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Archive for the month “Nov, 2014”

Henry VII’s tax-raising friends….

Henry VII with Empson and Dudley

If there is one thing a lot of people know about Henry VII—apart from his dastardly defeat of Richard III at Bosworth in August 1485—it is that the latter part of his reign was a dreadful time for England. His avarice became almost oxygen to him, and he allowed his ministers to inflict truly dreadful punishments and fines upon his subjects.

The infamous Morton’s Fork was one of Henry’s weapons. John Morton was Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, and Chancellor, who devised a tax collecting jolly that declared a man who lived within his means had to be saving money and should therefore be able to afford high taxes. Unfortunately, the jolly also decided that if a man was living well, he was obviously rich and thus could still afford diabolical taxes. People were scuppered either way.

Supporters of Richard III loathe Morton for another reason, and that is his fiendish plotting and treachery that helped to bring Richard down. Altogether an unpleasant man, I think.

Two other names crop up constantly when it comes to Henry’s intolerable money-grubbing, and they are Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, who are with him in the illustration above. Their names became synonymous with royal thievery and extortion, and Henry let them get on with it more or less how they pleased. And how they pleased!

However, much as they’re associated with Henry, I do not know exactly when they caught his attention as likely blood-suckers. It is suggested that Edmund Dudley appeared at his side in 1485, which would presumably be in the latter quarter of that year, after Bosworth. Unless he came over to England with Henry, having been with him in Brittany or France? That I do not know. I do know that Dudley was believed to be only about 23 when he became one of Henry’s privy councillors.

Richard Empson’s association with Henry began . . . when, I do not know. He is also in the above picture. He was older than Dudley, a lawyer, and rose to be Speaker of the House of Commons.

Both men were executed on Tower Hill on 17th August 1510, courtesy of Henry VIII. And a good job too.

If anyone knows more about how and when they became so close to Henry VII, I would love to know.

Wayland Smith …..


Note lack of beech trees

now too many trees

Smithy before so-called restoration

waylandslate19thcenturyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As you can see above, the colour photograph shows Wayland’s Smithy as it is now, whereas the others show it before it was ‘restored’ in 1962/3.

Wayland Smith . . .

No, not a real man, a character from a book or anything else of an organic nature. Wayland Smith is the name by which the prehistoric monument now called Wayland’s Smithy used to be known. It still means the same, of course, the smith/smithy of Wayland (a Norse smith god). But it looks odd to modern eyes.

Recent research for a novel has led me to investigate this famous site on the Downs of Oxfordshire (although the area was in Berkshire until the moving of county boundaries by the Local Government Act of 1972). Two of the characters I am writing about lived at the foot of the Downs escarpment, directly below Wayland’s Smithy, and so I thought I might be able to introduce the monument to the story.

Wayland’s Smithy stands on the Ridgeway, an ancient track way that led from The Wash in Norfolk to the coast of Dorset, and has been in use for at least 5,000 years. Eerie, isolated and sheltering behind a screen of tall beech trees, it presents a sight that is mysterious to our 21st-century eyes, and probably to those of long-past centuries as well. Built in two phases, the second on top of the first, it has a long mound over 40 metres wide, stretching back for more than 50 metres. There were once six great upright sarsen stones, three on either side of the entrance, but now there are only four sarsens left. No one knows what happened to the other two. The remaining four had collapsed over the centuries, and were re-erected when the barrow was investigated, renovated and rebuilt in its present form in the early 1960s.

Before then, moss-covered and half-buried (see the pictures above), the great stones were a shadow of their former selves, sometimes apparently surrounded by beech trees (as now) but at other times open to the exposed scenery all around. Whether there were trees originally, I do not know, but the yawning entrance—the ‘cave’—was visible before and after restoration, and much is known about what lay inside, burials, artefacts and so on. The purpose of the barrow is not known for certain, but it was probably simply a burial site. But was that all? And who was buried there?

Everyone knows the legend of Wayland’s Smithy, that if a lonely traveller should be troubled by his horse casting a shoe, he should take it to the Smithy and leave it there, with a silver coin. When he returned in an hour he would find the horse newly shod by the smith god. A charming story, but totally untrue of course. And now it is believed by some that the Smithy had nothing to do with Wayland at all, but much more to do with Woden, the deity more famous to us now as Odin in Norse mythology. Woden was the name and form he took in Britain, and he was a very important god indeed to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. He was believed to lead the Wild Hunt through the skies at night…

Wayland’s Smithy still exerts a power over us, a mysterious link to the pagan past, and no one who goes there today would be unaware of this. The atmosphere reaches out and settles around the walker or sightseer. Do they all shiver a little? Or simply put on a brave face and refuse to think about old gods and the primitive past from which we have all descended? How long ago was Wayland’s Smithy finally abandoned by pagans? If, indeed, it has been abandoned at all.

My research centred upon the 15th century, of course, but I have not been able to find out what condition the Smithy was in then. Were all six sarsens still there? Was it lost among trees and bushes? Did it stand starkly on the edge of the escarpment? Was it dreaded by those who hurried past along the Ridgeway? Would anyone dare to go near it on the night of a full moon? At Hallowtide? At midnight, or at dawn? Might Woden and the Wild Hunt come after them? It must have instilled fear in medieval people, who were so dependent on and influenced by the Church.

So, what would my characters have felt and thought about Wayland Smith, as it was in their time?

