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Bloody tales of the Tower….

bloody-tales-of-the-tower

I have only just found the series Bloody Tales of the Tower, previously on National Geographic and now on Channel 5 (http://www.channel5.com/show/bloody-tales-of-the-tower and http://www.natgeotv.com/za/bloody-tales-of-the-tower), and have to say that I enjoyed it very much. The presenters, Suzannah Lipscomb and Joe Crowley, are at ease in their roles and with each other, and do not adopt a patronising, superior attitude, as some do. Suzannah is a Tudor historian, and very sensible with it.

There is a good format of setting the scene and then dividing the tasks in two, then going their separate ways until coming together again toward the end, to weave their discoveries together. Suzannah leads us effortlessly through the story itself and the sources, while Joe discovers how things worked, who did them, what they looked like and so on. It may sound as if it’s aimed at teenagers tops, but it isn’t. I’m no teenager, and it was fine by me.

The most innovative series/presenter at the moment has to be Lucy Worsley, who dresses in costume and blends effortlessly into the docudramas she talks about. She is marvellous. Although a Tudor historian, she didn’t gild the Tudors. There were no controversial remarks for the sake of it. She said it how it was. It was all very natural and flowing. Good informative entertainment. As for all the other presenters of television history documentaries, mostly posing males who think more of their own vanity than their subject matter, they would do well to learn a few lessons from Worsley, Lipscomb and Crowley.

Bloody Tales of the Tower told its stories in compelling docudramas, sometimes set in the very spots where it all happened. Sometimes rather grisly! There are three episodes, Royals on the Block, Death to Traitors and Deadly Love, and each contains three separate stories from various centuries.

In episode one, Royals on the Block, the royals in question are James, Duke of Monmouth, Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor, and Lady Jane Grey, who was, of course, Queen Jane. I’m not sure how the archbishop is included, unless it is the implication that Richard II’s life should have been forfeit, not Sudbury’s!

James, Duke of Monmouth, was something of a 17th-century superstar and the people’s favourite, but he rebelled against his uncle, James II, because he believed the throne should have been his, even though he was illegitimate. Such was his fame and popularity, that for the huge crowds gathered for his beheading on Tower Green (the programme drew a likeness between his execution and the Wembley Cup Final for crowd-pulling power). There followed a butchering by one Jack Ketch, who was a hangman but not a competent wielder of an axe. Monmouth’s head was finally severed with a knife! Ketch later blamed Monmouth for not presenting his head properly.

Simon of Sudbury was Richard II’s Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, and when the Peasants’ Revolt began in 1381, he was the object of the mob’s hatred because of all the taxes and unfair laws over which he had presided. He, the king and the court took refuge in the Tower, which was impregnable. Nevertheless the mob got inside and Sudbury (whose head is still preserved) was torn to pieces. How did they get in? Well, Richard II gave the order to let them through all the gates. Richard consigned the old man to his death. A lamb to the slaughter.

The last story in Royals on the Block was that of Lady Jane Grey, another lamb to the slaughter. She was only sixteen, but her cousin, Bloody Mary, sent her to the block. Mary went on to earn the soubriquet Bloody Mary, so I imagined there were soon many in the realm who wished they hadn’t risen to support her against Jane. Oh, well, it’s always easy to be wise after the event. It was pointed out that Lady Jane should be referred to as Queen Jane, because although she did not have a coronation, she was, nevertheless, the queen. Just as was Edward V (cue picture of the urn) and, more recently, Edward VIII. They are always referred to as kings, so why not Jane as queen?

The second part of the trilogy is called Death to Traitors, and covered the tales of Father John Gerard, who survived secretly in Elizabeth I’s Protestant England. He escaped from the Tower and lived to his 70s on the Continent. He wrote his story, which is how we know so much about his escape. (One oddity I noticed during this story was the careful use of white gloves to examine an old copy of Gerard’s story, yet earlier I noticed there were no gloves at all for poking around in a beautifully illustrated copy of Walsingham! Isn’t there a rule on this sort of thing?)

Next we went to Guy Fawkes, whose story was related with overtones of modern terrorism. The blowing up of King James and Parliament was an intended spectacular which would see Catholics triumph over Protestants. We all know it failed—some nasty Protestant informer!—and Guy was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Not a pleasant way to go, but he confounded everyone by managing to fling himself from a ladder and break his neck, so he was dead before they even hanged him, let alone the drawing and quartering. The senior member of the conspiracy were eventually cornered in a country house (they included one Catesby, a descendant of Richard III’s Catesby) and went out in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid style by rushing out into a hail of musket fire.

The third story in Death to Traitors was that of Josef Jacobs, a German spy in World War II. Yes, the last person to be executed in the Tower was in 1941. He was parachuted into England, injured and captured.  As he was a military officer, the sentence was death by shooting at the Tower. There he was duly despatched. There was part of this story that seemed to throw all sympathy on Jacobs, a family man who left a wife and children behind. His final letter to them was produced, and his Canadian granddaughter was there with the presenter at his graveside. Yes, the story had a very human side, but should it not have been said that if a British man had been captured in similar circumstances in Germany, he would have suffered the same fate? A spy in wartime is a spy in wartime.

Deadly Love, the final episode of this first series is entitled Deadly Love, and covers the deaths in the Tower of three famous women, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Arbella Stuart. The first two ladies are very well known, of course, and the only thing I would pick out particularly where Anne was concerned was the portrayal of her supposed lover, Mark Smeaton. It seems that he paid the price of arousing jealousy and resentment among his “betters”. He was lowborn, talented and handsome, and had risen very high very quickly. Anne’s fall from grace was a useful way to get rid of him too.

Catherine Howard was young, and yes she was probably a puppet, but she was also very silly. How could anyone think of trying to deceive a bloodthirsty old monster like Henry VIII? Had she never heard of Anne Boleyn? I am afraid she doesn’t earn my sympathy – I feel more for Lady Jane Grey than I do for Catherine.

The story of Arbella Stuart was the most interesting for me, and what a very sad tale it was, especially as although her marriage to William Seymour, 2nd Duke of Somerset, was dynastic at first, I think it soon became a matter of love. But any children would have presented a great threat to the security of James I, the first Stuart king, so Arbella and William were arrested. She was held under house arrest in Barnet, while he was imprisoned in the Tower. By means of an intricate but successful plot involving exchanging clothes with his barber, William managed to escape. Arbella, dressed as a man also escaped and they arranged to meet at Blackwall. They never did. She took to the sea alone, afraid he was not coming, and he arrived too late, two hours later. He escaped to Calais, but she was captured. No Barnet for her this time, it was the Tower, under much stricter conditions than had applied to William.

She gradually succumbed to ill health (maybe porphyria)—or perhaps lost the will to live—and died a few years later. Her death rendered William harmless to James, so he was permitted to return to England. He eventually married again and lived another fifty years. A tragic love story.

An excellent series, and I hope there is another. Bloody Tales of the Tower is well worth watching.

