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Henry VI: saint or sinner?

A gentle and devotional life

About seventy years ago, the historian John Harvey wrote this in an essay about King Henry VI: “The life and death, and the thwarting of his noble designs are one (sic) of the sorriest tragedies of English history. He was a victim of forces outside his control, for whose existence he was not responsible, but set in motion by his grandfather’s crime and his father’s one-sided ambition. Inheriting the love of justice of his Plantagenet forefathers and the a artistic culture and melancholia of Charles VI of France, his character was in sharp contrast with that of his age, possessed in marked degree by his wife. In his charity, his love of art and his spirit he was a true Plantagenet, though a paradoxical one…. He saw the world as a place of brief sojourn in which to do good, to learn courtesy and to seek God. There was nothing political in his martyrdom; except as the shadow of a name, and the crowned and anointed husband of Margaret, he represented no threat to anybody in the world. Yet the callous and sacrilegious hand that struck him down, though it ended a gentle and devotional life on earth, ensured that Henry’s virtues and lasting benefits should be perpetually bought to the mind of oblivious posterity” [1]

 

Harvey took this version of Henry’s life and death from a tract entitled ‘A Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI’, which is attributed to John Blacman and was published in 1510.[2] The tract is in fact a collection of anecdotes of Henry’s religious devotions from the recollection of one of his chaplains and other intimates of his personal life. The aim of the collection is to present Henry as a holy saint whose ‘kingdom’ was not worldly. He performed a miracle of loaves (but not fishes) for his troops and endured hunger, thirst, mocking, abuse and other hardships in his life including wounding in his side by a dagger. He foretold his own death but was not believed. And he suffered a violent death so that others might live in peace. Blacman’s depiction of Henry as an exemplar of Christian virtue, though not of this world was also the standard Tudor view echoed by Henry VII’s historian Polydore Vergil: “ King Henry was a man of mild and plain-dealing disposition who preferred peace before war, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility and leisure before business: and to be short, there was not in this world a more honest and a more holy creature. There was in him honest shamed-facedness, modesty, innocency and perfect patience taking all human chances, miseries and all afflictions in his life in good part as though he had justly by some offence deserved the same. And he ruled his own affections that he might more easily rule his own subjects; he gapped not after riches nor thirsted for honours and worldly estimation but was careful only for his souls sake; such things as tended to the salvation thereof he only esteemed for good; and that very wisely; such again as procured loss thereof he only accounted evil.[3]

 

To set against this Tudor narrative of the martyred Henry, we have his known failings as a king. Henry is mainly remembered as the king who lost the Hundred Years War and during whose rule the Wars of the Roses started. Indeed The late Bertram Wolffe thought that Henry as such an insubstantial and unsuccessful king that writing his biography was a long and dispiriting task. I do not deny that Henry was a weak and ineffective king. That judgement was made in his lifetime and has not been seriously challenged since. However, I do think that John Harvey may have an arguable point about Henry’s culpability. Was he wholly to blame for the calamities of his reign, or was he the victim of circumstances? That is the question I wish to discuss in this article; first, by setting Henry’s reign in the context of events from his accession until his mental breakdown in 1453; second, by discussing his performance in three key policy areas: maintenance of the dual monarchy, royal finances and the rule of law.

 

Divided opinions

Until the twentieth century, studies of Henry were dominated by the story of an innocent king at the mercy of greedy and violent nobles. However, modern biographies challenge that simple narrative and in doing so have broadened our understanding of the complexities of Henry’s reign. In 1981, two contrasting studies of Henry VI appeared almost simultaneously. The first was by Bertram Wolffe; whose, unforgiving verdict of King Henry goes well beyond the accusation that he was incompetent.[4] Wolffe judges Henry by what he did as revealed in the government records, and he completely rejects the notion of the mild, martyred king. In its place he describes an actively malign king, whose piety was too ostentatious to be virtuous, and whose nature was too unforgiving and vindictive to be saintly. He was also a poor judge of character, prone to interfering, and lacking in judgement and proportionality. He disregarded his royal oath and he was wilful. In essence the inconsistencies and failures of English foreign policy were due to Henry’s capricious changes of mind and his susceptibility to improper influences. Thus Wolffe rejects the whole idea that the loss of France was due to the divided opinion of the English aristocracy.[5] He does not doubt that Henry’s failures as a king left the establishment of Eton College and of King’s College Cambridge as his sole achievements.

 

Also in 1981, Ralph Griffith’s published his evaluation of Henry’s reign. It is a nuanced and detailed assessment of Henry’s performance as monarch and his qualities as a man. Griffiths recognises the military and fiscal difficulties that dogged Henry’s rule, and the factionalism of the nobility, which would have tested even a high performing and confident king. The essence of Griffiths’ evaluation of Henry is best put in his own words: “Henry VI was in reality a well-intentioned man with aspirations that were laudable enough, in an age when king’s could not rule by good intentions alone. He had an interest in the realities of government with the aim of realising those aspirations, especially in education, relations with Valois France, and the reward of friends and servants. Other of his qualities were obstacles to effective kingship. He was extravagant, credulous, over merciful and compassionate to those at fault yet fearful suspicious of those rumoured to be doing him harm. These are not the qualities of a shrewd and balanced judge of men and politics. Henry also lacked the foresight, prudence and calculation that make a king’s actions responsible ones; he showed little sagacity, subtlety or discrimination in his administrative actions and none of the political astuteness necessary to achieve an acceptable balance among his subjects competing interests — as contemporaries recognised who stressed his simplicity. Not that he was uneducated or unintelligent but he was the least experienced of English medieval kings at his succession and never shook off his youthful dependence on others in the routine and detail of affairs…With his naively defective judgement, Henry’s advisors were too often unworthy of his confidence.[6] Griffiths’ explains this last sentence later in his book. “Those contemporaries who …[observed]...Henry VI as a boy were agreed that he grew into a personable, intelligent and even precocious youth. His years as a minor between the ages of one and fifteen were naturally of considerable importance to his education as a monarch of two realms. His relatives had already created for him an atmosphere of political bitterness, even personal hatred, and after Bedford’s death, both (Humphrey duke of) Gloucester and (Henry) Beaufort (bishop of Winchester) strove to be the single most dominant influence on him as he grew older. They would be reluctant to allow him the exercise of free will as an adult king. The end result of these intense personal pressures was to accustom Henry to dependence, to being told what to do. Even after Gloucester and Beaufort had receded into the background he found other pillars on which to lean: the earl of Suffolk. Archbishop Kemp, the duke of Somerset and finally, when he was least able to fend for himself, the Queen.”[7] In Griffiths’ view, therefore, Henry is far less culpable for the disasters of his reign than those relatives and other advisors who instead of supporting the king betrayed his trust in them.

