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Not all Speakers of the House of Commons left gracefully….


Painted Chamber, Westminster

Well, while researching the Painted Chamber of Westminster Palace, with particular reference to the “Good Parliament” of 1376, I couldn’t help imagining today’s House of Commons faced, not with someone like John Bercow (whose birthday it is today and is quite short with a head), but Edward the First! Can you just imagine old Longshanks putting up with all the parliamentary shenanigans we’re witnessing today? He’d see there were so many heads displayed on London Bridge there wouldn’t be any room left!

Patrick McGoohan as Edward I
I don’t know about you, but I found his portrayal of Longshanks really chilling!

Which leads me to combine the subjects of Speakers and beheadings. How many of them actually met with this fate? If you go to this list you’ll be able to see all the Speakers until 1707. There is a link to subsequent Speakers. The man to be accepted (now) as the first true Speaker was Sir Peter de la Mare, although the title Speaker was not yet established.

It would seem that the following unfortunates were executed: Sir John Bussy (died 1399), Sir Thomas Tresham (died 1471),William Catesby (died 1485), Sir Richard Empson (died 1510), Edmund Dudley (died 1510), and Sir Thomas More (died 1536). Sir William Tresham, father of Thomas, was murdered/lynched in 1450. Back then it didn’t do to enter politics if your name was Tresham!

Maybe there were others who met a sticky end, if so, no doubt you will tell me!


Recently it came up on Mastermind that Margaret Beaufort was once Regent of England. This surprised me as I had not heard this fact stated before.  Digging on the internet, it turns out it is indeed true. Henry VIII was not quite of age when he ascended the throne, although he was not far off, therefore grandmother Beaufort became Regent. According to one source, Margaret’s role was more ceremonial than anything else and  young Henry’s council quickly busied themselves dismantling many of Henry VII’s policies. Empson and Dudley, a pair of unpopular ministers, were removed from their positions, soon to be executed.

Margaret’s activities concerning the Council were curtailed because, just after Henry’s Coronation on June 24, where Margaret had wept copious tears throughout the ceremony, she fell seriously ill. She had been unwell since the beginning of the year but apparently it was the eating of  a cygnet, a young swan,  that brought about her demise.  Bedridden and ailing, Margaret was given ‘waters and powders’ but the doctors’ efforts to save the 66 year old Regent were all in vain and  she died on 29 June 1509 ,with Bishop John Fisher in attendance.

Reginald Pole, George of Clarence’s grandson, stated that Margaret muttered on her deathbed that John Fisher must watch over Henry VIII  with diligence, for she feared he would  ‘turn his face from God‘.

Henry had his 18th birthday on June 28 1509; the very next day his grandmother was dead. (Henry’s  feelings are not recorded on the matter. It must have been a horrible shock, or…)






Here is a link to an interesting article first published in the BBC History Magazine in October 2016.  Written by Steven Gunn, a professor of early modern history at Merton College, Oxford, the article gives appraisals of five of the  ‘upstart’ advisers who Henry came to rely upon and their varying fates.

Professor Gunn, however,  somewhat frustratingly,  does go on to repeat the tired old myth that  Wyatt endured torture ‘at the hands of Richard III’ as if it were fact.  Not so –  this old chestnut was  kicked into the long grass by Annette Carson in her excellent  2012 article The Questionable Legend of Henry Wyatt 





Medieval kings needed their queens emotionally and physically….

Royal, f. 375 detail

We are always being told that medieval aristocratic marriages (and indeed most medieval marriages) were arranged and did not feature love. The object was to increase property and lands, enhance a family’s reputation and produce as many heirs as was humanly possible. I pity those women who had a child a year throughout their married life. No modern medicine should anything go wrong, just a sad demise and a husband immediately seeking a replacement.


Was it like that? Looking at records you’d certainly think so, yet there are some very famous examples of kings and magnates who fell apart when they lost their queens. I have chosen three  such men, Richard II, George of Clarence and Henry VII . Their marriages were dynastic, or at least arranged for profit, yet the brides seemed to have won these men’s hearts and dependence.


Anne of Bohemia wasn’t much of a catch as far as Richard II was concerned, but he chose her over a much wealthier Visconti bride who would have brought a huge dowry and a lot of influence in Italy. Anne, on the other hand, had to be purchased from her brother! She was not a popular choice in England, but by choosing her, it’s almost as if Richard sensed she was the one for him. Yes, a fanciful notion on my part, but the pair were happy together, seemingly from the outset, and when she died he tore down the palace where she had breathed her last. It’s said he would not go anywhere he had been with her, although I think that is probably a myth. He could hardly refuse to go into Westminster Abbey, for instance.

