strife tearing England apart. In fact, it perhaps marked the ending of what could legitimately be called the Wars of the Roses.
Two kings claimed dominion in England. The House of Lancaster’s claimant, King Henry VI, had been restored after a decade of his rival’s rule. King Edward IV, the representative of the House of York, had returned from exile to press his own claim once more. The man primarily responsible for unseating Edward was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. He had been slain in the fighting at the Battle of Barnet on 14th April, the Lancastrian forces fatally divided when Edward struck. After reclaiming the capital and placing Henry in the Tower, Edward marched out again on hearing that Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, and her son Edward, Prince of Wales had landed on the south coast. The Lancastrian army marched north, seeking out more support. King Edward marched to cut them off.
King Edward mirrored his rival’s movements, cutting them off from their intended course. Margaret was seeking to cross the Severn to join with Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, who was moving from Wales to support her. Cut off, battle became inescapable until, as the Crowland Chronicler wrote; “When both armies had now become so extremely fatigued with the labour of marching and thirst that they could proceed no further, they joined battle near the town of Tewkesbury.” These were hardly ideal circumstances under which to take the field, but nevertheless, the armies arrayed before each other on the morning of 4th May.
Queen Margaret took the bold decision to allow her only son, heir to the House of Lancaster and last petal of the red rose to take the field at the head of his army. Edward, Prince of Wales was seventeen years old. He was young, certainly not of the age of majority yet, but it was not so unusual. In 1460, Edmund, Earl of Rutland had taken the field at Wakefield with his father Richard, Duke of York at the same age and both father and son had lost their lives that day. This was an all or nothing gamble, perhaps even a last desperate roll of the dice for a queen robbed of a kingdom. It is possible that there were plans for the Prince to take over from his ailing father if Lancaster were victorious. King Edward had built his reputation on martial prowess and won his throne in battle twice over. If Prince Edward was to rival him, he would need to prove that he was more than his father, who had allowed England to slide into this crippling mess.
The Lancastrian army arranged itself just outside Tewkesbury, with the Abbey at their back. The centre was commanded by Lord Wenlock. Prince Edward was also with the centre but lacked command experience. The right wing was led by Edmund Beaufort, 4th Duke of Somerset and the left by John Courtenay, 15th Earl of Devon. Their force numbered around 6,000 men in total.
King Edward’s Yorkist army numbered around 5,000 and so was slightly smaller than his opponents force. The vanguard was led by Edward’s youngest brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, who had led the right wing at Barnet and acquitted himself well. Edward held the centre along with his other brother George, Duke of Clarence, who had defected back from the Lancastrian cause. Edward’s closest friend William, Lord Hastings led the rearguard.
The Arrivall Of Edward IV, a contemporary but necessarily partisan account written by an anonymous member of King Edward’s party, tells that the Lancastrians chose the area of the battle to make it as awkward as possible, describing how they arrayed themselves “in a close even at the townes ende; the towne, and the abbey, at theyr backs; afore them, and upon every hand of them, fowle lanes, and depe dikes, and many hedges, with hylls, and valleys, a ryght evill place to approche, as cowlde well have bene devysed.”
The battle was fierce, and apparently a close run affair. Somerset charged the Yorkists, possibly to escape the artillery and archery bombardments. His attack failed and his men were routed. The Arrivall records that the pursuit of Somerset’s men was left to Gloucester, whilst “the Kynge coragiously set upon that othar felde, were was chefe Edward, called Prince, and, in short while, put hym to discomfiture and flyght; and so fell in the chase of them that many of them were slayne, and, namely at a mylene, in the medowe fast by the town, were many drownyd; many rann towards the towne; many to the churche; to the abbey; and els where; as they best myght.”