 

John Watts’ appraisal of Henry, which first appeared in 1999, is the antithesis of Wolf’s ‘active’ king.[8] He also questions Griffiths’ negative assessment of Henry’s relatives and advisors. Watts argues simpliciter that Henry was so passive that he created difficulties for the nobility, who in their own interactions tried to compensate for a king who was chronically unable to exercise royal authority, and was especially ‘incapable of giving judgements, managing the counsel of his advisors and making policy appear his own.’ This depiction of Henry as a simpleton is not a new one. In the opinion of at least one anonymous fifteenth century commentator, Henry was simple and easily led: “In the same time the realm of England was out of all good governance as it had been before, for the king was simple and led by covetous counsel and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily but payment there was none. All the possessions and lordships that pertained to the crown the king had given away, some to lords and some to other simple persons so that he had almost nothing left. For these misgovernances and for many others, the hearts of the people were turned away from them that had the land in governance and their blessings were turned to curses” [9]

 

Watts contends that what others describe as “‘the king’s unfair and unwise distribution of patronage and the opportunistic behaviour of his household servants’, should be judged in the context of ‘how this [patronage] was turned into power in the localities or why the nobility who might have been expected to resist the king’s agents did nothing until the 1450’s.[10] His own explanation is that: “The England of the 1440’s was governed by a very extensive network of men, including most of the old nobility; their difficulties stemmed more from lack of co-ordination and lack of authority than from partisanship.” Central to this thinking is late twentieth century research carried out by Christine Carpenter, Anthony Pollard, Helen Castor and others into the dynamics of local politics and relationships in the fifteenth century. These several studies suggest a different and more complex regional dynamic from the factional politics of the greater nobility.[11]

 

Local cooperation between landowners, merchants, farmers, artisans and labourers, coupled with the complex inter-relationships of the gentry forged by their arranged marriages, were the bonds that held English society together. The importance of these local transactions, whether they were commercial, legal, social, successional or familial, is that often they transcended the politicking of the great nobles. In view of Henry’s inability or unwillingness to govern and on the basis that ‘something had to be done’, it is argued that rather than fleecing Henry, his closest advisors were in fact trying to maintain the everyday cohesion of national and local life from collapsing into anarchy. This is an important new hypothesis; since even though the English nobility were a turbulent and quarrelsome bunch, their relationship with the king was based on mutual cooperation and benefit.[12] In the absence of a national police force or standing army, or civil service the king relied on the nobility to enforce his law, his peace and his policies through their network of local officials and law officers. In return, the king was expected to provided the national leadership that ensured “…an outward calm for the defence and surety of the realm”.[13]

 

Professor Christine Carpenter in her own leading study of this period holds the view that Henry was so deficient in kingly qualities that whilst he might be allowed to approve some insignificant grants and pardons, though not necessarily as an act of personal rule, he was hardly likely to be allowed to formulate foreign policy for the war in France, which “…was absolutely central to the domestic politics of England…It is scarcely conceivable that they would have allowed the king to dictate policy on which their very lives depended when they seem to have been able to dictate to the king on everything else that mattered.” [14] However, she does not deny the possibility that Henry’s wishes may be seen in some of his ‘over-generous grants and pardons and in the foreign policy of the 1440’s’, which may be the result of Henry’s genuine desire for peace rather than an example of his capriciousness.

 

It seems, therefore, that though modern scholars agree that Henry was in the general sense incompetent, there is less certainty about whether he was culpable for the deficiencies of his reign. In considering that question, it is important to bear in mind that Henry VI is unique among English monarchs. He was not only born to the purple, but also surrounded with the divinity of kingship from the cradle. The untimely death of his father Henry V bought baby Henry to the throne of two kingdoms before he was a year old. He is the only English king to have presided at his first parliament sitting on his mother’s lap. Consequently, his character and his performance can only be judged in a regal context and by bearing in mind that in respect of both his kingdoms he never had the benefit of growing-up under the wing of his father from whom he might have learned the art of kingship.

 

Kingship

The English had high expectations of Henry. He was, after all, the only son of a successful warrior king. They expected him to rule in the common interest and they recognised his absolute, personal and inalienable authority to do so. There was no conflict between these principles if the king was competent. Ideally, such a king was prudent and took representative advice before acting. He made sound decisions and implemented them efficiently. Sir John Fortescue in his treatise on fifteenth century governance noted with smug pride that though in theory English kings had the powers of a tyrant, they generally ruled responsibly ‘in the common weal’.

 

Much depended on the vigour and personality of the king. He was expected to devise his own foreign and domestic policies, conduct affairs of state, make peace or declare war, lead the army against enemies foreign and domestic, dispense justice, and live off his income from crown lands and feudal dues. In theory, baby Henry was expected to do all these things from the moment he ascended the throne. In practice, of course, that was impossible. Henry could neither walk nor talk, nor control his bodily functions, nor even chew his own food much less govern his realms. This practical problem was complicated by the established constitutional doctrine, which held that the person of the king and the institution of king (the Crown) were indivisible. Royal authority, therefore, rested solely in the king’s person from the very instant of his accession. No other person could exercise royal authority on behalf of the king under any circumstances; to do so, was treason.[15] In 1422, therefore, the king’s true subjects were wondering how their baby king could rule them if he was physically and intellectually incapable of exercising his authority.