Did Edward of Middleham come to London….?

A short while ago I had cause to question a source that spoke of Edward of Middleham coming south to London with his mother, Anne Neville. My source at that time was http://www.basiccarpentrytechniques.com/Medieval%20Towns/The%20Story%20of%20London/46618-h.htm#CHAPTER_II

Frontispiece

In the above work is the following paragraph:-
“Edward IV. died on April 9, 1483, and his young son, Edward V., was brought from Ludlow by the Greys, his relations on the mother’s side. Richard Duke of Gloucester, fearing the action of the Greys, overtook the procession, and sent Earl Rivers and Sir Richard Grey prisoners to Pontefract. Edmond Shaa, the Mayor, the sheriffs and the aldermen in scarlet, with 500 horse of the citizens in violet, met the King and the Duke at Hornsey, and, riding from thence, accompanied them into the city, which was entered on the 4th of May. The King was lodged in the bishop’s palace, where a great Council was held, at which the Dukes of Gloucester and Buckingham and other great lords were sworn. Edward V. was deposed soon after this, and on the 5th of July, the day before his coronation, Richard rode from the Tower through the city, with his son, the Prince of Wales, three dukes, nine earls, twenty-two viscounts and barons, eighty knights, esquires and gentlemen ‘not to be numbered,’ besides the great officers of State.”

I thought then that the boy was always left in the north, but now I’ve come across another source that states quite clearly he came south with his mother and was present at their coronation. (See page 22 of Lives of the Princesses of Wales by Mary Beacock Fryer, Arthur Bousfield, Garry Toffoli for the extract below.) http://tinyurl.com/j3r97ax

Edward of Middleham in London

So, did Edward of Middleham ever come to London?

 

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

Part 5 – …” these dukes showed their intention, not in private but openly…”

 “Catesby hath sounded Hastings in our business

And finds the testy gentleman so hot

That he will lose his head ere give consent

His master’s child, as worshipfully he terms it,              

Shall lose the royalty of England’s throne’

(William Shakespeare)

 

“A black day will it be to somebody”

It is 9 o’clock on Friday the 13th June 1483. William Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain enters the council chamber at the Tower for a meeting with the Lord Protector. Already there and seated are the duke of Buckingham, Lord Stanley, the earl of Derby, Thomas Rotherham the Archbishop of York, John Morton the Bishop of Ely and others. Hastings doesn’t notice three men standing ominously in the shadow: the Rat, the Cat and Lovell the dog. Hastings sits down at the head of the table. Nobody speaks to him.

The clock ticks and still Richard has not arrived, it is now past the time appointed for the meeting. The silence is becoming oppressive and the tension palpable. Hastings plays anxiously with his chain of office. He is right to be nervous; last night he had a visit from Lord Stanley’s man. Stanley had dreamt ‘the boar razed off his helm’. Was it a sign they were discovered? Hastings’ palms are sweating and his mouth is dry. Gloucester’s personality dominates the chamber despite his absence. The silence is now thunderous, the tension physical.

Hastings shuffles nervously in his chair, coughs and speaks hesitantly: “Now noble peers, the cause why we are met is to determine of the coronation. In God’s name speak. When is the royal day?” Buckingham suggests that the Lord Chamberlain probably knows the Lord Protector better than anyone present; what does he think Gloucester would say? Hastings demurs: “…I know he loves me well, but for his purpose in the coronation I have not sounded him, nor he delivered his gracious pleasure in any way therein. But others may name the day and in the Duke’s behalf I’ll give my voice, which I presume he will take in good part”. Suddenly the door flies open. Gloucester, dressed in black, hunched and intimidating stands framed in the doorway. He fixes Lord Hastings with a demonic stare and steps purposefully into the chamber, grinning malevolently. He is dangerously cheerful: “ My noble lords and cousins all, good morrow, I have been long a sleeper…” After asking Morton to fetch some strawberries from his garden, Richard takes Buckingham outside for a private conference. Hastings, Stanley and Rotherham remain seated. They look at each other nervously, their fear unspoken. As Ratcliffe and Lovell step out from the shadows to stand threateningly behind Hastings, Stanley and Rotherham shuffle along to the other end of the table. The returning Morton sits with them. Their faces drawn and pale, they are all dreading what is to come and wishing themselves anywhere but in this chamber at this time.

On his return, Richard’s mood has changed. He asks pointedly “Pray you all tell me, what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots?” Hastings gulps and fidgets in his chair. Richard is looking straight at him. He stammers “The tender love I bear your grace makes me most forward to doom the offenders. I say they have deserved death”. Richard moves forward, his hot breath on Hastings’ face: he roars: “ Then let your eyes be the witness of the evil. See how I am bewitched! Mine arm is like a blasted sapling all withered up…” Hastings can barely control his panic now; he stutters, “If they have done this deed — If! Talks thou to me of ifs! Though art a traitor! Off with his head, now by Saint Paul I will not dine till I see it done.” And that according to William Shakespeare (and Laurence Olivier) was how Lord Hastings met his end.

Thanks to Olivier’s definitive performance as Richard in his 1955 film, the sheer drama of this scene has overshadowed any doubts I may have had as to its accuracy. From the perspective of dramatic art, I doubt if it can easily be bettered. But is it historically correct?   Shakespeare got this version of events from Thomas More, who got it from John Morton, who was an eyewitness[1]. Yet, as we all know, John Morton was Richard duke of Gloucester’s mortal enemy: an inveterate dissembler and traducer of his posthumous reputation. Can we trust his account?   The answer to that question is an unequivocal ‘probably’.   Although there are differences between the various accounts, they generally confirm the gist of the Morton/More/Shakespeare version. That said, More’s history contains obvious falsehoods. For example, we now know from the recent medical opinion of Richard III’s scoliosis that there was no withered arm or claw hand. Also, Mancini is wrong to say that Hastings was killed in the scuffle and there is disagreement about whether Stanley was wounded, and whether Gloucester’s accused the queen of witchcraft. But generally, it seems to have gone pretty much as described in the sources. The Protector revealed his knowledge of the plot, the conspirators’ response was heated, the word treason was used, swords were drawn, the room was flooded with the Protector’s men, there was a scuffle and the plotters were swiftly overwhelmed. It was over in a trice. Stanley et al were taken into custody; Hastings was rushed outside to meet his maker.   The conspiracy was crushed[2].

However, the cries of ‘treason’ roused the city. There was consternation amongst the citizens. The tension was racking-up. Shortly, a herald appeared with a proclamation and the citizens listened in stunned silence to the Protector’s communiqué. It seemed to everybody that the Yorkist regime was imploding. So much for the deed: what about the consequences? To answer that question, we have to go back in the chronology to Wednesday 11 June 1483.