Isabel Plantagenet 1408(?)-1484

This lady, although the only sister of Richard, Duke of York, is arguably the least-known of all the members of the House of York who managed to grow up. Therefore a few notes about here are perhaps not out of place.

Isabel was of course the daughter of Richard of Conisbrough and Anne Mortimer and appears to have been born in the early years of their marriage, round about 1408 or 1409. (This assumes they didn’t consummate their marriage until it was legitimised (1408). Since the detail of how they married, and when, is shrouded in mystery, it’s possible Isabel was a little older.) She was ‘married’ to Thomas Grey of Heton in 1412 as part of what appears to have been a deal to transfer the Lordship of Tyndale (then the property of Edward, Duke of York, her uncle) to Grey’s father. Due to the treasonable conspiracy of Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge and the elder Grey (the Southampton Plot) this (marriage) arrangement was dissolved and Isabel was instead married (circa 1430) to Henry Bourchier, Earl (or Count) of Eu and later Earl of Essex.

Henry was the son of Sir William Bourchier and Anne of Gloucester, the extremely rich daughter and heiress of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. (Anne was of course Richard of Conisbrough’s first cousin. As well as being her father’s heiress she had two dowers from the Stafford family, having married successive earls. She would make an interesting subject for a novel if anyone out there fancies writing one for her.)

The children of Henry and Isabel were:

William, who married Anne Woodville (or Wydeville or Widville). She was (need I say?) the sister of Queen Elizabeth Woodville. He died in April 1483. His son, also William, succeeded as Earl of Essex and lived long enough to serve at Anne Boleyn’s coronation.

Henry, who married Elizabeth Scales, an heiress. After he died in August 1458 she married the well-known Anthony Woodville/Wydeville/Widville, later Earl Rivers.

Humphrey, who married Joan Stanhope, and was styled Baron Cromwell in her right. He was killed at the Battle of Barnet (1471) fighting for the Yorkists. Joan remarried, Sir Robert Radcliffe.

John, who married Elizabeth Ferrers of Groby and in her right assumed the title Lord Ferrers of Groby, though never summoned to parliament. He had a ‘prolonged’ law suit with Elizabeth Woodville over the Groby lands. His second wife was Elizabeth Chicheley of Cambridgeshire. He died 1495.

Thomas married Isabelle Barre, widow of Henry Stafford of Southwick the (Yorkist) Earl of Devon. After her death (1489) he married Anne, widow of Sir John Sulyard. He was Constable of Leeds (Kent) and was on a commission to investigate treason in Kent in December 1483. He died in 1491.

Isabel, the only daughter. Died apparently unmarried.

Edward, died 31 December 1460. (Battle of Wakefield)

Fulk, died young.

Essex was a ‘backroom boy’ for the Yorkists, occupying various offices without apparently becoming prominent in government or unpopular with Warwick or other hostile elements. He died peacefully in 1483. Nonetheless it’s worth noting that the wars cost him two of his sons killed in action! His brother, Thomas, was of course Archbishop of Canterbury through the Yorkist period and a little beyond. (Their half-brother on their mother’s side was no less a person than Humphrey Stafford, first Duke of Buckingham.)

Isabel herself died in 1484, during Richard III’s reign. She was therefore in her early seventies, and so unusually long-lived for a member of the York family, even allowing for the tendency of the York males to have their lives cut short by violence. (In fact the only adult males of the House of York to die in their beds were Edmund of Langley and Edward IV. The rest either died in battle or were executed!) Isabel would certainly have had some interesting tales to tell about her days and it’s a pity that no roving reporter was around to interview her.


The word ‘tyrant’ is perhaps used too lightly. It is questionable whether any of the Plantagenets qualify when compared to this man:

“Galeazzo Sforza (Duke of Milan) is also known to have had a cruel streak. He was a notorious womanizer who often passed his women on to his courtiers once he was tired of them. Sforza once had a poacher executed by forcing him to swallow an entire hare (with fur intact), and had another man nailed alive to his coffin. He also had a priest who predicted a short reign for Sforza punished by being starved to death. This made him many enemies in Milan. It was also said of Galeazzo Sforza that he had raped the wives and daughters of numerous Milanese nobles, that he took sadistic pleasure in devising tortures for men who had offended him, and that he enjoyed pulling apart the limbs of his enemies with his own hands.” (Wiki)

That sounds like a real tyrant to me.

Shakespeare’s “Richard III” being filmed at Leeds Castle….

Dail Mail - Richard III

Here is a link to a Daily Mail article (28th November 2014) about the filming of “Richard III” for the BBC2’s forthcoming TV series “The Hollow Crown”, which is based on Shakespeare’s history plays. Benedict Cumberbatch is Richard, and the filming is at Leeds Castle in Kent. The article contains a number of interesting pictures.

Today’s anniversaries:

Today is the annniversary of the death in 1416 of Constance of York, Lady Despenser and (for a time) Countess of Gloucester. She was one of many people of various conditions in life who inexplicably preferred the ‘tyranny’ of Richard II to the rule of Henry IV, and put their lives at risk to do something about it. She survived to die in her bed because a) she was a woman (or rather a lady) and b) the King’s cousin. The Plantagenets did not execute women for political reasons.

