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

Part 6 – “The peace of England, and our safety enforced us to this…”

“So mighty and many are my defects

That I would rather hide me from my greatness

Being a bark to brook no mighty sea

Than in my greatness covet to be had

And is the vapour of my glory smothered”

(William Shakespeare)

 

“ I am unfit for state or majesty”

Richard duke of Gloucester had to put his thinking cap on. His hopes for a peaceful transition from the reign of Edward IV to that of Edward V were dashed. The bishop of Bath and Wells’ revelation that Edward IV was still wed to Eleanor Butler when he married queen Elizabeth had cast a deep almost impenetrable shadow over the royal succession. If true, it meant that he, and not any of his brothers’ children, was the legitimate Yorkist heir.[1] All the while he believed that Edward’s children were legitimate, the duke saw it as his duty to work towards Edward V’s enthronement regardless of his personal feelings. However, the truth was that England was not ready for a boy king, especially a Woodville one. The knowledge that young Edward and all his siblings were illegitimate presented the best opportunity to secure the peace and stability of the realm by putting a proven soldier and administrator on the throne instead of a callow youth. Once the duke was sure that the pre-contract was true his course was obvious. He must take the crown in the national interest and his own. The problem was that that course cut right across the creed he lived by: ‘Loyaulte Me Lie’. Duke Richard was a soldier, a practical man, a ‘doer not a wooer’. The requests for help from York and from his northern adherents were Gloucester’s military solution to a security problem. However, Gloucester the politician was in denial. Catesby’s news that Hastings had joined the conspiracy to murder him and Buckingham and that he (Hastings) had known of the pre-contract for some time raised another practical crisis he could get his teeth into. He had faced danger and death many times in his relatively short life. Ironically, it put him in his comfort zone to deal with this problem like a good soldier rather than a savvy politician[2].

My contention is that since emotionally he was unable to solve the paradox between what he — in his heart of hearts — knew he must do and what he wanted to do about the pre contract he took it out on Hastings. This dilemma clouded his judgment and led him to make two huge mistakes. His first and most serious mistake was to underestimate the role of Margaret Beaufort with Morton in this and in other conspiracies. His second mistake was his failure to bring Hastings before a properly constituted law court for his treason. The outcome was that it allowed his opponents to circulate adverse rumours about him and to defame his posterity. Worst of all, it united disaffected Yorkists and ambitious Lancastrians against him. All this, however, lay in the future. For the moment, he had retained the trust of the council and the city fathers, who believed he was acting in Edward V’s best interest.   They were pleased that he had curbed Woodville power and removed the king from under their baleful influence.

“Look to see a troubled World”

We know from contemporary private sources that whilst there may have been an air of crisis over the weekend with armed gangs on the streets, Londoners in general (and I include the merchant middle class guilds and aldermen in this) and the councilors in particular did not see the threat as coming from the duke of Gloucester. Professor Hicks sums-up the situation nicely: “ Hastings’ death did not stir fears amongst the political leadership that Richard aimed for the throne, but, if anything served to reinforce fears of the queen and the Wydevilles (Woodvilles) and to strengthen trust in Richard.” Hicks also cites the enigmatic note of George Cely as evidence that Richard was not seen as the threat to the peace and stability of the realm: “There is great rumour in the realm. The Scots have done great [damage] in England. The Chancellor [Rotherham] is deprived and not content. The bishop of Ely is dead. If the king, God save his life, were to die; the duke of Gloucester were in any peril.   If my lord Prince, whom God protect, were troubled. If my lord of Northumberland were dead or greatly troubled. If my lord Howard were slain.” This is not only a good indication of the fear and rumour prevalent, but it also shows that Cely (a Lancastrian wool merchant) feared for the safety of Richard.[3] Notwithstanding Charles Ross’ assertion that the evidence of a Hastings/Woodville conspiracy rests entirely on Richard’s say so,[4] Michael Hicks and Annette Carson both provide evidence that people believed him at the time[5]. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the accounts of Mancini, Crowland and the vernacular London Chronicles included ex post facto embellishments of these events, which were added for partisan reasons to blacken Gloucester’s reputation. They seriously exaggerated the backlash against him.

