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

Part 7 – Long live king Richard, England’s worthy king!

“ Cousin of Buckingham and sage grave men,

Since you will buckle fortune on my back

To bear her burden whe’er, I will or not

I must have patience to endure the load

(William Shakespeare)

 

“ Touched you the bastardy of Edward’s children?”

Bastard slips shall not take root. That was the uncompromising theme of Dr Ralph Shaa’s sermon on the 22 June 1483 at St Paul’s Cross. Taking his text from the Old Testament[1], Dr Shaa preached to the dukes’ of Gloucester and Buckingham, and a ‘huge audience of lords spiritual and temporal[2] on the illegitimacy king Edward IV’s children. Exactly what he said, however, is a source of great controversy.

The crux of the problem is the paucity of reliable, objective chronicle accounts of what was said between 22 and 26 June 1483. The chronicles that we do have are, to quote Paul Kendall, a “mosaic of conflicting detail “[3]of king Richard’s title to the throne.   This is in marked contrast to the certainty and clarity of the parliamentary roll and Titulus Regius, which set out the chain of events and king Richard’s title with admirable certainty and clarity. However, some historians believe that Titulus Regius is a fraud that was only enacted because the members of parliament were coerced. So, what are we to think? The best way to answer that question is to begin at the beginning and follow events chronologically.

Dr Shaa’s sermon was not a spontaneous outpouring of public indignation at the illegitimacy of Edwards’s offspring. It was pre-arranged by duke Richard or by others on his behalf to bring to public notice the illegitimacy of the dead kings children and to put forward the duke’s royal title. I think Gloucester’s presence at the sermon is a clear indication of his intention to replace his nephew as king. Though, naturally he was keen to distance himself from the question of deposition at this stage. Mancini describes Gloucester’s actions thus: “…he so corrupted preachers of the divine word that in their sermons to the people they did not blush to say in the face of decency and all religion that the progeny of king Edward should be instantly eradicated, for neither had he been legitimate king, nor could his issue be so. Edward, said they, was conceived in adultery…”[4] The thing to note about this is that it is almost certainly not an eyewitness account. Furthermore, although Mancini does not mention a pre-contract at this point he does refer to one later on, as we shall see. The Great Chronicle follows Mancini in alleging that Shaa preached the illegitimacy of king Edward, whereas Fabyan says that Shaa also declared the bastardy of Edward’s children. Mancini’s narrative is the only account written during Gloucester’s lifetime; indeed, it is the only extant description of this meeting written in the fifteenth century. Consequently, it cannot be taken literally as a reliable report of Shaa’s sermon. It may or may not be correct. Similarly, the reliability of the two vernacular chronicle accounts is questionable given that they were written two decades after Gloucester’s death at a time when Tudor propaganda against the last Plantagenet was rife.

“ How now! How now! What say the citizens?”

Shaa’s sermon never settled anything; its importance lay in the fact that it set in motion a train of events that were to put Richard duke of Gloucester on the throne with astonishing speed, even by modern standards. Within four days of this sermon, duke Richard was offered the crown. The next day he was king of England. With the exception of Mancini all the other sources refer to a meeting, which took place on Tuesday the 24 June at the Guildhall, with Buckingham in the chair. Present were the Mayor, his brethren ‘and a good many’ London citizens. Buckingham is supposed to have spoken wonderfully well for “a good half hour” on behalf of the duke of Gloucester, extorting the audience to admit the Lord Protector as their liege lord. The audience ‘”…to satisfy his mind more in fear than for love, had cried in small number yea! Yea![5] Following this, Buckingham left. Fabyan and the London Chronicles also report this meeting. Indeed, Fabyan said that Buckingham was so eloquent that he never even stopped to spit.

“ We heartily solicit your gracious self to take on the charge and kingly government of this your land”

Mancini does not refer to a meeting at the Guildhall with the Lord Mayor and citizens of London. Instead, he refers to a speech made by Buckingham to the lords on the 24 June, in which Buckingham argued that “…it would be unjust to crown this lad, who was illegitimate, because his father king Edward [IV] on marrying Elizabeth, was legally contracted to another wife to whom the [earl] of Warwick had joined him. Indeed on Edward’s authority the [earl] of Warwick had espoused the lady by proxy — as it is called — on the continent.[6] This is an undoubted reference to a pre-contract, although Mancini has managed to get Edward’s amour wrong.

