York, Born of Leicester?
With Whitsuntide approaching, thought I’d share what I’ve been exploring regarding the events of Whitsunday 1426, the 19th of May that year, that took place in the city of Leicester, in the Church of St Mary de Castro. Parliament was convened that year at Leicester Castle, and the Regent to young King Henry VI, John Duke of Bedford, took advantage of the event to stage a spectacle in the church in the castle close on the holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian Church, and the anointing of the Disciples to a plane above mortal men. Some 34 nobles and notables were formally summoned to the occasion. A list of the invitations was transcribed by Rymer in 1732; most of the names were followed by a second name, as the honorees were largely children, like the king, and were invited “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-style, with a single parent or guardian. Most of the guardians seem to be women, as it also seems that many of these chosen children, like the king, were fatherless boys.
The ceremony began with the Duke of Bedford himself drawing a sword and bestowing knighthood on the four-year-old king. So dubbed, the king took up the sword (as best he could, I suppose) and knighted each of the boys and young men in turn. The message seemed to be, though the king was just a toddler, he represented a fresh start, and these young men would grow up with him, to shape the future of England as the middle of the century approached. I doubt any in attendance that day could have imagined the horror show that awaited these boys, or the roles that many of them and their offspring would have to play in it.
The first knight dubbed by the four-year-old king that Whitsunday, and thus the first knight he dubbed in his life, was the fourteen-year-old Richard Plantagenet. He came first by precedence of title, but only because just before the ceremony the letters patent had been conferred for his restoration in blood (following his father’s attainder and death) and creation as Duke of York. In a very real sense, what we know as the House of York was born that Sunday in Leicester, at the Church of St Mary de Castro.
The young Duke of York was accompanied by his guardian, Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, who would exercise her right to marry him to her daughter Cecily, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. She also had two of her own children in tow to be knighted, nineteen-year-old George Neville, the future Lord Latimer, and William Neville, twenty-one years old and already Lord Fauconberg in right of his wife. His illegitimate son would achieve particular fame in the coming conflict as the Bastard of Fauconberg, who attacked London itself on behalf of the Kingmaker and Henry VI, without knowing that the Battle of Tewkesbury had already brought an end to the Lancastrian cause.
The next in line to be knighted after the Duke of York was John de Mowbray, ten-year-old son and heir to the Duke of Norfolk. He would be on the side of York from the very beginning of the Wars of the Roses. At least until defecting to Henry VI in 1459. He would change his allegiance back to York, though, in time for his army to join the Yorkist right flank at Towton. Mowbray’s entry into the fray at midday at Towton turned the battle against the Lancastrians, and ended the life of Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland. On Whitsunday in 1426, though, Percy, at four years of age, was knighted shortly after the ten-year-old Mowbray. He was presented by his proud father, who was to be killed at St Albans.
Two sons of the Earl of Ormond were knighted that day, six-year-old James Butler, and his younger brother, John. They were presented by their grandmother, Joan Beauchamp, Lady Bergavenny, probably the most powerful magnate in the vicinity. I suspect some of the attendees may have stayed at her manor at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, 17 miles from Leicester, before the ceremony. James was to take on the earldoms of both Ormond and Wiltshire, and achieve a special place in history, as the most notorious coward of the Wars of the Roses. He was a lover, not a fighter; a favourite of Margaret of Anjou, Paul Murray Kendall notes him as one of those rumored at court to be the true father of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. It was said of Wiltshire that he fought “mainly with the heels,” having fled the field at nearly every major battle of the conflict, on at least one occasion disguised as a monk. His last flight was from Towton (where perhaps he noted many more men this time running in the same direction). He was captured and beheaded. His brother John was knighted that same Whitsunday, but had a very different fate. After Towton, Edward IV reversed his attainder, and granted him the Ormond earldom, declaring, “that if good breeding and liberal qualities were lost in the world, they might be all found in the Earl of Ormond.”
A number of commoners were knighted that Whitsunday as well. One of the most notable was William ap Thomas, the first of three generations truly loyal to the House of York. Already made a knight banneret on the field at Agincourt, he was known as the Blue Knight of Gwent. He became a military counselor to the Duke of York. His son William took the English surname Herbert, and on taking the earldom of Pembroke lost by Jasper Tudor, became the first full-blooded Welshman to enter the peerage of England. Herbert’s son William went on to marry Katherine Plantagenet, the illegitimate daughter of Richard III.
The Duke of Bedford also saw to it that the 21-year-old son of his household chamberlain was knighted that day. If the Duke of York would never have guessed that his son Edward would one day be king, young Richard Woodville would certainly have been stunned to know that his daughter Elizabeth would be Edward’s queen. To add to the coincidence of these two men coming together at St Mary de Castro that day, John Talbot, son and heir to the Lord Talbot, was also on the list. The boy was brought by the Lady Talbot; not his mother, who had died a few years before, but his father’s brand new wife, Margaret Beauchamp. Margaret would bear her husband many more children, including a daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor would become the widow of Sir Thomas Butler, and then, according to Titulus Regius, make a marriage contract with Edward IV, a contract that was used to declare his children illegitimate, allowing his brother to take the throne as Richard III.
Historian William Kelly noted in 1884 the proximity of Leicester, where Richard Plantagenet received his knighthood and dukedom, to Bosworth Field. Only today, though, can we say that, if the House of York began when the Duke rose to his feet from the floor of the church of St Mary de Castro, it ended when the body of his youngest son was dropped beneath the floor of the church of the Greyfriars, no more than one thousand feet away.
There was one more person of note in the story of the Houses of York and Lancaster who was present that day, and I have not found her name mentioned in any accounts of the Whitsunday knightings. St Mary de Castro is the final resting place of Mary de Bohun, wife of Henry Bolingbroke, and mother of Henry V, who died in 1394 at the age of 26. Her younger son, John, Duke of Bedford, would certainly have brought the young King Henry VI over to the tomb of the grandmother he never knew, perhaps to offer a silent prayer before the many guests began to gather. Richard, Duke of York would never live to take his rightful place as the first king of the House of York. Mary de Bohun also died too soon to be crowned the first queen of the House of Lancaster.
Unlike Greyfriars, St Mary de Castro still stands, and has an active congregation. Unfortunately, as of this past September, that congregation could no longer worship there; the edifice’s graceful octagonal spire was declared endangered by cracks, and at risk of collapse. The funds to take the spire down were collected, though, and now Leicester’s skyline has lost a marvel that had graced it since the 14th century. Even if you can’t spare a pound or two to help put the spire back up again, visit the website of the Spire Appeal for a virtual tour: the building was the first in Britain to have its interior added to Google Streetmaps.
– By Red Squirrel, via White Lily
ON EDIT (May 19, 2014): Upon further investigation, it appears that Mary de Bohun, Henry V’s mother, was actually buried at the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin at Newarke, in Leicester, which is – again – only a few hundred yards away from St. Mary de Castro. This is based on a record from Henry V’s Exchequer (dated May 20, 1413) which requisitioned William Godezer, “a citizen and coppersmith, of London. In money paid to his own hands, in advance for newly devising and making an image in likeness of the mother of the present Lord the King, ornamented with divers arms of the Kings of England, and placed over the tomb of the sad King’s mother, within the King’s college at Leicester, where the mother of the aforesaid Lord the King is buried and entombed.”