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What was Stillington’s motive?

Although Commines is the principal source for Robert Stillington being the clergyman who informed Richard of the alleged marriage between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot, the treatment of the bishop after the accession of Henry VII does appear to support the idea that he was the man involved. Indeed it appears that the Lords wished to (at least) examine the bishop, but that Henry protected him from such an inquisition.

On the assumption that Stillington was the person responsible, what was his motive? This was a man already in his 60s, who had in our terms settled into a comfortable retirement. He had held high office under Edward IV, notably as Lord Chancellor from 1467-1473 (with a gap during the restoration of Henry VI.) Given the nature of the job, it seems reasonable to assume that he was a senior administrator of considerable ability.

Now of course Edward sacked him in 1473, and later, following the fall of Clarence, the bishop spent a short time in prison, apparently for speaking out of turn. Neither experience was unique, and neither seems to justify a burning desire for revenge. It’s not as if the bishop spent the rest of his life on Job Seekers Allowance. He had, for a start, the very substantial revenues of the See of Bath and Wells, the equivalent of which today would be a very handsome pension pot indeed.

So did Stillington look for any reward? If so, he must have been sorely disappointed. There is no evidence that Richard III did anything to advance him. He certainly did not appoint him to high office or translate him to a better see. Nor was he in any sense part of Richard’s affinity.

So are we really to believe that the bishop woke up one morning, and thought up a secret marriage for Edward IV, just for the hell of it? It was a risky thing to do, surely. Why should he be believed? What were the likely consequences if he were not believed? He risked, at the minimum, another spell in the Tower. Indeed, would he have dared to come forward with nothing more than his unsupported word? Say for the sake of argument it was pure invention. Would he not at least have had to ‘square’ the remaining members of the Talbot family, to be sure that his statement would not be met with universal contradiction? If he had been disbelieved, his future under Edward V would have been very far from rosy!

On balance, the easiest explanation seems to be that he genuinely had something on his conscience. Moreover, it seems likely he had some form of proof. We know that proofs of some kind were offered, even if we have no idea what the ‘proofs’ were. If you think the contrary, you must surely ask yourself what kind of man this Stillington was, and what was his motive. I think you would have to conclude that he was very odd indeed, malicious and exceptionally vengeful.

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12 thoughts on “What was Stillington’s motive?

  1. viscountessw on said:

    Very succinctly put, sighthound6. I cannot argue with your reasoning. Stillington would indeed have had a slate loose if he’d invented anything at all. The Eleanor Talbot marriage was fact. Stillington had to have produced evidence, or Richard would never have reacted as he did. Richard was nothing if not loyal to Edward, and it would have taken one hell of a bombshell to shake him from this. Stillington produced that bombshell.

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  2. Jasmine on said:

    When there is talk about Stillington and the revelation over the pre-contract, there are a number of conflicting views banded about. In various accounts, Stillington has been identified as the person who performed the marriage, as a witness to the marriage, as the man who revealed the marriage and finally, as the respected canon lawyer who drafted the TR. Are we sure currently exactly what his involvement with the issue was or is it still open to debate?

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  3. sighthound6 on said:

    We cannot be 100% sure Jasmine. Commines is a foreign source, and (like all the other sources!) not completely reliable. However, from the heat Stillington received in the first Parliament of Henry VII, when he was apparently remembered as the bishop who had presented Titulus Regius to the House, it does seem he had *something* significant to do with it. *Exactly* what we do not know for sure.

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  4. sighthound6 on said:

    Having said all that, the issues of motive would largely apply to anyone. Revealing this information was risky, and it could have back-fired very easily. One reason that I believe there was proof (of some sort) above and beyond the unsupported word of one man, however eminent.

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    • Jasmine on said:

      I have always thought that there was something distinctly fishy about the way Henry VII behaved over Stillington and the repeal of the TR. We all know about the unusual step he took of having the Act repealed and destroyed unread, but in his treatment of Stillington, there is a strong feeling that it was done to conceal something.

      Orders for his arrest went out almost immediately after Bosworth. Stillington was taken into custody, but was prevented from appearing before Parliament. If the pre-contract issue was without foundation, then surely Stillington could have been pressured to say so in Parliament.

      Traditionalists argue that Henry didn’t want to rake over old wounds and therefore it was unnecessary to force Stillington to reveal what he knew. In my view, that is a weak attempt to explain Henry’s failure to really examine the issue. Surely everyone would have been better served by proof that the pre-contract was an invention to secure the crown for Richard.

      On the other hand, if the pre-contract issue was well founded, and the proofs valid, then Henry was probably right to prevent Stillington from telling all. Perhaps, then, it is Henry’s own actions post-Bosworth which gives validity to idea that the the pre-contract existed and could be proved.

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      • Henry VII’s behavior is what really makes me think there was proof that the pre-contract was real. If the evidence had been in any way dubious or faked, it would have definitely been in Henry’s interest to expose it, rather than do everything to destroy and conceal it.

        “Henry didn’t want to rake over old wounds” is a ridiculously weak explanation. Who says that?

        Speaking of weak explanations, another one I find really weak and unconvincing is by a historian whose name I can’t remember right now, who believes Richard III had Edward V and Richard Shrewbury murdered, and whose explanation why he never produced their bodies and gave them a funeral (therefore negating the possible benefits of such a murder) and why Henry VII also never produced the bodies and officially accused Richard, is that neither of them wanted the boys to become the subject of religious worship as martyrs, as Henry VI had been for some. Yes, because Edward IV’s reign after Henry VI’s death was so shaky and full of rebellions and plots in dead Henry’s name, right? I’m sure the cult of dead princes would have in particular scared Henry VII, as opposed to living pretenders like Perkin Warbeck. Ridiculous.

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  5. I hate typos I can’t fix because of the lack of edit function on WordPress.

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  6. Yes, I think you’re right. She was one of the authors of several awful articles in the BBC History Richard III Commemorative Edition. It was a scandalous waste of money with at least 75% anti-Richard articles, including one re: the princes as martyrs.

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  7. David on said:

    It is interesting how Commynes is so often quoted second or third hand after various writers have added their spin – one way or another. He does not mention his stepping forward or telling Richard about the pre-contract. He has him saying that he was involved in the ceremony. He does not say anything about the truth of the claim, but that it was put forward to add colour to Richard’s seizure of the crown.
    He clearly refers to Stillington as “this bad bishop” and addresses his two main motives. Firstly, he is acting out of revenge – he had been in high office for Edward, but fell from favour and was imprisoned and fined.
    The other motive was to have been having Stillington’s son rewarded with property and a marriage to one of Edward’s daughters. In the end, says Commynes, this could not come to pass because the son died in the Chatelet of Paris.
    Stillington’s involvement in the 1476 failed attempt to abduct Henry Tudor from Brittany also adds to reasons why he would be out of favour with Edward. The English returned with neither Henry nor the bribe money. It also explains Henry’s treatment of him immediately post-Bosworth.

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    • There is no evidence of Richard arranging a marriage of any of Edward’s daughters to Stillingon’s son, is it?

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      • No. Stillington just reported this matter to the Three Estates as soon as it was safe to do so, given the fate of Lady Eleanor’s sister’s servants, Edward’s own brother and his own previous imprisonment.

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