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Does someone not understand science?

This blog suggests that the failure of Richard’s Y-chromosome to match that of the Dukes of Beaufort doesn’t make him a male line descendant of Edward III through the “illegitimacy” of Richard, Earl of Cambridge.

The issue it fails to address is this:
The inconsistent chromosome has several other, more likely explanations – that Richard III’s Y-chromosome has degraded, or that false paternity in the Beaufort-Somerset line is far more probable because the latter is much longer, as we explained here.

Furthermore, as pp. xii-xvi of Ashdown-Hill’s Cecily Neville explain, citing heraldic evidence, the “forked beard” portrait below, said to be of Richard Duke of York (with Cecily), as taken from Penrith church, is far more likely to be of his father-in-law Ralph Earl of Westmorland (with Joan Beaufort). That the portrait  doesn’t resemble Edward III is unsurprising because Westmorland’s most recent known royal ancestor was Ethelred II.

We have no DNA taken from Edward III to compare with Richard’s or the Beaufort family’s. Sorry to repeat ourselves, but if people repeat errors, we must do so.

 

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YORK OR LANCASTER: WHO WAS THE RIGHTFUL KING OF ENGLAND?

Part 2 – For a kingdom any oath may be broken – York’s title 1460

 

Introduction

This is an essay about the legitimacy of the duke of York’s title to the English crown. I am not going to delve into the duke’s motive for claiming the crown, or into the details of the rebellion that led to his claim. I have covered both these issues in previous posts on this site[1].

Who was the true king of England: the Lancastrian Henry VI or his cousin Richard duke of York? That was the question uppermost in the minds of the lords spiritual and temporal in parliament in the autumn of 1460.[2] They were debating this question because: “…In October the duke of York came over from Ireland to Westminster at the beginning of parliament and as soon as he had entered the upper chamber of the royal palace, where the lords spiritual and temporal were sitting, he approached the royal throne and claimed the seat as his own; he put forward an account of his descent from Lionel duke of Clarence, to whose successors, he said, the kingdom of England belonged, since he was the elder, rather than to the descendants of John duke of Lancaster, the younger brother from whom king Henry was descended.[3] It was a claim as dramatic as it was unexpected and parliament was fully occupied for three weeks discussing the duke’s lineage and his rights.

The outcome of their discussion was so disconcerting to the anonymous author of

‘A Short Latin Chronicle’ that he lapsed into English when writing about it: ”Wherefore the king understanding the said title of the said duke [to be] just, lawful, and true and sufficient by the advice and assent of his Lords spiritual and temporal and the commons in the parliament and by the authority of the same parliament, approves, ratifies, confirms and accepts the said title (as) just, good, lawful and thereunto gives his assent and agreement of his free will and liberty. And moreover it is said by advice and authority, declared, called, established, affirmed, and reputed that the said Richard duke of York (is) very true and rightful heir to the crown of England and France.”[4] Everything is in the duke’s favour except the outcome. His title to the throne is thrice lawful; the Lancastrians are thrice usurpers. Nonetheless, York is not to be crowned until after Henry is dead. It was a recipe for disaster.

York was ten years older than Henry and statistically, at least, unlikely to outlive him. More importantly, the queen and her disinherited son were still at large with an armed force, embittered and well able to oppose this Act of Accord. Not for the first time, nor for the last, an English parliament had managed to make a bad situation worse. The only royal settlement likely to subsist now was one settled on a battlefield. Moreover, the Act of Accord presents a constitutional conundrum. If parliament judged York’s title to be unbeatable, why did they not give effect to their judgment? And, if York believed in the truth and justice of his title, why did he agree to bend his knee to the usurping Henry? The answers to these questions lie in the politics of the day.

York’s Petition

York submitted his written claim on the 16 October 1460[5]. It had the virtue of simplicity, being based solely on his hereditary right of succession. The only evidence adduced was York’s lineage. The main thrust of his case was that in 1399, when king Richard II was deposed, Henry of Lancaster seized the throne, which more properly belonged to Edmund Mortimer earl of March who was descended (through his grandmother Philippa) from Lionel duke of Clarence the third son of king Edward III; whereas, Henry of Lancaster was descended from John duke of Lancaster the king’s fourth son.