It is also the anniversary of the death of Edward, Earl of Warwick, the last legitimate male Plantagenet. Born in 1475, he was imprisoned from the age of ten, executed at Tower Hill in 1499 for an ostensible plot with the mysterious youth known as “Perkin Warbeck”. “Perkin” and Edward’s cousin John of Gloucester, were also executed that month, allowing Prince Arthur to marry Catherine of Aragon. Evidently, these moral scruples were not shared by the “Tudors”.


Recently I was in Great Malvern and visited the priory church in the centre of town. It is known for its 15th century stained glass, including the West Window which was commissioned by Richard Duke of Gloucester and his wife Anne. Although the original Doom/Day of Judgement scene in Richard’s window is no longer visible, the glass having been scattered in fragments throughout the other windows of the priory, it is still possible, if one knows where to look, to pick out Richard’s white boar, his arms with two very damaged boar supports, and Anne’s arms with two bear supports.
After visiting, I wondered what Richard’s connection with the town might be, and soon learned he was in fact Lord of Malvern Chase, a wide, forested area stretching from the Malvern Hills to the Severn in Worcestershire to the banks of the Teme in Herefordshire. These lands came to him through Anne’s inheritance.
Although it is not certain if/when he actually visited the town, he must have thought it important enough to commission such a large and no doubt costly window in the priory. It was nice to theorize about potential journeys by Richard and Anne to this beautiful, hilly area, still retaining its old Celtic name Moel Bryn, the Bald or Bare Hill—perhaps to hunt in the Chase, or visit one of the several holy wells in the area, Holywell (which was on Richard’s manor of Hanley) or St Ann’s Well. The oratory of the martyred St Werstan is thought to have been located near the latter and later incorporated into a now-vanished chapel, St Michael’s. When a cottage was demolished near this site last century, a medieval undercroft, broken coffin and human bones were found. One of the stunning 15th C windows in Great Malvern Priory depicts the story of St. Werstan and his martyrdom.
St Ann’s Well was also particularly well known in the 15th century as a healing well, which might have been of interest to the Duke of Gloucester and his wife. There was also the Eye Well and the Hay Well, and probably others in the areaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA.
Just down the road from Great Malvern is another place that might have been of some poignancy to Anne. This is Little Malvern Priory, thought by many to be the ‘poor religious house’ where Margaret of Anjou fled with Anne after the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury. It also has some fine 15thc glass of Edward IV and his family.

The first Ricardian song for Christmas ….?


Gold Angel

Holly for Richard III Christmas Card

The artwork of the Gold Angel painted by Graham Moores for The Legendary Ten Seconds

The setting of the song: It was the year 1477, at the season of Christmas, that Richard, most royal of princes, bent his knee unto King Edward’s unworthy Woodville queen at Westminster. Such festive celebrations were all around as Richard of Gloucester made obeisance to a woman he would one day learn was not the queen at all. The queen feared he would discover that Edward, the brother he served so constantly, had committed bigamy. But that unveiling of the truth was in the future, and Richard knelt.


The lord of misrule was dancing,
The Duke he did conceal
In his pockets he had gold angels,
For gifts he would later reveal.

It was Christmas day in London town,
Snow covered the filth in the street.
There was ice on the banks of the River Thames
The Duke his barge he did seek.

“Here’s a gold angel for Christmas Day.”
Richard handed his bargeman the gift.
“Now steer me to Westminster. Thank you, sir,
For your service. Now let’s be swift.”

The Duke’s barge on the River Thames
Steered to the royal court,
Departing from Baynard Castle,
Richard Gloucester deep in thought.

The lord of misrule was dancing,
The Duke of Gloucester he did kneel
To the Queen Elizabeth Woodville
True feelings they were concealed.

And the lord of misrule kept dancing.
The Duke he did conceal
In his pockets he had gold angels,
For gifts he would later reveal.


What makes a good medieval king?


Why is Edward 1 considered a great king? That is a question that has haunted me ever since I fluffed it in an O level’ exam more than fifty summers ago. My answer proved that a good memory is better than thinking it would be all right on the day. By chance, I recently came across this question again in a book of O Level questions from the middle of the last century. It was a providential find for two reasons. First, it gave me an opportunity to answer the question properly. Second, and more important, it gave me a clue as to approach the question posed in this article: what make a good medieval king?

It is a hypothetical question, which can only be answered hypothetically; not very satisfactory you might think. Also, the word ‘good’ is a subjective and a relative adjective. That means that any answer I do give is only my personal opinion based on the circumstances of time, place and context. Our conception of good (and bad) varies not only between nations and cultures, but also between individuals.  It also changes over time as human political, cultural, social and religious values develop. Kathryn Warner in the introduction to her excellent biography of Edward II captures my point precisely “ Many of the character traits and behaviour that made him such a disastrous king, and were incomprehensible and even shocking to his contemporaries would be judged differently today

The solution to my dilemma, so fortuitously suggested by the book, is not to answer a hypothetical question for which there is no single answer, but to invite each reader to answer it in his or her own fashion. The purpose of this narrative being merely to provide a few examples of what others have thought to be the qualities of a good king (and the faults of a bad king). This is not a scholarly analysis but some layman’s ideas based three historical case studies.


The theory of kingship

Context is especially important when making judgments about historical characters. I am therefore prefacing my comments with a few salient points about the political environment in which medieval kings operated.