 

‘The king’s tender years’

On his deathbed, Henry V entrusted the governance of England to his youngest brother Humphrey duke of Gloucester, signifying that the duke should have the principal safekeeping and defence ’of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[16] These words implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent answerable only to the king and then only after Henry reached his majority. It was a settlement that recognised the indivisibility of the person and office of king, and devolved royal authority to the regent. However, when the matter came before the lords in parliament in 1422 they disregarded Henry V’s will and rejected Gloucester’s claim to be regent[17]: they did so again in 1428.[18] Distrusting Gloucester’s motives and preferring a conciliar minority rule to his autocratic regency, the lords determined on legal advice that exceptionally during Henry’s minority the indivisible estate of the king was incomplete since it lacked will or reason, which must perforce be supplied by the lords of the King’s Council, who would exercise the king’s authority collectively, whether assembled in Parliament, in the king’s continual council or in the Great Council, until the king was able to assume his personal rule.[19] John duke of Bedford the heir presumptive was appointed to the specially created and limited position of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm, and chief councillor to the king. Gloucester was allowed to hold that position only during Bedford’s absences abroad. Professor Watts regards this as a paradox in which the lords are both the king’s servants and his representatives, but in reality, it was a practicable solution to a practical problem. It was a settlement that prevented a non-regal autocracy, whilst enabling the realm to be governed during the king’s incapacity. It did not transfer royal authority to the lords and its legitimacy was founded squarely on the English lords’ collective responsibility. Moreover, this constitutional model stood the test of time. It was used again when Henry was incapacitated by mental illness in 1453, and also in 1483 when the child king Edward V succeeded to the throne. I am labouring these points now because of their importance in understanding the nature of Henry’s reign.

 

A minority council was therefore appointed to govern the kingdom collectively during the protectorship and throughout the king’s minority.[20] From the start, the council’s work was undermined by two long-term problems. First, a conflict of interests between the king’s relatives Gloucester and Beaufort soon became apparent. Gloucester, acting head of the council vice his absent elder brother, was overly ambitious and used his position to influence the direction of policy. Beaufort, the king’s Chancellor, was wealthy and used his wealth to promote his own policies. Their differences, which were personal as well as political, were irreconcilable. And their disgraceful behaviour did much to bring the council into disrepute. Second, many of the minority councillors exploited loopholes in the council’s financial regulations and abused their authority for their aggrandisement. There can be little doubt that Henry’s relatives and his venal councillors set a very poor example for the impressionable king. Even so, it is unlikely that Henry’s inadequacies were apparent when he was a child, since his involvement in affairs of state was notional.

 

A personable, intelligent and precocious youth

Henry’s transition from child king to adult king was a complex, and for some an arcane process. Unfortunately, a definitive appreciation of those events is hardly possible due to an academic disagreement between historians about what really happened and why. The undeniable facts that can be elucidated from the minutes and archives of government are straightforward. On the 1 October 1435, two months before his fourteenth birthday, Henry attended his first council meeting. Gloucester and Beaufort were also present since it was a strategically important gathering to appoint a new captain for the Calais garrison. Evidence of Henry’s subsequent attendances at minority council meetings and also at the less frequent but larger assemblies of his Great Council can be gleaned from the minutes of those meetings. In addition, petitions and warrants signed by the king signify that he regularly exercised his royal prerogative in matters of grace from at least the 28 July 1436, which was well before his fifteenth birthday. [21] For example, between the 7 November 1436 and the end of the month, he signed twenty-seven petitions and warrants.[22] Nor was Henry’s involvement in government restricted to matters of grace. There is evidence that he played a significant part in substantive foreign policy decisions such as the Duke of Orleans peace mission to France.[23] Despite the council’s natural concern about the liberality of Henry’s grants,[24] there was no obvious reason at this stage and on this evidence for anybody to think that Henry would not make a satisfactory king. He was young and could reasonably be expected to become more prudent as he gained experience and wisdom.

 

Following a meeting of the great Council, which lasted from the 12 to the 14 of November 1437, Henry declared the formal ending of his minority and assumption of his personal rule; he was not yet sixteen and the youngest English king since the Conquest to do so.[25] All the existing councillors were reappointed on oath to ‘counsel (Henry) well and truly and to keep his secrets, and to put forward their whole labours and diligence for his worship’.[26] Their terms and conditions of service were changed. Payment was now at the king’s discretion. The most contentious part of Henry’s declaration was the description of his future relationship with the new council, which was set out in a series of detailed ‘ordinances’ taken partly from those established for the council by Henry’s grandfather in 1406.[27] As far as I can see, the core of the declaration amounts to this: i) Henry’s prerogative on matters of grace is unfettered. ii) The council will continue to discuss ‘weighty matters’ moved before them, though no decision will be made or action taken without the king’s ‘advice’. iii) The council will continue to discuss and dispose of routine matters unless the council is divided or unable to make a judgement; in which case, the matter will be referred to the king for judgement. So much for the facts, I now turn to the debate about their meaning.

 

Professor Griffiths considers Henry’s declaration to have been no more than “…an announcement that Henry VI would take a prominent part in affairs henceforth, though without jettisoning the councillors who had served him during his youth.”[28] He dismisses the idea put forward by Watts et al that it was prompted by conciliar apprehension; neither does he accept that it was an attempt to restrain the king. It was, he argues, a material restraint on the council’s power vis-à-vis royal authority, as all matters of grace were in the king’s prerogative. “Pardons were his to give, all collations and benefits his to bestow, royal offices his to fill and anything pertaining to the Crown estates, bounty or favour were reserved to him”. [29] Moreover, though matters of weight might be discussed in council, nothing could be moved without reference to the king. Even routine matters must be referred to the king if the council were divided or unable to make a decision. Griffiths’ further suggests that the outcome was no more than Henry’s personal assumption of powers delegated to the council in 1422. The vagueness of the term ‘great weight or charge’ is an indication of Henry’s intention to intervene in anything important. Griffiths does not see this as a forceful return to personal rule or a wilful thrusting aside of wise councillors. Even less is the council attempting to preserve its authority by ‘ encircling the king with restrictions devised thirty years before’. “Henry’s declaration...[heralded]…the re-establishment, after fifteen years of conciliar government, of traditional royal rule in which the king’s councillors had an acknowledged part. Perhaps the only surprising feature was that it was published so soon in the young king’s life.”[30]