The Crowland Chronicle records that “After the result had long remained doubtful, king Edward at last gained a glorious victory.” Somerset and many of his men took sanctuary in the Abbey. Many Lancastrians were killed trying to flee the field. Shortly after the battle, King Edward attended prayers at the Abbey and two days later he had Somerset and the others ensconced within the Abbey removed and tried before Richard, Duke of Gloucester (who was Constable of England). On the 6th May, they were beheaded on a makeshift scaffold in the town. King Edward spared the men any further mutilation, such as the quartering traditional for traitors, and allowed the bodies to be buried. Edward, Prince of Wales was amongst the fallen and is buried within the Abbey beneath a Latin inscription that reads;
“Here lies Edward, Prince of Wales, cruelly slain whilst but a youth, Anno Domine 1471, May fourth. Alas the savagery of men. Thou art the soul light of thy Mother, and the last hope of thy race.”
Some estimates number the Lancastrian dead that day at around 2,000 souls. The Sacristy door in Tewkesbury Abbey is covered on the back by pieces of horse armour recovered from the battlefield by the monks and it bares the scares of arrow holes puncturing the plates. It is a beautiful but stark reminder of the losses suffered during the battle.
The fate of Edward, Prince of Wales has become a matter of controversy. Shakespeare has Richard as Duke of Gloucester plotting the murder of the 17 year old prince and revelling in the death. Holinshed’s ‘Chronicle’, which was first published in 1577, claims that Richard struck the first blow against Edward. Before that, Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian, wrote in his ‘Anglica Historia’ that William, Lord Hastings, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester killed the young man after the trio had captured him. The most contemporary sources are the Yorkist account of ‘The Arrivall of Edward IV’ which has Edward “slayne in the field” and the Lancastrian Warkworth’s ‘Chronicle’ which has Prince Edward captured by his brother in law George, Duke of Clarence whilst fleeing the field after the battle was lost. Warkworth describes Prince Edward crying to the Duke of Clarence, his brother in law by virtue of their marriages to the daughters of the Earl of Warwick, for mercy. Clarence, until only recently allied to the cause of Edward and his mother, Margaret of Anjou, refuses to listen to the Prince’s pleading and has him executed on a makeshift block in the field.
The closest that we have to an impartial contemporary source is the ‘Crowland Chronicle’, the author (or authors, as it is a continuation chronicle written by several different individuals) of which is unknown. The writer is generally considered to be a well informed, politically active and astute person, perhaps working within the court. On the subject of Tewkesbury and Prince Edward’s death, the Chronicle walks something of a middle line, remaining uncommitted in telling us “…there were slain on the queen’s side, either in the field or after the battle, by the avenging hands of certain persons, prince Edward, the only son of king Henry…”. The Crowland Chronicler then lists other notable names slain but does not assign the death to any person or persons.
The Arrivall’s recording of Richard chasing Somerset’s routed wing whilst King Edward ploughed into the centre, where Prince Edward was located, seems to suggest that Richard is not a likely candidate for personally slaying the Prince. Doubtless his culpability was cultivated to add to the dark reputation being woven about him. It is easy to see the story develop from The Arrivall to Shakespeare so that Richard is first implicated and then condemned for the murder of the young Prince. Clarence seems a possible candidate. He was in the centre with King Edward and perhaps had a grudge against the Lancastrians, feeling aggrieved by their treatment of him and having something to prove to his brother, whose side he had only just rejoined.
Queen Margaret was arrested nearby, heartbroken by the loss of her only son. She was taken back to London with King Edward where her husband was put to death. The Lancastrian cause was lost, the house extinct in the male line. By this measure, Tewkesbury marked the end of hostility between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The House of York was to implode over a decade later and be supplanted by Henry Tudor, who garnered support from both Lancastrians and Yorkists whilst being the heir to neither claim. The House of York was to continue to hound the Tudors into the next century.
Civil war ground on, but after Tewkesbury, it was not a fight between York and Lancaster any longer.
The Wars of the Roses may well have ended outside Tewkesbury Abbey, where the last petal of the red rose fell.
As the sun rose on the morning of 2nd May 1450, it revealed a grisly sight on Dover beach. A headless body lay on the sand, dried blood staining the butchered neck. Beside the body, atop a stake, the vacant eyes of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stared out over the sea where he had met his fate, a fate that many felt he deserved. His family had risen from humble beginnings, a fact that had contributed to the odium that caused those of more noble families to turn their noses up at them. From such a height, the fall was devastating.