 

“ My friends are in the north…”

It was on the 11 June 1483 that Richard duke of Gloucester wrote to Ralph Neville of Raby. “My Lord Neville, I recommend you to me as heartily as I can; and as you love me and your own weal and security and this realm, that you come to me with that ye may make, defensibly arrayed, in all haste that is possible and that you give credence to Sir Richard Ratcliffe, this bearer that I now send to you, instructed with all my mind and intent”. The tone of this letter is so completely different from the duke’s earlier letter to the citizens of York that it suggests something else has happened since the 10 June to persuade him to move quickly. That and the fact that the letter was sent north immediately, suggests that the ‘something ‘ was of supreme importance and urgency.   In his earlier letter, Gloucester requested the Mayor and citizens of York to send troops with due diligence. Whereas, he asked Neville, to come as soon as possible with whatever troops he can muster. Is he panicking? I think not. Everything we know about Richard duke of Gloucester suggests that he is good at handling this type of situation. We will never know what knowledge of Gloucester’s private ‘mind and intent’ Sir Richard Ratcliffe carried north, but I think he is probably relaying verbal messages to the duke’s northern adherents with the real reason for his urgent request. The duke had just discovered that Hastings was involved with the Woodville’s in the plot to kill him. The revelation of the pre-contract had forced them to bring forward their plan to murder the Lord Protector and the duke of Buckingham, and to crown Edward V[3]. It seems that Hastings had known of the pre-contract for some time but had neglected to tell the Lord Protector. It was the most unforgivable example of a breach of trust that Richard duke of Gloucester could imagine

Whilst the knowledge of Hastings treachery had infuriated Gloucester, it also alarmed him. Hastings was a seasoned soldier. He was Captain of Calais; he had fought in Edward’s battles for the throne. He was a man of power and influence with a posse of armed retainers in London. And he was ferociously loyal to the dead king. Unlike the Woodville dilettantes at Stony Stratford, Hastings posed the most serious threat yet to Gloucester’s life.   He knew he must act quickly and decisively if he was to survive. The arrangement of two meetings fixed for the 13 June suited his purpose precisely. It separated the conspirators from the remainder of the Council. Bishop Russell would chair one meeting at Westminster with the non-aligned council members, who could discuss routine arrangements for the coronation. Richard, Buckingham and the conspirators would attend the other meeting in the Tower; ostensibly, they were going to give the formal go-ahead for the coronation. The reasons for holding this meeting at the Tower are self-evident. The Protector would face the conspirators on ground of his own choosing, in a place where the presence of his armed men would not be taken amiss and where he was secure from interference. He knew who the conspirators were, he knew about the pre-contract and —decisively— he knew what they knew. They were at a disadvantage because they only had part of the story: they had no idea what he knew or what he was planning.

If we look at this from Hastings’ point of view he believed that the conspiracy was going well and that time was still on his side. He knew of  the pre-contract before anybody else and he is anxious to keep that under wraps. Hastings’ interest is in the preservation of the status quo ante, which means ensuring that Edward V is crowned on the 22 June 1483. His alliance with the Woodville’s is one of convenience but he is confident he can thrive once he has disposed of Gloucester and Buckingham. However, Stillington’s revelation of the pre-contract was a setback. Gloucester was always going to be an obstacle to his plans. But now that he knew of the pre-contract, his uncompromising nature meant that he was unlikely to turn a blind eye to Edward IV’s bigamy[4].  It didn’t need a genius to see the threat to Edward V’s coronation. To ensure that the coronation did take place, Hastings was prepared to do anything; even to murder the man he had campaigned with and who shared his devotion to Edward IV.  Neither do I think Hastings motives were entirely driven by loyalty. Like other over-mighty subjects he was acquisitive; a grateful Edward V was his best chance of retaining and even enlarging the gifts, privileges, offices and the influence he had enjoyed during Edward IV’s reign.   It was an outcome not to be sniffed at and one he was unlikely to achieve should the morally conservative and pious duke of Gloucester extend his Protectorship after the coronation[5].

For the duke of Gloucester the execution of Hastings and the arrest of Stanley, Rotherham and Morton was a Rubicon. From his perspective the day was a success. He has crushed a dangerous conspiracy with ease. Of course, he doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what the future holds, as we do, and his mistakes are not yet apparent to him. Furthermore, he still has to grapple with the pre-contract problem and especially it’s bearing on the succession. He has yet to consider whether to depose his nephew, exclude Edward’s children from the succession and take the crown himself. He is not sure what to do. His inclination, as always, is ‘to do the right thing’ but what is the right thing? Is it doing right by Edward’s children, or doing right by the realm?

[1] Richard J Sylvester – The complete Works of St Thomas More, Volume 2: the History of King Richard III (Yale 1963) at page Ixvi. Morton was not More’s only source but he was an important one. There is much in the ‘History of King Richard III’ that is not taken from eyewitness testimony and is not from Morton. For instance, he was not present at Stony Stratford or during the disappearance of the Princes. However, More’s version of the events on the 13 June 1483 does have the ingredients of an eyewitness account: its obvious errors and embellishments notwithstanding.

[2] The main primary and Tudor sources support the gist of More’s version despite their differences of detail. See Mancini at pages 89-91 (AJ Armstrong (ed) – Dominic Mancini: the Usurpation of King Richard III [Oxford, 1969]). See also the Great Chronicle at page 231 (AH Thomas et al [Eds] – The Great Chronicle of London [London 1938]) and the London Chronicle at page 190 (C L Kingsford – Chronicles of London [Oxford 1905]). The remaining primary sources need not trouble as they add little or nothing to the above. The only other worthwhile source is Vergil at page 180 (Sir Henry Ellis (ed) – Three books of Polydore Vergil’s English History; comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III [The Camden Society 1844]). Vergil is the only source to suggest that Gloucester attributed his ‘blasted sapling’ to the queen’s witchcraft. It is worth pointing out however, that their credibility as accurate recorders of events is challenged by their collective failure to get the chronology right (Thomas More also got it wrong). They all Place the duke of York’s release from sanctuary before the council meeting on the 13 June 1483, whereas it actually happened on the Monday after Hasting’s execution. Thankfully, we have Simon Stallworths letter of the 21 June 1483 (See Peter A Hancock- Richard III and the murder in the Tower – [The History Press 2011] at Appendix 1, pages 158-59) and an entry in the duke of Norfolk’s household accounts to fix the correct dating sequence.

[3] Two possible reasons have been offered for Hastings’ involvement in this murder: one noble, the other ignoble. The noble reason is that owing to his loyalty to Edward IV, he would not countenance the deposition of Edward V. The ignoble reason was that he saw the coronation of Edward V as his best chance of continuing the licentious lifestyle of Edward IV’s courtiers, and preserve the privileges, grants and power he had enjoyed during the dead king’s reign.   It matters not for my purpose what Hastings reasons were. High treason is an absolute offence: if it is proved, there is only one outcome. For Gloucester’ enemies (then and later) the summary execution of Hastings is definitive proof of his intention to usurp the throne and that would stop at nothing to achieve his aim. The protector’s actions are also problematic for Ricardians. Even the staunch old Ricardian Sir George Buck is unable to exonerate him for that action, though he offers reasons of state (artes imperii) as mitigation.