 

Bertram Wolffe’s conclusion is not materially different from that of Griffiths on this issue. Though, he is more vigorous in his assertion that, as far as could be judged in 1437, Henry possessed some kingly qualities such as physical strength, piety and ambition, and that there was a reasonable chance that wisdom and judgement would follow in due course. Henry was keen to assume the reins of power “just as soon, if not sooner than his advisors approved“.[31] Wolffe came to this conclusion after a careful and thorough analysis of the official record, minutes, petitions, warrants commissions and ‘the workings of government’, which demonstrate that Henry was not merely a cipher authorising everything and anything they put before him. In Wolffe’s opinion there were no grounds for the minority council to cling to their powers once the king determined he had come of age. The ordinances of 1437, though based on those of 1406, indicate that the council was shedding power, not increasing it. I do not think that either Wolffe or Griffiths is arguing that Henry was not an ineffectual adult king, or that his incapacity was not an important factor in the catastrophes of his reign. Their point is that these things were not necessarily obvious in 1437.

 

Professor Watts takes a completely different line.[32] For reasons I have already touched on, he argues that Henry insufficiencies were apparent before 1437. He rejects the notion that between 1435 and 1437 Henry was initiating his personal rule. The impetus for that, he argues, was coming from the council who managed his exercise of favour: “from grants made by the king and council in 1435-36 to grants made by the king alone but only during pleasure in 1436-37 and finally grants made for life from the spring of 1437 onwards.”[33] Watts adds that the council and wider nobility were worried that Henry was both unable and unwilling to rule the kingdom independently. He writes: “…if he had been behind the events of 1436, the whole tiresome process of recognition, definition and tentative restriction could have been avoided. The king would have begun to exercise his free will over the full range of royal responsibility, while counsellors, those of 1422 and others, advised him[34]

 

The emerging problems of 1437 were twofold. First, it was next to impossible to prevent individual petitioners seeking patronage from the young king, whose largess was well known. Second, the effective formulation of state foreign and justicial policy depended on active royal leadership and authority; in the absence of these two prerequisite, the effective management of the realm could only be achieved if the various factional groupings and vested interests reconciled their differences in a common approach. It was for these reasons, Watts suggests, that the council devised the 1437 declaration. “ [Since] the impetus for royal activity came from below…It was for the political community, if they could not bind the king, to define and govern the exercise of royal power.” [35]

 

The Suffolk years

The period between 1437 and 1450 saw the gradual but inexorable erosion of conciliar government and the establishment of an oligarchy based on the royal household and headed by William De La Pole earl (later duke) of Suffolk. As Steward of the King’s Household he had unrestricted access to the king and unrestrained influence over him.[36] As a result of this centralisation of government and the staff changes introduced by the council, state affairs were increasingly determined by only a small number of royal advisors, usually comprising Beaufort, Suffolk and their henchmen. Further administrative ordinances in 1444 aimed at streamlining administrative procedures and tightening the purse strings further reduced the number of royal advisors to, sometimes, not more than one or two. Finally, the deaths of Beaufort and Gloucester in 1447 consolidated Suffolk’s dominating position as the king’s chief advisor — sometimes his only advisor.[37]

 

Regardless of whether their motive was benign or malign, it is questionable whether the shift in power promoted by Suffolk’s and his affiliates was in the national interest. Even if the bulk of the English nobility acquiesced in the establishment of an oligarchy that pretended to be a monarchy, and even if the nature of the Henry’s incapacity was so desperate that ‘something had to be done’, Suffolk’s effort to prop up a non-functioning king by acting as his proxy was as reckless as it was treasonable.[38] It reduced the royal household to the status of a ‘faction’ and was the cause of such angst that it led eventually to civil war. If for whatever reason, the king lacked the will or reason to exercise his authority, then his royal estate was incomplete. In which case, the only proper course open to the lords was to resurrect the protectorship and the conciliar regime ratified by parliament in 1422.[39] Though this solution was not perfect, it had the dual benefits of legitimacy and utility. By thus broadening the government’s base and unblocking the king’s access to advice from the wider nobility there was a better prospect of consensual government during the king’s disability. Suffolk’s perseverance with the pretence that Henry was a functioning king damaged the Crown and fuelled public suspicions that he was acting in bad faith. Even professor Watts concedes that “Towards the end of the decade the court actually began to resemble the small body of household intimates and administrators depicted by its critics.”[40]

 

Of all the problems facing the English at this time, the most pressing were maintenance of the dual monarchy and Crown finances. These two problems were inextricably linked and could not be resolved separately. Moreover, an acceptable solution was more difficult to achieve owing to a conflict between the king’s peaceful ambition for his realms and the aspirations of his English subjects, for whom the conquest of France was a matter of national pride, prestige and power. Nevertheless, the key drivers that convinced Beaufort and the council (except Gloucester) of the need for peace were practical and not moral. The war was going badly for English arms. They were on the defensive everywhere. The conquest of the isle de France was no longer achievable or affordable. The burgeoning cost of defending the dual monarchy was pushing the Crown towards bankruptcy.

 

Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty began under Beaufort in 1437 and dragged on until 1444, when Suffolk agreed a temporary truce, which was only secured at the cost of two major English concessions. Henry was to marry a minor French princess, Margaret daughter of Renee of Anjou, Lorraine and Bar, and titular king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. From the English point of view, it was an inauspicious choice for their queen. Though Margaret was related to Charles VII, she was not an heiress and her family were not important in diplomatic terms. Besides, the attitude towards her in England was likely to be suspicious, it not downright hostile. The second — and secret — English concession was the surrender of Maine, which Suffolk is supposed to have promised to Charles verbally. Henry confirmed the promise secretly in writing in 1445, at the entreaty of his French wife. The English, when they finally heard of this concession were naturally suspicious that Margaret aided by Suffolk had put undue pressure on the king. The English army refused to cooperate and Maine was not actually ceded to the French until 1448.

