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The Staple

In early medieval times, ‘the staple’ meant England’s staple export: wool. But it was inconvenient and inefficient for the king’s men to collect the customs duties that were payable on the exported wool from every one of the hundreds of little English ports all around the country. London, Bristol, Ipswich and Sandwich were major ports but little ships could sail from any small harbour or river estuary. Therefore, since wherever the ships had sailed from, they were all taking their cargo of wool to Flanders (modern day Belgium and north-east France), it was easier to collect the customs when they arrived at their destination. In 1313, Edward II ordained that all merchants had to land their ‘staple’ at a port he would designate. During the Hundred Years War, England acquired Calais from the French and from the mid-fifteenth century until 1558 this port became the convenient Calais Staple, where customs duties were collected on all English wool exports.

From “A Year in the Life of Medieval England” by Toni Mount.

The image is Old bird’s-eye view plan of Calais by Braun & Hogenberg 1597

Wander the streets of London in 1520….

Finding the original town plans of London, before the Great Fire of 1666, is always intriguing, and very rewarding indeed for those of us who love all things medieval. So, in this respect, I welcome the Tudors. I already have books of London maps, published by the London Topographical Society, of our capital in the Elizabethan, Georgian and Regency periods, and very detailed and rewarding they are.

But now I find that the British Historic Towns Atlas, in association with the London Topographical Society, publishes foldable maps, in the same form as Ordnance Survey Landranger maps, and so on. Intrigued, I purchased the Tudor map of London, which reveals the city in about 1520, which is much closer in time to the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII. It is a very beautiful thing, and led me to browse the streets just for the sake of it.

If you go to their website you will find their range of maps, but most, if not all, are later than Tudor. Mostly 19th century, in fact, as York, which dates from 1850. Bristol is a series of detailed chronicological articles available on line. You will have to delve through the website in the hope of finding what you want.

But the 1520 map of “Tudor” London is excellent. I recommend it.

Britain’s Most Historic Towns (2)

This excellent Channel Four programme, presented by Professor Alice Roberts, with Dr. Ben Robinson in the helicopter, has returned for a new series. The early venues were Dover (World War Two, visiting the underground base, concentrating on the retreat from Dunkirk and subsequent Channel defence, meeting some survivors, wearing ATS uniform and riding in a tank), her home city Bristol (Georgian, with slavery, gin, chocolate and great architecture featured) and Cardiff (where coal and the Marquess of Bute brought much prosperity in the Edwardian era, before it could supplant Machyllenth as Wales’ capital).

The series then moved on to Oxford to illustrate the Civil War sieges, where Alice Roberts’ Worsleyesque love of dressing up saw her in New Model Army uniform, playing real tennis and viewing Charles I’s ersatz capital. Episode five illustrated Plantagenet Canterbury, featuring St. Augustine, Becket, Chaucer, the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. We were also shown a copy of the Magna Carta. The last show was about Stewart Stirling, where she visited the Castle and walls, brewed beer, played with a replica antique football and visited a well, illustrating how individual Stewart monarchs were vulnerable, even to internal opposition, but the line was secure.

Did Richard III prefer to travel his realm by land, river or around the coast. . .?

King Edward III's cog, Thomas

Here is a question that has bugged me for some time now. If, during medieval centuries, a journey could be made around the English coast, rather than across country, was the sea option likely to be chosen?

I will take a particular example. It’s from the 14th century, but could be from the 13th or the 15th. A high-ranking aristocrat, who was accustomed to sailing (he was at one time Admiral of the Fleet in the Western Seas – I think that is the correct title) wished to go from London to Dartmouth on the south coast of Devon. It was a journey he would have made fairly frequently, because his country seat in Devon was his favourite residence, some of his children were born there and he clearly like to escape to its peaceful acres.

cog and boat of fugitives

RII embarks for Ireland, 1394

Now, medieval journeys fascinate me, and I wonder what governed the choice of route. For instance, when Richard II made his two visits to Ireland, he travelled across country and then along through Glamorgan and Pembroke to Haverford, from where he set sail for Ireland. The voyage took two days. But many of his men/ships/horses/equipment and so on were sent by ship from Bristol.