The last years of the old English state before the Conquest were noted for the efficiency and effectiveness of the government.   England had all the appearance of a constitutional monarchy, with the King and the Witenagemot (The King’s Council) taking joint responsibility for decisions. There was a strong elective element in the succession also involving the Witan, which frequently took the initiative. The selection of a king was considered to be far too important to be left to the royal family alone. Membership of the royal stock was an essential pre-requisite for any candidate but generally the crown went to the person who was thought best able to carry out the duties of a king. Although conventional Church doctrine suggested that the king was chosen through the Grace of God, personal rule was less prevalent in England than on the continent. The Witan were regularly consulted on affairs of state and, more significantly, they expected to be consulted. The governance of England at this time was superior to that in Normandy and probably also superior to that in France.

A king’s obligation to rule properly in the common interest is enshrined in the Coronation Oath, which is still used today. It was first devised in 973 at the coronation of the Saxon king Edgar and has remained virtually unchanged. It has three broad elements: to preserve the Church and religion, to preserve his subject’s peace and to be just and merciful in his actions.

It was this Saxon law that William the Conqueror inherited in 1066. Surprisingly, he made little or no changes to it. In fact, his son Henry 1 issued a proclamation in 1100 strengthening the king’s legal obligations to rule wisely and justly in the common interest.  It was called the Charter of Liberties and is a considered to be a landmark document, a forerunner to Magna Carta.

However by the start of the thirteenth century, the nature of monarchy was changing; it was becoming autocratic. King’s did not just reign, they governed and good government depended almost entirely on the king’s vigour and personality. He conducted his own foreign policy, led the army, declared war, had his own income derived from Crown Lands and feudal dues, and conducted the affairs of state.

John of Salisbury the English scholar, diplomat and Bishop of Chartres wrote ‘Policraticus’ in 1159. It was the first medieval English treatise on political and ethical philosophy. He argued for the ‘divine right of kings’, a concept common in Europe, but alien to the English polity. This is part of what he wrote:

“ The prince stands on a pinnacle which is exalted and made splendid with all the great and high privileges which he deems necessary for himself. And rightly so, because nothing is more advantageous to the people than that the needs of the prince should be fully satisfied; since it is impossible that his will should be found opposed to justice. Therefore, according to the usual definition, the prince is the public power, and a kind of likeness on earth of the divine majesty. Beyond doubt a large share of the divine power is shown to be in princes by the fact that at their nod men bow their necks and for the most part offer up their heads to the axe to be struck off, and, as by a divine impulse, the prince is feared by each of those over whom he is set as an object of fear. And this I do not think could be, except as a result of the will of God. For all power is from the Lord God, and has been with Him always, and is from everlasting.”

Policraticus emphasizes the king’s responsibility to venerate God, love his subjects, be self-disciplined and instruct his ministers. A king should punish lése majesté strictly but otherwise exercise mercy and restraint. In John of Salisbury’s opinion a tyrant sets a bad example and it was acceptable for a subject to assassinate him (Tyrannicide).

It was Henry II, who introduced the principle of primogeniture into the English succession. It replaced the sensible arrangement of choosing the king on merit with an arbitrary system based solely on paternity. This was a subtle change to the ‘divine right of kings’. Not only was the institution of kingship divine but so also was the right to succeed through inheritance. As Ian Mortimer has pointed out ‘it was a recipe for disaster’.

The signing of Magna Carta was a momentous event in English history. According A. L. Poole “The Great Charter was… a practical assertion of existing law and custom, and it imposed limitations on the arbitrary power of the crown. The king could no longer override the law. If he did so the twenty-five entrusted with the execution of the Charter were empowered together with the community of the whole land to ‘distrain him and distress him in every possible way’”. In other words if the king broke his agreement the people had a legal right to resist him. Nevertheless, the Great Charter made no difference to John’s reign; it’s significance lay in the future, over the next two to three hundred years, during which time it was re-issued and ratified, and grew in importance.

A perfect king?

By the turn of the fourteenth century there was a tension between absolute monarchs intent on maintaining their personal rule in the light of a supposed divinity, and their subjects who were increasingly seeking a more constitutional model of government in the wake of Magna Carta. The period between 1300 and 1400 was a watershed century in English history for many reasons. It saw the deposition of two kings, the Black Death, the Hundred Years war, the death of old style feudalism, the birth of bastard feudalism and the rise of common law (the law made by judges as opposed to law made by the king and parliament). It was also a period that saw the increasing power and influence of Parliament in affairs of state, including the succession.

In 1327 something happened that had never happened before: an English king was deposed. The deposition of Edward II is important because it was the first, and it was a warning to future kings. The English people would remove a king deemed unfit to rule. Kathryn Warner captures the broad reasons for Edward’s deposition expertly: “ He was incompetent to govern and allowed evil counselors too rule for him, he had lost Scotland and lands in France and Ireland, he had imprisoned, exiled, killed and disinherited many noblemen and churchmen, he neglected the business of his kingdom and pursued worthless hobbies fit only for peasants.” It is notable also as being an early example of Parliament’s involvement in serious affairs of state by ratifying the sacking of a king.