 

There was a third problem, which though not quite as pressing as the other two was important and getting worse. There is evidence of clashes between local gentry and also between national magnates in the north, in the midlands, in south wales, in the west and in the Home Counties.[41] The use of private armies to resolve local grievances and disputes alienated lords and commoners alike. Their resentment was aggravated by the belief that the king’s ministers and servants condoned this anarchy. These problems were about to come to a head and would change the course of history.

 

Annus horribilis

The year I have called annus horribilis began on the 6 November 1449 with the hasty recall of Parliament. Such was the magnitude of the emergency at home and abroad that only nine weeks after the dissolution of parliament in July, another was summoned in September. The members of parliament who assembled at Westminster on the 6 November 1449 had the crisis in Normandy and misgovernment at home uppermost in their minds, and they were looking for the culprits.[42] As the king’s most influential counsellor, it was Suffolk who bore the brunt of their resentment. His fall from power was triggered by his attempt to block a complaint by Lord Cromwell against William Tailboys from going before the King’s Council.[43] The infuriated Cromwell drew the matter to the attention of the Commons who included it in a list of charges they were compiling against Suffolk. Meanwhile, during the parliamentary recess, English sailors murdered the much-hated Adam Moleyns bishop of Chichester. As he lay dying, Moleyns ‘confessed’ to Suffolk’s many misdeeds. Following this, Suffolk felt it necessary to make a statement answering Moleyns allegations and the many ‘…slanders and misconceptions running throughout the land’.

 

The Lords’ refusal to commit Suffolk for trial on the basis that there were no specific charges provided the Common with the opportunity to present a formal petition (indictment) containing eight specific articles (counts) of high treason against the duke. The most serious charge was that Suffolk conspired with Charles Valois to destroy Henry and put his own son, John De La Pole, on the English throne. The other charges amounted in general terms to examples of his treason by aiding and abetting the king’s enemies. However, after Suffolk was called to answer the charges, the king put the whole matter in abeyance. Whereupon, the Commons presented Henry with a second petition containing eighteen articles setting out the details of Suffolk’s corruption (including Cromwell’s complaint) and financial mismanagement. For which “…offences, misprisions, faithless acts and false deceits specified“ the Commons “accused and impeached” Suffolk.[44] Henry tried to delay the proceedings but was unable to stop Suffolk’s impeachment. In a desperate attempt to save his most important advisor from a traitor’s death, Henry exercised his prerogative to declare the first indictment for high treason ‘neither declared nor charged’. In other words, he was simply not prepared to accept it. On the second indictment of misprision, he exercised his prerogative for clemency by banishing Suffolk for five years. Nevertheless, Henry’s effort to save Suffolk was unavailing. On the 1 May 1450, somewhere in the English Channel off the Kent coast, Suffolk’s ship was intercepted by a small flotilla, which included the Nicholas of the Tower. The Captain and crew of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and ignoring his royal safe-conduct tried, convicted and executed him with a rusty sword. His headless body was dumped on the shore by Dover.[45]

 

Suffolk’s death did not alleviate England’s crisis in 1450 but it did pave the way for the Commons to petition Henry for a resumption of Crown lands alienated since the beginning of his reign, and the termination of all annuities, corrodes and pensions.[46] This Act would enable Henry to resume his economic and hereditary rights to all Crown properties, offices and custom taxes he gave as patronage. It was strongly resisted and there is no record in the Parliamentary Roll that Henry assented to it. However, without Suffolk to stiffen the king’s sinews it was passed into law; albeit, with 186 individual exceptions granted by Henry, which rendered it ineffective.[47] The Commons also made supplication to the king about purveyance abuses. They were concerned that money allocated for the defence of the realm was being used to pay the royal household’s subsistence expenses: this had to stop. It was the price Henry had to pay for the life of Suffolk and for obtaining a tax subsidy from the Commons.[48]

 

Charles VII invaded Normandy in 1449 and drove the English out. The English garrison were deficient in all the basic necessities of fifteenth century siege warfare except fighting spirit.[49] The professional French army was superior in numbers, leadership, tactics, arms, equipment and organisation. This situation is all the more discreditable since the English politicians were warned in good time by the English commander, Edmund Beaufort duke of Somerset, that the French were amassing a large army on the Normandy border and that the Duchy was defenceless without a large reinforcement of men and equipment. Measures were hastily put in hand to recruit and equip a force under the command of Sir Thomas Kyriell for service in France, but it was too little too late. On the 15 April 1450 the small English field army under Kyriell’s command was overwhelmed at Formigny near Bayeux; though outnumbered, they fought hard until virtually the last man.[50] The loss of Normandy was regarded as a national disgrace by most of the king’s subjects. There was also a general feeling that the heart of government was corrupt, and doubts that royal authority was being exercised properly.

 

Anybody looking for a connection between local and national politics need look no further than the rebellion that began in Kent in May 1450, and spread through the Home Counties and beyond during the summer. Jack Cade’s rebellion was short, sharp and brutal. Inevitably, the rebels were crushed and their leader killed. However, while it lasted, the rebellion shook the Lancastrian regime to its very core. The king fled from London, his household panicked and gave-up a few defenceless scapegoats to the rebels, and four hundred royal soldiers were defeated in the Kent Weald. Cade occupied London and in a series of quasi-judicial tribunals meted out rough justice to those whom he regarded as traitors. The rebellion was supported by a broad cross section of English society from powerful landowners to rural peasants. And they had put their grievances in writing. The ‘Complaints of the Poor Commons of Kent’ and “The Articles of a Captain of Kent’ are distinguished by their intelligent articulation of local and national grievances and for their proposals for reform. The rebels’ grievances are neatly summarised: “…the king had false counsel for his laws are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, himself so poor that he may not have [pay for] his meat or drink…[51] It is clear that the rebels did not blame the king for this misgovernment; they, blamed his advisors.