[4] See Prof Mark Lansdale and Dr Julian Boons psychological profile of Richard III (The Ricardian Bulletin March 2013) at pages 46-56.

[5] Due to the absence of hard evidence, Ricardian history is a fruitful subject for personal speculation. I do not apologize for theorizing. What I offer is an explanation of events on the 13 June 1483 ; though I appreciate it may not be the explanation.

What makes a good medieval king?

Introduction

Why is Edward 1 considered a great king? That is a question that has haunted me ever since I fluffed it in an O level’ exam more than fifty summers ago. My answer proved that a good memory is better than thinking it would be all right on the day. By chance, I recently came across this question again in a book of O Level questions from the middle of the last century. It was a providential find for two reasons. First, it gave me an opportunity to answer the question properly. Second, and more important, it gave me a clue as to approach the question posed in this article: what make a good medieval king?

It is a hypothetical question, which can only be answered hypothetically; not very satisfactory you might think. Also, the word ‘good’ is a subjective and a relative adjective. That means that any answer I do give is only my personal opinion based on the circumstances of time, place and context. Our conception of good (and bad) varies not only between nations and cultures, but also between individuals.  It also changes over time as human political, cultural, social and religious values develop. Kathryn Warner in the introduction to her excellent biography of Edward II captures my point precisely “ Many of the character traits and behaviour that made him such a disastrous king, and were incomprehensible and even shocking to his contemporaries would be judged differently today

The solution to my dilemma, so fortuitously suggested by the book, is not to answer a hypothetical question for which there is no single answer, but to invite each reader to answer it in his or her own fashion. The purpose of this narrative being merely to provide a few examples of what others have thought to be the qualities of a good king (and the faults of a bad king). This is not a scholarly analysis but some layman’s ideas based three historical case studies.

 

The theory of kingship

Context is especially important when making judgments about historical characters. I am therefore prefacing my comments with a few salient points about the political environment in which medieval kings operated.

The last years of the old English state before the Conquest were noted for the efficiency and effectiveness of the government.   England had all the appearance of a constitutional monarchy, with the King and the Witenagemot (The King’s Council) taking joint responsibility for decisions. There was a strong elective element in the succession also involving the Witan, which frequently took the initiative. The selection of a king was considered to be far too important to be left to the royal family alone. Membership of the royal stock was an essential pre-requisite for any candidate but generally the crown went to the person who was thought best able to carry out the duties of a king. Although conventional Church doctrine suggested that the king was chosen through the Grace of God, personal rule was less prevalent in England than on the continent. The Witan were regularly consulted on affairs of state and, more significantly, they expected to be consulted. The governance of England at this time was superior to that in Normandy and probably also superior to that in France.

A king’s obligation to rule properly in the common interest is enshrined in the Coronation Oath, which is still used today. It was first devised in 973 at the coronation of the Saxon king Edgar and has remained virtually unchanged. It has three broad elements: to preserve the Church and religion, to preserve his subject’s peace and to be just and merciful in his actions.

It was this Saxon law that William the Conqueror inherited in 1066. Surprisingly, he made little or no changes to it. In fact, his son Henry 1 issued a proclamation in 1100 strengthening the king’s legal obligations to rule wisely and justly in the common interest.  It was called the Charter of Liberties and is a considered to be a landmark document, a forerunner to Magna Carta.

However by the start of the thirteenth century, the nature of monarchy was changing; it was becoming autocratic. King’s did not just reign, they governed and good government depended almost entirely on the king’s vigour and personality. He conducted his own foreign policy, led the army, declared war, had his own income derived from Crown Lands and feudal dues, and conducted the affairs of state.

John of Salisbury the English scholar, diplomat and Bishop of Chartres wrote ‘Policraticus’ in 1159. It was the first medieval English treatise on political and ethical philosophy. He argued for the ‘divine right of kings’, a concept common in Europe, but alien to the English polity. This is part of what he wrote:

“ The prince stands on a pinnacle which is exalted and made splendid with all the great and high privileges which he deems necessary for himself. And rightly so, because nothing is more advantageous to the people than that the needs of the prince should be fully satisfied; since it is impossible that his will should be found opposed to justice. Therefore, according to the usual definition, the prince is the public power, and a kind of likeness on earth of the divine majesty. Beyond doubt a large share of the divine power is shown to be in princes by the fact that at their nod men bow their necks and for the most part offer up their heads to the axe to be struck off, and, as by a divine impulse, the prince is feared by each of those over whom he is set as an object of fear. And this I do not think could be, except as a result of the will of God. For all power is from the Lord God, and has been with Him always, and is from everlasting.”

Policraticus emphasizes the king’s responsibility to venerate God, love his subjects, be self-disciplined and instruct his ministers. A king should punish lése majesté strictly but otherwise exercise mercy and restraint. In John of Salisbury’s opinion a tyrant sets a bad example and it was acceptable for a subject to assassinate him (Tyrannicide).

It was Henry II, who introduced the principle of primogeniture into the English succession. It replaced the sensible arrangement of choosing the king on merit with an arbitrary system based solely on paternity. This was a subtle change to the ‘divine right of kings’. Not only was the institution of kingship divine but so also was the right to succeed through inheritance. As Ian Mortimer has pointed out ‘it was a recipe for disaster’.

The signing of Magna Carta was a momentous event in English history. According A. L. Poole “The Great Charter was… a practical assertion of existing law and custom, and it imposed limitations on the arbitrary power of the crown. The king could no longer override the law. If he did so the twenty-five entrusted with the execution of the Charter were empowered together with the community of the whole land to ‘distrain him and distress him in every possible way’”. In other words if the king broke his agreement the people had a legal right to resist him. Nevertheless, the Great Charter made no difference to John’s reign; it’s significance lay in the future, over the next two to three hundred years, during which time it was re-issued and ratified, and grew in importance.

A perfect king?

By the turn of the fourteenth century there was a tension between absolute monarchs intent on maintaining their personal rule in the light of a supposed divinity, and their subjects who were increasingly seeking a more constitutional model of government in the wake of Magna Carta. The period between 1300 and 1400 was a watershed century in English history for many reasons. It saw the deposition of two kings, the Black Death, the Hundred Years war, the death of old style feudalism, the birth of bastard feudalism and the rise of common law (the law made by judges as opposed to law made by the king and parliament). It was also a period that saw the increasing power and influence of Parliament in affairs of state, including the succession.

In 1327 something happened that had never happened before: an English king was deposed. The deposition of Edward II is important because it was the first, and it was a warning to future kings. The English people would remove a king deemed unfit to rule. Kathryn Warner captures the broad reasons for Edward’s deposition expertly: “ He was incompetent to govern and allowed evil counselors too rule for him, he had lost Scotland and lands in France and Ireland, he had imprisoned, exiled, killed and disinherited many noblemen and churchmen, he neglected the business of his kingdom and pursued worthless hobbies fit only for peasants.” It is notable also as being an early example of Parliament’s involvement in serious affairs of state by ratifying the sacking of a king.