Edward III succeeded to the throne. He was in every way as unlike his father as it is possible to be (Rest assured: Mel Gibson was not his father.). According to Joshua Barnes, Edward was: “ Fortunate beyond measure, wise and provident in counsel, well learned in law, humanity and divinity. He understood Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and High and Low Dutch, besides his native language. He was of quick apprehension, judicious and skillful in nature, elegant in speech, sweet, familiar and affable, in behaviour; stern to the obstinate, but calm and meek to the humble. Magnanimous and courageous above all princes of his days; apt for war but a lover of peace; never puffed up with prosperity nor dismayed at adversity. He was of an exalted, glorious, and truly royal spirit, which never entertained anything vulgar or trivial as appears by the most excellent laws, which he made, by those two famous jubilees he kept, and by the most honourable Order of the Garter, which he first devised and founded. His recreations were hawking, hunting and fishing, but chiefly he loved the martial exercise of jousts and tournaments. In his buildings he was curious, splendid and magnificent, in bestowing graces and donations, free and frequent; and to the ingenious and deserving always kind and liberal; devout to God, bountiful to the clergy, gracious to his people, merciful to the poor, true to his word, loving to his friends, terrible to his enemies. In short he had the most virtues and the fewest vices of any prince that I ever read of. He was valiant, just, merciful, temperate and wise; the best lawgiver, the best friend, the best father and the best husband in his days”

Barnes wrote these words in 1688. The point is though, that they also reflected the views of Edward’s English contemporaries who lauded him to excess in his own lifetime. More recent opinions of Edward see things differently and his reputation has been under a sustained attack from politically conscious nineteenth and twentieth century historians more interested in highlighting social deprivation and the excesses of the ruling class, than in extolling deeds of chivalry. Most take the view that he was not a statesman, that he was ambitious, extravagant, ostentatious and unscrupulous. His military reputation is tarnished by insinuations that it was due more to luck than judgment; it is even said that he did not take his obligations as king seriously. In short, he was not a perfect king.

May McKistay is at a loss to understand this attitude. In a wonderfully observant and descriptive passage she points out the undeniable truth that: “Edward III succeeded, where nearly all his predecessors had failed in winning and holding the loyalty of his people and the affection of his magnates, even in the years of his decline. He accepted the chivalric and military ambitions of his age and used them, as he used the devotion of his wife and sons in the service of his dynasty. He raised that dynasty from unexampled depths of degradation to a place of high renown in western Christendom. His armies won for him and for themselves a military reputation seldom equaled and never surpassed at any period of English history before or since…”

The reality is that Edward III had a vision for his kingdom based on the romantic, chivalric model of king Arthur’s Camelot. He wanted to raise England to the level of prestige and power it enjoyed in the Arthurian Romances. The creation of the Order of the Garter, the manufacture of a Round Table at Winchester (Camelot?) and the importance of jousting to the king, and to his knights, are testament to his chivalric ideals. Even his personal challenge to fight the French king alone or with a select group of one hundred knights each is Arthurian in concept. Nor should it be taken as mere bravado; Edward meant what he said and Phillip VI’s refusal to fight him, whilst sensible and pragmatic, simply raised Edward’s stature as a the saviour of his nation. His vision also embraced the self-evident good governance and order that characterized Arthur’s court. Although, Edward was an autocrat by inclination and training, and although his was a personal rule, he knew enough to realise that unless he wanted to go the way of his father he had to get his people to accept his vision. He did this the only way he could, by example and a ‘follow me’ style of leadership, which rarely fails to motivate the British. He also astutely built a network of loyal and influential royal servants who could project his royal authority at a local level.

Edward’s countrymen shared his dream for England and endured much because of it. The king made many demands on them in terms of waging a bloody and expensive campaign in France, of levying taxes to pay for it and the inevitable restraint of trade that ensued. Moreover, his reign coincided, with the onset of the Black Death, which changed the social and economic fabric of the nation. It was no bed of roses in the middle years of the fourteenth century for the English or for their king; but they stuck together in what was essentially a joint enterprise. May McKistay sums-up the situation eloquently: “…Edward’s subjects, for the most part, acquiesced in the necessity: they saw him as the pattern of chivalry and the maker of England’s fame and when he lay on his death-bed they mourned the passing of a great English king. It is not altogether easy to share Stubbs’ confidence that they were wrong” (William Stubbs was a nineteenth century historian and Edward’s severest critic.). This harmony between king and subject was absent during the reigns of the deposed monarchs Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI. They were removed precisely because of the disjunction between their individual vision of kingship and their subjects’ expectations.

Finally, for those people who like lists, I have extracted a number of identifiable strength, qualities and skills possessed by Edward. It is not exhaustive but includes: courage in battle, good military leader, visionary, legislative reformer, hardworking, generous patron, arbiter of taste, appointed men based on ability, did not show favouritism, principled, idealistic, ‘he knew his business and did it’, forgiveness, magnanimity, good administrator. Ian Mortimer in his biography calls Edward III the ‘perfect king’, not because he was perfect, but because “he tried to be”. You cannot ask for more.

“We were not born to sue but to command!”

