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Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI


Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson

Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

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Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see this article ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Edmund, Earl of Rutland, a life cut short.

UPDATED POST AT sparkypus.com A Medieval Potpourri https://sparkypus.com/2020/05/14/edmund-earl-of-rutland-a-life-cut-short/

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Fotheringhay Church and  Yorkist Mausoleum 1804.   Watercolour by unknown artist.  

A link here to an excellent article on Edmund, Earl of Rutland.  The History Geeks can be found on Facebook:

The article also give a plausible reason as to why Edmund’s christening ceremony at Rouen was much more opulent than his brother Edward’s earlier one – which has led to much debate and speculation that Edward was illegitimate.

I think Edmund may have become a dependable and worthy member of the Plantagenets  and his early death, at the age of 17, leads to a ‘what if?’.  Everything may well have been so different.  But it was not to be and its easy to imagine the grief that must have overwhelmed his mother, when the news was broken to her of the terrible outcome of Wakefield.  Not only did she lose Edmund but her husband, who must have been her rock throughout most of her life.  However Cicely was to carry on and to suffer even more tragedy later including the judicial murder of another son, Clarence,  and the violent death of her youngest surviving son Richard at Bosworth. But that is another story.

To focus back on Edmund –  his early life which he shared much of with his oldest brother Edward – is covered in the article as are the delightful letters written by the pair of them while at Ludlow to their father  which alway make me smile.  Assuring their ‘Lorde and Fader’ of their ‘wilfare’ at the writing of the letter, they tell him ‘We were in good helth of bodis thonked be God’ and ‘beseche your good Lordeschip that hit may plaese yowe to sende us Harry Lovedeyne grome of your kechyn whose svice is to us ryght agreable And we will sende yowe John Boyes to wayte on your good Lordeschip’ (1)!  Nice try boys!..sadly we dont know if it worked..

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Edmund’s and Edward’s signatures on a letter to their father June 1454.

But  the  madness  that become known as the Wars of the Roses was to end Edmund’s life in the cruellest way. Edmund fought along side his father and maternal uncle at the Battle of Wakefield – 30th December 1460 – and its hard to read the suggestion that, had Edmund had travelled west with his brother Edward, he may have survived. But stay with his father he did – and died – after a failed attempt to flee, murdered some say by Lord Clifford or at the very least on his orders.

After the battle Edmund and his father’s heads, together with that of his uncle Richard Earl of Salisbury, which had been detached ty a mob, were placed upon Micklegate Bar, York. A further heartache no doubt for Cicely but an act which spurred the Yorkists on. Determined to avenge his father and brother’s deaths, but three months later, Edward finally crushed the Lancastrians at Towton. One of his first actions was to have Edmund buried with his father at  the Cluniac Priory of St John in Pontefract. Later in 1476, they were both ceremoniously reburied at Fotheringhey in St Mary’s Church, York in the chancel, but it remains unclear whether Edmund was buried in the same vault as his father or in the Lady Chapel. When Cicely’s time came she was, presumably, buried in her husband’s vault according to a request in her will. Richard and Cicely’s bodies were moved into a joint tomb in 1573 on the instructions of Elizabeth I, where they rest to this day. The Lady Chapel was destroyed and it is not known whether Edmund was found and  re-buried with his parents – no mention of it was made – or found and lost again or still remains undiscovered. It would appear, sadly, that his remains were forgotten about at the time and are now lost (2). I do hope very much that, whether his remains were found or not, they still lay not far from his parents.

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The tomb of Richard Duke of York and Cicely Neville Edmund’s parents.  It is unknown whether Edmund was reburied with his parents.  Tomb erected at the instruction of Elizabeth Ist.

  1. Excerpta Histórica: Or, Illustrations of English History p9, Samuel Bentley.
  2. Creating and Recreating Yorkist Tombs in Fotheringhay online article Sofija Matich and Jennifer S Alexander.

An Obscure Lady of the Garter

Recently, for the purposes of writing fiction, I had cause to check who was admitted to the Garter in 1387. (This is the sort of weird stuff I do all the time and helps explain why for me to write a book takes aeons.)

Anyway, the simple answer is Edward of York (later 2nd Duke of York) and Dame Katherine Swynford. Two very familiar names. And appointed for very obvious political purposes. To give favour to the father of one (Edmund of Langley) and the “close personal friend” of the other (John of Gaunt.) Note Katherine S was not languishing on her Lincolnshire muck-heap at this point, she was joining the most exclusive club going in the England of 1387.

But there was also someone called “Lady Gomeneys”. Who the **** was she? I had literally no idea, but being me I had to find out. And with a fair bit of scrabbling around, I did. At least to a point.

Anne, Lady Gomeneys was the widow of someone called William de Graux, who had been accused of treasonable doings with the French, but had later been pardoned. So it looks very much as if Richard II felt that this woman had been hard-done by and wanted to make amends, not least by giving her the Garter! So this obscure widow got to sit with a carefully-chosen bunch of Plantagenets, high-born ladies, and widows and wives of distinguished English soldiers. She certainly had no discernable political heft, and this is at a point where Richard needed everyone he could bribe. It is notable, for example, that Henry Bolingbroke’s wife did not get her Garter until the following year, when everything was very different politically.