Richard’s interests were in the arts, not warfare, and throughout his life, from being a boy king, he was surrounded my warlike barons and grasping uncles. He was, as the old song goes, “a lonely little petunia in an onion patch”. And those onions were big and generally hostile.


English history would have been very different if Anne had given him heirs. He certainly crumbled when she died suddenly, descending into a state that is always referred to as a tyranny. The petunia grew gigantic and poisonous, developed thorns and began to weed out the onions, spreading itself swiftly into their vacated places. But Richard went too far. His word was never to be trusted and he made some unbelievably bad decisions, so that he eventually lost his kingdom to his cousin, who became the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV. Had Anne’s gentle influence kept Richard in check? I would guess so. Without her, he went haywire.


I would also guess that Isabel Neville had the same soothing effect on George of Clarence, whose notoriously unpredictable and rash temperament eventually led to his death in the Tower, branded a traitor by his brother, Edward IV. The legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey may be just a legend, or it might be founded in truth. Did George have a drink problem?

He was certainly a very unhappy man, the middle brother, angry and resentful…and maybe possessed of the knowledge that his elder brother’s marriage was bigamous. That would make George the next trueborn heir to the throne. But the truth never came out, and although he’d misbehaved considerably before Isabel’s death in childbed, he certainly imploded when she was no longer there.

He had married her to get at the enormous inheritance of her father, the Earl of Warwick (whom he also hoped would help him to the throne) but Isabel proved to be good for him. Maybe you will not agree with my assessment of George, but the fact remains that he was never the same again after losing her.


Finally there is Henry VII. He was obliged to marry Elizabeth of York. He’d made a vow before invading England that he would unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster through marriage, and once treachery had made him king, he resented the thought of having a Yorkist bride forced upon him. He delayed as long as he could, until he was told to get on with it. So they were married. What that wedding night was like we will never know, because he was a resentful groom, and she was probably an equally resentful bride. But a son and heir was born eight months later, so they didn’t lie back to back until the morning.

Like Richard II and George of Clarence before him, Henry came to rely on Elizabeth’s gentle influence, and their marriage was certainly successful. She wasn’t the first lady of his realm, his mother had that honour, but Elizabeth was the one who shared his bed…and perhaps his confidences. The one with whom he could relax and enjoy a little welcome privacy.

When she died, he went to pieces. He shut himself away for weeks on end, broken with grief. He was never an easy man, but she had won his heart and his trust, and now he had lost her. The Henry who emerged from hiding was not the same man. All the worst aspects of his character, seemingly held in check when Elizabeth was there for him, now came to the fore with a vengeance. He was cruel, rapacious, spiteful, grasping and hated, and the populace believed he had nothing more on his mind than planning how to screw more money out of them. The royal coffers bulged. The illustration below is probably not far from the truth. He and his notorious henchmen, Empson and Dudley, putting their heads together in some new royal skulduggery or other.


Very few mourned Henry when he finally passed away, leaving England in the tender clutches of his son and heir, Henry VIII, from whom all women should have been immunised!

Now, I do not deny that there were love matches in the medieval period—of course there were—but I do not think they were the majority. Most marriages were a case of gradual respect, affection, and if they were lucky, of love itself. I believe Richard II, George of Clarence and Henry VII loved their wives, and once those ladies had gone, the inner demons took over.


The Forgotten Art of Allegory

Much of Jonathan Swift’s seminal ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships’, or Gulliver’s Travels as it is more popularly known, is metaphor and allegory. Swift had lived through the troubles of James II’s dalliances with Catholicism, the […]

Usurpation, Murder and More

Some thoughts on source material about events of 1483, the pre-contract and murder.

Matt's History Blog

I read a series of blog posts recently that sought to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Richard III ordered the deaths of his nephews. Whilst I don’t take issue with holding and arguing this viewpoint I found some of the uses of source material dubious, a few of the accusations questionable and some of the conclusions a stretch. There are several issues with the narrow selection of available sources that continually bug me. It is no secret that any conclusive evidence one way or another is utterly absent but I have issues with the ways the materials are frequently used.

There are four main sources that are often used, two contemporary and therefore primary sources and two near-contemporary which are habitually treated as primary. The farthest away in time from the events that it describes is also the one traditionally treated as the most complete and accurate account, which…

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Henry VII’s tax-raising friends….

Henry VII with Empson and Dudley

If there is one thing a lot of people know about Henry VII—apart from his dastardly defeat of Richard III at Bosworth in August 1485—it is that the latter part of his reign was a dreadful time for England. His avarice became almost oxygen to him, and he allowed his ministers to inflict truly dreadful punishments and fines upon his subjects.

The infamous Morton’s Fork was one of Henry’s weapons. John Morton was Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, and Chancellor, who devised a tax collecting jolly that declared a man who lived within his means had to be saving money and should therefore be able to afford high taxes. Unfortunately, the jolly also decided that if a man was living well, he was obviously rich and thus could still afford diabolical taxes. People were scuppered either way.