Richard II is an enigma; obviously intelligent, cultured and artistic, he was a generous patron of the arts. By supporting the creativity of English painters, sculptors and architects he encouraged them to reach new heights of creativity. His court was cultured and sophisticated, its stylishness being the envy of even the French. The paintings and illuminations done for him were exquisite. The magnificence of Westminster Hall, and the naves at Westminster and Canterbury cathedrals are tributes to the creativity and skill of English architects. One biographer (Anthony Steel) even went so far as to assert that Richard invented the handkerchief. It was, he said “…the chef d’œuvre of the dilettante genius.” Another historian (John Harvey) thought that in his search for the cultural avant-garde Richard bore comparison with Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Julian: “All alike shared the impossibly high ideals, the meteoric brilliance, the brittle glory. Not that there were many points of resemblance in their careers; but all three were conscious exponents of the highest type of monarchy: Alexander so nearly restored the world empire of remote antiquity; Julian in lonely isolation all but preserved the noble flame of paganism in a dying era; Richard made the most nearly successful attempt to combine the highest cultural aims with the welfare of the common man”. Richard had other good personal qualities. He was brave, loyal to his friends, a faithful husband and he was devout. He was also a man of peace, and struggled long and hard to get a treaty with France. And yet in 1399 in Parliament he was pronounced ‘useless, unfit and insufficient for the government of the realm, and deposed: what went wrong?

The above quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’ sums-up his problem completely. Richard’s was a dictator. He was unlucky to succeed to the throne as a child and at a time when English fortunes at home and in France were declining. By the time he was old enough to understand the die was cast and he was under the control of a regency government. As a high-spirited youth like his father (the Black Prince) and grandfather, he chaffed under the constraints placed on him by his royal uncles, John duke of Lancaster and Thomas duke of Gloucester and his Council. He longed to exercise his personal rule; but such were the concerns about his fitness to rule that he did not come into his majority until he had reigned for twenty-two years, and then only on his own volition. In fact two years prior to that in 1387, a group of powerful nobles calling themselves the Lords Appellant gave serious consideration to his deposition on the grounds he was unfit to rule. He survived that challenge but had to endure rebukes and humiliation for his waywardness, which vexed him. Although he gave the impression of burying the hatchet he never forgot in whom he had (metaphorically) buried it.

Some authors have romantic illusions about Richard’s reign; they overlook the fact that for much of his reign and certainly in the last three years he was a tyrant. It is questionable whether he was even sane during this period. It seems almost inevitable that an immature young king might prefer the counsel of sycophants and hangers-on, who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Unfortunately, he was repeating the mistakes of his great grandfather Edward II. He preferred the advice of doubtful favourites to that of his sage counselors; he was willful, vindictive. He deprived people of their property unlawfully, he sentenced them to exile without just cause, he tampered with the Parliamentary record so that his enemies could be condemned as traitors, he imposed unjust taxes and he intimidated Parliament and his subject with armed force. In the words of May McKistay: “Whether or not he ever said that the laws were in his own mouth and in his own breast and that the lives and property of his subjects were at his disposal absolutely, it was on this assumption that he acted.

Thomas Walsingham, a contemporary chronicler had this to say about events in 1397 when Richard took his bloody revenge on the Lords Appellant: “ it was at this time, however, through the rashness, cunning and the pride of the young king, the whole kingdom was suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into confusion”. it is clear that Richard was regarded as untrustworthy; he was a man to whom an oath meant nothing. His dealings with parliament at this time show his utter contempt for the rule of law. His coronation oath meant no more to him than any other oath he was prepared to break. This was not how kings were expected to behave. A good king’s reign was seen as a force for justice, a bulwark against injustice and a refuge against oppression. Again, in the words of May McKistay: “ Strong and sagacious monarchs were the greatest need of the age and much might be forgiven of an autocrat like Edward III since under him the forms of law were, on the whole, preserved”

Ultimately, Richard’s deposition was due to his tyranny. The English rejected his vision of personal rule and his use of royal prerogative to enforce his will. He never showed any indication that he realized the limits of his authority: of what, even, a king could not do. It was this lack of judgment that led to his fatal error of disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke, a man very much in the chivalric Edwardian mold. He was a successful soldier, a renowned jouster, charismatic and popular.

Eventually, on the 29 September 1399, Richard was compelled to sign away his crown in the cession and renunciation document: “… I confess, acknowledge, recognise and from my own certain knowledge truly admit that I have been and am entirely inadequate and unequal to the task of ruling and governing the aforesaid kingdoms and dominions and all that pertains to them, and that on account of my notorious insufficiencies I deserve to be deposed from them…”

At Westminster the next day he faced his worst humiliation. Details of thirty-three grievances were read; they spelt out in graphic detail all of his insufficiencies and inadequacies. Despite his artistic and cultural achievements, it was his political failings that cost him his throne and his life. Whilst the manner of his deposition was cruel and shabby, there is little doubt that he had to go

The contrary king

“Richard the Third, of all the English monarchs, bears the greatest contrariety of character… Some few have conferred upon him almost angelic excellence, have clouded his errors, and blazened every virtue that could adorn a man. Others, as if only extremes would prevail, present him in the blackest dye; his thoughts were evil, and that continually, and his actions diabolical; the most degraded mind occupied the most deformed body… But Richard’s character, like every man’s has two sides… though most writers display but one”

These words of William Hutton are written in his book ‘The battle of Bosworth between Richard the Third and Henry earl of Richmond’, which was first printed in 1788. I stumbled upon Hutton when reading Charles Ross’ biography of Richard, and I have never forgotten him. This quote perfectly captures the essential feature of Ricardian literature then and now.