In the mid 14th century, William de la Pole, great grandfather of this duke, was a successful and wealthy wool merchant, lending money to the crown under Edward III. His sons enjoyed favour at the court of King Richard II, the eldest, Michael, becoming Chancellor on 1383 and being elevated to the peerage as Earl of Suffolk in 1385. Michael’s younger brother Edmund served in the prestigious position of Captain of Calais.
The family’s star was in the ascendant, but was closely aligned now with that of King Richard II. As his popularity plummeted, Michael took the brunt of the hatred as a figurehead of his government. Criticising God’s anointed king was not an option, and so his closest advisors must take the wrath of a nation. In 1387 the Lords Appellant accused him of treason and before the Merciless Parliament sat in February 1388, Michael fled to Paris, where he died the following year aged about 60.
Michael’s son, another Michael, father to our duke, was 22 when his father died and found himself without the lands and title that his father had been stripped of. He was more closely aligned to the Lords Appellant, which left him out of favour with Richard II. He fought for the restoration of his lands and properties over the years that followed his father’s death, finally being restored as 2nd Earl of Suffolk in 1398, shortly before Richard II fell. Although Michael heeded the Duke of York’s call to arms to defend the kingdom from Henry Bolingbroke, he eventually embraced the cause of Henry IV.
As a part of Henry V’s campaign in France, Michael died of dysentery in September 1415 at the Siege of Harfleur, not yet 50 years of age. Michael had been blessed with five sons and three daughters but the king’s efforts in France were to decimate his family after claiming his life. His oldest son, Michael, had travelled to France with his father and was one of the few notable English casualties at the Battle of Agincourt. Aged only 19, he had been 3rd Earl of Suffolk for only a month before his death.
William de la Pole became 4th Earl of Suffolk on his brother’s death. His other brothers were all to perish over the next two decades in France. Alexander was killed in 1429 at the Battle of Jargeau, the first encounter with a resurgent France led by Joan of Arc. John died a prisoner in France in the same year and Thomas perished while acting as a hostage for William.
When he returned to England, William grew ever closer to the meek and peaceable King Henry VI. By this time William was nearing forty and had been fighting in France for most of his adult life, almost twenty years. It would be interesting to know what this old soldier thought of his king, son of the Lion of England, but described as a lamb who had an acute distaste for war. Whatever their differences, Suffolk grew close to his king and, as his grandfather had done, he was soon to find his fortunes all too closely tied to a failing king.
Suffolk’s first major contribution to English politics was to organise a marriage for King Henry VI in 1444, by which time the king was 22. Suffolk selected Margaret of Anjou in a match that was to cause outrage. The king’s uncle Humphrey was dismayed that he intended to ignore the contracted union to the Duke of Armagnac’s daughter. Grafton wrote that “Humfrey Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the realme, repugned and resisted as muche as in him lay, this newe alliaunce and contrived matrimone: alleging that it was neyther consonant to the lawe of God nor man, nor honourable to a prince, to infringe and breake a promise or contract” (Grafton’s Chronicle (Richard Grafton) (1569) p624).
Baker wrote of the problems that this match created for Suffolk. “In the mean time the Earl of Suffolk, one of the Commissioners for the Peace, takes upon him beyond his Commission; and without acquianting his fellows, to treat of a Marriage between the King of England, and a Kinswoman of the King of France, Neece to the French Queen, Daughter to Rayner Duke of Anjou styling himself King of Sicily and Naples: In which business he was so inventive, that it brought an aspersion upon him of being bribed” (A Chronicle of the English Kings (Baker) p187). It was soon to be revealed that, due to the poverty of Margaret’s father, not only was there no dowry for the marriage, but Suffolk and the king had agreed to hand a quarter of England’s territory in France back by ceding Maine and Anjou. For his part in the arrangements, William was further elevated as Marquess of Suffolk.
