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John Ball and Colchester

Here are some of the panels just inside the door of the Colchester Playhouse, now a theatre-themed public house. They illustrate John Ball, after whom a minor town centre road is also named, becoming a priest, a prisoner at Maidstone and then participating in the 1381

Peasants’ Revolt (from 30 May), fighting at Blackheath (on 12 June) and then being executed at St. Alban’s on 15 July that year.

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Was Roland de Velville the son of Henry VII….?

henry-vii-london-bridge

The following article is necessarily filled with supposition, inference and sneaking suspicion. The result of smoke and mirrors, you ask? Well, I think it is all much more substantial than that, as I hope to explain in the coming paragraphs.

Today (25th June) in 1545, died a man by the name of Roland de Velville (or Vielleville, Veleville, Vieilleville, and other variations). He crops up at regular intervals in connection with the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Why? Because of a persistent whisper that Roland was Henry’s illegitimate son. Well, his son, but no one can really categorically state he was illegitimate. All that can be claimed is that he was born sometime during Henry’s exile in Brittany between 1471 and 1485, and that when he arrived in England he was soon rumoured to be Henry’s unacknowledged child, born any time from about 1472 on, when Henry himself was only fourteen or fifteen.

It needs to be mentioned here that medieval kings usually acknowledged any offspring fathered before their official royal marriages, so there would not appear to be any reason why Henry would not admit to Roland. (I can think of at least one very good reason, but will save that until the end of this article.)

Roland was a member of the Breton nobility, an écuyer or esquire who may have accompanied Henry on the invasion of 1485. It is not known whether or not the boy fought at Bosworth, but my guess would be that he was probably too young. However, in 1489 he was certainly old enough to be in Sir John Cheyne’s retinue for the Breton expedition commanded by Sir Robert Willoughby.

1489-brittany

 The comment has been made that Roland was an ‘almost obsessive’ jouster, and was closely involved with the king’s falcons. It seems probable that he accompanied Henry VII when he went hunting and hawking. He appears to have been tolerated by English aristocrats, who must have been aware that he was favoured by the king. If that were not the case, I doubt Roland would have come even close to tournaments and the like. Roland’s life style would have been expensive, but Henry supported him, granting occasional gifts and allowing him an income from the royal revenues. Roland held no official position, he was simply there, enjoying himself, participating in royal pastimes and generally floating along. As we would all like to, given the chance.

Conjecture about him must have been rife, but that was all it amounted to. Conjecture. Because no one was party to the facts, not even Roland himself. Or so I guess, because his character was such that I doubt he’d have held his tongue and been discreet. He appears to have been of an unruly temperament, headstrong, irksome, arrogant and inclined to indulge in slander. Not at all like his subtle father. Well, rumoured father.

battle-of-roncevaux-pass-large

Might Roland have been named after the great 11th-century hero, Roland of Roncevaux? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland) If Henry Tudor really was his father, it strikes me as very much in keeping with Henry’s grand ideas concerning his legendary ancestry. After all, did he not give the name Arthur to his first son by Elizabeth of York?

It was not until the reign of his “half-brother”, Henry VIII, that Roland received any real advancement. From Henry VII he had been given this and that in the way of minor money, and had been kept at royal expense, but there was nothing worthwhile. Except, of course, for being knighted at the Battle of Blackheath in June 1497. But he was still Breton, not English. It was to be 1512 before he received that acknowledgement.

 battle-of-blackheath-1497

Battle of Blackheath

 On the death of Henry VII on 21st April 1509, the new 17-year-old king Henry VIII did not exactly shower Roland with brotherly goodies. Within weeks (3rd July 1509) Roland was appointed Constable of Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey, and was given, during pleasure, an annuity of £20. After twenty-five years or so of luxury at court, Roland was on his way to Wales pdq, as the jargon goes. Young Henry clearly did not want his awkward kinsman around. Tudor angst required being rid of anyone of dangerous royal blood, and Roland, if he was indeed a half-sibling, would almost certainly make Henry VIII twitchy. Send him away to the sticks, and if he became a problem, an accident might befall him. At least, that is how I interpret it. Especially, perhaps, as Roland was said to greatly resemble Henry.