Was Richard III a good king? In the light of Hutton’s opinion, that would be a challenging question for any O level student to answer objectively. Everybody who bothers to write about Richard has an opinion for or against him. This debate sometimes takes on the appearance of a courtroom drama: guilty or not guilty? I do not propose to go down that road. It is not my intention to examine the minutiae of his reign; others have already done that already — and to death. I am only expressing a personal opinion about the general nature of Richard’s reign.

An obvious place to start is the contemporary opinion of Richard. I am ignoring the Tudor sources, as they are not contemporary to Richard. What contemporaneous material we have suggests that until his brother Edward’s death on the 9 April 1483, Richard enjoyed a reputation as a virtuous man. Dominic Mancini in 1483 wrote of him: “He kept himself within his own lands and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favours and justice. The good reputation of his private life and public activity powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers. Such was his renown in warfare that whenever a difficult and dangerous policy to be undertaken it would be entrusted to his discretion and generalship. By these arts Richard acquired the favour of the people and avoided the jealousy of the Queen from whom he lived far separated.” Mancini was no friend to Richard. He never met or even saw him.   What he knew of Richard’s reputation he heard from others. Given Mancini’s animus towards Richard, this unsolicited testimonial suggests that there was truth in his good reputation.

There are two other contemporary comments about Richard, which are worth noting since they were made by people who met him. Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s writing to a colleague in August 1483 during Richard’s progress: “ …he contents the people wherever he goes… many a poor man…have been relieved and helped by him in his commands in his progress…” And later: “ On my truth I liked never the condition of a prince as well as his. God has sent him to us for the weal of all.” The good Bishop was a brilliant and highly educated man who undoubtedly had known Richard since he was Duke of Gloucester. He was a benevolent, kind and caring man whose view cannot be dismissed as that of a Ricardian time-server. In May 1484 it was the Silesian knight errant and diplomat Nicolas Von Poppelau who met Richard at Pontefract and stayed with him for more than a week, dining with him every day. Von Poppelau said that Richard had a ‘great heart’, by which he meant that he was magnanimous.

The difficulty we have in establishing the reality is that the rumours and criticism of Richard come from southern sources, which were nearly all written after his death. Similarly, the October rebellion was almost exclusively a southern affair; there does not appear to have been a rebellion north of the Watford Gap. Considering the importance attached to this rebellion as an indicator of the popular revulsion at Richard’s supposed crimes, it seems not to have been a widespread national revulsion.   Professor A Pollard’s perceptive and scholarly article in 1981 in the Ricardian highlights the existence of a north-south divide during the latter half of the fifteenth century, which has undoubtedly coloured opinions about Richard. He refers to two contemporary views of Richard; a monstrous metropolitan-southern one and a noble northern one. This antipathy between north and south and its impact on the probity of some of the Tudor sources is often disregarded or sidelined by historians.

It is impossible to make any objective appraisal of Richards reign without at least acknowledging the elephants in the room: the manner in which he succeeded to the throne and the fate of his nephews, the so-called Princes in the Tower. I will try to keep it brief.   On the first point: Richard claimed the throne on the basis of Edward’s bigamy.  The pre-contract with Eleanor Butler pre-dated his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. There are solid grounds for believing that the allegation was true, or at least that Richard genuinely believed it to be true. There are also grounds for believing that Richard had a good case in law and politically for assuming the crown.  Moreover, there is a strong elective element in Richard’s succession. He was petitioned by the Three Estates (the Lords Spiritual, Temporal and the Commons) to assume the crown. In fact he is the only medieval monarch with a genuine constitutional title to the throne. By petitioning Richard the Three Estates were consenting to the deposition of Edward V and they were disregarding Edward of Warwick’s prior claim.   Although, young Edward suffered under his father’s (Clarence) attainder, it could easily have been reversed if so desired. I think Richard was petitioned to take the throne because he had the title and he was the best man for the job.  Anyhow, Parliament ratified Richard’s claim by accepting Titulus Regius in 1484.  As to the fate of the Princes, nobody knows. There is no evidence that they even died during Richard’s reign, much less that he killed them. There was a rumour, which even Gairdner thinks was started deliberately to undermine Richard and to aid the Tudor cause. In fact there are better grounds for supposing they survived their uncle. Personally, I think that the attempts by pretenders to claim the Tudor throne — whether they were genuine or not — are per se indicative of the real doubt that existed in peoples’ minds as to whether either or both of the princes were actually dead.

Richard reputation as a capable administrator and brave and efficient soldier went before him. As Lord of the North for eight years he managed to win the support and affection of a predominantly Lancastrian populace. If we judge him by results, that speaks for itself. As teenager he fought in two important battles. His repute as a brave, resourceful and determined soldier was well earned in battle and by the faith his brother reposed in him.  It is because he is self-evidently such an able man that I find his struggle to come to terms with being king so baffling. He certainly aspired to be a good king, in that he wanted his subjects and the realm to prosper under him; and he tried to be a good king. However, ultimately he fell short of his aspiration. There are many reasons for this; some are undoubtedly due to his misjudgments. However, I want to concentrate on two issues, which I think were critical factors in his downfall: his disastrous loss of reputation and his state of mind.