On 13 November 1389 Anne Gomeneys was granted an annuity of 100 Marks, apparently as a further recognition of her innocence.

The surprising thing is that in 1409 Henry IV (who was not generous with these honours) granted Anne Gomeneys Garter robes again.

I would love to know more, but I suspect it would take a lot more searching than I can do from this desk.

(Reposted from The Yorkist Age.)

 

 

The Mortimer Succession.

It used to be suggested that Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, was nominated as Richard II’s successor in the Parliament of 1385, but this was questioned by historians due to lack of supporting evidence.

It appears that March was in fact so nominated in the Parliament of 1386. (Source – (Ian Mortimer, ‘Richard II and the Succession to the Crown’, History, vol. 91 (2006), pp. 320–36.) This explains why the Westminster Chronicle (written in the 1390s) is quite clear that March, not Lancaster, was heir.

The Parliament of 1386 – the Wonderful Parliament – busied itself by being extremely critical of Richard’s government. It impeached the Chancellor (the Earl of Suffolk) and caused the removal from office of the Treasurer. It also set up a Commission which pretty much took over the government for 12 months. So in other words “the opposition” was in charge. This may explain why the Mortimers were not elevated in any way, because Richard II may not have approved of the nomination. Of course only he, personally, could give promotion within the peerage or in terms of precedence. There is no suggestion that March ever took precedence of the dukes of Lancaster, York and Gloucester. Indeed, from what I can make out he had only the precedence due to him as Earl of March and nothing more.

Late in Richard’s reign March fell from favour – just before he, March, died. Ian Mortimer has stated that he believes Richard intended Edmund of Langley to succeed him at this point, and this seems likely given the alternatives.

It is worth noting that no “rules” governing the succession were in place at this time, and in the absence of a direct heir it was not absolutely clear who had the right to determine the succession. The King? Parliament? However the very fact that the 1386 Parliament felt competent to make this determination suggests strongly that even this early in history the role of Parliament was decisive. Had Richard reigned longer, would he have produced a succession statute, or Letters Patent to determine the matter? Sadly, we can only speculate.

 

 

 

Maria de Padilla

I am surprised to find the internet has several images of Maria de Padilla.

Her daughters married John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley and she was the grandmother of Catherine of Lancaster, aka Catalina, Queen of Castile,  Edward, Duke of York, Constance of York and Richard of Conisbrough. (Richard of Conisbrough is known thus to historians but as Lord Richard of York in his lifetime, later Earl of Cambridge. But that’s a detail.)

What is really cool about Maria is that her coat of arms included frying pans. This may be unique in heraldry, it is certainly unusual. It is apparently a pun on her surname, which I presume works in Castilian. Not three lions on a shirt – four frying pans on a shield. (Or in her case, a lozenge.)

Apparently Donizetti wrote an opera about her.

The unusual coat of arms may be seen attached to her Wiki article.

 

 

Edmund of Langley, Bishop of York….?

Edmund of Langley before the King of Portugal, from Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre

How’s this for a blooper? The youngest of Edward III’s sons was “Edmund Langley, later bishop of York”. Um, I wonder what Edmund‘s wives, children, and the line of the House of York would have thought of THAT!

The blooper is from The Life and Times of Chaucer, by John Gardner. Edmund is listed correctly in the index!

Agnes Lancecrona and Robert de Vere

Robert de Vere (1362-1392) Earl of Oxford, found great favour with Richard II and was elevated first to the title of Marquess of Dublin and then in October 1386 to the dukedom of Ireland. This was the very first dukedom awarded outside the immediate royal family, and was, in effect, a “fingers up” to Richard’s many critics and opponents, the great majority of whom resented what they saw as the excessive influence de Vere had over the King.

Richard was often criticised at this time for the youth and low birth of his closest advisers, but really this was a canard. As will be seen from the bare facts of the matter, de Vere was neither young (by medieval standards) nor low born; indeed his was one of the oldest earldoms in the kingdom, albeit one of the least well endowed.

In addition, de Vere was married to the King’s first cousin, Philippa de Coucy, who was the daughter of the King’s late aunt, Isabel of England. Unfortunately, de Vere, for whatever reason, was not happy with Philippa, possibly because her inheritance had never been properly secured or perhaps for more personal reasons. At any rate, he decided to annul their marriage. This was seen as a great affront by the lady’s uncles, the dukes of York and Gloucester, who quite probably had concerns for the futures of their own daughters. The Duke of Lancaster would probably have been equally offended had he been in the country.