 

Although Cade’s rebellion did not produce instant results, it was the catalyst for Richard duke of York’s intervention in English politics as a champion for reform. York did not hold a formal constitutional position within England. He was not a member of the king’s inner circle, nor did he have a natural line of communication to the king. He was, however, the king’s heir presumptive and the senior royal duke, and as such, neither the king nor his inner circle of advisors could ignore York. He served as the King’s Lieutenant in Normandy (twice) and also in Ireland, where he proved himself to be a brave soldier and an excellent administrator: in fact, the quintessential ‘good lord’. His sudden return from Ireland (where he had been sent by the king for ten years in 1447) in September 1450 still troubles scholars: was it due to private grievance or public right? Interesting though that question is, it is irrelevant for my purpose. My point is simply that York’s intervention, for whatever reason, was bound to change the whole nature of English politics, which it did. His criticisms of the government were essentially the same as those of Cade’s rebels. He did not question the king’s competence and embellished his own comments with the suggestion that Henry was the innocent victim of evil councillors. It was a situation from which York — the king’s true and loyal subject — would recue him; thus, allowing him to rule properly as he always intended. It is difficult to regard this approach as anything other than a tactic intended to prevent the imputation of treason against York. It was also an approach guaranteed to antagonize the duke of Somerset who had succeeded Suffolk as Henry’s chief advisor.

 

The hostility between York and Somerset, which had been an undercurrent in English politics from the late 1440’s, became dominant in 1451. Their mutual dislike matured into personal and intense hatred that expressed itself through the medium of opposing Lancastrian and Yorkist factions. And there was worst to come: soon Gascony would be lost, leaving Calais as the last remnant of the first English overseas empire. At home the violent disturbances and aristocratic lawlessness continued, together with real or imagined conspiracies against the king. There was and is a suspicion that York was behind these plots, for which the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. However, it is unlikely that he condoned efforts by his supporters to remove the king. He wanted to rescue Henry from the clutches of his evil advisors, not replace him. The problem with York’s simplistic approach is that it ignored the much profounder question of the king’s fitness to rule, which nobody — least of all York — was prepared to consider at this stage. More worrying from York’s perspective was the fact that whilst his power and influence waned, Somerset’s waxed. By 1452, York was politically isolated. The bulk of the unaligned lords regarded him as an incorrigible troublemaker with no constitutional legitimacy to challenge the king’s choice of advisors. The pretence that Henry was a fit to rule England persisted until he was deposed in 1461.

 

The king was ill. We know nothing about the illness except that it caused mental collapse and it was kept secret until after the birth of his heir on the 18 October 1453. Just prior to the birth, a Great Council meeting was called, from which York was excluded. Nevertheless, in Somerset’s absence on business, a group of non-aligned lords sent for York. Their decision was made on the grounds of his legitimate right to be involved in the discussion about the governance of the realm. It was their hope was that the dukes of York and Somerset would be able to work together and with the Great Council in the public interest: some hope! The mental collapse of Henry and the appointment of York as Lord protector and Defender of the Realm marks the end of this narrative. It is doubtful whether Henry ever recovered from this collapse and nobody even pretends that he was an independent functioning monarch thereafter. After Somerset’s death at St Albans in 1455, Henry was helpless and in the grip of his wife. After York’s death at Wakefield in 1460, Henry was deposed.

 

‘Chide him for faults, and do it reverently’

Personally, I doubt the historical significance of the various interpretations of Henry’s reign. Whether he was a malicious interventionist (Wolffe), a well-meaning duffer (Griffiths) or an inert simpleton (Watts et al) matters not in reality, since the outcome was the same on each case. Henry was a bad king. In fact, it is hard to imagine a man less suited to rule the kingdoms he inherited by an accident of birth. He did not look or behave like a king. Plainly he was incompetent and often disinterested in the minutiae of government. He failed to exercise royal authority properly and lacked the force of personality to uphold the king’s justice in his English kingdom. His shortcomings created a vacuum at the heart of government, which some of his overly ambitious subjects were quick to occupy and keen to exploit to the detriment of the common interest. It is unsurprising therefore that by the middle decade of his reign many of Henry’s English subjects were offended by the losses in France, oppressed for the want of royal justice at home and impoverished by the burden of taxation. These things are all matters of historical record and a blot on his rule. Nonetheless, despite his faults, Henry’s critics tend to underestimate contemporary evidence of the almost insuperable problems he faced from the moment of his accession, which would have tested even his renowned father. For all his heroic stature, Henry V’s legacy to his baby son was not a happy one.

Any hope the English had of conquering Valois France went to the grave with Henry V in 1422. Any realistic hope they had of preserving Henry VI’s sovereignty over his French possessions disappeared with the death of John duke of Bedford in 1435 and the defection of Burgundy from their English alliance that same year. Militarily and diplomatically, the tide had turned irretrievably against the English while Henry VI was still a minor. Their tactics were outmoded, their army was outmatched and the cost of the war was becoming unsustainable: none of this was Henry’s fault. Nonetheless, the subsequent failure to negotiate a realistic and workable peace treaty with Charles VII did bear his hallmark. Henry’s negotiating position was unrealistic. He thought that Charles would stop fighting and allow him to retain sovereignty of his French inheritance: that was a Lancastrian ‘red line’. It was one thing for Henry to be ejected from his French inheritance by the fortunes of war but he could never concede that he was not the king of France by right. In reality, of course, Henry had no leverage over Charles who was winning the war anyway. Besides, he regarded it as a war of liberation and could not allow Henry to retain his possessions except as a vassal of the French king: that was the Valois ‘red line’.