Edward III succeeded to the throne. He was in every way as unlike his father as it is possible to be (Rest assured: Mel Gibson was not his father.). According to Joshua Barnes, Edward was: “ Fortunate beyond measure, wise and provident in counsel, well learned in law, humanity and divinity. He understood Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and High and Low Dutch, besides his native language. He was of quick apprehension, judicious and skillful in nature, elegant in speech, sweet, familiar and affable, in behaviour; stern to the obstinate, but calm and meek to the humble. Magnanimous and courageous above all princes of his days; apt for war but a lover of peace; never puffed up with prosperity nor dismayed at adversity. He was of an exalted, glorious, and truly royal spirit, which never entertained anything vulgar or trivial as appears by the most excellent laws, which he made, by those two famous jubilees he kept, and by the most honourable Order of the Garter, which he first devised and founded. His recreations were hawking, hunting and fishing, but chiefly he loved the martial exercise of jousts and tournaments. In his buildings he was curious, splendid and magnificent, in bestowing graces and donations, free and frequent; and to the ingenious and deserving always kind and liberal; devout to God, bountiful to the clergy, gracious to his people, merciful to the poor, true to his word, loving to his friends, terrible to his enemies. In short he had the most virtues and the fewest vices of any prince that I ever read of. He was valiant, just, merciful, temperate and wise; the best lawgiver, the best friend, the best father and the best husband in his days”

Barnes wrote these words in 1688. The point is though, that they also reflected the views of Edward’s English contemporaries who lauded him to excess in his own lifetime. More recent opinions of Edward see things differently and his reputation has been under a sustained attack from politically conscious nineteenth and twentieth century historians more interested in highlighting social deprivation and the excesses of the ruling class, than in extolling deeds of chivalry. Most take the view that he was not a statesman, that he was ambitious, extravagant, ostentatious and unscrupulous. His military reputation is tarnished by insinuations that it was due more to luck than judgment; it is even said that he did not take his obligations as king seriously. In short, he was not a perfect king.

May McKistay is at a loss to understand this attitude. In a wonderfully observant and descriptive passage she points out the undeniable truth that: “Edward III succeeded, where nearly all his predecessors had failed in winning and holding the loyalty of his people and the affection of his magnates, even in the years of his decline. He accepted the chivalric and military ambitions of his age and used them, as he used the devotion of his wife and sons in the service of his dynasty. He raised that dynasty from unexampled depths of degradation to a place of high renown in western Christendom. His armies won for him and for themselves a military reputation seldom equaled and never surpassed at any period of English history before or since…”

The reality is that Edward III had a vision for his kingdom based on the romantic, chivalric model of king Arthur’s Camelot. He wanted to raise England to the level of prestige and power it enjoyed in the Arthurian Romances. The creation of the Order of the Garter, the manufacture of a Round Table at Winchester (Camelot?) and the importance of jousting to the king, and to his knights, are testament to his chivalric ideals. Even his personal challenge to fight the French king alone or with a select group of one hundred knights each is Arthurian in concept. Nor should it be taken as mere bravado; Edward meant what he said and Phillip VI’s refusal to fight him, whilst sensible and pragmatic, simply raised Edward’s stature as a the saviour of his nation. His vision also embraced the self-evident good governance and order that characterized Arthur’s court. Although, Edward was an autocrat by inclination and training, and although his was a personal rule, he knew enough to realise that unless he wanted to go the way of his father he had to get his people to accept his vision. He did this the only way he could, by example and a ‘follow me’ style of leadership, which rarely fails to motivate the British. He also astutely built a network of loyal and influential royal servants who could project his royal authority at a local level.

Edward’s countrymen shared his dream for England and endured much because of it. The king made many demands on them in terms of waging a bloody and expensive campaign in France, of levying taxes to pay for it and the inevitable restraint of trade that ensued. Moreover, his reign coincided, with the onset of the Black Death, which changed the social and economic fabric of the nation. It was no bed of roses in the middle years of the fourteenth century for the English or for their king; but they stuck together in what was essentially a joint enterprise. May McKistay sums-up the situation eloquently: “…Edward’s subjects, for the most part, acquiesced in the necessity: they saw him as the pattern of chivalry and the maker of England’s fame and when he lay on his death-bed they mourned the passing of a great English king. It is not altogether easy to share Stubbs’ confidence that they were wrong” (William Stubbs was a nineteenth century historian and Edward’s severest critic.). This harmony between king and subject was absent during the reigns of the deposed monarchs Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI. They were removed precisely because of the disjunction between their individual vision of kingship and their subjects’ expectations.

Finally, for those people who like lists, I have extracted a number of identifiable strength, qualities and skills possessed by Edward. It is not exhaustive but includes: courage in battle, good military leader, visionary, legislative reformer, hardworking, generous patron, arbiter of taste, appointed men based on ability, did not show favouritism, principled, idealistic, ‘he knew his business and did it’, forgiveness, magnanimity, good administrator. Ian Mortimer in his biography calls Edward III the ‘perfect king’, not because he was perfect, but because “he tried to be”. You cannot ask for more.

“We were not born to sue but to command!”

Richard II is an enigma; obviously intelligent, cultured and artistic, he was a generous patron of the arts. By supporting the creativity of English painters, sculptors and architects he encouraged them to reach new heights of creativity. His court was cultured and sophisticated, its stylishness being the envy of even the French. The paintings and illuminations done for him were exquisite. The magnificence of Westminster Hall, and the naves at Westminster and Canterbury cathedrals are tributes to the creativity and skill of English architects. One biographer (Anthony Steel) even went so far as to assert that Richard invented the handkerchief. It was, he said “…the chef d’œuvre of the dilettante genius.” Another historian (John Harvey) thought that in his search for the cultural avant-garde Richard bore comparison with Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Julian: “All alike shared the impossibly high ideals, the meteoric brilliance, the brittle glory. Not that there were many points of resemblance in their careers; but all three were conscious exponents of the highest type of monarchy: Alexander so nearly restored the world empire of remote antiquity; Julian in lonely isolation all but preserved the noble flame of paganism in a dying era; Richard made the most nearly successful attempt to combine the highest cultural aims with the welfare of the common man”. Richard had other good personal qualities. He was brave, loyal to his friends, a faithful husband and he was devout. He was also a man of peace, and struggled long and hard to get a treaty with France. And yet in 1399 in Parliament he was pronounced ‘useless, unfit and insufficient for the government of the realm, and deposed: what went wrong?

