The office of Lord Chancellor is one of the oldest of the Great Offices of State, second in rank only to the Lord High Steward. It dates from Herfast, the first Lord Chancellor of England, appointed in 1068 by King William I, Duke of Normandy.
King Richard III had two Lord Chancellors, John Russell and Thomas Rotherham. Intriguingly Thomas Rotherham, his second Lord Chancellor, was appointed shortly before his death despite an earlier betrayal in which Rotherham handed the Great Seal to Elisabeth Woodville rather than to Richard.
Thomas Rotherham, born in the town of that name, went to Eton and Kings College, Cambridge. He studied Divinity and was a Fellow of King’s. He lectured in Grammar, Theology & Philosophy. Appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1468, Lincoln in 1472 and then Archbishop of York in 1480, Rotherham was Ambassador to France in 1468, joint Ambassador to Burgundy in 1471 and was appointed Lord Chancellor by Edward IV in 1474.
Why start with Rotherham? He was, after all, Richard’s second Lord Chancellor. Perhaps because his relationship with Richard, and his subsequent reappointment as Lord Chancellor on 29th July 1485, is fascinating.
Rotherham, you see, knew Elizabeth Woodville from his time as chaplain to John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. From before she met Edward IV. He was appointed Lord Chancellor, after a series of rapid promotions, by Edward IV, in 1474. The Lord Chancellor is traditionally the keeper of the Great Seal; when Edward died, Rotherham refused to hand over the Great Seal to Richard as Lord Protector, instead handing it to Elizabeth Woodville. Rotherham was stripped of his office and imprisoned in the Tower of London; accused of being a part of the Hastings conspiracy. This all happened before Richard became King Richard III on 26th June 1483, so while Rotherham was well known to Richard as Lord Chancellor to his older brother Edward IV, he was not Richard’s Lord Chancellor until the very end of his reign.
Rotherham was replaced by John Russell, whose career mimicked Rotherham’s in so many ways. A student at Winchester College, Russell went to New College, Oxford, before entering Royal Service. Russell was sent to treat with Charles the Bold in 1467, when Rotherham was made Keeper of the Privy Seal. Russell was made Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1474, when Rotherham became Lord Chancellor. Russell was made Bishop of Rochester in 1476, and then when Rotherham became Archbishop of York in 1480, Russell became Bishop of Lincoln.
When Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector, asked John Russell to be Lord Chancellor, he was reported to be reluctant. However the sources for this are even more interesting than the suggestion; given Rotherham had just been arrested and imprisoned, it makes sense for Russell to be nervous at taking the job, especially as he had followed Rotherham’s career thus far. What makes the source so interesting is that it was the Croyland Chronicle.
The Croyland Chronicle, as Ricardians will know, was written at Croyland Abbey, in Lincolnshire, between 655 and 1486. The last section, from 1459 to 1486, was written in April 1486, after the crowning of the usurper Henry (who called himself Henry VII). It was therefore clearly going to be influenced by a desire not to incense the power of the throne. In as much as Shakespeare, several decades later, wrote propaganda to please the “Tudor” dynasty, Croyland was never going to be pro Richard.
Nobody knows who wrote the relevant passages of Croyland. But one of the suspects is none other than John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln. Which would certainly explain why Croyland says Russell was reluctant to take on a post he held for almost the entirety of Richard’s reign – he would want to ingratiate himself with the new regime, by saying he was never really one of Richard’s courtiers, that he was never really against Elizabeth Woodville, the Dowager Queen, who was suddenly mother-in-law to the Queen, Elizabeth of York.
Russell was appointed as Lord Chancellor on 13th May 1483 by Richard as Lord Protector. He had been a close advisor of Edward IV and was executor of his will. Richard dismissed him as Lord Chancellor on 29th July 1485, replacing him with none other than Rotherham. Eight days later the usurper landed at Milford Haven. The events of August 1485 are well enough documented elsewhere.
The story doesn’t quite end there, however. Rotherham, Lord Chancellor once more when Henry stole the throne, was dismissed by Henry and replaced by the Bishop of Winchester, John Alcock, who served as Lord Chancellor for two years and became one of Henry’s closest advisors. Alcock had been a close advisor of both Edward IV and Richard III; while he was arrested by the latter at Stony Stratford, he was soon forgiven and returned to the Council. Alcock is worthy of note because he had been tutor to Edward IV’s son, Edward. Yet he was happy to work alongside Richard III, even after the boys disappeared. Had Richard been guilty of the crime with which the “Tudors” do most to blacken his name, that of killing his nephews, does anyone think that John Alcock would have happily sat alongside him at Council meetings?