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The Tragedy of King Richard 111 (not by William Shakespeare)

Part 4 – “… the corruption of a blemished stock “

A beauty-waning and distressed widow,

   Even in the afternoon of her best days,

   Made prize and purchase of his wanton eye

   Seduced the pitch and height of his degree

   To base declension and loathed bigamy. “

   (William Shakespeare)


“ Is all things ready for the royal time?”

There is very little contemporary material about what was happening in May 1483, after the Council meeting. The picture we have is of everybody busy preparing for the king’s coronation on the 22 June. The council, led by the Lord Protector, was in a difficult if not an impossible position trying to govern and defend the realm without the royal treasure (stolen by the Woodvilles) and the fleet (commandeered by the Woodville’s)[1]. Nevertheless, the Lord Protector continued to act with propriety and it is evident that he intended to crown Edward V. Despite the queen’s intransigence, he acted lawfully and was especially careful to try and negotiate a peaceful end to her sanctuary[2].

As late as the 5 June 1483, the Protector summoned all those who were to be knighted, to come to London at least four days prior to the coronation. The same day he wrote to the citizens of York apologizing for the fact he that was too busy with the coronation preparations to deal with their recent request for financial relief. The significance of this letter is its ordinariness, which is in stark contrast to his letter to the same citizens five days later. In the second letter, the Protector requested troops to help against the queen and her blood adherents who were planning to murder him and Buckingham. It was a noticeable change in tone. The inference that he was suddenly alarmed by this murderous conspiracy is doubtful, as he had known of the threat to his life since Stony Stratford or earlier. If it was in response to that threat, he has left it too late; York’s troops could not reach London much before the end of June. I believe that something else has happened between the 5 and 10 June 1483, which alerted the Protector to a new and very serious threat to the stability of the realm and to him.[3]

The ‘wicked bishop’

It is Philippé De Commynes a Flemish knight in the service of Louis XI who provides a possible explanation for his change of attitude. “ The Bishop of Bath and Wells (Robert Stillington) revealed to the duke of Gloucester that king Edward, being enamoured of a certain English lady promised to marry her provided he could sleep with her first and she consented. The Bishop said that he had married them and only he and they were present. He was a courtier so did not disclose this fact and helped to keep the lady quiet, and things remained like this for a while. Later king Edward fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers.” [4] It would be wrong to say, as James Gairdner did, that the evidence of this pre contract rests on the ‘single testimony’ of Robert Stillington, since the truth is we do not have his testimony: not a word of it. We do not know when or where Edward and Eleanor were married[5], or even when Stillington revealed all to the protector. What we do know is that this revelation, if true, had serious implications for the royal succession. It would make, Edward’s subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville bigamous and their offspring illegitimate, and unable in law to succeed to the throne[6]. I believe it was this news that worried the Protector.

Sir Clement Markham suggests that Stillington told Gloucester and the council about the pre-contract on Sunday the 8 June 1483[7]. All we know about this meeting is what we get from a letter written by Simon Stallworth to Sir William Stonor, in which he writes: “My Lord Protector, my Lord of Buckingham and all other Lords, as well temporal as spiritual [sic] were at Westminster”. It’s a pity that Stallworth either doesn’t know or declines to reveal what was actually discussed. The meeting lasted for four hours, which is unusually long for an update on preparations for the coronation. Also, Stallworth writes that they discussed great business about the coronation’. I infer from this phrase that this was not a routine meeting. It is also interesting to note that nobody spoke to the queen’, which suggests that negotiations between the Lord Protector and the queen had broken down and something important was happening.

Stallworth’s phrase”…great business against the coronation…” is ambiguous: perhaps deliberately so. Most historians think he meant ‘in preparation for or in anticipation of the coronation’. However, the word ‘against’ has eighteen different meanings in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, five of which use the word in the sense of ‘resistance to or opposition to…’ Is it possible that Stallworth is referring obliquely to a discussion about the pre-contract, including the propriety of proceeding with the coronation? However, Stallworth could just as easily have been disseminating a sanitized version of events meant for publication. It is also likely that the Protector needed more time to investigate the veracity of Stillington’s claim. Whilst there may well have been a serious discussion about the situation, it was more likely to take place in camera[8].