The above quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’ sums-up his problem completely. Richard’s was a dictator. He was unlucky to succeed to the throne as a child and at a time when English fortunes at home and in France were declining. By the time he was old enough to understand the die was cast and he was under the control of a regency government. As a high-spirited youth like his father (the Black Prince) and grandfather, he chaffed under the constraints placed on him by his royal uncles, John duke of Lancaster and Thomas duke of Gloucester and his Council. He longed to exercise his personal rule; but such were the concerns about his fitness to rule that he did not come into his majority until he had reigned for twenty-two years, and then only on his own volition. In fact two years prior to that in 1387, a group of powerful nobles calling themselves the Lords Appellant gave serious consideration to his deposition on the grounds he was unfit to rule. He survived that challenge but had to endure rebukes and humiliation for his waywardness, which vexed him. Although he gave the impression of burying the hatchet he never forgot in whom he had (metaphorically) buried it.

Some authors have romantic illusions about Richard’s reign; they overlook the fact that for much of his reign and certainly in the last three years he was a tyrant. It is questionable whether he was even sane during this period. It seems almost inevitable that an immature young king might prefer the counsel of sycophants and hangers-on, who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Unfortunately, he was repeating the mistakes of his great grandfather Edward II. He preferred the advice of doubtful favourites to that of his sage counselors; he was willful, vindictive. He deprived people of their property unlawfully, he sentenced them to exile without just cause, he tampered with the Parliamentary record so that his enemies could be condemned as traitors, he imposed unjust taxes and he intimidated Parliament and his subject with armed force. In the words of May McKistay: “Whether or not he ever said that the laws were in his own mouth and in his own breast and that the lives and property of his subjects were at his disposal absolutely, it was on this assumption that he acted.

Thomas Walsingham, a contemporary chronicler had this to say about events in 1397 when Richard took his bloody revenge on the Lords Appellant: “ it was at this time, however, through the rashness, cunning and the pride of the young king, the whole kingdom was suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into confusion”. it is clear that Richard was regarded as untrustworthy; he was a man to whom an oath meant nothing. His dealings with parliament at this time show his utter contempt for the rule of law. His coronation oath meant no more to him than any other oath he was prepared to break. This was not how kings were expected to behave. A good king’s reign was seen as a force for justice, a bulwark against injustice and a refuge against oppression. Again, in the words of May McKistay: “ Strong and sagacious monarchs were the greatest need of the age and much might be forgiven of an autocrat like Edward III since under him the forms of law were, on the whole, preserved”

Ultimately, Richard’s deposition was due to his tyranny. The English rejected his vision of personal rule and his use of royal prerogative to enforce his will. He never showed any indication that he realized the limits of his authority: of what, even, a king could not do. It was this lack of judgment that led to his fatal error of disinheriting Henry Bolingbroke, a man very much in the chivalric Edwardian mold. He was a successful soldier, a renowned jouster, charismatic and popular.

Eventually, on the 29 September 1399, Richard was compelled to sign away his crown in the cession and renunciation document: “… I confess, acknowledge, recognise and from my own certain knowledge truly admit that I have been and am entirely inadequate and unequal to the task of ruling and governing the aforesaid kingdoms and dominions and all that pertains to them, and that on account of my notorious insufficiencies I deserve to be deposed from them…”

At Westminster the next day he faced his worst humiliation. Details of thirty-three grievances were read; they spelt out in graphic detail all of his insufficiencies and inadequacies. Despite his artistic and cultural achievements, it was his political failings that cost him his throne and his life. Whilst the manner of his deposition was cruel and shabby, there is little doubt that he had to go

The contrary king

“Richard the Third, of all the English monarchs, bears the greatest contrariety of character… Some few have conferred upon him almost angelic excellence, have clouded his errors, and blazened every virtue that could adorn a man. Others, as if only extremes would prevail, present him in the blackest dye; his thoughts were evil, and that continually, and his actions diabolical; the most degraded mind occupied the most deformed body… But Richard’s character, like every man’s has two sides… though most writers display but one”

These words of William Hutton are written in his book ‘The battle of Bosworth between Richard the Third and Henry earl of Richmond’, which was first printed in 1788. I stumbled upon Hutton when reading Charles Ross’ biography of Richard, and I have never forgotten him. This quote perfectly captures the essential feature of Ricardian literature then and now.

Was Richard III a good king? In the light of Hutton’s opinion, that would be a challenging question for any O level student to answer objectively. Everybody who bothers to write about Richard has an opinion for or against him. This debate sometimes takes on the appearance of a courtroom drama: guilty or not guilty? I do not propose to go down that road. It is not my intention to examine the minutiae of his reign; others have already done that already — and to death. I am only expressing a personal opinion about the general nature of Richard’s reign.

An obvious place to start is the contemporary opinion of Richard. I am ignoring the Tudor sources, as they are not contemporary to Richard. What contemporaneous material we have suggests that until his brother Edward’s death on the 9 April 1483, Richard enjoyed a reputation as a virtuous man. Dominic Mancini in 1483 wrote of him: “He kept himself within his own lands and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favours and justice. The good reputation of his private life and public activity powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers. Such was his renown in warfare that whenever a difficult and dangerous policy to be undertaken it would be entrusted to his discretion and generalship. By these arts Richard acquired the favour of the people and avoided the jealousy of the Queen from whom he lived far separated.” Mancini was no friend to Richard. He never met or even saw him.   What he knew of Richard’s reputation he heard from others. Given Mancini’s animus towards Richard, this unsolicited testimonial suggests that there was truth in his good reputation.

There are two other contemporary comments about Richard, which are worth noting since they were made by people who met him. Thomas Langton, Bishop of St David’s writing to a colleague in August 1483 during Richard’s progress: “ …he contents the people wherever he goes… many a poor man…have been relieved and helped by him in his commands in his progress…” And later: “ On my truth I liked never the condition of a prince as well as his. God has sent him to us for the weal of all.” The good Bishop was a brilliant and highly educated man who undoubtedly had known Richard since he was Duke of Gloucester. He was a benevolent, kind and caring man whose view cannot be dismissed as that of a Ricardian time-server. In May 1484 it was the Silesian knight errant and diplomat Nicolas Von Poppelau who met Richard at Pontefract and stayed with him for more than a week, dining with him every day. Von Poppelau said that Richard had a ‘great heart’, by which he meant that he was magnanimous.

The difficulty we have in establishing the reality is that the rumours and criticism of Richard come from southern sources, which were nearly all written after his death. Similarly, the October rebellion was almost exclusively a southern affair; there does not appear to have been a rebellion north of the Watford Gap. Considering the importance attached to this rebellion as an indicator of the popular revulsion at Richard’s supposed crimes, it seems not to have been a widespread national revulsion.   Professor A Pollard’s perceptive and scholarly article in 1981 in the Ricardian highlights the existence of a north-south divide during the latter half of the fifteenth century, which has undoubtedly coloured opinions about Richard. He refers to two contemporary views of Richard; a monstrous metropolitan-southern one and a noble northern one. This antipathy between north and south and its impact on the probity of some of the Tudor sources is often disregarded or sidelined by historians.