The Lords’ objections

The king, who was consulted next day, requested the lords to state objections to Yorks claim.[6] The lords prevaricated. They asked the king’s justices for advice. The justices declined to give it on the grounds that the succession was above the common law, and beyond their jurisdiction and competence. The sergeants-at-law also refused to give their counsel; they argued that if the succession was too weighty for the king’s justices, it was surely above the sergeants’ learning and authority. It seems that only those of the blood royal, and the lords spiritual and temporal were qualified to solve this problem. Freedom of speech was allowed and each lord was to put forward whatever he could to strengthen the king’s title and to defeat York’s. Eventually, five objections were raised:

  • First, the lords were bound to remember the great oaths of fealty that they had sworn to the king. These oaths argued against York’s claim since they could not be broken.
  • Second, the great and noble acts of parliament (unspecified) made in various earlier parliaments could be used against York’s title. Being statutes, these acts carried far more authority than any chronicle and defeated any claim made by any person.
  • Third, similarly, the various entails (again unspecified) made by the heirs male with regard to the crown of England argued against Yorks title, as may appear in various chronicles and parliaments
  • Fourth, York did not bear the arms of Lionel duke of Clarence; and
  • Fifth, Henry succeeded to the throne as the heir of king Henry III, and not as a conqueror

 

York’s response to the objections

The matter of oaths was important, which is why it was the first objection. Although it did not go directly to the merit of York’s title, it was a considerable barrier to the success of his claim. The lords were concerned about two things. First, their own oaths of allegiance to Henry as king “by succession, borne to reign” and to his son Prince Edward, which they had sworn less than twelve months previously at Coventry. Second, they were reminding York of his own oaths of allegiance and obedience, and many protestations of loyalty made to the king over the last decade. The breaking of these oaths was not merely a religious impropriety; it was sinfulness, the breaking of God’s law. To be forsworn was to court eternal damnation.

York responded in kind. He acknowledged every man’s duty to uphold God’s law and Commandments. However, he distinguished between oaths that preserve truth and justice and oaths that promote untruth and injustice. The first kind is obedient to Gods law, which prefers truth and justice; whereas, the second kind is contrary to God’s law. Moreover, since no man can absolve himself from obedience to God’s law to uphold truth and justice and since the oaths referred to by the lords are of the second kind, they are void and of no effect. An oath of allegiance does not bind a man to do anything unfitting or unlawful.

Despite the spiritual views expressed by both sides, Yorks final sentence contained an unmistakable temporal message for the king and his lords. It was a principle York had expressed in an open letter to the king just before first St Albans (1455). Whilst emphasizing, yet again, that he and his followers are the king’s true liegemen ready to live and die in his service he added “…to do all things as shall like your majesty to command us, if it be to the worship of the crown and the welfare of your noble realm (my emphasis).” York was putting conditions on his loyalty and obedience. He was making an important distinction between the institution of ‘the crown’ and the person of the king, and between them both and the rights of the realm. The implication is that although ‘royal authority’ is vested personally in the king, he must behave in accordance with the accepted norms of English monarchs as expressed in the coronation oath that binds them all. York is also introducing the concept of the ‘realm’ of England as a political entity distinct from the monarchy. It has its own rights to which the crown is ultimately responsible. This was more than just a device to protect him from accusations of treason or ‘oath-breaking’; it represents a fundamental tenet of England’s constitution, which we see put most forcibly in Magna Carta.

The second and third objections raise a significant constitutional issue. The key question is whether the Act of 1406, which gave statutory recognition to Henry IV’s title, was the final authority on the issue of succession. The lords obviously thought so, since they argued that it was of an “ authority to defeat any kind of title made to any person”. Having pointed out correctly that the only statute or entail made by any parliament in the past was the Act of 1406, York based his case on two mutually supporting grounds. First, if Henry IV’s title were valid as claimed, he would neither have needed nor wanted statutory recognition of it. Second, his own title being true according to God’s law and natural law was imperishable, even though it had not been asserted earlier. Henry’s title, however, was pretense and in passing the statute, parliament had recognized a title that Henry was not entitled to. The Inheritance Act of 1406 was, therefore, ultra vires. From a constitutional perspective, this was an important development; the theory of a parliamentary title was being subordinated to a theory that God’s law of inheritance determined the succession. York was not impugning the authority of statutes generally; he was simply saying that even though a statute (or an entail) might be binding in normal circumstances, it could not stand against his divine right of inheritance[7].