 

Hmm, the above portrait of Henry VIII at eighteen (right) doesn’t look like the ogre we now know and, er, love. Indeed, he looks almost identical to his father at that age (above left). But while we know how Henry VII changed as he grew older, remaining lean and almost gaunt, it has to be said that Henry VIII changed a whole lot more, becoming the odious, gross King Hal who was so obsessed with producing male heirs that he was prepared to get through six wives in the process. Did Roland change in the same way? Not the six wives part, of course, but might the Constable of Beaumaris Castle become as awful and bloated as his half-brother the king?

This latter point raises an interesting question. Let us imagine that Roland and Henry were indeed half-brothers. It is generally accepted that for looks Henry VIII took after his maternal grandfather, the Yorkist king Edward IV (who was also tall and handsome, but became gross in his later years). If this were so, how could Roland also look like Edward IV? There was no blood connection. If the resemblance between the two half-siblings were that pronounced as to cause comment, then it has to be wondered if, perhaps, similar tall, handsome, “reddish-golden” looks were also to be found on Henry VII’s side? To my eyes, the first Tudor king and his mother have “Beaufort” stamped upon them. Some of Henry VII’s portraits are interchangeable with his mother. Both have high foreheads and cheekbones, small chins, hooded eyes and a general resemblance to the weasel. Put him in a wimple, and there she is!

What we do not know, of course, is what the earlier Tudors looked like. There are no portraits of Henry’s father, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, only a reproduction tomb engraving(below left). Nor are there portraits of his father, Owen Tudor. If, indeed, Owen had anything to do with fathering Edmund, there being yet another scandalous royal whisper that Owen’s “wife” (there is no solid evidence that she and Owen ever married) Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, had actually been enjoying some hanky-panky with another Beaufort, who for whatever reason declined to marry her. Owen stepped in to make things less embarrassing for her. Tangled webs in every shadow. But let’s suppose that the earlier Tudors were indeed Henry VII’s forebears. They might have been tall and reddish-blond. Well, they could have been, so do not wag your fingers at my screen! The Vikings did NOT steer clear of Wales.

Whatever the reason for Roland and Henry VIII sharing physical similarities—and maybe it was simply coincidence—it could have been with some relief that Roland scurried off to Beaumaris with his neck still attached to the rest of him. Better to be alive, than meet some dark Tudor death because of being regarded as an awkward presence at court. On the other hand, he may well have resented Beaumaris for taking him away from luxury. It was said in 1534 (the year before Roland’s death) that the never-completed castle had deteriorated so that “there was scarcely a single chamber in Beaumaris Castle where a man could lie dry”.

beaumaris-castle

Given Roland’s character, it will come as no surprise that he was a troublesome constable, making all the capital he could from his privileges. Twenty-five or so years at court had undoubtedly given him expensive tastes. But whether he liked it or not, the rest of his life was to be spent at Beaumaris where he began to live (scandalously, of course) with widowed Agnes Griffith, whom he would eventually make his wife. She was a member of the most powerful family in Gwynedd, and had children with Roland. Their descendants were numerous, and included his famous granddaughter, Catherine of Berain, known as the ‘Mother of Wales’. Roland de Velville certainly left his mark in his wife’s homeland.

catherine-of-berain-rolands-granddaughter

Roland died at Beaumaris Castle on 25th June 1535, and was buried at the Church of St Mary’s and St Nicholas, Beaumaris. If he was indeed buried there, I cannot find anything about his actual resting place. I have not been to the church, so it does not signify that he is no longer there, just that he’s escaped me. How intriguing it would be (the discovery of Richard III’s DNA being so fresh in the mind) to see if Roland’s DNA could be obtained. That would indeed help to ascertain if he was Henry VII’s offspring.

st-mary-and-st-nicholas-beaumaris

There is a lot of conflicting information about Roland. Was he of royal blood? Or wasn’t he? Who said what, and when? To whom? Can a Welsh elegy to him, by Daffyd Alaw (1535), be given any credence whatsoever? Well, it claims that Roland was ‘A man of kingly line and of earl’s blood’, which would certainly fit Henry VII, who had been born Henry, Earl of Richmond (he was born posthumously). So yes, Roland could well have been Henry’s son. Why else was he brought to the English court and supported in the way he was? And those who say that such bardic traditions should be ignored as highly improbable should perhaps remember that bardic tradition was how Welsh history was recorded. It was committed to memory and and passed down through the generations. The Welsh are clever enough to train their grey cells!