 

The truce with Charles VII that was agreed in 1444 and then extended, was broken by the Duke of Somerset, who enraged the Duke of Brittany by attacking his territory. It is unclear whether Somerset was ‘encouraged’ by the king to do that, but it seems likely. Even if Henry was dealt a bad hand, he played it badly. His pacifist nature was unsuited to the task of defending his French realm in the face of a warlike and implacable foe, and his lack of judgement showed in the promotion of commanders whose only qualification for the task was that they were his favourites. Henry was also hampered by a lack of money to pay for the war and the normal expenses of government.

 

The Crown’s financial difficulties began soon after the battle of Agincourt. The lay and clerical subsidies granted by parliament for 1415-1416 raised £216,868. However, the overall costs of maintaining Harfleur, negotiating with the Duke of Burgundy, the naval expedition of 1416 and fitting out a flotilla for service in 1417 came to £256,885. The deficit of £40,017 was made-up from loans at commercial rates and the ransom payments of French prisoners. These figures do not include expenses incurred during the Agincourt campaign, but not yet met.[52] By the end of Henry V’s reign, the English exchequer had a deficit of £30,000 and outstanding debts of £25,000 due mainly to war costs.

 

It was Henry V’s policy after 1418 to transfer the burden of the war to Normandy. The Duchy was supposed to pay for itself and also contribute money to the general war effort. However, the first complete financial accounts for the Norman Estates shows that all but 5,000 livre (li)[53] of Norman revenue was spent on the administration and defence of the Duchy; nor did finances improve over time. In fact, they deteriorated even further during Henry VI’s minority. In 1423, for example, the accounts show that of the 90,000(li) granted to Bedford by the Norman Estates, only 29,000(li) was available for defence. Between 1419 and 1435, the Norman estates met twenty four times and made impositions totalling 3,150,000(li). Even so, this revenue fell short of costs. The idea that Normandy could be self-funding was illusory; their treasury could only just about cover its own administrative costs if they did not also have to pay for military operations. Moreover, these financial demands alienated the Normans against their English overlords and demonstrated that without an English subsidy the Duchy was, more or less, defenceless.[54]

 

Whilst there is no doubt that Henry VI’s foolish generosity did not improve Crown finances, there is convincing evidence that even had he been judicious and thrifty with the grant of patronage, his means were barely sufficient for his needs. The inherited costs of defending his French inheritance, the expansion of the royal household, the costs of his marriage and the Queens household expenses were more than the Crown could bear without tax subsidies from parliament and the convocation. Significantly, during Henry’s minority neither parliament not the convocation gave generous subsidies; furthermore, the revenue raised was unpredictable. Exemptions given to poor towns and villages reduced the amount raised, as did fraud and administrative incompetence. The alternative of individual taxation was so unpopular that it was only imposed twice (1428 and 1436). Even then, the revenue raised was erratic due to resistance, fraud and administrative incompetence. It seems that the Crown was expected to manage cash flow and income by borrowing, using the Crown Jewels as security.[55]

 

So appalled was Ralph Lord Cromwell by the state of public finances in 1433 that he presented to parliament a highly detailed and precise analysis delineating to the last farthing the Crown’s insolvency. Having just succeeded Lord Hungerford as Treasurer, Cromwell was keen to highlight the problems he had inherited and to impose some fiscal discipline on the government by, for instance, vetting all requests for expenditure and patronage. The demands placed on the royal purse during the king’s minority were many: the royal household, the Queen’s household, Calais, France, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine, Fronsac, grants of Henry V’s will, and prisoner expenses etc. In summary, ordinary expenditure exceeded income by £47,887. 7s. 4d farthing, to which must be added provision for the repayment of debts totalling £164,814. 11s.1d halfpenny.[56] To control debt, Parliament set an arbitrary annual limit on Crown borrowing, which could now be secured against tax revenue. These measures under Cromwell’s capable stewardship delayed the inevitable but could not prevent it. By 1449, Cromwell had moved on from the Treasury and the Lancastrian regime was bankrupt. When Parliament met again later that year, the main thrust of the Commons’ criticisms was the belief that corruption and fraud were partly responsible for the crown’s bankruptcy. Their priority now was to put Henry’s finances on a sustainable basis.[57]

 

The aristocratic violence and lawlessness, and the corruption in high places that so oppressed Henry VI’s subjects were not unique to his reign. In fact, the preservation of law and order was a recurrent problem for most, if not all, medieval English monarchs. Late medieval England had an unenviable reputation among the rest of Christendom for lawlessness. While studying the legal records for 1348, the historian L O Pike was so shocked by what he found that he described that part of Edward III’s reign as a period of widespread depravity. E G Kimball, studying the Shropshire Peace Rolls for 1400-1414 concluded that ‘serious crime was not being punished in Shropshire or for that matter anywhere in England’. There are many scholarly studies and records of late medieval crime, none of which has identified even a few consecutive years of effective law enforcement between 1290 and 1485.[58] Neither is this simply a question of policing, since such lawlessness touched on the general lack of public confidence in the integrity of royal justice and the corrupt exercise of power that pre-dated Henry VI’s reign.[59]

 

The reasons for such pervasive criminality are many and complex, and are such that I cannot hope to address them all in this essay. However, there is a combination of circumstances that are part systemic and part behavioural, which I should explore in the context of Henry VI’s reign. The failure of successive medieval kings to outlaw ‘livery and maintenance’, coupled with the collapse of royal justice encouraged the lords and gentry to take grievances into their own hands.[60] The result during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the creation of ‘over mighty subjects’ with their affinities, which very often included organised criminal gangs of violent men with a penchant for feuding and ignoring the law of property.[61] This undesirable situation was further aggravated by the king’s reliance on local magnates and gentry to administer, dispense and enforce the king’s justice. Chief among these royal officials were the permanent county Sheriff’s who were each had judicial and administrative responsibilities for overseeing and dispensing justice in their county. They presided in the Shire Courts and also framed and selected indictments for hearing in the king’s courts. Moreover they were also responsible for selecting and empaneling jurors to sit on Grand Juries and Trial Juries in the various courts within their bailiwick. Unfortunately, owing to the system of livery and maintenance, Sheriffs were themselves more often than not in the service of a lord and, therefore, were hardly likely to be impartial judges or administrators in any cases involving their lord or members of his family and affinity.[62]