Bristol Castle in 14th Century

Why didn’t Richard leave from Bristol as well? It would certainly have been easier than all the way through South Wales. Was it simply to show himself to the people of Wales and the southern Marches? He went from castle to abbey to castle and so on. Quite a long way to be in the saddle. Yes, all medieval aristocrats and royalty showed themselves around the country, but they liked their comfort too, and surely a few extra days’ voyage from Bristol would be preferable to a couple of weeks on indifferent roads?

medieval fleet - 3

Which brings me back to my particular nobleman in Devon. When he joined the king in Ireland in 1394, he sailed from Bristol on 7th March. He certainly didn’t go up to Gloucester, across the Severn and then all the way through South Wales to Haverford. No indeed. But why not from Dartmouth, which was only a few miles from his residence? His wife had just given birth to a son there, and it seems fairly certain (not confirmed) that her husband had been there with her just prior to leaving on the Irish campaign?

dartmouth_castle_engraving

Back to London. Let me provide a particular scenario. There has been a lot of rain and the roads are appalling, but the weather is otherwise calm. Would he choose to labour to Devon by road? Or take a vessel and sail along the south coast?

It seems to me that surely he would prefer to go by sea, but apart from international travel, or travelling along navigable rivers, I have yet to come across a definite reference to sailing around the coast from one part of the mainland to another. Sometimes there is simply a statement that one town was left and another reached. If the towns are in the middle of the country, then it’s obvious the journey was by road. But if close to the coast…? What then? Traders did it, of course, but did other travellers do the same?

Postscript:
Since I first composed this article, I have come upon the interesting thoughts of prominent historian, Ian Mortimer, on the very subject of whether travel would have been by water or road. In Appendix Five of The Fears of Henry IV, he ponders the speed of Henry’s movements around the country, and whether or not roads would have been the natural route. As places like Nottingham and Pontefract are mentioned, it makes me wonder about some of Richard III’s journeys. I have always imagined that he travelled by road, but might he have actually gone by river?

Here is an extract from Mortimer:

“The distances. . .all presume Henry travelled by road, and it needs to be stressed that some of the journeys were probably by water. In fact, Douglas Biggs has suggested that Henry moved mostly by water in 1407.* With regard to his journey from York (5 September 1407) to Beverley (11 September): he sailed down the River Ouse, pausing at Faxfleet, and up the River Hull to Beverley. Similarly Henry could have travelled by water from Nottingham to Pontefract (via the rivers Trent and Calder), and from Bishopthorpe to Cawood (via the Ouse). However, he did not always move by water. His journey from Nottingham to Pontefract via Newstead and Worksop. . .must have been by road, and his presence at Kilham indicates that, although he probably sailed from Beverley to Bridlington, he returned to Bishopthorpe by road.”

* Syllabus: T.D. Hardy (ed.), Syllabus. . .of Rymer’s Foedera (3 vols, 1869-85). Vol ii, p.544. Also Douglas Biggs. ‘An Ill and Infirm King: Henry IV, Health and the Gloucester Parliament of 1407’ – paper delivered at Nottingham 2006).

What did Richard do? Did he always ride on horseback or take to his barge or cog? Over to you, ladies and gentlemen.

At the gates of Gloucester in 1471….

The Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471 was to prove decisive for the reign of our first Yorkist king. The opponents were Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrians, versus King Edward IV and the Yorkists. Margaret was defeated, and her heart and spirit was broken by the death in battle of her only son, Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales.

death of prince edward

This article is concerned with what happened immediately before the battle, when there was a game of hide and seek between the foes. Margaret set off north from Bristol, intending to cross the Severn at Gloucester, which was the first bridge over the dangerously tidal river. Edward had been thrown off the scent, but suddenly realized what she was doing, and set off north on a parallel route, up on the drove road along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, while Margaret’s exhausted army trudged the wetter alluvial road in the vale of the Severn.

It was clear to Edward that she planned to enter Gloucester and cross the bridge, the only access to which was through the town. The main road to the west crossed three branches of the Severn and low-lying meadows by a series of bridges and a long causeway.

west_prospect_of_gloucesterbig

unknown artist; Westgate Bridge, Gloucester

Edward sent a swift rider ahead to order the governor of Gloucester, Sir Richard Beauchamp, to close the gates against the Lancastrians and hold the town. Sir Richard was the son of a staunch Lancastrian, but was now loyal to Edward, and did as he was commanded.