Historians have been rude about each other where this mysterious Breton écuyer is concerned. That is, if he was even Breton. Yes, I fear the conflicting ‘evidence’ even calls this basic fact into question. Maybe his mother’s family hailed from a corner of France. You see, we do not know her identity either.

rolands-mystery-mother

It seems that Roland was granted arms that were quartered, indicating the families from whom he was descended. They do not, of course, include Henry. But although these families can be hazarded, they cannot be identified for certain, So, who was his mother? Did she marry someone called de Velville (or other variations of the name in both French and Breton)? Maybe this man believed the boy was his. He wouldn’t be the first to have another man’s child foisted upon him. But, yet again, it’s guesswork. All is vague and uncertain.

To read an intricate account of it all, with far more small detail, go to http://www.happywarrior.org/genealogy/roland.htm

And now I will tell you why I think Henry VII did not acknowledge Roland. No, it’s not that Roland simply wasn’t his son, what a boring conclusion to come to. Far more interesting to make the two father and son. What if (ah, those words beloved of fiction writers) a teenaged Henry had fallen passionately, lustfully in love with, and impetuously married, a young, equally passionate and lustful Breton noblewoman? What if it was a secret wedding that never came to light and was soon regretted on both sides? What if Henry was moved elsewhere in Brittany (he was a prisoner under house arrest) and his bride (frightened by her important male relatives, who knew nothing of the secret marriage, was forced to bigamously marry someone “suitable”. Pregnant with Henry’s child, she allowed her new husband to believe the child was his.

Are you still with me? Right, move on to 1485. Henry is going to invade England to challenge Richard III for the throne. To be sure of much-needed Yorkist support, he vows to marry Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece and the senior unmarried Yorkist princess. He wins at Bosworth and has to honour his vow. Sooo…knowing he is already married, he weds Elizabeth. Another bigamous match, but one that could have catastrophic consequences. Not least bloody rebellion and the chopping of Henry’s slender neck.

Then Roland enters his life much more immediately. The boy’s mother is on her deathbed and fears for his life at the hands of her second husband. She implores Henry to take Roland under his protection. And so he comes to court but cannot possibly be acknowledged by his royal father, who, understandably, doesn’t want any enemies poking around in what happened when he was a young prisoner in Brittany. Nor does Roland even know Henry is his father.

Thus history repeats itself, with Henry VII following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Edward IV. Another secret wife, a second deceived bride, and heirs who are all illegitimate. Roland de Velville is his legitimate son. The rightful King of England? But can even Henry contemplate disposing of this inconvenient boy…? His own child?

There, is that not a half-decent plot for a historical novel? I thought so too, so I made it the main theme of the fourth book in my Cicely series. The book is called Cicely’s Sovereign Secret.

cicelys-sovereign-secret

 

 

The Mystery Man In The Vaux Passional

In 1921, a manuscript dating to the late 15th or early 16th century was donated to the National Library of Wales. It was a “passional”, a book recounting the sufferings of saints and martyrs, and containted 2 texts in medieval French: “La Passion de Nostre Seigneur” (The Passion of Our Lord), an account of the Passion of Christ, and “Le miroir de la mort” (The mirror of death), a religious poem by the Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain. The book had once been owned by Lady Joan Guildford (c. 1463-1538), nee Vaux, who served in the household of Elizabeth of York as governess to the princesses Margaret and Mary Tudor, but it remained relatively obscure until 2012 when it was scanned to make it available on the internet.

When Dr Maredudd ap Huw, the library’s manuscripts librarian, examined the first miniature in the book as part of the digitisation project, he realised that it showed the family of Henry VII, including the future Henry VIII, mourning the death of his queen, Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). Young Henry, who is shown slumped over his mother’s empty bed, was 11 years old at the time of her death, making this the earliest known depiction of him and certainly the most vulnerable. Also present are his sisters Margaret and Mary, dressed in mourning black, while the sovereign in the centre of the miniature appears to be an idealised version of their father, Henry VII. The bottom of the page bears the royal arms of England.

vaux

Dr ap Huw’s discovery catapulted the Vaux Passional to fame, but while the persons on the left of the miniature were now identified, the those on the right remained shrouded in mystery. Most mysterious of all was the man at the centre who is handing a book to the king – so much so that Dr ap Huw appealed to fellow historians and even members of the public for suggestions who he could be. Unfortunately, the response was muted and today – more than 2 years later – he remains officially unidentified.