It is impossible to make any objective appraisal of Richards reign without at least acknowledging the elephants in the room: the manner in which he succeeded to the throne and the fate of his nephews, the so-called Princes in the Tower. I will try to keep it brief.   On the first point: Richard claimed the throne on the basis of Edward’s bigamy.  The pre-contract with Eleanor Butler pre-dated his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. There are solid grounds for believing that the allegation was true, or at least that Richard genuinely believed it to be true. There are also grounds for believing that Richard had a good case in law and politically for assuming the crown.  Moreover, there is a strong elective element in Richard’s succession. He was petitioned by the Three Estates (the Lords Spiritual, Temporal and the Commons) to assume the crown. In fact he is the only medieval monarch with a genuine constitutional title to the throne. By petitioning Richard the Three Estates were consenting to the deposition of Edward V and they were disregarding Edward of Warwick’s prior claim.   Although, young Edward suffered under his father’s (Clarence) attainder, it could easily have been reversed if so desired. I think Richard was petitioned to take the throne because he had the title and he was the best man for the job.  Anyhow, Parliament ratified Richard’s claim by accepting Titulus Regius in 1484.  As to the fate of the Princes, nobody knows. There is no evidence that they even died during Richard’s reign, much less that he killed them. There was a rumour, which even Gairdner thinks was started deliberately to undermine Richard and to aid the Tudor cause. In fact there are better grounds for supposing they survived their uncle. Personally, I think that the attempts by pretenders to claim the Tudor throne — whether they were genuine or not — are per se indicative of the real doubt that existed in peoples’ minds as to whether either or both of the princes were actually dead.

Richard reputation as a capable administrator and brave and efficient soldier went before him. As Lord of the North for eight years he managed to win the support and affection of a predominantly Lancastrian populace. If we judge him by results, that speaks for itself. As teenager he fought in two important battles. His repute as a brave, resourceful and determined soldier was well earned in battle and by the faith his brother reposed in him.  It is because he is self-evidently such an able man that I find his struggle to come to terms with being king so baffling. He certainly aspired to be a good king, in that he wanted his subjects and the realm to prosper under him; and he tried to be a good king. However, ultimately he fell short of his aspiration. There are many reasons for this; some are undoubtedly due to his misjudgments. However, I want to concentrate on two issues, which I think were critical factors in his downfall: his disastrous loss of reputation and his state of mind.

I will deal with his state of mind first because that affected his judgment, his legendary ability to act decisively and his calmness under pressure. The Tudor sources like to portray Richard as a man on top of his game in 1483-1485. We see him as a man not just ready, willing and able to deal with the Tudor invasion, but eager to do so: even looking forward to it. This was still the Richard of Barnet, Tewkesbury and Stony Stratford. But then they would say that wouldn’t they. It was in their interests to exaggerate Richard’s performance to the greater glory of Henry Tudor, who had defeated such a formidable man in battle at God’s command. Personally, I think Richard was way off his a-game almost throughout his reign.   He made inexplicable errors of judgments in foreign affairs, in his provision for the defence of the realm and in his dealing with the men of the south. His morale seemed to have dipped; by this time he is not the man he was.

We have very little indication from Richard of his thoughts and state of mind between June 1483 and August 1485. What little we do have, however suggests a man under extreme stress. The scribbled note in his own hand in a formal letter to his Chancellor describing Buckingham as “ the most untrue creature living” is almost a cry of despair from a man hitherto noted for his coolness under fire. Even more revealing is his choice of personal prayer written in rough hand into his Book of Hours. It is probably Richard’s most personal and private possession, and was in all probability given to him by his wife. He carried it at Bosworth and it reflected his inner persona, the essence of who he was as a man. Although the prayer is traditional, this version was composed for Richard’s private use. The Brochure accompanying the NPG’s biographical exhibition of Richard in 1973 at which his Book of Hours was exhibited contains the following note: “ It reads with the incantation of a litany. The note of oppression and danger is very strong. It can only have been added to the manuscript in Richard’s reign and provides an insight into his private life of almost unparalleled intimacy. He begs to be delivered not from all tribulations, sorrows and anguish in which he might be placed, but in which he is placed (my emphasis). ‘Deign to assuage, turn aside, extinguish and bring to nothing the hatred that they bear against me’ and goes on to supply the great litany of the Old Testament salvations, including ‘…just as you freed Susanna from false testimony…’ He could hardly have put it more strongly. There is no doubt that Richard was a person of serious piety and this is the only place where deceit would have been unthinkable. Either he was a very advanced schizophrenic or he had reason to believe himself innocent of the charges…” We shouldn’t read too much from this, but it does suggest that Richard’s state of mind was fragile to say the least. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that he was in his best form, and this affected his ability to deal effectively with his problems

The second issue is the loss of his reputation. This is important because it cost him the support of the southern gentry from the autumn of 1483 onwards. They had supported him as Lord Protector against the attempted Woodville coup but not as king: why? The consensus of traditional opinion is that they baulked at his usurpation of the crown. I am not convinced that that conclusion is correct. There was no rebellion against Richard’s rule until the autumn; until that is, a rumour was spread that the Princes had met a violent end. It is possible that Richard’s loss of reputation was due to the manner by which he came to the throne, but I think it is more likely to have been due to that rumour.

Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the failure of the old Yorkist regime to support Richard was a critical factor in his ultimate fall. Edwards extensive network of royal servants, which Richard inherited and hoped to use to project his own royal authority, were powerful and influential people in their localities. Their support for the king was critical.  The king relied on this network of nobles and lesser gentry to enforce royal commands and charters in local areas. Richard’s problem was that these  southerners were Edward’s men: not his. Edward selected, knew and rewarded the, and they were confident he was acting in their interests. Richard, was from the north; he was an unknown quantity as king. There was no mutual bond of trust or loyalty between them. It was knew it was risky to rely on these men, but he probably felt he had little choice at the time.

Richard’s failure to make a serious effort to win them over is surprising. He rarely showed his face in the disaffected south and spent a disproportionate amount of time on the Great North Road visiting his friends in York, Pontefract and especially Nottingham. This baffling, because Richard clearly knew the importance of royal patronage in oiling the wheels of government; and he had proved his own ability to win the hearts and minds of men in the north. His decision after the October rebellion to replace the southern rebels with his own trusted men from the north, whilst understandable, was bitterly resented in the south. He was, of course, trying to build his own network of royal servants but was not given the time to see this bear fruit.   Although at no time did the administration of government breakdown, the truth was that Richard lacked the bedrock of support in the south, which he needed to consolidate his position. This is more apparent in the indifference of most of the southern nobility towards his call to arms in 1485. One of the notable features of Bosworth is that most of the English nobility did not take part on the either side.