North East view of Gloucester from Wotton, 1712

Margaret could have taken Gloucester by force, but it would have been time-consuming, and she did not dare to risk Edward’s forces coming up behind her. She decided to march on north for the town of Tewkesbury, where there was a ford over the Severn at Lower Lode. The next bridge over the river was further north again, at Upton-on-Severn. The ford was impassable, Edward was almost upon her, and so Margaret prepared to make a stand. The rest, as they say, is history.

lower lode tewkesbury

If you visit Gloucester today, it is hard to associate anything with the Gloucester of 1471. Oh, there are four main streets that form a crossroad in the heart of the city: Southgate, Northgate, Eastgate and Westgate. But the gates themselves have long since gone, and the streets are now pedestrianised. There are medieval buildings, if one knows where to look, but a great deal of wanton 1960s damage was done to Gloucester’s soul. The cathedral remains, however, and is still (in my opinion) the most handsome of all our cathedrals. But perhaps I’m biased.

gloucester cathedral

What has also gone forever is the castle from where Sir Richard would have commanded his men as Margaret’s host banged at the gates. First it was dismantled until only the keep was left, and this was used as a gaol. Then that too was pulled down, and HMP Prison Gloucester was built. That is also no more, and in excavations they have found the remains of the old castle keep. What goes around, comes around.

Gloucester castle keep still in use as gaol in 18th century

remains of castle keep, gloucester

See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3351160/Is-rival-Tower-London-Huge-medieval-castle-discovered-buried-beneath-prison-s-BASKETBALL-court.html

The original castle nestled in the south-western curve of the old city walls, beside the river and quay, and would have been able to overlook the approach to the South Gate. This is surely the way Margaret would have come.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

The land on the floor of the Severn vale is flat Severn clay, which after rain is like thick half-set glue. Whether it had been raining or not I don’t know, although I imagine that the impassable ford at Lower Lode meant there had been a quantity of rain in recent days. Well, there had been somewhere upstream on the Severn, if not in Gloucestershire. Or, of course, there was the Severn bore to consider, with the notoriously hazardous wave sweeping well inland. I have been told that it was not unheard of for it to sweep all the way to Worcester. There is a weir at Gloucester now, to stop it, but in 1471 Tewkesbury was well within reach. And spring tides are high in March, April and May.

If these conditions prevailed, Margaret’s men would have been even more disheartened. More than that, the land south of Gloucester was marshy anyway back then, the river would spread out of its bed. Thus the main road from Bristol was on another causeway. Not the ideal landscape and conditions for a medieval army that was already weary. (The land had been drained a great deal by the time the illustration below was drawn.)

EPSON MFP image

Gloucester - Kip - 1712

Map of 1712 showing South Gate and Castle (middle, bottom, just above river)

With the gates closed firmly against them, Margaret marched on north, and Sir Richard Beauchamp’s men came out behind her army and harried the rear, capturing some guns. He was to be knighted after the battle.

Magraret prisoner tewkesbury

An artist’s impression of Margaret of Anjou being taken away in defeat

The Epiphany Plot of 1400

Following the deposition of Richard II, his leading supporters among the nobility were put on trial before Henry IV’s first parliament. Well, all apart from the Earl of Wiltshire who had – in plain terms – been murdered at Bristol on Henry’s orders before Henry became king. (As a Lancastrian, Henry was of course allowed to do this sort of thing without receiving any criticism from historians.)

Some brief pen-pictures of the men in question may be helpful, since they will be unfamiliar to many readers:-

Edward, Duke of Aumale, highest ranking of the accused, was the elder son of the Duke of York, and was thus first cousin to both Richard II and Henry IV. Despite his relative youth (26 in 1399) he had been high in Richard’s counsels since the early 1390s and had received an astonishing array of offices from the king, being, among other things, at one point both Lord High Constable and Lord High Admiral. A devious man of considerable ability, described by one chronicler as a ‘second Solomon’, his contribution tends to be underrated by historians. He was also a survivor. Despite involvement – or alleged involvement – in several plots against Henry IV, he was to survive long enough to be the leading English casualty of Agincourt. Nevertheless, in the Parliament of late 1399 he had a most torrid time. It is likely that Richard II intended Edward to be his heir.

John Holland, Duke of Exeter was King Richard’s half-brother – they shared the same mother, Joan of Kent. He was married to Henry IV’s sister, Elizabeth of Lancaster. Exeter was at this time in his late 40s. He had not always been a strong supporter of Richard, and had at one point been quite closely associated with his father-in-law. However, during the 1390s he had become increasingly important as a member of Richard’s inner circle.

Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey was Exeter’s nephew, the eldest son of Thomas Holland, late Earl of Kent. Another relatively young man, he had recently replaced his deceased brother-in-law, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March (killed 1398) as Lieutenant of Ireland. He had also replaced Aumale as Lord High Admiral.

John Montagu (or Montacute) Earl of Salisbury, who was in his late 40s, had only succeeded to his uncle’s earldom in 1397, having been for many years merely Sir John Montagu. His uncle had alienated many of the family estates – there was bad blood between them – and Salisbury was by some way the least wealthy of the accused. Nor had he received any particular rewards in land from King Richard. Acting as Richard’s ambassador to France, he had been unfortunate enough to earn Henry Bolingbroke’s personal enmity because of the message he had brought to Charles VI on Richard’s behalf – which was essentially that Henry should be treated as persona non grata. Salisbury was known to be a Lollard – an early Protestant – and attracted some hostility for that reason. King Richard himself was generally hostile to the Lollards but nevertheless tolerated Salisbury and a few other followers of that movement at his court.

Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester was married to Constance of York and was thus Aumale’s brother-in-law and the Duke of York’s son-in-law. 26 years old at this time, he had commanded King Richard’s rearguard in the 1399 campaign in Ireland and been one of the king’s strongest supporters during the upheaval of 1397. Even without the rewards given to him in 1397, he was a very wealthy man, in terms of landed income much more so than his father-in-law. The jewel in his crown was the very valuable Marcher Lordship of Glamorgan.

They had all served as ‘counter-appellants’ in 1397, when Richard II had taken his revenge on his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick. All, except Salisbury, had received generous grants of forfeited lands. All except Despenser (Gloucester) and Salisbury had also participated in the partition of the Lancastrian estates earlier in 1399. As a group, they were very much Richard’s ‘Party’ and it cannot be denied that most of them had been very handsomely rewarded for their loyalty. Apart from Salisbury they were all closely linked to Richard by blood or marriage or both.

The outcome of the trial – to cut a long story short – was that the accused lost the lands granted to them in 1397 and those who had received upgraded titles (everyone except Salisbury) lost them and reverted to their pre-1397 status. For the purpose of this article, I shall continue to refer to them by their Ricardian titles, to avoid unnecessary confusion.

The group were placed into the temporary custody of the Abbot of Westminster, who was a Ricardian himself. It appears that they immediately began to conspire against Henry, although on the face of it the King meant to rehabilitate them fairly quickly. With the exception of Salisbury – against whom Henry maintained a rather obvious grudge – they were, for example, very quickly restored to the Council. Edward of Aumale even received confirmation of some valuable land grants, including the Lordship of the Isle of Wight. Of course, Edward was rather a special case, being the King’s cousin, and perhaps more importantly, York’s son. The Duke of York (who had been Richard’s Keeper of England during the King’s absence in Ireland) had given Henry quite strong support, almost from the minute he surrendered to him near Berkeley Castle a few months earlier.

In addition, Edward had not been aligned politically in quite the same way as the others. Richard divided his army in Ireland – allegedly on Edward’s advice – sending the smaller portion to North Wales under Salisbury while returning himself to South Wales with the remainder. When Richard broke up his army near Carmarthen he actually left Aumale behind, possibly fearing that his cousin was no longer reliable in view of the defection of the Duke of York at Berkeley. It seems likely that this defection was a principal cause – if not the main cause – of the King’s panic and his decision to join Salisbury in North Wales. (This decision led to the collapse of his cause and his eventual capture by Bolingbroke.) The other lords involved were all with the King to the bitter end.

A note on sources. The main sources for the Epiphany Rising are Walsingham and Traison et Mort. Both have their issues. Walsingham (though used as a principal source for the reign) is hopelessly biased against Richard II, and frequently reports rumours, however ridiculous, if they tend to Richard’s discredit. He can not infrequently be caught out in direct falsehoods. Traison, on the other hand, was written by a French member of Queen Isabelle’s household. He is heavily biased towards Richard, tends to blame Edward of York for the King’s downfall, and reports details of matters of which he cannot possibly have had direct knowledge, such as the manner of Richard’s death.

The key to the plot was an attempt to assassinate Henry IV (and perhaps his sons) at Windsor Castle. The great army that Henry had assembled to place himself on the throne had, for the most part, gone home. Therefore the King was vulnerable to an attack from a small force, which was all the conspirators could assemble. (Many of their retainers had found alternative patrons by this time, or were otherwise unreliable, and in any event, for obvious reasons, only the most loyal could be trusted in a scheme of this kind.)