Why is he so mysterious? At first glance, the scene appears to be a typical “presentation miniature”, showing the author or person who commissioned the book – in this case the passional – presenting it to his patron. It was therefore initially assumed that the book had been part of the royal library of Henry VII before passing into Lady Guildford’s possession. Since both texts contained within the book had been published before, the mystery man can’t be the author. He therefore would have to be the person who commissioned the book, so who is he?

He is unlikely to be Sir Richard Guildford, who has been tentatively identified by Dr ap Huw as the man in the foreground holding the white wand of the office of Comptroller, an office he held under Henry VII. The book bears an inscription by Lady Guildford’s son, Sir Henry Guildford, but he was only 14 years old at the time of queen Elizabeth’s death and her brother was serving as Lieutenant of Guînes. Dr ap Huw had hoped that the arms on other pages of the manuscript would help to identify him, but they were found to point to the maternal ancestors of Lady Guildford, except those on the page depicting Christ’s resurrection, which are the arms of the Beaufort family. This led Dr ap Huw to consider the possibility that the book had not been commissioned for Henry VII, but for Lady Guildford – in which case the scene is not a presentation miniature.

There are a number of other clues which support this conclusion. In presentation miniatures the person presenting the book is usually shown kneeling, but the mystery man is standing. The composition places him on roughly the same floor level as the king and his facial expression and body language are relaxed and confident: he looks more like an equal than a subject paying tribute to his sovereign. Last but not least, the book in the picture is blue while the passional is bound in red velvet which, according to the library’s website, is the original binding. So if this is not a presentation miniature and the mystery man therefore not the person who commissioned the book, who is he?

Unlikely as it may seem in this context, he looks remarkably like Henry’s predecessor, Richard III. The hair style, texture and colour as well as facial features – prominent chin, down turned corners of the mouth and furrowed brow – are similar to Richard’s portraits from the Tudor period. These were created based on a pattern which the miniature seems to broadly follow: allowing for the cartoonish style, the 3/4 perspective, facial features and frown line between his eye brows line up remarkably well. The clothing, position of the hands and facial expression are different, but he certainly looks more like Richard III than the idealised sovereign looks like Henry VII. Finally, we could stop looking for a coat of arms to identify him by as it would be right on this page: the royal arms of England.

The mystery man 1) superimposed on the Society of Antiquaries portrait 2), the Royal Collection portrait 3) and the NPG portrait 4)

So could this be Richard? At first glance, it seems unlikely. There’s no known precedent for depictions of a dead king presenting a book to his living political enemy and the Guildfords were by all accounts staunch Lancastrians. Lady Guildford was the daughter of Katherine Vaux, nee Peniston, who served as lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Anjou and was so loyal to her mistress that she is said to have shared her imprisonment and exile. Young Joan and her brother Nicholas were brought up in the household of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and Joan went on to become her lady-in-waiting. Nicholas is thought to have fought for Henry at Bosworth as he later did at Blackheath and Stoke, for which he was knighted. Lady Guildford’s husband, Sir Richard Guildford, was the son of Sir John Guildford, who had been Comptroller of the Household to Edward IV. Both father and son took part in Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard and when it failed Sir Richard joined Henry in exile in Brittany. Like his brother-in-law, he is thought to have fought for him at Bosworth.

However, Lady Guildford also had Yorkist connections. Her brother’s first wife was Elizabeth FitzHugh, daughter of Sir Henry FitzHugh and Alice Neville, niece of Cecily, duchess of York and aunt to Anne Neville, Richard’s queen. Both Elizabeth and her mother had served Queen Anne as ladies-in-waiting and her sister Anne FitzHugh was the wife of Richard’s best friend, Francis Lovell. Despite her devotion to Margaret of Anjou, Lady Guildford’s mother received an annuity of 20 marks from Richard, the same amount as later from Henry VIII. And most obviously, Lady Guildford herself served in the household of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and Richard’s niece.

