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Archbishop Octavian and the Simnel Plot

A couple of months ago, this post attracted a reply from an individual who has commented before. He was responding to the suggestion that the boy crowned in at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin (see illustration opposite) may actually have been Edward V rather than an earl of Warwick (false or otherwise). Whilst he is correct in stating that there is evidence that the boy was crowned as Edward VI, unfortunately the evidence he has chosen, whilst it sounds impressive, is actually not what it seems.

The article to which this post linked is Dr. Mario Sughi’s biography of Octavian de Palatio or Palagio, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland at the time of the Simnel Rebellion . Dr. Sughi is the acknowledged expert on Octavian, being the editor of the published version of his archiepiscopal register and other scholarly articles regarding his clerical career. Dr. Sughi’s edition of Octavian’s register is a remarkable work, comprising a transcript of the complete contents of the register and an introduction that shows the depth of Dr. Sughi’s understanding of his subject.[1] The Lambert Simnel Rebellion, however, is a different area of study, and a veritable minefield because of the rewriting of its history which very quickly occurred.

Not this Octavian …

Just for convenience, I will quote directly the passage of Dr. Sughi’s online article to which “David” drew our attention:-

This principal adviser of the king, with whom Octavian corresponded throughout this period, informed Octavian that the new Tudor king, Henry VII, had entirely discredited Lambert Simnel’s credentials by parading the real Earl of Warwick, then a prisoner at the Tower of London, through the streets of London. We know of the existence of that letter, the “Addition in Antiquities”, because we are informed by Octavian himself that at this point of the crisis he took the initiative of briefing Pope Innocent VIII about developments:

The clergy and secular are all distracted at this present with a king and no king, some saying he is the son of Edward, Earl of Warwick, others saying he is an impostor; but our brother of Canterbury hath satisfied me of the truth, how his majesty the king of England hath showed the right son of the said earl to the publick view of all the City of London, which convinceth me that it is an error willingly to breed dissension.

The careful reader will notice that this quotation is neither in Latin – the language in which Octavian would have corresponded with the Pope – nor in modern English, which one would expect if this were Dr. Sughi’s own translation. There is a reason for this: the only known source for this alleged letter is a work published in the early 18th century.  The background, in brief, is as follows:

There was an Irish antiquarian by the name of Sir James Ware (1594-1666), a collector of manuscripts who authored several scholarly works during his lifetime, all in Latin.[2] Late in his life he published a history of Ireland in two volumes; the first edition, which went out under the none-too-snappy title De Hibernia et Antiquitatibus ejus Disquisitiona, was published in London in 1654 (vol. 1) and 1658 (vol. 2); a revised edition was  published in Dublin in 1664 as Annales Hibernicarum Rerum. Both editions include a section on Henry VII’s dealings with Ireland, with considerable focus on the Simnel Rebellion. Ware’s account of the rebellion is based largely on Polydore Vergil,[3] although he does include brief references to some original documents, such as a papal Bull, and a letter written by Octavian to an English prelate after Sir Richard Eggecombe’s visit in 1488, in which the Archbishop insists that he alone had opposed the boy’s coronation and asks his correspondent (generally assumed to be Morton) to use his influence with King Henry to have him appointed Chancellor of Ireland. Dr. Sughi includes in his online article his translation of a small part of this letter, which still exists in Octavian’s Register.[4] This letter, however, nowhere refers to the name or title claimed by the defeated pretender and provides only Octavian’s retrospective assertions of loyalty.

Four decades after Ware’s death, the Dublin printing house that had published the Annales put out an English translation of it entitled The Antiquities and History of Ireland by the Right Honourable Sir James Ware, Knt; the translators have been identified as Sir William Domvile and Sir James’ son Robert Ware.[5] Unfortunately, it is not sufficiently often realised that they appended some extra material to the end of each chapter (each of these sections is marked with the word ‘Addition’ in the right-hand margin). The alleged letter written by Octavian to the Pope during the Rebellion forms the Addition to the chapter covering the events of 1486, and it serves the purpose of proving that Octavian was already hostile to the pretender’s cause in the weeks leading up to his coronation.[6]

The lead-in insinuates (but does not absolutely state) that this is one of the letters from Octavian to Pope Innocent that are to be found in his register. Actually, it is not there. There are eleven letters to Pope Innocent in Octavian’s register, and none of them refers to political events. Were this letter in the Archbishop’s register, Dr. Sughi would have been able to identify it and provide his own translation. It should be acknowledged at this point that some material had gone missing from Octavian’s register before it was bound, but since the binding took place during the 1600s this item, if it ever had been in the register, cannot have been there in 1705. Nor does it appear in any catalogue of Sir James Ware’s manuscripts.