On the fourth objection that York did not wear the livery of his ancestor Lionel, his answer was predictable. The fact that he didn’t wear that livery did not mean he was not entitled to. He did not wear it for the same reason he had forborn from claiming the crown earlier, and which reason was well known.

The last objection was that Henry took the throne as the rightful heir to Henry III and not as conqueror[8]. York rejected this objection outright. It is simply not true, he said, that Henry IV was the lawful heir to Henry III “…and the opposite, which is the truth shall be readily enough shown, proved and justified by adequate authority and as a matter of record”. He added that Henry’s words were fraudulent and meant to disguise his “…violent and unlawful usurpation” from the people.

The Act of Accord

The Official account of the lords’ “sad and ripe communicacion in this matere[9] is brief but illuminating. The tension at Westminster is palpable. Under pressure from York to bring the matter to a rapid conclusion, the Chancellor seems on the verge of panic. He is desperate for a result that will reconcile York’s ‘unbeatable’ title with the lords corporate obligation to protect the common weal of the realm, their personal duty to king Henry and their consciences. The Chancellor proposed that Henry should retain the crown during his lifetime and when he dies, York should succeed him. It is, the Chancellor suggests, a resolution that avoids the trouble that might ensue, saves the king’s honour, preserves his dignity and estate, and may appease the duke of York — if he agrees! It also means the lords will not have broken the oaths they swore to the king at Coventry. The Chancellors plaintive call for anybody with a better idea to come forward is testament to his despair; as also, is his plea that the lords should stand by him when he explains the situation to the king. For want of something better, the lords readily agree to this outcome.

In truth, there was no appetite to depose a crowned and anointed king who had reigned for thirty-eight years, no matter how grave were his faults[10]. Although the lords sympathized with York’s predicament, they regarded his claim as inopportune. Notwithstanding the legality of his title, he was unable to overcome fifteenth century realpolitik. It was further confirmation that the succession was a political and not a legal process. For the lords the overriding consideration was to preserve the peace of the realm. It is a consideration that ordinarily would protect them from accusations of inconsistency and bad faith; however, in reality they were simply evading the issue and not solving the problem. Only the complete destruction of the Queen’s party or the Yorkists had any hope of procuring an effective peace. Furthermore, the disinheritance of the Prince of Wales guaranteed the continuance of war.

The historical opinion of York’s behaviour is unforgiving. At the time, the Lancastrians depicted him as a hypocrite whose claim to the crown was based on personal ambition and not on the common interest. Many modern historians endorse that view and it is easy to understand why. He swore at least two oaths of allegiance to the king and one of allegiance and obedience, and he made numerous declarations of his loyalty; yet in the end, he tried to depose Henry. York’s integrity can only be defended by examining his motives, which is outside my scope. Therefore, I will not comment on these accusations save to add a health warning. Most, if not all, of this opinion is derived from Lancastrian propaganda. The Yorkist counter-claims are clearly set out in the many political manifestos they produced during the 1450’s. These contained Yorkist propaganda for sure, but a balanced view of what was happening is only possible by considering both sides of the argument.

That said, I do believe that York’s action in accepting the Act of Accord, and his motive for so doing have been misconstrued by some historians. Parliament, it seems, is absolved from acting inconsistently or in bad faith because they moved to preserve the peace; whereas York is denounced for doing the same thing.[11] It is a strange judgment that simultaneously acquits the lords and convicts York for keeping the peace.