After the death of John, Duke of Bedford in 1435 and the emergence of Henry VI’s personal distaste for fighting, the campaign in France had ground to a halt, frequently deprived of funding and commitment. It is possible that this situation led to Suffolk’s negotiation. Marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the French king Charles VII, would bring the peace that Henry craved. Giving back Maine and Anjou would sweeten the deal and might also have been intended to make English territory in France more manageable. If that was the intention, it was to fail spectacularly. The effect of the handover of the vast tracts of land was to embolden the French and lead them to seek to drive the English from France altogether. Suffolk was blamed for opening the door through which the English would be expelled from France so that within a few years only Calais remained in English hands.
The king’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester died in 1447, with many believing that he had been murdered at the queen’s behest. Gloucester had been Protector during Henry’s minority and his loss saw the end of an era as the last son of King Henry IV passed. Suffolk, it seems, stepped into the void quite willingly, but suspicion grew all about him, not least that he had been the instrument of Humphrey’s destruction. By 1448 William had been created Duke of Suffolk, reaching the pinnacle of the nobility and attaining a title previously reserved for princes of the royal blood. His ascendancy was complete, and that brought him enemies.
One writer tells how “Many now recollected how stoutly the duke of Gloucester had stood up against the surrender of those provinces from which the king of France had made his attack” (History of England Volume II (A Clergyman of the Church of England) (1830) p524), further accusing Suffolk “of plotting to get the English crown into his own Family, by marrying his infant ward, Lady Margaret Beaufort, to his own son;- she being, they observed, the presumptive heiress of the royal house of Lancaster, as long as the king had no children.” William had married his son to the Beaufort heiress Margaret. Although the marriage was annulled by Henry in 1453, it drew accusations that by promoting Margaret as a potential heir to the throne while Henry remained childless, he was seeking to see his son made king. The unlikely scenario of her accession though suggests that the attraction may have been the same financial one that saw Edmund Tudor marry her soon after the annulment.
By 1450, Suffolk was unable to fend off the charges of treason any longer. He was accused of meeting with the French in an attempt to have England invaded. Baker wrote “That he had Traiterously incited the Bastard of Orleance, the Lord Presigny, and others to levy War against the King to the end that thereby the King might be destroyed; and his Son John who had married Margaret Daughter and sole Heir of John Duke of Somerset, whose Title to the Crown the said Duke had often declared, in case King Henry should die without issue, might come to be King.” (A Chronicle of the Kings of England (Baker) p189). Henry could no longer protect his favourite and even the indomitable queen could not save him. He was arrested and charged with treason. Before Parliament, a long list of charges were laid before him, each of which he denied fervently. But his defence was never going to prevail.
At this point, Henry intervened on behalf of his favourite, exercising his prerogative to deal with the matter personally in the same way as Richard II had intervened on behalf of the duke’s grandfather. Henry refused to find Suffolk guilty of treason but found against him on some other more minor charges. Henry sentenced Suffolk to banishment for a period of five years, beginning on 1st May 1450. As he tried to move to his London home Suffolk was mobbed in the streets. Driven from London by the furious crowds, he retired to his manor at Wingfield. His son John was now 8 years old. William, fearing that he was to miss the formative years of his only son, wrote him a letter before he left which is filled with the kind of fatherly advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius was to employ. He counselled John as follows;
My dear and only well-beloved son,
I beseech our Lord in heaven, the Maker of all the world, to bless you, and to send you ever grace to love Him and to dread Him; to the which as far as a father may charge his child, I both charge you and pray you to set all your spirits and wits to do and to know His holy laws and commandments, by which ye shall with His great mercy, pass all the great tempests and troubles of this wretched world.
And also that weetingly ye do nothing for love nor dread of any earthly creature that should displease Him. And whereas any frailty maketh you to fall, beseech His mercy soon to call you to Him again with repentance, satisfaction, and contrition of your heart, nevermore in will to offend Him.
Secondly, next Him, above all earthly things, to be true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, unto the King, our elder, most high, and dread Sovereign Lord, to whom both ye and I be so much bound; charging you, as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything that were against the welfare and prosperity of his most royal perity of his most royal person, but that so far as your body and life may stretch, ye live and die to defend it and to let His Highness have knowledge thereof, in all the haste ye can.
Thirdly, in the same wise, I charge you, my dear son, always as ye he bounden by the commandment of God to do, to love and to worship your lady and mother: and also that ye obey alway her commandments, and to believe her counsels and advices in all your works, the which dread not but shall be best and truest for you.