I think that by the 10 June 1483, Gloucester was convinced that Stillington’s story was true. In his letter to York of the same date he is not reacting to a new threat from Dorset and Hastings, but preparing himself for the possibility of a Woodville counterstroke, once the existence of the pre-contract became public knowledge. He was obviously worried about the increased prospect of civil war breaking out again. Neither can there be any doubt that the personal consequences were also on his mind. The letter to York provides a convenient cover story, which gives nothing new away if it falls into the wrong hands.

Robert Stillington (d1491)[9] rose from humble origins to become Edward IV’s Chancellor in 1467. This suggests that Kendall’s description of him, as “a man of mediocre talents, not remarkable for strength of character” was both unfair and untrue[10]. He served Edward IV as Chancellor until 1473, when he retired through ill health. Thereafter he fell from favour. In 1478, he was imprisoned for “uttering words prejudicial to the king and state”.[11] After paying a ‘round sum’ he was forgiven and released. However, he never worked for Edward IV again. It is possible that he revealed the pre-contract in 1483 out of resentment over his fall from grace and a desire for revenge against the Woodville’s. If so, he received no discernible reward from Gloucester. It is equally possible that he felt bound to raise such a grave impediment to the succession of Edward V once it became obvious that he would be a figurehead under the control of the Woodvilles. We simply don’t know, essentially. There is nothing in his private or public life to suggest he was untrustworthy. Neither has anybody been able to produce evidence that he invented the pre-contract story either on his own or as part of a conspiracy with Gloucester, or that he allowed Gloucester to put him up to it.   There are no grounds for doubting Stillington’s credibility as a truthful eyewitness to the marriage of the king and Eleanor Butler. Neither is there much force in the argument that Stillington’s story was known to be false at the time. The only doubts that were expressed came from sources in southern England, which was a region hostile to king Richard during his lifetime. Furthermore, they were written after his death at a time when Henry VII was actively trying to re-write the official history of king Richard’s protectorship and reign.

“He that filches me of my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor”

It is unfortunate, that whatever proofs of evidence Stillington provided have not survived. It is this gap in the paper trail that encourages some historians to believe that the pre-contract story was a fabrication. Even if we disregard the illogicality of such a belief (It does not necessarily follow from the absence of written proof that Stillington was lying, much less that he and Gloucester conspired to tell lies.), it overlooks or disregards the fundamental importance of Titulus Regius (The King’s Title) in ratifying king Richard’s election by the ‘three estates’ and his title to the crown. In the absence of evidence of coercion or deception it requires more that Crowland’s cavalier comment that Parliament acquiesced through fear, to convince me that king Richard’s election was a fraud[12].

There are other circumstantial details, which taken together indicate the truth of Stillington’s story. Henry VII’s actions after Bosworth are of special importance. In his first Parliament (November 1485), Henry repealed Titulus Regius without being read. This was unheard of in Parliamentary history. Furthermore, the king ordered all existing copies of Titulus Regius to be destroyed on pain of punishment[13]. This was a deliberate attempt by Henry VII to pervert our understanding of historical events.   It is obvious that he had to repeal Titulus Regius, since he relied on his wife’s (Elizabeth of York) title to bolster his own weak title. There was no question of allowing the declaration of her bastardy to remain. However, his attempt to expunge Titulus Regius from the official record, as though it had never existed calls into question his motive. His own explanation, that he could not bear to have this infamy of his wife and her family remembered, is no doubt the truth, but it is not the whole truth. If we combine this parliamentary manoeuvre with his treatment of Robert Stillington, we gain some insight into the king’s possible motive. Almost before king Richard’s corpse was cold on the field of Bosworth, Henry Tudor issued a warrant for the arrest of Robert Stillington. The bishop was arrested, convicted of ‘horrible and heinous offences imagined [This means ‘planned: Stillington was not convicted for his naughty thoughts.] and done’, and imprisoned.   And then Henry pardoned him: why? He also refused a request by his judges to examine Stillington as to the facts of the pre contract: why? It may well have been due to Stillington’s age and infirmity; though such considerations never usually stopped Henry from ruthlessly enforcing his interests. It may equally be that he believed the story was true and feared that a formal investigation would fatally undermine his own pretensions to the crown.