At the same time, a number of risings were to be provoked across England, and King Richard was somehow to be released. (His exact location was almost certainly not known to the conspirators.) Richard was to be represented, in his absence, by his clerk and double, Richard Maudelyn, who was probably either a half-brother or cousin of the deposed monarch.

By one means or another, the plot was revealed to Henry at the last moment. Traison blames Aumale, who accidentally revealed the plot to his father, York. The pair of them then hurried to warn the King, Edward being immediately pardoned. Walsingham merely says that Henry was ‘forewarned’ but does not disclose the method. Another source, Continuatio Eulogii, says that one of the King’s squires picked up the intelligence from a prostitute who had previously slept with someone involved in the plot. A final possibility must be that Elizabeth of Lancaster got wind of her husband’s dealings and sent warning to her brother.

Most modern historians tend to dismiss Aumale’s ‘serious’ involvement in the plot. Even so, it is hard to see how he, with his connections, could have remained innocent of what was going on. On the other hand, it must be recognised that many in England (and even more in France!) were deeply suspicious of his motives throughout, and accusations or mutterings of treason against him continued regularly for some years. It is hard to discern how much of this was smoke and how much fire.

Be this as it may, the fact remains that Henry and his sons escaped from Windsor with only hours to spare, so whatever warning was received came at the last minute, in true dramatic style.

The King’s escape was, in effect, equivalent to the defeat of the conspiracy, as the rebels did not have the forces to match those which Henry was soon to raise from London and the surrounding counties. According to Traison they held the bridge at Maidenhead for some hours, which was probably as good a fight as they could make of it. They also sought to recruit from the various towns and villages they passed, and according to Walsingham also visited Queen Isabelle (Richard’s very young wife) at Sonning, seeking her support and that of her household.

Unfortunately, the news that Henry was not far behind them with a large and growing army could not be long concealed, and tended to put a damper on recruitment. The rebels’ retreat rapidly turned into flight, which came to an end at Cirencester, where, exhausted, their ‘army’ camped in the fields while the lords took up lodgings in various inns. What happened next is unclear, but it appears the inhabitants of the town realised that the lords were fugitives, and besieged them in their lodgings. A fire started, and Surrey and Salisbury surrendered, and were initially lodged in the abbey. However, when the townsfolk of Cirencester grasped the measure of the damage done to their town by the fire, they dragged the two lords out again, and summarily executed them without legal authority. Walsingham states that Salisbury, who was a Lollard, refused to make confession before his death.

The mystery of Exeter and Gloucester.

According to Traison these two lords were at Cirencester, escaped their burning inn by climbing out of the window, and fled in different directions. In the case of Exeter in particular this seems most unlikely. Walsingham states that he remained in London, which makes sense if his role was to raise the Ricardian element among the citizens. Such men were in a minority, but they certainly existed, and if Henry had not escaped they might well have put themselves forward. Exeter was eventually captured in Essex. He was also murdered by the local population without lawful authority, at Pleshey Castle, seat of the late Duke of Gloucester, the uncle Richard II had (possibly) had murdered in 1397. The location was, of course, highly significant.

Had Exeter been in Cirencester, he would surely have been wiser to flee towards Devon, where he had extensive land holdings, than eastward, directly into the teeth of Henry’s forces. I therefore conclude it is most unlikely he was at either Windsor or Cirencester. Though, as an experienced warrior and tough fighter he would have been something of an asset if he had been.

Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester, is barely mentioned by Walsingham at all, except in the matter of his escape and capture. Again, there is at least a possibility he was not at Windsor or Cirencester and that he never left Cardiff. Indeed, it may be he was guilty of nothing more than misprision of treason at worst. Hearing that the King’s men were on their way to arrest him, he took ship from Cardiff, carrying a considerable amount of portable wealth. However the ship’s captain refused to take him anywhere but Bristol, where the citizens chose to prove their loyalty to Henry by murdering him.

If Despenser was indeed innocent of any active involvement in the plot, it might help explain his widow’s bitter hatred of Henry, which culminated in her plot, in 1405, to remove the Mortimer heirs from Windsor Castle and place them in the protection of Owain Glyndwr.