And if any other body would steer you to the contrary, to flee that counsel in any wise, for ye shall find it nought and evil.
Furthermore, as far as father may and can, I charge you in any wise to flee the company and counsel of proud men, of covetous men, and of flattering men the more especially; and mightily to withstand them, and not to draw nor to meddle with them, with all your might and power; and to draw to you, and to your company, good and virtuous men and such as be of good conversation and of truth, and by them shall ye never be deceived nor repent you of.
Moreover, never follow your own wit in any wise, but in all your works, of such folks as I write of above ask your advice and counsel, and doing thus, with the mercy of God, ye shall do right well, and live in right much worship and great heart’s rest and ease.
And I will be to you, as good lord and father as mine heart can think.
And last of all, as heartily and as lovingly as ever father blessed his child on earth, I give you the Blessing of Our Lord, and of me, which in his infinite mercy increase you in all virtue and good living and that your blood may by His Grace from kindred to kindred multiply in this earth to His service, in such wise as after the departing from this wretched worlde here, ye and they may glorify Him eternally amongst His angels in Heaven.
Written of mine hand,
the day of my departing from this land,
Your true and loving father
With that, Suffolk took ship to head into exile on 1st May 1450, the date appointed for the beginning of his five year expulsion. As his boat crossed the channel a huge ship of the royal fleet, The Nicholas of the Tower, intercepted him. William Lomner wrote to John Paston on 5th May that men of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and “the master badde hym, ‘Welcom, Traitor,’ as men sey”. He described Suffolk’s fate, continuing “and thanne his herte faylyd hym, for he thowghte he was desseyvyd, and yn the syght of all his men he was drawyn ought of the grete shippe yn to the bote; and there was an exe, and a stoke, and oon of the lewdeste of the shippe badde hym ley down his hedde, and he should be fair ferd wyth, and dye on a swerd; and toke a rusty swerd, and smotte off his hedde withyn halfe a doseyn strokes” (The Paston Letter 1422-1509 Volume II James Gairdner 1904 Ed).
It was an ignominious end for a duke, a man whose family had risen in four generations from merchants to the height of England’s nobility. Perhaps the only consolation that William could have taken was that his son seemed to have heeded his words. John became 2nd Duke of Suffolk and has been nicknamed The Trimming Duke, perhaps for his ability to trim his sails to suit the prevailing political winds. He married a sister of the Yorkist King Edward IV and lived into the Tudor era without ever finding himself in any trouble. It was not to last though. John’s son, the Earl of Lincoln was appointed heir to Richard III and rebelled unsuccessfully against Henry VII. Another son, Edmund, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, took up the cause of the White Rose. He was imprisoned by Henry VII and finally executed by Henry VIII in 1513. Edmund’s youngest brother, Richard de la Pole continued the fight from the continent until he was killed fighting at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 to the delight of Henry VIII. The brother between Edmund and Richard, Sir William de la Pole holds a most dubious record. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1502 and remained there for 37 years until his death in 1539. No one else has remained imprisoned in the Tower for longer in all of its history.
It is hard to determine whether William, Duke of Suffolk acted out of greed or well meant service, doing what he determined was best in spite of the consequences. As with most things, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the space between the two extremes. His letter to his son has been cited as proof of his good character, yet a man can be a father, a warrior and a politician without any of his facets overlapping. There is no room for the contemplative advisor of his letter on the field of battle, yet I suspect that a man would need something of the warrior about him to survive the politics of Henry VI’s court, particularly if his background allowed others to sneer upon him.
William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk stood at the apex of his family’s power. It took four generations of work to get to where he was. In two further generations the family was destroyed. As his empty eyes stared out across the Channel toward the land where his fortune had been made, he would never again look upon the country that had turned its back on him, nor would he see the bitter civil war that followed. His place was swiftly filled by Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and it is this, and the conflict it was allowed to breed, that lays the blame for the fate of so many at the clasped, praying hands and bowed head of the Lamb of England, King Henry VI.
War was on that horizon that William gazed upon without seeing.