I will deal with his state of mind first because that affected his judgment, his legendary ability to act decisively and his calmness under pressure. The Tudor sources like to portray Richard as a man on top of his game in 1483-1485. We see him as a man not just ready, willing and able to deal with the Tudor invasion, but eager to do so: even looking forward to it. This was still the Richard of Barnet, Tewkesbury and Stony Stratford. But then they would say that wouldn’t they. It was in their interests to exaggerate Richard’s performance to the greater glory of Henry Tudor, who had defeated such a formidable man in battle at God’s command. Personally, I think Richard was way off his a-game almost throughout his reign.   He made inexplicable errors of judgments in foreign affairs, in his provision for the defence of the realm and in his dealing with the men of the south. His morale seemed to have dipped; by this time he is not the man he was.

We have very little indication from Richard of his thoughts and state of mind between June 1483 and August 1485. What little we do have, however suggests a man under extreme stress. The scribbled note in his own hand in a formal letter to his Chancellor describing Buckingham as “ the most untrue creature living” is almost a cry of despair from a man hitherto noted for his coolness under fire. Even more revealing is his choice of personal prayer written in rough hand into his Book of Hours. It is probably Richard’s most personal and private possession, and was in all probability given to him by his wife. He carried it at Bosworth and it reflected his inner persona, the essence of who he was as a man. Although the prayer is traditional, this version was composed for Richard’s private use. The Brochure accompanying the NPG’s biographical exhibition of Richard in 1973 at which his Book of Hours was exhibited contains the following note: “ It reads with the incantation of a litany. The note of oppression and danger is very strong. It can only have been added to the manuscript in Richard’s reign and provides an insight into his private life of almost unparalleled intimacy. He begs to be delivered not from all tribulations, sorrows and anguish in which he might be placed, but in which he is placed (my emphasis). ‘Deign to assuage, turn aside, extinguish and bring to nothing the hatred that they bear against me’ and goes on to supply the great litany of the Old Testament salvations, including ‘…just as you freed Susanna from false testimony…’ He could hardly have put it more strongly. There is no doubt that Richard was a person of serious piety and this is the only place where deceit would have been unthinkable. Either he was a very advanced schizophrenic or he had reason to believe himself innocent of the charges…” We shouldn’t read too much from this, but it does suggest that Richard’s state of mind was fragile to say the least. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that he was in his best form, and this affected his ability to deal effectively with his problems

The second issue is the loss of his reputation. This is important because it cost him the support of the southern gentry from the autumn of 1483 onwards. They had supported him as Lord Protector against the attempted Woodville coup but not as king: why? The consensus of traditional opinion is that they baulked at his usurpation of the crown. I am not convinced that that conclusion is correct. There was no rebellion against Richard’s rule until the autumn; until that is, a rumour was spread that the Princes had met a violent end. It is possible that Richard’s loss of reputation was due to the manner by which he came to the throne, but I think it is more likely to have been due to that rumour.

Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the failure of the old Yorkist regime to support Richard was a critical factor in his ultimate fall. Edwards extensive network of royal servants, which Richard inherited and hoped to use to project his own royal authority, were powerful and influential people in their localities. Their support for the king was critical.  The king relied on this network of nobles and lesser gentry to enforce royal commands and charters in local areas. Richard’s problem was that these  southerners were Edward’s men: not his. Edward selected, knew and rewarded the, and they were confident he was acting in their interests. Richard, was from the north; he was an unknown quantity as king. There was no mutual bond of trust or loyalty between them. It was knew it was risky to rely on these men, but he probably felt he had little choice at the time.

Richard’s failure to make a serious effort to win them over is surprising. He rarely showed his face in the disaffected south and spent a disproportionate amount of time on the Great North Road visiting his friends in York, Pontefract and especially Nottingham. This baffling, because Richard clearly knew the importance of royal patronage in oiling the wheels of government; and he had proved his own ability to win the hearts and minds of men in the north. His decision after the October rebellion to replace the southern rebels with his own trusted men from the north, whilst understandable, was bitterly resented in the south. He was, of course, trying to build his own network of royal servants but was not given the time to see this bear fruit.   Although at no time did the administration of government breakdown, the truth was that Richard lacked the bedrock of support in the south, which he needed to consolidate his position. This is more apparent in the indifference of most of the southern nobility towards his call to arms in 1485. One of the notable features of Bosworth is that most of the English nobility did not take part on the either side.

17th Century Consequences for the Stanley Family

‘Charles I exhibited an almost pathological distrust of the Stanleys, despite the instinctive loyalty shown by the earl to his king…The reasons for the king’s distrust are rooted deep in his own complex character, but it is certain that part of that distrust was based on the behaviour of Thomas, the first Earl of Derby, at Bosworth. The battle might have been nearly two hundred years in the past, but to Charles’s mind it proved that the Stanleys were not to be trusted on the battlefield. He is also said to be afraid that Stanley had aspirations to royalty, as was shown by his marriage to a lady with so many royal connections…’

To Play the Man, The story of Lady Derby and the siege of Lathom House, 1643-1645, by Colin Pilkington pp.32-33. Carnegie Publishing 1991.

How ironic, given that Charles I would not have been king, or indeed even have existed, but for that Stanley treachery at Bosworth.

James Stanley, Earl of Derby, remained a loyal if somewhat ineffective supporter of the royalist cause. He was eventually executed in 1651 because of his involvement in the massacre at Bolton in 1644 – a massacre which (unlike certain others in the Civil War) is now largely and conveniently forgotten. The Stanleys’ principal home Lathom House, was destroyed after its eventual capture, and never rebuilt.

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