 

“You break not sanctuary be seizing him”

It is early Monday morning the 16 June 1483: grey and cheerless. An unseasonal chill wind is blowing from the east as the king’s councilors gathered at the Tower. They were understandably wary and nervous. The sudden execution of the Lord Chamberlain last Friday has caused consternation in the city. Notwithstanding the Lord Protector’s calming proclamation, treason is in the air; ordinary people had their swords and daggers to hand; armed men roamed the city streets. Everybody was edgy and suspicious. The tension was tangible. Once the council had assembled and the royal dukes were ready, the whole party moved to Westminster in boats, accompanied by ‘eight boatloads’ of soldiers. Thomas Bourchier the Archbishop of Canterbury together with Lord Howard and other councilors preceded to the Abbots house at Westminster escorted by the soldiers. The dukes of Gloucester and Buckingham with the remainder of the council adjourned to the Star Chamber at Westminster Palace to await events.

After an emotional exchange with the Archbishop, the queen allowed her youngest son to leave sanctuary. She is said to have done so graciously, ‘as far as words went’. Nevertheless, she and the remainder of her family remained in sanctuary. Following a brief reception at Westminster Palace, the young duke of York was escorted to be with his brother in the royal apartments at the Tower. The council then turned to the other main business of the day: the king’s coronation. The councilors were satisfied that the Lord Protectors actions on Friday were justified. The Woodville faction was still regarded as the biggest danger to the stability of the realm. Two important decisions were made. First, the coronation was postponed from the 22 June until the 9 November 1483. Second, the Parliament fixed for the 25 June was cancelled. The business of the day was done[6].

It is obvious that Gloucester had prepared for the removal of York from sanctuary. The eight ‘boatloads’ of troops did not magically appear. They were organised and tasked for their role beforehand. Similarly, the decision to pierce the sanctuary boil had to have been taken over the weekend. Things like that cannot be done extempore. It suggests some basic rethinking by Gloucester. The presence of the young prince was desirable at his brother’s coronation; it was unthinkable that king Edward should be crowned without him there. Indeed, that was the reason given to the queen by the Archbishop when requesting York’s release. The subsequent postponement of the coronation and the cancellation of Parliament were the inevitable consequences of the events of the previous week. In theory it gave more time for reconciliation between the Lord protector and council, and the queen. However, the reality was that reconciliation was almost impossible now. Though in practical terms, the cancellations gave Gloucester more time to resolve the pressing problem of the pre-contract.

If Gloucester decided to seize the crown the possession of both Princes was a pre-requisite. This may explain the ambiguous use of troops. It’s true that the soldiers could have been there simply to protect the royal family and the councilors from the armed gangs in London. It might have been just happenstance, but there is little doubt that the presence of troops was meant to put pressure on the queen to release her son. Mancini reports that Gloucester intended to use force if necessary, and the credulous Professor Charles Ross believes that Gloucester would have risked the ‘moral obloquy’ of forcing sanctuary’ if need be[7]. I’m not so sure he risked obloquy by forcing sanctuary. It would not have been his preference, but he had tried all reasonable means to persuade the queen to re-join the court and she was obdurate. He was a deeply religious man, almost puritan in his piety and it would have grieved him. However, he had the backing of the council, and I doubt if the Archbishop of Canterbury would have acted as his spokesman if he thought Gloucester was a threat to Edward V; neither could Gloucester compel him to do so.

I have been thinking about what has happened over this weekend 532 years ago. What does it mean for Richard duke of Gloucester? Did he do the right thing? And what should he do next? I suspect that those were also his thoughts half a millennium ago. From his perspective, the weekend was a success. The plan was good and its implementation almost flawless.   He crushed a dangerous conspiracy with ease; three of the conspirators are in custody and Hastings is dead. Reinforcements from the north are being organised and he now has custody of both of Edward’s sons. Nevertheless, I have the feeling this was the weekend when Richard won a battle but lost the war. Fatally, his ‘victory’ was nor decisive. His most dangerous and inveterate enemies escaped, and those he did capture were allowed to continue their treasonous plotting unhindered. Even that peerless Ricardian Sir George Buck criticizes Richard for not executing John Morton and keeping Margaret Beaufort incommunicado under lock and key.