It would seem that no historians, even those writing within a generation of the 1705 translation, have ever been able to lay their hands on the original of this letter. In 1739 Ware’s grandson-in-law and the then owner of his manuscripts, Walter Harris, included a reference to the letter in his entry on Archbishop Octavian in his Whole Works of Sir James Ware, though he was unable to provide any more solid reference for it than the Addition in the 1705 Antiquities and History.[7] James Gairdner accessed Sir James Ware’s manuscript collection for his Letters and Papers; from this, he obtained Ware’s copy of Octavian’s 1488 epistle (which he reproduced in full), but not, apparently, the epistle to the Pope, concerning which he was only able to report: “A letter of this prelate is mentioned in Harris’ Ware, vol 1, p. 88. . . .”[8]

But there is more reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter conjured into print by Robert Ware and his colleague than merely the fact that it is missing: the situation it reports, whilst it fits the Tudor tradition (for which Polydore Vergil is largely responsible), does not actually fit the facts as they can be established from genuinely contemporary documents; this is something about which I mean to write at more length in the future. It is also rather surprising that, in this mysterious letter, Octavian twice mistakenly refers to the boy as claiming to be the son of Edward Earl of Warwick, thereby carelessly amalgamating the two alternative ways in which he was actually described at the time, i.e. as the son of the Duke of Clarence and as Edward Earl of Warwick. If Octavian had really written such a letter to the Pope in the weeks leading up to the boy’s coronation, it is difficult to understand why in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion King Henry believed him to have been heavily complicit in the conspiracy; why Pope Innocent initiated an investigation of his role in the affair as late as January 1488; and why Octavian was forced to swear an oath of allegiance before Sir Richard Edgecombe in the summer of 1488 along with all the other rebel Irish VIPs.[9]

The answer to the riddle is probably to be found in the extra-curricular activities of Robert Ware. He was as unlike his father as a son could possibly have been, both in his religious and political leanings and in his attitude to historical research. Where Sir James Ware was an assiduous collector and rescuer of genuine ancient documents, his son Robert employed forgery to bolster his favoured – Establishment – view of history.[10]Ware’s method of forgery was to insert material in blank pages of the manuscripts of his father, whose high reputation (as well as that of James Ussher) he exploited to give credibility to these inventions when he published them.”[11] The letter from Octavian to the Pope, however, he did not even bother to write it up in his father’s collection.

In a nutshell, the letter is spurious. As an expert said in 2007 of an old letter that had surfaced in Scotland and appeared to corroborate More’s story of Sir James Tyrell’s murder of the Princes on the orders of Richard III:  “It has fake written through it like Brighton through a stick of rock….”[12] There is no evidence that Archbishop Octavian wrote to the Pope, or anyone else, during the period of the rebellion, denouncing the pretender as a fake.

© Marie Barnfield, 2020

[1] M. Sughi, Registrum Octaviani Alias Liber Niger: the Register of Octavian de Palatio, Archbishop of Armagh 1478-1513, 2 vols., Dublin, 1999.

[2] G. Parry, ‘Ware, Sir James (1594-1666)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

[3] Anglica Historia. An online version can be found here: http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/polverg/

[4] M. Sughi (ed.), Registrum Octaviani, vol. 2, p. 429.

[5] Alfred Webb, ’Sir James Ware’, A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878, https://www.libraryireland.com/biography/SirJamesWare.php .

[6] Antiquities and History, 1705: ‘The Annals of Ireland’: ‘The Reign of Henry VII’, p. 5.

[7] W. Harris, The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, vol 1, 1739, p. 88.

[8] J. Gairdner, Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, vol 1, London, 1861, p. 283.

[9] Gairdner, Letters & Papers, vol 1, pp. 94-96; J. A. Twemlow (ed.), Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 14, London, 1960, pp. 305-309, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-papal-registers/brit-ie/vol14/pp305-309; The Voyage of Sir Richard Edgecomb into Ireland, in the Year 1488, Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT) edition, https://celt.ucc.ie//published/E480001-001.html .

[10] Mark Williams, “’Lacking Ware,withal’: Finding Sir James Ware among the Many Incarnations of his Histories”, The Perils of Print Culture: Book, Print and Publishing History in Theory and Practice, ed. J. McElligott & E. Patten, Springer, 2014, pp. 70-71: https://orca.cf.ac.uk/73576/1/WILLIAMSREF3%20EDITEDVOLUMEARTICLE.pdf .

[11] John Bergin, ‘Ware, Robert’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a8929&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes .

[12] Wendy Moorhen, ‘A Death Warrant for the Princes?’ The Ricardian Bulletin, Spring 2007.

The other talents of Sir Clements Markham

To historians, Ricardians in particular, Clements Markham is best known as the writer who built on the earlier research of Horace Walpole and others to rehabilitate the last Plantagenet during the Edwardian era. In this capacity, his rivalry with James Gairdner is legendary and he wrote a biography of Edward VI, however Markham was a man of many more talents.

His main career was as a geographer and explorer. He served in the Royal Navy and helped to search for Sir John Franklin, who had disappeared on an Arctic expedition, albeit to no avail. He then worked for the Inland Revenue and India Office before becoming geographer to Sir Robert Napier in Abyssinia. By now he was Honorary Secretary of the Royal Geographic Society, a post he occupied for a quarter of a century and became its President after a five-year sabbatical. In these roles, he became a patron of Robert Scott and supported him far more than he did Ernest Shackleton, becoming godfather to Sir Peter Scott, who became a naturalist after his father’s early death.

It is, presumably, through his experience as an explorer that Markham became a historian. As can be seen above right, he translated the life of Lazarillo de Tormes (above left) and wrote about many other explorers whilst reporting on his own voyages to the Arctic, the Antarctic, South America and Africa. Markham (below left) eventually wrote biographies of Edward VI and Richard III and died in 1916, in a house fire whilst trying to read by candlelight.

“If I can see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” – Sir Isaac Newton.

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