Towards the end of 1482 an Austin friar by the name of Domenico Mancini was sent to London by a senior minister of King Louis XI of France This was pursuant to France’s act of hostility in breaching her long-standing treaty with England, and Mancini was clearly on a fact-finding mission, as shown by the report he made for the information of the French court. Probably his original visit was not expected to take long, because Mancini was an Italian who is believed to have been unacquainted with the English language.
It happened that he was still in London in April 1483 when King Edward IV died unexpectedly. Mancini had clearly made useful contacts already, and was able to follow and note down events over the ensuing weeks. His written report is the only contemporary eyewitness account of the three months between Edward IV’s death and Richard III’s accession in place of Edward V. First published on its discovery in the 1930s, it is a supremely important text which has been used by every historian and commentator on Richard III.
When I first read his account in the English translation by C.A.J. Armstrong I was struck by the seething tone of censure and repugnance that permeated the text. He seemed to delight in seeking and emphasizing defects – especially in the case of the house of York and its court – ranging from mere ignominy to degeneracy and connivance at murder.
This seemed such obvious prejudice to me that when writing Richard III: The Maligned King I made free with my opinion that the text should be regarded as emanating from a biased and hostile source. Yet not only has it been cited as authoritative by those historians of the traditional persuasion, its overall thrust has been accepted without demur by many whose tendencies are revisionist. Until recently I wasn’t engaged enough to analyse the document as a whole, but I was unwilling to take it at face value. I also noted that the shortcomings in Armstrong’s translations were not insignificant.
It was only when I seriously investigated the office of Lord Protector, and looked to trace where the wrong-headed idea originated which described Richard as ‘protector of Edward IV’s sons’, that I realized it emanated from writers like Mancini, Bernard André and Polydore Vergil. All were foreigners who had no prior knowledge of the settlement known as a protectorate, established for England’s governance in the event of her king being underage or otherwise incompetent to rule.
All this was of course unknown to Mancini, whose arrival coincided with a low tide in Edward IV’s fortunes. This afforded fertile ground for a mouthpiece of the French inner circle to rake over and expatiate upon every sin and act of moral turpitude by the execrable Yorkists. Thus it was that Domenico Mancini set the tone for those who followed. For Mancini, Edward’s taking of his Woodville wife was not only an example of his unbridled sexual appetites, but an ignoble match for a prince – despite the reality that her lineage, though discounted in England, would have been respected in France, descended as she was from the ancient house of Luxembourg. From Mancini’s point of view she and her family would be regarded as fair game because his audience knew they had encouraged Edward IV to make alliances with Burgundy, in defiance of the King of France.
France had even attempted to overthrow Edward IV of York in 1470 and replace him with Henry VI of Lancaster: doubtless King Louis’ breach of treaty with England in 1482 gave him much satisfaction after years of smarting in the aftermath of that failure. Evidently, despite Edward’s regaining of his crown, there remained undiminished pro-Lancastrian factions of some influence in England (witness those that later rebelled against Richard III). Mancini was listening to these voices, and had doubtless been provisioned with a list of contacts among them. They supplied the juicy gossip that fleshed out his lengthy descriptions of Edward IV luxuriating in his morally degenerate court.
Mancini’s original editor complained of his lingering on Edward before properly embarking on the meat of his account of 1483; but this is to miss the point completely. Mancini was appealing to an audience who enjoyed, above all things, relishing the disparagement of the English king and his entire house, culminating in the failure of his seed to secure the crown.
Having found it hard to dig up early misdeeds on the part of Edward’s brother Richard of Gloucester, Mancini supplies the lack in two ways. The first, to which he repeatedly returns, is Richard’s dissimulation, hiding his evil intentions and often cloaking them with an appearance of rectitude (an accusation incapable of proof per se, yet espoused with enthusiasm by those chroniclers who followed his lead). The second is a supposed long-standing antagonism to the queen’s Woodville family, which both Mancini and his editor Armstrong would probably be surprised to learn has no foundation. Knowing history as we do now, we could catalogue many attempts on sovereign power among the rulers of Europe, not unfamiliar to Mancini. For his purposes it was necessary to make Richard’s ambition both tainted and unworthy; so this alleged feud supplied the necessary element of malice.
Moreover … shortly after Mancini returned to France (and before he wrote his treatise) it became of enormous importance to condemn any challenge to the reign of a minor king … because in August 1483 Louis XI died and was succeeded by a boy whose age was scarcely different from that of Edward V. This boy’s reign was already vulnerable and would soon be subjected to a number of challenges. It isn’t difficult to connect the dots.
There are matters of detail in Mancini that make his account valuable, especially those that can be checked against an almost contemporary source like the Crowland Chronicle. But there are too many occasions where his French-influenced assumptions and attitudes have led him to make fundamental errors about England. I hope I have flagged them up in my new edition, but there may yet be some I’ve missed.
Scant chance was there in 1483 that a Franco-Italian should comprehend the role of Protector under a unique constitutional system set up in England sixty years previously. This was not the antiquarian age when historic documents were assiduously studied in order to understand the past. Mancini was writing at a time when there was a great burgeoning on the Continent of chroniclers of history and writers of memoirs. Many of them were patronized by leading individuals and great European houses (Mancini himself shared Angelo Cato’s patronage with Philippe de Commynes). These inveterate information-gatherers pounced on all available narratives; they shared knowledge with members of their wider literary/humanist circles; and this later reached Tudor England thanks to Henry VII’s proclivity for importing foreign-born purveyors of official English history.
This is not rocket science. Mancini was poorly informed about England. He was an agent of a hostile foreign power. He condemned the intolerable Yorkist dynasty and Richard’s taking of the throne. He shared his information. And yet academics in England have proclaimed with one voice that the de occupatione regni Anglie influenced none of those who would soon afterwards create Richard’s black legend. On the contrary, it is claimed he confirmed them.
I fail to understand the sense of this. Mancini tells us he recited his observations orally several times, and then wrote them so they could be shared more widely. We know there existed interconnecting networks of scholars. His audience at the French court and in literary Paris must surely have passed along such sensational stories, especially when they so satisfyingly disparaged France’s ancient adversaries. We can even trace a major error in chronology made by Mancini which is copied in most of the leading Tudor chronicles. If you read Mancini first and then Thomas More, the adoption of Mancini’s themes and arguments is abundantly clear. Yet historian Charles Ross (among many others) puts the cart firmly before the horse by saying that Mancini ‘tends to substantiate Sir Thomas More’s account on many points of detail’ (Edward IV, page 434). My seven pages covering Mancini’s influence on the Ricardian legend offer ample evidence, I feel, to show that More and all those chroniclers are not ‘substantiated’ by Mancini – they echo him.
I can safely predict that my new edition of Mancini will draw down condemnation, just as the very idea of reviewing the text was condemned when I first suggested it. I can only hope that genuine Ricardians will give it a fair hearing. Domenico Mancini: de occupatione regni Anglie is a self-published paperback in a limited edition and the cover price is £10. Sales worldwide are being handled by Troubador Ltd – Domenico Mancini – Troubador Book Publishing. It can also be purchased on Amazon.