“He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber “

Finally, the existence of the pre-contract was plausible. In fact, king Edward IV’s lascivious behaviour was notorious. Crowland describes him in general terms as “ …a gross man so addicted to conviviality, vanity, drunkenness, extravagance and passion…”[14] Mancini is more descriptive: “ He was licentious in the extreme: moreover it was said that had been most insolent to numerous women after he had seduced them, for, as soon as he grew weary of the dalliance, he gave up the ladies much against their will to the other courtiers [Hastings, Rivers and Dorset?]. He pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried the noble and the lowly: however he took none by force. He overcame all by money and promises, and having conquered them, he dismissed them.”[15] That is strong stuff indeed.   And if we want an example of how he used his power to promise anything to get into bed with women, we need look no further than his clandestine ‘marriage’ to Elizabeth Grey. It is a classic example of the king’s modus operandi.  The question of the notoriety of Edward’s behaviour and his marriage to Eleanor Butler is also important in a legal context and it is something I will be dealing with in another essay.

I leave the last word to Sir James Gairdner: “ The story of the pre-contract has been generally discredited by historians; but without pretending that it rests on very satisfactory evidence, we may still affirm that there are no sufficient grounds for regarding it as a mere political invention.”[16]

[1]. Rosemary Horrox and PW Hammond – British Library Harleian Manuscript 433 (R3S 1979) 4 Volumes, V3 at pages 29-30. Lord Dynham, the commander of the Calais garrison wrote to the Lord Protector, explaining his intention to petition Parliament to find ways for ensuring the continuing payment of the Calais garrison.

[2]. BL Harl 443, V1 at page 16; the Protector wrote to Thomas Bourchier, the Archbishop of Canterbury sometime between the 16 and 19 May. He wanted an urgent meeting with all the senior clergy to discuss “certain difficult and urgent matters”, which would be made clearer at the meeting: a crisis? It is possible that the Protector was trying to secure a peaceful and legal end to the queen’s sanctuary. Unfortunately, we do not know that outcome of this request.

[3]. The tendency to regard Gloucester’s change of attitude as being due to the recent discovery of a plot to kill him and Buckingham is understandable since that is what he wrote in his letter to York.   However, there is another possible explanation. It is based on the premise that Gloucester was alarmed by the consequences for the realm if Stillington’s revelation proved true. No doubt, he wanted to test the truth of Stillington’s story and think about those consequences. Viewed in this light, his request to York was a sensible and timely call for reinforcements to guard against the possibility of civil disorder once the pre-contract became common knowledge. He used the murder plot as an excuse to ensure that the citizens of York took him seriously and to keep his knowledge secret. I accept that this is speculation, but it does explain why Gloucester apparently waited until it was too late to get help. If the ‘plot’ was so alarming and urgent, his delay bordered on incompetence: not what I would expect from a man acknowledged by all to be an efficient soldier and administrator.

[4] . Phillipé De Commynes – Memoirs: the reign of Louis XI 1461-1483 (Penguin 1972) at pages 353-354.

[5] See John Ashdown-Hill- Eleanor: the secret queen (The History Press 2009) at pages 99-116 for intriguing speculation about when and where Edward and Eleanor met, became lovers and were secretly married. See also Peter A Hancock – Richard III and the murder in the Tower – (The History Press 2011) at 33-43 for an alternative theory about Eleanor and Edward’s marriage. Like all conjecture these are based on inferences drawn from the surrounding circumstances, which may or may not be true. Though both theories are conceivable they differ considerably in their detail, which suggests that at least one of them may be wrong.

[6]. Sir James Gairdner – History of the Life and Reign of Richard III (Longman Green 1878) at pages 113-115.

[7] Sir Clement Markham –Richard III: his life and character (Alex Struick 2013 paperback edition) at page 101.