Book Review – “The Coronation of Richard III: the Extant Documents” by Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond

The date was the 5th of July, in the year 1483, and the City of London played host to one of the most remarkable displays of pomp and circumstance seen in recent memory. Amid much bustling at the Tower, there emerged a procession led by minstrels and trumpeters in red liveries, heralds wearing coats of arms in beaten gold, and sergeants of arms, yeomen and grooms sporting the device of the new King: the white boar. The Mayor, aldermen and councilmen of the City had completed their preparations in the wards through which the procession was to pass, and they took up their positions, wearing their scarlet finery. Shop boards had been taken down, gutters cleaned, and new gravel laid on the streets. City monuments such as the Standard and Cross in Cheapside shone with fresh coats of paint and gilding. Conduits spouted with wine. Choirs of children gathered at various points, their high fluting voices joining with the sound of shawms and sackbuts. Householders along the route hung out violet and scarlet banners, fine tapestries and cloths of gold and silk, and packed themselves into their front windows and galleries to see the spectacle.

They waited to see King Richard III on his steed, dressed in blue cloth of gold wrought with “nets” and “pineapples” under a riding gown of purple velvet, heavily furred with ermine and sewn with over 3000 ermine tails. On his heels he wore a pair of gilt spurs, around his neck a rich jeweled collar, and on his left leg a garter of the Order of St. George. He went bareheaded and four knights carried a canopy of red and green baldachin over his head. Following the King, came the procession of Queen Anne, who sat in a “litter” of white cloth of gold and damask, her hair loose over her shoulders, and a rich circlet inlaid with pearls and precious stones around her head. The procession wound its way from the Tower to the palace at Westminster, where the king and queen would sleep for the night.

It was the first double coronation to be conducted in England since 1308, when Edward II and Queen Isabella were crowned. Not even France had seen a double coronation since that of Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon in 1364. What followed were two days of pageantry, a solemn crowning of the new monarch and his queen with all the holy relics and regalia that accompanied a tradition dating back for hundreds of years, and culminating in a joyous feast where 49 dishes were prepared for the 3,000 nobles, gentry, knights, and prominent common people in attendance.
And, amazingly, all of this was planned and executed in a matter of ten days.

It is to the 73 tailors and 91 skinners who worked a combined 1,209 days in man-hours, and all the other men and women who labored to prepare a double coronation in less than two weeks, that Anne F. Sutton and P.W. Hammond dedicate their text “The Coronation of Richard III: the Extant Documents”, first published in Great Britain in 1983 and the United States in 1984. The book not only is sumptuous in its detailed descriptions of the pageantry and its players, but it also provides primary source materials for the history student. Included are five documents: the accounts of the Great Wardrobe, records of the barons of the Cinque Ports who held hereditary rights to participate in the coronation, a manuscript of the Little Device of Richard III, a description of the coronation, and texts relating to the post-coronation banquet which describe the enormous amounts of spices and victuals required for such an affair. A General Introduction summarizes the highlights and the theses of the book; an annotated chronology from 9 April-13 July 1483 gives a context for the political maneuverings leading up to the grand events; and biographies are provided of all the notable personages involved. Rounding this out are chapters on the royal regalia and the Court of Claims held on 3 July, and a twenty-page bibliography of resources. In short, it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive treatment of Richard III’s double coronation. This text should prove invaluable to anyone curious about the English coronation tradition as well as the mysteries and controversies that continue to surround the reign of this oft-misunderstood monarch. What emerges is a figure from history that is more nuanced than that portrayed by Shakespeare.

From the Great Wardrobe accounts, the authors are able to reconstruct precisely what Richard and Anne wore during the Vigil procession on the 5th of July and the coronation ceremonies the following day, how horses were trapped, what banners were carried. Besides the great quantities of cloth of gold and damask ordered from the wardrobe, and the vast number of dishes prepared for the banquet, one of the more charming aspects is that the authors tease out individuals who might otherwise be overlooked by the casual reader of Ricardian history. For instance, we learn about William Melbourne, one of the King’s painters, whose job included applying his skills to trumpet banners, the heralds’ coats of arms, the cognizances of the white boar, and the flags of the Trinity, St. George and St. Cuthbert. He prospered well and went on to become a draper, a merchant, and a chamberlain of the City of London. The fact that he could supply 13,000 boar badges made of fustian to Richard III, all “of his store”, indicated that he had a sizeable workshop in 1483. Other individuals, such as Christian Colborne and “Nichodemus”, the former a painter from “Almain” and the latter a trumpeter from Rome, reveal the contributions of aliens and immigrants.

The authors also address some of the misconceptions and debates surrounding Richard III’s coronation. They convincing argue that Richard and Anne were not crowned simultaneously, as that would have required a significant deviation from both the Liber Regalis and Little Device, and would have required a complete re-ordering of the prayers as laid out in the Fourth Ordo. Rather, it is much more likely that Richard and Anne were crowned, one after the other, followed by a Mass. They explain that Richard and Anne were likely not naked from the waist up during the anointing ceremony, but rather – as the Great Wardrobe accounts show – special undergarments were made for this part of the ceremony. The belief of nakedness derives from a modern misconception of the word “naked” or “bare-footed”. Richard likely did not enter the Abbey bare-footed, but rather in his hose. They also convincingly make the case that Richard was the first known king of England to take his coronation oath in English, although there is no evidence as to what language was used between 1399 and 1483. Some speculation is supplied as to why Richard used the vernacular language; perhaps it was because he was not fluent in French as he never lived there, or – according to the authors – it was important to him for publicity and propagandistic purposes, given how many times he subsequently referred to the oath in missives and letters.

Because this is such a long text, over 500 pages including the index, it is unsurprising that there are some typographical and grammatical errors, but they are not glaring or distracting. Perhaps one of its weaknesses is the authors’ tendency to make redundant observations. It is hammered home that the 1483 coronation was the first double one since 1308, perhaps a little too vigorously. We are informed on multiple occasions of the English desire to simulate the French coronation, for example by using the chrism of St. Becket’s holy oil for anointing the king, imitating the French use of sacred Clovis oil. In their desire to be comprehensive and fair to all sides of a debate, the reader can get so caught up in the many details and counter-opinions that one sometimes struggles to find the authors’ ultimate conclusion. And sometimes outdated theories, such as Horace Walpole’s theory that Richard III only planned to hold the throne temporarily until Edward V obtained the age of 24, are brought to the analysis. There are also very few plates and illustrations – a total of only nine plates – but this reviewer particularly enjoyed seeing the indenture made by Richard III concerning the holy oil of St. Becket, by which he ordered it be stored by the monks at Westminster Abbey along with St. Edward’s crown and other royal regalia, and that it should be delivered to him upon request.

Some might question why a review of an out-of-print text from 1983 is warranted or even worthy, when so many other books are being published in the wake of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. Actually, it is for that very reason that an assessment of past texts may be warranted. Presently, there seems to be such a flood of blogs, books (both fiction and non-fiction), newspaper articles, Facebook discussion boards, etc., that we may lose sight of gems from the past. “The Coronation of Richard III” is such a gem, and deserves to be on the bookshelves of Ricardians and history buffs alike. Through all those cloths of gold and damasks, all those dishes of salted river lampreys, all those elaborate liturgical prayers and processes, a picture definitely emerges that Richard III knew how to use the spectacle of monarchy to its fullest political and symbolic extent.

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