He had “taken the moral high ground and promptly compromised” writes John Watts, adding that “under the terms of his own argument, Duke Richard could not bind himself to the deferment of his right during Henry’s lifetime: any oath to do so would be contrary to God’s law and hence null and void.” The professor adds with a flourish “what true king would agree to be subject to a usurper?[12] The notion that York was prevented from accepting the Act of Accord since, on his own argument, it was untruthful and contrary to God’s law, is a shallow one. It ignores the reality of York’s situation and does his argument on the matter of oaths a disservice. The succession cannot be considered in the vacuum of religious doctrine, moral rectitude or personal right. It is, I repeat, a political process, not a legal or religious one. From York’s perspective, this action had been forced on him by constitutional system that made it impossible for him to protest against the excesses of a corrupt and incompetent Lancastrian regime and the breakdown in law and order, without committing treason. York’s cause of action had never been against the king, but against those household servant and royal favourites who abrogated royal authority.

For ten years York championed the cause of good governance in the common interest but he had achieved nothing, other than a reputation as an incorrigible rebel. This was the opportunity to put both the will and the means for good governance in one person. There is no discord between his argument on oaths and his acceptance of a compromise. Whilst the Act of Accord fell short of his objective, it commanded the most support and was self evidently in the common interest. It would indeed have been contrary to God’s law for York to insist on the strict letter of his right at this time and against the wishes of the English lords. He realized he lacked the broad spectrum of support necessary to depose Henry. The change from being the king’s true liegeman to wanting to replace him was too much too soon even for many of York’s supporters. The fact that this desire for a peaceful outcome was futile is neither here nor there from York’s perspective. Since he could do nothing to guarantee the pacification of Lancastrian dissidence, he could at least ensure his own good intentions.

Ultimately, York’s challenge ended in failure. A successful strategy depended on speed and surprise ‘…a speedy coronation; the swift removal of Henry…’[13] Once York was forced to claim the throne rather than seize it, his enemies had time to concert their opposition to him. However, by establishing the superiority of his title over the Lancastrians, York paved the way for his son Edward to seize the throne in 1461.

[1] See Richard 3rd duke of York (2) ‘The king’s true liegeman’ – 10 February 2015; and (3) ‘The man who would be king’ 8 March 2015 https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/

[2] Chris Given-Wilson (Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (Boydell Press 2005): Anne Curry and Rosemary Horrox (Eds) Volume 12 pp. 509-510 (introduction) and 516 to 521 (PROME). York claimed the throne on the 10 October 1460. His written petition to parliament was read aloud on the 16 October 1460. It was the petition that the Lords spiritual and temporal were considering.

[3] Nicholas Cox and John Cox – The Crowland Chronicle Continuations (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) p111.

[4] James Gairdner- Three Fifteenth Century Chronicles (The Camden Society 1880) pp.170-71; the full title of the ‘Latin chronicle’ is ‘Compilatio de gestus Britonum et Anglorum’ (MS Arundel 5 College of Arms).

[5] PROME Vol 12, ibid: see also Margaret Lucille Kekewich et al (eds.) – The Politics of Fifteenth Century England: John Vale’s Book (Allan Sutton Publishing 1995) p 195 (ff.130v–134/111v–115. The title and claim of the crown by Richard duke of York in the 39th year of king Henry VI))

[6] PROME Vol 12, ibid; the lords spiritual and temporal were commanded to find “…the strongest objections to defend the king’s right and title and to defeat the title and claim of the said duke of York.”

[7] SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the 15th Century (Cambridge 1936) pp.27-30. This paragraph is based on Professor Chrimes’ lucid and succinct explanation, which has stood the test of time.

[8] The lords were wrong; Henry also claimed the throne as conqueror.

[9] PROME Vol 12; ibid

[10] Unlike, the deposition of Edward II, and the deposition of Richard II, there was no case against Henry VI of willful incompetence or tyranny. In fact he seems to have been a good, almost saintly, man personally. A regency government could have adequately managed during his periodic spells of mental infirmity.

[11] PROME, Vol 12 p 524. It is quite clear from the Parliamentary Roll that York accepted the compromise to preserve the peace.

[12] John Watts – Polemic and Politics in the 1450’s; Margaret Lucille Kekewich et al (Eds) – The Politics of Fifteenth Century England: John Vale’s Book (Allan Sutton Publishing 1995) at page 34; see also P A Johnson – Duke Richard of York 1411-1460 (Oxford1991 corrected edition) pp. 212-219.

[13] Watts at p35.

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.

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