Anthony Woodville Lord Rivers, Sir Richard Grey and Sir Thomas Vaughan were executed on the 25 June 1483. Sir Richard Ratcliffe supervised their execution under the auspices of the earl of Northumberland and Ralph Neville. Both Mancini and Crowland say that they were executed without trial or justice. However, the presence of Northumberland suggests that there may have been some form of judicial process. Mancini says that Richard gave the order for this execution on his own authority and in defiance of the council’s earlier decision not to charge Rivers et al with treason. However, Gloucester had no reason to flaunt the council, nor was he likely to do so as he was dependent on their support.  He ordered their execution in his capacity as the Lord Protector and Defensor of the realm, with specific responsibility for defending England against external enemies and internal traitors. I have little doubt myself that Rivers, Grey and Vaughan fall into the category of traitors.

Be that as it may, more important to me in this essay, is what this tells us about Gloucester decision to claim the throne by right of strict inheritance. For the executions to take place on the 25 June, they had to have been ordered by the 16 or 17 June 1483 at the latest. Hicks infers that Sir Richard Ratcliffe carried the death warrants north on the 11 June 1483 with Gloucester’s urgent plea for help: but he is mistaken[8]. Crowland writes explicitly that Sir Richard Ratcliffe with the northern lords and their troops were moving south when they interrupted their journey at Pontefract to execute these prisoners[9]. Indeed, they bought Rivers and Grey with them from where they were incarcerated to the place of execution. This indicates to me that they knew the duke’s need for troops was no longer so urgent since he had already foiled the Woodville conspiracy. It is also clear that at the same time they received instructions to execute the Woodville traitors. The inference that I draw from this is that duke Richard sent another message north; one, which, by its secret nature, we may never know about. This contained not only the details of the arrest and execution of Hastings but also the warrants for the execution of Rivers Grey and Vaughan and it must have been sent after the 13 June and before the 17 June 1483. That is when I believe Gloucester decided to assume the crown in place of his nephew. He could not have contemplated executing Rivers and Grey unless he intended to become king of England.

[1] I have not forgotten Edward of Warwick, Clarence’s infant son. It is simply that he was never a serious contender for the throne. First he was the son of an attainted traitor and second, he had no support amongst the English nobility for the reversal of the attainder or for his succession.

[2] As the youngest son of a duke, Richard was not expected to succeed to the throne. Consequently, his upbringing, training and experience had done very little to prepare him for this situation.   Throughout his adult life he had served his brother faithfully and well in a subordinate capacity. His training and aptitude for soldiering, and his military experience, combined with his successful tenure as ‘Lord of the North’, demonstrated that duke Richard was a capable governor and certainly not a soft touch. However, his voluntary absence from Edward’s decadent court meant that he was unused to the intensity and causticity of Beaufort and Woodville intriguing when he had to deal with it. A shrewder politician might have seen the danger of the Beaufort/Tudor/Morton axis earlier, and dealt with it.

[3] Michael Hicks – Richard III (Tempus 2000 revised edition) at pages 114-116. Hicks’ analysis of the contemporary opinion of Richard during May and June 1483 supports the view that his action in curbing the Woodvilles was popular and the execution of Hastings was justified. In fact, Hicks makes a point of rejecting Mancini’s account as hindsight, along with other chronicle accounts. He observes, “The events that follow are a better guide.”

[4] Charles Ross- Richard III (Yale 1999) at page 81

[5] See Hicks, ibid. See also Annette Carson – Richard III: the maligned king (The History Press 2013 revised edition) at pages 102-104. Carson is a particularly useful reference since the author has helpfully collated the relevant sources for this episode in one place. It obviates the need for me to go into any more detail.

[6] I have followed the following sources in reconstructing this event. AJ Armstrong (ed) – Dominic Mancini: the Usurpation of King Richard III [Oxford, 1969]) at pages 89 and 124, note 74. See also Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (editors) – The Crowland Chronicle continuations 1459-1486 (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) at page 159; and also Richard J Sylvester – The complete Works of St Thomas More, Volume 2: the History of King Richard III (Yale 1963) at pages 45-49 and note 46/7-47/1 page 216.

[7] Ross, page 87.

[8] Hicks, at pages 132-133; Hicks makes the point that Northumberland and Neville were hardly likely to comply with Gloucester’s instructions unless they were assured of immunity from any recriminations. His inference that they knew of Gloucester’s intended usurpation before they set out from the north is inescapable. However, and not for the first time, professor Hicks has failed to explore other possibilities. Instead, he confines himself to an inference that fits his pre-conceived conclusion that Gloucester was deceiving the council and manipulating public opinion. It is a conclusion based on the premise that usurpation was always his intention. A premise, which is not supported by the evidence of what actually happened between April and June 1483.

[9] Crowland at page 161

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