Many of the lesser supporters of the plot were assembled at Oxford for trial. Maudelyn, Sir Bernard Brocas and William Feriby were brought to London, to be hanged and beheaded at Tyburn. Sir Thomas Blount and twenty-five others from Cirencester were hanged, drawn and quartered at Oxford. Another thirty-seven received pardons, and at least one, Salisbury’s stepson, was actually acquitted. Roger Walden (the deposed Archbishop of Canterbury), the Bishop of Carlisle and the Abbot of Westminster were all imprisoned for a short time, and Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, fell beneath an uncomfortable level of suspicion, but was not proceeded against.

A number of small risings broke out across England in support of the plot, but all subsided with little fuss. The one in Chester was perhaps the most serious and led to a brief siege of the castle. Ironically the man who put it down, the Bishop of St. Asaph, was soon to number among Henry’s enemies as a firm supporter of Owain Glyndwr.

As for the widows, Henry treated Elizabeth of Lancaster and Constance of York with considerable generosity – of course they were his sister and first cousin respectively. These two remained very rich ladies indeed, and did superbly well compared to the widows of ‘traitors’ in the Tudor period or even the Yorkist era. The other widows had less kindly provision, although the worst treated of all, the Countess of Wiltshire, had suffered from Henry murdering her husband before he even became king, and had no connection to the plot.

In the aftermath of the plot it appears that Henry (and almost certainly his Council) decided that King Richard’s life should be cut short to discourage any further rebellions in his favour. Richard died at Pontefract on 14th February 1400. Various explanations are given, but the most likely seems to be that he was starved to death. Despite this, and the public display of his body in St. Paul’s, rumours that he had escaped and was alive and well in Scotland continued to plague Henry – and indeed his son. That a ‘Richard’ was living at the court of Scotland is an undoubted fact – whether he was the real Richard is quite another matter.

Sources

The most useful source by far is Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400 by Chris Given Wilson.

Other sources:

The Usurper King – Marie Louise Bruce

Fears of Henry IV – Ian Mortimer

Richard II – Nigel Saul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Richard III as depicted in Sir Ian McKellen’s film….

richard-iii-2-1458139593

In the following article, Sir Ian McKellen talks specifically about his 1930s version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”.

No mention is made of the real Richard, oh, and the horse for his kingdom has become a jeep! There are  various reasons why I will not be watching this, but tell me, how can it really be Shakespeare’s Richard if more than two and a half hours and forty characters have been cut? Two and a half hours and forty characters? A great many of the Bard’s nuances are bound to have been sacrificed.

It’s art, I know, and one of hundreds of interpretations over the years, so my quibbles are neither here nor there in the great scheme of things. They matter to me, though.

http://www.bristol247.com/channel/culture/film/news/ian-mckellen-on-richard-iii

 

The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival 2015

 

King Edward's camp above Bloody Meadow.

King Edward’s camp above Bloody Meadow.

I’ve been wanting to attend this festival for at least 20 years and finally everything came together this year and I was able to take my family with me for an orgy of medieval shopping, weaponry, costumes and merchandising followed by the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury on part of the original site of the battlefield and later ‘storming of the Abbey’ in the evening. People attend for many reasons – many to soak up the atmosphere and watch the weird and wonderful sights as the weekend unfolds, some for the history and some for the crac. Re-enactors travel across Europe – I saw stall holders from Prague, Lithuania, Germany and France this year and many take it seriously, making their own costumes with great attention to detail and demonstrating artisan skills such as wood carving, metal working, armoury and medieval crafts as well as the obligatory plastic sword and shield sellers for the many children who come to exercise their imaginations.

The hard-core re-enactors camp in two areas – King Edward’s Yorkist camp on the slope above the battlefield area or in Queen Margaret’s Lancastrian encampment close to the line of ditches where men were cut down in the rout across Bloody Meadow. Their tents and pavilions are fascinating to walk around with glimpses of wooden camp beds and carved chests, goblets and cooking fires as well as heraldic banners and pennants fluttering in the breeze and the sound of medieval bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy man adding to the atmosphere.