There may not be a precedent for a dead king presenting a book to his living enemy but, as explained above, this is unlikely to be a presentation miniature and in fact there is a precedent, albeit not in painting but in writing. Even before he had won the throne Henry called Richard usurper and worse, but his attitude was not consistent. In 1494, almost 10 years after Bosworth, he arranged for an alabaster tomb to be placed on his grave with an epitaph that described the transition of royal power from the house of York to the house of Lancaster thus:

“I, here, whom the earth encloses under various coloured marble,
Was justly called Richard the Third.
I was Protector of my country, an uncle ruling on behalf of his nephew.
I held the British kingdoms in trust, [although] they were disunited.
Then for just sixty days less two,
And Two summers, I held my sceptres.
Fighting bravely in war, deserted by the English,
I succumbed to you, King Henry VII.
But you yourself, piously, at your expense, thus honoured my bones
And caused a former king to be revered with the honour of a king
When [in] twice five years less four
Three hundred five-year periods of our salvation had passed.
And eleven days before the Kalends of September
I surrendered to the red rose the power it desired.
Whoever you are, pray for my offences,
That my punishment may be lessened by your prayers.” [^1]

Another version of the epitaph is more critical of Richard, but both describe the transfer of power from him to Henry in equally amicable terms. Is this the scene depicted in the miniature? The linking of the Beaufort arms to the resurrection of Christ appears to send a similar message: the restoration of the “red rose” of Lancaster to its rightful place on the throne of England. Is the book in the miniature then not a physical book, but a symbol? That would explain why it doesn’t look like the passional.

So what if this is Richard? It would be one of his oldest surviving depictions aside from coins and pen-and-ink sketches (the oldest portraits in the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Collection date from around 1504-1520) and the only one showing him smiling. Given that the image of the “crookback” king had been around since at least the 1490s and by the time the Royal Collection portrait was created his paintings were being actively “corrected”, it would also be unusual in that it shows him without deformities.

Is this perhaps how he was remembered in the household of Elizabeth of York where Lady Guildford served as governess? Elizabeth had spent time at her uncle’s court and would have known that his scoliosis was not visible under normal circumstances (see Bones Don’t Lie). The exact nature of the relationship between Richard and his niece is unclear. It is highly unlikely that he wanted to marry her – he publicly denied the rumour and was negotiating a foreign marriage – but they seem to have been on friendly terms. One source for this is Elizabeth’s letter to John Howard, duke of Norfolk, in which she declared that her uncle “was her onely joy and maker in…Worlde, and that she was his…harte, in thoughts, in…and in all.” The original letter doesn’t survive, so we can’t be sure how accurately its content was summarised and the summary itself is damaged, but the tone is clear. Richard also appears to have given her 2 books as gifts. The first, Boethius’ “De Consolatione Philosophiae”, bears his motto “Loyalte me lye” and underneath it her signature. The other, “Roman de Tristan”, is inscribed “Iste Liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre” and on the same page in her handwriting “sans remevyr Elyzabeth”.

Of course, one English king is conspicuously missing from the scene: where is Edward V? The destruction of Titulus Regius had reversed his illegitimacy and restored him to the throne. Indeed, the harsher version of the epitaph alleges that Richard ruled on his behalf by broken faith – curiously ignoring Henry’s assertion dating back to 1484 that he, Henricus Rex, was the rightful heir to the throne of England, which bypassed the Yorkist claim entirely. So what are we to make of it if Edward’s supposed usurper and murderer is depicted in such a benign way in a book belonging to a servant of his sister? After James Tyrell’s supposed confession? It seems that the Vaux Passional has yet more secrets to reveal…

A zoomable version of the miniature can be viewed here

Citation:

[^1]: John Ashdown-Hill: “The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his
DNA”, Stroud 2013

Sources:

History Extra: “Portrait may show young Henry VIII”, website of BBC History Magazine, 1 December 2012 http://www.historyextra.com/henrypicture

National Library of Wales: “The Vaux Passional” http://www.llgc.org.uk/index.php?id=5926

Frederick Hepburn: “Earliest Portraiture of Richard III”, website of the Richard III Society http://www.richardiii.net/2_4_0_riii_appearance.php#portrait

Emily Kearns: “Richard III’s Epitaph”, The Ricardian Vol. XXIV 2014, p.75-86.

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