The following day, that is the 25 June 1483, the Lords Spiritual, Temporal and the Commons (the three estates of the English community) met at Westminster. Gloucester’s decision to stop the writs of supersedeas cancelling parliament was obviously deliberate. He saw the value of having representatives from the ‘three estates’ in London to consider his claim to the throne. Although this was not a properly constituted parliament, pretty much all its members were present. Neither was this a tame Ricardian quorum; the lords spiritual, temporal and the commons who attended were those who would have constituted Edward V’s first parliament.   On any view this was a gathering of national authority. Gloucester’s claim was put forward precisely; some parts were good, others not so good. The evil done to the realm by the Woodvilles, the falseness of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Grey and the pre-contract with Eleanor Butler were all put forward, and discussed by the three estates. The meeting drafted and approved a petition to the duke of Gloucester that he should assume the seat royal. On the following day (26 June 1483) at his mother’s London house (Baynard’s Castle) the petition was presented to the duke who was pleased to accept it. He dated his reign from that day.

It all happened so quickly that it was natural that some of Richard’s subjects did not fully understand what had occurred. Subsequently, in January 1484, a properly constituted parliament noted the terms of the petition for the record, clarified the king’s title and ratified his succession to remove doubt. Nonetheless, even the constitutional authority of parliament is insufficient for some folk to accept the propriety and the legality of king Richard’s succession. Professor Charles Ross has no doubt that Titulus Regius was a “highly tendentious piece of propaganda (which) failed to carry conviction at the time and has not stood up under modern scrutiny.” [7] If ever that eminent and learned professor has made a sillier comment, I have yet to see it. Not only has he got the 15th century matrimonial law wrong and underestimated the nature of a parliamentary statute but also his analysis defies common sense. I am not going to enumerate the professors many misconceptions because others have long since consigned his comments to a metaphorical dustbin. The arguments against king Richard’s lawful accession only makes sense if you prefer the ex post facto chronicle accounts, comprising elements of hearsay, propaganda, rumour and plain old tittle-tattle, to a solemn parliamentary statute, which is contemporary with events and has the supreme force of English law, superseding judge-made canon law and common law. Anybody who takes the trouble to read the Parliamentary Roll for this parliament together with Rosemary Horrox’s excellent introduction to the Roll will see that this was a mature and thoughtful Act of Settlement, which did not come from Richard but from Parliament itself. Moreover one does not get the sense that the members were forced to come to this decision through fear.

Personally, I believe that king Richard’s intention was to recover the Yorkist vision for the rule of England. On the first day of his reign he spoke to the Kings Bench Justices emphasising the need for them to dispense justice without fear of favour and declaring that all men (and women) are equal before the law (A human right we take for granted now.). Paul Kendall describes his hopes in emotional terms when reflecting the events that had bought king Richard III to this point: “ …thus did Richard try to identify himself with the authentic tradition of his house; thus did he grope to regain the brother he had lost to Dame Elizabeth Grey, Hastings and Mistress Shore and to redefine his loyalty to the Edward he had worshiped as a boy” and “…was it not possible for him to set aside Edward’s heir and yet be truer to Edward than Edward had been to himself?” And further: “ he would succeed his brother to redeem his brothers rule.[8] Sadly, for king Richard and for England his was a reign of unfulfilled promise. He was, as Kendall suggests, an unsubtle man who perhaps had yet to acknowledge the reality that it was “…easier to keep a crown through the exercise of power than by the merits of his rule.”

[1] The Book of Wisdom, Chapter 4, Verse 3 “ Bastard slips shall not take deep root, nor take firm hold.” Scholars generally agree that the book of Wisdom deprecates any compromise with false idolatry

[2] AH Thomas et al [Eds] – The Great Chronicle of London (London 1938) pages 231-233

[3] Paul Murray Kendall – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin, 1955) at page 477, note 21

[4] CJ Armstrong (ed) – Dominic Mancini: the Usurpation of King Richard III (Oxford, 1969) at page 95

[5] The Great Chronicle; ibid

[6] Mancini at page 97

[7] Charles Ross – Richard III (Yale edition 1999) at page 91. Professor Ross (1924-1986) was a distinguished scholar. He was a historian and Professor of Medieval History at the university of Bristol (Michael Hicks and Ralph Griffiths were among his pupils). His biography of Richard first published in 1981 has, in most opinions, replaced Paul Murray Kendall as the standard work on Richard. Ross relied on primary sources in preference to the Tudor histories. His declared aim was to portray Richard in the context of his times. Although his writing style is less floral and more functional than Kendall’s, he does provide extensive research and considerable historical of detail about the period.   Whilst in general terms he abjured the confrontational approach of other authors, he is prone to express his irritation with Ricardians in somewhat petulant terms. He is sympathetic to Richard’s plight and his difficulties though ultimately he is against him on the key issue of how he seized and kept power

[8] Kendall at page 226

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