[8]. Stallworth’s correspondence is helpfully reproduced in full in Peter A Hancock- Richard III and the murder in the Tower – (The History Press 2011) at Appendix 1, pages 158-59.

[9]. Michael Hicks -Robert Stillington BNG entry.

[10] Paul Murray Kendal – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin 1955) at pages 217-219 and the note 14, page 475; this contains an excellent analysis of Stillington’s reliability as a witness.

[11]. See MA Hicks – False, Fleeting, Perjured Clarence (Alan Sutton 1980) at pages 163-164; and Dr John Ashdown-Hill – The Third Plantagenet (The History Press) at pages 138-146. There is speculation that Stillington had earlier told George Duke of Clarence about the pre-contract, which was the secret reason for Clarence’s execution in 1478. Both Hicks and Ashdown-Hill demolish that theory, though they differ from each other in their explanation of what happened. Personally, I think that the words ‘prejudicial’ uttered by Stillington are much more likely to have been an objection to the lack of ‘due process’ at Clarence’s trial.

[12]. I am not going into the detail of the legal and political problems of king Richard’s constitutional title. I hope to deal with those issues and Titular Regius in another essay.

[13]. See Rotuli Parliamenterum AD1485, 1 Henry VII. The language of Henry’s Act repealing king Richard’s Titular Regius is revealing. First: “ That the original be destroyed and that any copies should be either destroyed or returned to Parliament on pain of fine or imprisonment.” And in case that was not clear enough, second: “ That the said Bill, Act and Record be annulled and utterly destroyed, and that it be ordained by the said authority that the said Act be taken out of the Roll of Parliament and be cancelled, burned and be put into oblivion.” See also R.E. Horrox – Henry VII Parliament, November 1485 in Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (ed C. Given-Wilson), 16 volumes, Vol XV at pages 97 and 328; and Nicholas Pronay et al – Parliamentary Texts of the Late Middle Ages (Clarendon, Oxford 1980) at page 186 (“A Colchester Account of Proceedings in Parliament 1485, by representatives of the Borough of Colchester Thomas Christmas and John Vertue’). This latter (diary) account contains an interesting entry for Wednesday the 15 November 1485, the sixth day of parliament: “there ware qwestionns moved for the commonwel of thise false persons whiche hath reyned many dayes amongs us, and (non) conclusion”. This entry also appears in the appendix of PROME but not in the Roll itself: is it an oblique reference to the discussion surrounding Henry’s Act?

[14]. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (editors) – The Crowland Chronicle continuations 1459-1486 (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) at page 153.

[15]. Dominic Mancini – The Usurpation of King Richard III (AJ Armstrong, editor) (Oxford 1969 ed) at page 67.

[16]. Gairdner at page 115.


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One thought on “The Tragedy of King Richard 111 (not by William Shakespeare)

  1. viscountessw on said:

    Perfect zenonian. You’ve covered all bases and made everything as clear as it ever can be to us, without the discovery of those vital missing papers. Richard quite obviously acted in good faith throughout. He was the rightful king, and his life was in danger. What else was he supposed to do? Roll over? Not our Richard. All things considered, he showed amazing restraint.

    Henry, of course, suffered tortures throughout his reign, but few can possibly sympathise. Outwardly he seems to have coped, but he didn’t really. It ate him up inside and ruined any happiness he ever had. But….he got what he deserved. The crown of England should never have been his, either on his own account or his wife’s – because she was illegitimate. Plus, of course, there are questions about legitimacy in his own recent family. Not only legitimacy, but whether he had any of the right sort of royal blood at all. Richard was the true monarch, and in the absence of heirs of his body, then John de la Pole and his brothers. But if there had been any justice, Richard would have won at Bosworth, married a Portuguese princess and had another family. Oh, what SHOULD have been.

    That said, although I am an incurable supporter of Richard III, I do find Henry VII fascinating. A very, very clever and ruthless man. Being face to face with him must have felt a little as a deer feels when caught in headlights. Utter frozen dread.

    I congratulate you on an excellent piece of writing, that is both informative and easy to read and retain. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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