To make matters worse, de Vere proposed to replace Philippa with the Queen’s Czech (or possibly German) waiting-woman, Agnes Lancecrona. This was clearly a love match (at least on de Vere’s side) as Agnes had no money or land and no prospect of getting any. Agnes’ social status is obscure. One chronicler described her as the daughter of a saddler, another as a washerwoman, but she appears to have been a Lady of the Bedchamber, with the responsibility for caring for Queen Anne’s jewels. It is highly unlikely that the daughter of a saddler could have risen to such eminence, while the very idea of a washerwoman doubling up as a lady-in-waiting is too absurd to contemplate. Having said that, we really do not know who her parents were. To the English of the time, even more xenophobic than their descendants, it was probably bad enough that she was a foreigner and an immigrant.

It appears that de Vere, by giving false evidence to the Pope secured a dissolution of his marriage. He certainly gained possession of Agnes, but whether with her consent is less clear. Two of his retainers were later accused of abducting her and taking her to Chester, where de Vere was residing in the summer of 1387. They may or may not have undergone a form of marriage.

De Vere was defeated by his King’s enemies at the Battle of Radcot Bridge (20 December 1387) he fled abroad and was never able to return during his life. It is not clear whether Agnes followed him, or what happened to her. She simply disappears from the record. De Vere died in a hunting accident in 1392 before Richard could recall him.

In 1389 the dissolution of the marriage was revoked. Duchess Philippa seems never to have lost her status in practice, though for a time she was sheltered by de Vere’s rather formidable mother, who took Philippa’s side against her son. She had an annuity of 300 marks a year after her husband’s death, and was granted dower in 1398. She lived on until 1411, but chose to remain single.

 

 

Um, where’s Lionel of Clarence in this scheme of things….?

Tudors

Well, well, this author appears to have expunged Lionel of Clarence and his line from the annals of history, in order to make the Lancastrian claim to the throne senior to that of York. When, thanks to Lionel, it ended up the other way around. Lionel was the 2nd son of Edward III, Lancaster the 3rd, and York the 4th. Put 2nd and 4th together, and you have something rather more superior than the 3rd. Yes? Yes.

 

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.

 

Edmund of Langley

 

                                          Edward III tomb – Westminster Abbey

Today marks the anniversary of the death in 1402 of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, an undervalued and almost forgotten prince. Edmund deserves his place in history. Without him the House of York itself would never have existed, and its later members, who everyone finds so interesting, would never have been born.

It is worth remembering that Edmund had little in the way of landed property. Much of his income came from exchequer grants. Now, I am not suggesting he would have been better off as a brewer, or a pig farmer, but by the standards of 14th Century dukes he was virtually a pauper. (His son-in-law, Thomas Despenser, not even an earl until 1397, had a larger landed income.) Even if he had been a political genius, Edmund could never have matched his brother, John of Gaunt, in terms of impact. To be blunt, Gaunt had thousands of swords at his back, and Edmund had not. Indeed, in a world where Lancaster livery was all but ubiquitous, York’s retainers were few and far between.

It has been suggested that Edmund preferred hunting and hawking to politics. I am not sure this would necessarily be a bad thing if true, but the reality is that he was a frequent attender of Councils and witness of Charters, certainly in the second half of Richard II’s reign. His influence may have been quiet, but not necessarily absent altogether.

Nor was he lacking in spirit. At the time of the Merciless Parliament he quarreled with his other brother, Gloucester, then all-powerful, over the fate of Sir Simon Burley. Not only was this done in the Lords’ Chamber, before all, but Edmund actually challenged his brother to mortal combat. That it came to nothing, and that Burley eventually was executed, does not negate Edmund’s courage in bringing matters to such a head.

In his later years, Edmund was high in the favour of Richard II, heaped with honours, and possibly (per Ian Mortimer) selected as Richard’s legal successor. When Richard left for Ireland in 1399, York – not for the first time – was left behind as Keeper of England, and he loyally mustered what men he could to resist the invasion of Henry Bolingbroke. It’s almost certain that he did so with a heavy heart, for like many other nobles, he believed Bolingbroke had been wronged.

Eventually pinned down at Berkeley Castle by Bolingbroke’s much larger force, York had little choice but to negotiate and effectively surrender. From then on – possibly because it was the only realistic path – he was a constant supporter of Bolingbroke up to and beyond his usurpation. Indeed, it has been argued that he was instrumental in establishing Henry as king.

Be that as it may, it appears that he then retired from court and front-line politics. He was not in the best of health and may well have wanted to live out his days in peace. He died on 1st August 1402, and was buried at King’s Langley, his birthplace. (His tomb survives, although moved from its original location.)

He fathered three children, all of whom had fascinating careers in their own way. They were all born to Isabelle of Castile, daughter of King Pedro “the Cruel” or “the Just”, his title depending on which version of history you prefer. After her death in 1392 he married Joanne Holland, the very young daughter of the Earl of Kent. Joanne was Richard II’s niece of the half-blood; by her marriage she became his aunt as well. Joanne outlived Edmund by many years, took three more husbands, but had no children by any of them.

In passing, I might mention that Edmund was the only one of his brothers never to marry an heiress, something which contributed to his relative poverty. His marriage to Isabelle was largely a matter of tying up loose ends for Gaunt, who had of course married her elder sister and claimed Castile on her behalf. There is no evidence that Edmund received any compensation in return.

 

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