Re-enactor's camp

Re-enactor’s camp

It requires a complex accommodation though to visit the festival, especially with children and maintain contact with the real history which is being commemorated over this weekend. The scale for one thing. The festival guide explains that the real battle was fought over a larger area than the arena and showground and parts have been subsequently built on or turned into the nearby golf course yet Gupshill Manor, where Queen Marguerite spent the night prior to the battle, seems incredibly close to the action. You wonder what her personal bodyguard consisted of and whether much sleep was had by this woman who had fought so hard for so long and was about to lose everything. The manor house is now a pub and looks comfortable enough for a queen who had survived many changes of fortune, fled and re-grouped, lead armies and gone into exile. It was built in 1408 and we can imagine the kind of facilities it might have offered to Marguerite. You imagine her fatigue, racing up country from Weymouth, spooked by the news of Warwick’s defeat at Barnet and fearful for her son’s safety as he sought to prove himself on the field. Bath, Bristol – to get much needed but cumbersome ordinance, then Gloucester, which had kept the gates shut against her. Did she still feel like the outsider, the unpopular French princess, mistrusted by the English people who had landed in England as a strategic piece in the wider power-play of European politics. Where did her loyalties lie and how had they changed over time? A French agent at the English court, loyal to her French family who became the living symbol of the end of English glory in France through the terms of her marriage, a queen consort faced with a frighteningly unworldly husband who needed to lead from behind the throne, to live multiple lives in one in order to survive and protect her son’s interests and surrounded by ambitious men with their own agenda for gaining power. Had the English people ever factored highly in her consciousness? They had fought and died in their thousands for her cause and against her cause and tomorrow she would watch anxiously again from the side lines as her destiny was decided by men hacking each other to death and her son was either crowned with glory as the new hope for the House of Lancaster or destroyed during the attempt. What if Edward, Prince of Wales was captured alive and imprisoned, what if he was betrayed by another turncoat, as Clarence and Warwick had turned out to be? If her army was defeated could she run and live to fight another day or would she wait on news of her son’s fate for without him what was there to fight for? Everyone knew that Henry VI would never be more than a tormented pawn for the next strong man to step up to mark. Marguerite must have been completely aware that if her son died that his blood would sign her husband’s death warrant. Edward IV had held off from the cardinal sin of regicide for a decade for a number of reasons – he didn’t want to kill an anointed and ‘saintly’ king, he knew that popular sympathy would make a martyr of Henry once he was safely dead. Henry was a weak point rather than a figurehead for Lancastrian hopes, his son increasingly posed a more significant threat to the Yorkist regime, even if he remained in exile. However, in the all-or-nothing push to re-assert her claims, Marguerite was risking her husband’s life as well as her son’s. Edward IV was fresh from victory at Barnet and he wanted it finished and was prepared to make unpalatable decisions to secure ultimate victory. He had allowed Warwick to undermine his kingship, to manipulate his younger brother into open treason, had been imprisoned and sanctioned, suffered exile and humiliation and now he had a baby son to fight for too.

Troops advance.

Troops advance.

Tewkesbury would be no Towton – estimated numbers are a fraction of the bloodbath which ushered Edward IV to power in 1461. The Lancastrians had a slight numerical advantage – approximately 5-6000 against 4-5000 hastily mustered Yorkist troops. Both armies were tired after the chase up-country and the weather was hot for May. Marguerite’s hopes lay in a victory on the field that would buy her time to rendezvous with loyal forces in the Welsh marches, a dream of hearing the news that her hated rival had been killed on the field and, perhaps most importantly, a moment for her son and heir to shine and prove God’s favour for the House of Lancaster in such terms that public opinion would shift. If Edward, Prince of Wales could only emerge as a plausible military commander, the strong male heir so longed for since Henry Vth died prematurely and left a power vacuum at the heart of the monarchy.

Of course Marguerite’s hopes were dashed into a thousand pieces. By the end of the battle her son was dead, the Lancastrians routed or penned in the Abbey church and her great chance to re-gain power, status and what she saw as her God-given position as Queen of England lay in ruins. It is hard not to feel sympathy for Marguerite at this devastating point of her life or to fail to consider just how much choice she had in the path that her life had taken whatever you make of the contemporary sources about her decisions and character.

Lancastrian prisoners are taken from Tewkesbury Abbey for trial and summary execution in the marketplace.

Lancastrian prisoners are taken from Tewkesbury Abbey for trial and summary execution in the marketplace.

So, we return to a parched meadow, just outside a small English market town. The re-enactors look like a Graham Turner painting brought to life, the smoke drifts across the field of battle and the canons make the children jump and hold their ears. After the battle people drift off, mostly unconscious that bones may still lie buried beneath their feet.

Queen Marguerite's long journey to Tewkesbury.

Queen Marguerite’s long journey to Tewkesbury.

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