Supporters of Richard III loathe Morton for another reason, and that is his fiendish plotting and treachery that helped to bring Richard down. Altogether an unpleasant man, I think.

Two other names crop up constantly when it comes to Henry’s intolerable money-grubbing, and they are Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, who are with him in the illustration above. Their names became synonymous with royal thievery and extortion, and Henry let them get on with it more or less how they pleased. And how they pleased!

However, much as they’re associated with Henry, I do not know exactly when they caught his attention as likely blood-suckers. It is suggested that Edmund Dudley appeared at his side in 1485, which would presumably be in the latter quarter of that year, after Bosworth. Unless he came over to England with Henry, having been with him in Brittany or France? That I do not know. I do know that Dudley was believed to be only about 23 when he became one of Henry’s privy councillors.

Richard Empson’s association with Henry began . . . when, I do not know. He is also in the above picture. He was older than Dudley, a lawyer, and rose to be Speaker of the House of Commons.

Both men were executed on Tower Hill on 17th August 1510, courtesy of Henry VIII. And a good job too.

If anyone knows more about how and when they became so close to Henry VII, I would love to know.

Who painted that portrait? And when…?

Henry VII with Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley

For anyone interested in portraits of those who lived centuries ago, it can be very frustrating—if not to say aggravating—to come across one portrait, that recurs all over the internet and identifies the people in it, but that is all. No date, no artist, nothing. A good example is this portrait of Henry VII with his two henchmen Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson. Henry VII is in the middle, of course, with Empson on the left and Dudley on the right, in the fancy hat. If you search Google Images for Dudley and Empson together, this picture comes up time and time again.

It looks as if it was painted from life, or at least by someone who had seen all three men. But was it? As with the portraits of Richard III, no one knows exactly when they were painted. Copies from an original? Guessed at in the sixteenth century and clothes accordingly? A definitive answer is not forthcoming.

Did Dudley and Empson look like this? Was Dudley a natty dresser? All we can say is that the likeness of Henry is executed with some accuracy. Certainly you could pick him out in a crowded room, whether or not he wore ermine. He is quite distinctive, tall, slender and rather elegant. Maybe not the world’s most handsome, but still identifiable. Sooo, what is the provenance of this work?

When someone me asked who painted it, I was stumped. None of the internet images actually told me anything, other than who was in the picture. So I started to look, prying all over everywhere in an attempt to run this mystery to ground.

The first clue I unearthed was a vague reference to it being ‘English School’. Not very helpful. So I kept ferreting around and eventually came to this: “The picture is entitled Henry VII with his Ministers, showing the king with Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. The original may be seen at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, reproduced in N. Williams, The Life and Times of Henry VII (1973), p.61.”

Right, now I felt I was getting closer, and so Googled Empson, Dudley and Belvoir. This wonderfully informative reference turned up: From The History of Belvoir Castle from the Norman Quest to the 19th Century by the Reverend Irwin Eller, 1841, p.236: “Henry VII, Empson and Dudley. Unknown. Both from the beauties and defects of this picture, I should be inclined to consider it an original, and painted probably by Sigismund Holbein, the uncle of the illustrious Hans, who was also a painter, and is mentioned in the registrar’s office at Wells as having lived and died there in the reign of Henry VII. Sigismund Holbein is supposed to have painted some ancient limnings in a cabinet at Kensington. Two miniatures of Henry VII, each in the black cap, and one of them with a rose in his hand, are mentioned in a manuscript in the Harleian collection.”

Surely this has to be right? Mr  Eller certainly seems to know what he is talking about, and if he thinks it is the work of Sigismund Holbein, who lived and died in Wells during Henry’s reign, then I feel certain this painting is indeed Uncle Holbein’s work.

If anyone knows better, please let me know, but unless or until someone can prove otherwise, I am content that I have run this picture to ground. It was painted during Henry’s lifetime, and therefore during the lifetimes of Dudley and Empson as well, and so stands a very good chance indeed of being a true likeness of all three. And I think one of the three was a dedicated follower of fashion. Take a bow, Edmund Dudley.

Postscript: Since writing the above, I have learned from a guidebook to Arundel Castle that the man in grey is identified as Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk.  If correct, it means he is the son of “Jockey of Norfolk”, who died at Richard’s side. The 2nd Duke was the Earl of Surrey who also fought for Richard, but was captured and imprisoned by Henry VII. Wikipedia also identifies the portrait as being the 2nd Duke. So, when he was released after three years in Tower, did he cosy up to Empson and Dudley? I suppose he must have done, because he certainly cosied up to Henry! Boo! Hiss!

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