 

Aristocratic lawlessness was a problem, even for strong monarchs such as Edward I and Edward III. A parliamentary petition of 1331 complained that gangs of men were “kidnapping for ransom and killing the king’s lieges, churchmen and royal judges…” [63] Edward tackled the problem with his customary vigour, which, nevertheless brought only temporary success. By 1443 even Edward had to admit that the law of the land was not well kept; it was a problem that only got worse during the king’s absence at the wars. Although Henry VI inherited a situation that was not of his own making, it is hard to refute professor Bellamy’s assertion that the criminality was worse in the fifteenth century than it had been during the fourteenth. Crime had not actually increased but it was more pernicious during Henry’s reign. I don’t think anybody can seriously dispute that this was due primarily to Henry’s lack of kingly qualities as previously discussed

 

My final point is about Henry’s mental health during his adult years prior to 1453, when we know he had some form of mental breakdown, which lasted until 1455 at least. The precise nature of his mental collapse cannot now be known. There is no evidence that Henry suffered mental ill-health prior to 1453, but the inference that he had inherited his grandfather’s (Charles VI) ‘melancholia’ is almost irresistible. It would explain his detachment from temporal affairs and the comments about him made by some of his subjects. It is not impossible, therefore, that he suffered from a mental illness: I put it no higher[64].

[1] John Harvey – The Plantagenets (T Batsford Ltd 1948): I have quoted from the 1967 Fontana edition (p.169)

[2] M R James [Ed] – Henry the Sixth: a reprint of John Blacman’s memoirs (Cambridge 1919): Blacman was a precentor at Eton College (1445-52) and subsequently of King’s Hall Cambridge. There is no evidence that he is the unnamed author who writes in the first person, since his name does not appear in the list of Henry’s chaplains or clerks. It is possible that the tract was simply found among his papers after death.

[3] Sir Henry Ellis [Ed] – Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (Camden Soc 1844) pp. 70-71

[4] Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition)

[5] Wolffe; pp.12-18 and passim

[6] RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) pp.253-254

[7] Griffiths pp.231

[8] John Watts – Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge 1999)

[9] Griffiths p.2 note 5: Griffiths cites JS Davies [Ed] – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden Soc 1856) p.79

[10] Wolffe pp. xxiv-xxv; introduction by John Watts

[11] Watts chs.5-7; Christine Carpenter – The Wars of the Roses: politics and constitution in England 1437-1509 (Cambridge 1997) passim; Christine Carpenter – Locality and Polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society 1401-1499 (Cambridge 2009; AJ Pollard – North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses: lay society war and politics (Oxford 1990); Helen Castor- The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: public authority and private power (Oxford 2000).

[12] JR Lander – Government and Community 1450-1509 (Edward Arnold 1980) p.3

[13] Lander pp. 33-34; Lander is here quoting the words of Robert Stillington in 1468, when he was Lord Chancellor to Edward IV.

[14] Carpenter (WOTR) p.90

[15] Chris Givern-Wilson [General Ed] The Parliamentary Rolls Of Medieval England (Boydell 2005), Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) PROME ibid; SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp. 35-37; by the fifteenth century the courts had declared that the royal prerogative ‘ must be intact in the king’s person alone’ (p.35, citing VYB. SEIV, Micho.fo 118-23 [App No 48]).

[16] PROME Vol 10 p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong – ‘The Last Will and Codicils of Henry V, (EHR, 96 [1981] 99) et al.

[17] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24; ‘it was not the English custom’, they said

[18] PROME Vol 10, pp. 347-348, items 24-27

[19] PROME ibid; Chrimes p.37

[20] JF Baldwin – The King’s Council in England during the Middle Ages (Oxford 1913) p.169; Henry VI’s first minority council comprised a representative body of twenty-one men, all of whom had served as councillors to his late father. The original list is as follows: the duke of Bedford (protector), the duke of Gloucester (protector in Bedford’s absence), the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Durham (Chancellor), William Kinewelmersh (Treasurer), John Stafford (Keeper of the Privy Seal), the bishops of London, Winchester, Norwich and Worcester, the duke of Exeter, the earls of March, Warwick, Northumberland, Westmorland and the Earl Marshall, Lord Fitzhugh (Chamberlain), Ralph Cromwell, Walter Hungerford, John Tiptoft and Walter Beauchamp, knights. In the absence of any specific instructions from parliament, the council defined its own terms of reference, which were intended to safeguard their superiority under the king by nullifying the autocratic ambitions of Bedford and Gloucester (p.172).

[21] Wolffe pp.87-88; Griffiths pp. 275-278 and Watts pp.127-131: Henry’s first recorded grant of patronage was to his uncle Cardinal Beaufort at Canterbury in July 1436. The king was in Kent to witness the embarkation of English reinforcements for the Calais garrison.

[22] Wolffe p.188: see also Watts p.130, Griffiths p.275 and Baldwin p.184. Baldwin notes: “already in1435-36 the king’s personal intervention in the matter of favours may be observed, as in his own boyish hand the royal signature appears upon various bills ‘R.H. nous avons graunte’.”

[23] Wolffe p.90: in the autumn of 1437, the council was divided on whether the king should pay Orleans’ expenses for his peace mission to France. They were worried that it might be construed as a concession and encourage Charles Valois to make further demands. The matter was put to Henry for a decision. He decided to pay the duke’s expenses from taxation.

[24] Baldwin; ibid

[25] Henry III was eighteen when he assumed his personal rule. Edward III was twenty before he shook off Mortimer’s yoke. The more problematic Richard was twenty-two before he ended his minority.

[26] Baldwin; ibid: the eighteen councillors were as follows: the duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Lincoln and St David’s, the earls of Huntingdon, Stafford, Salisbury, Northumberland, Suffolk and Devon, Lord Hungerford, Lord Tiptoft, the bishop of Bath (Chancellor), Lord Cromwell (Treasurer), William Lindwood (Keeper of the Privy Seal), William Phillip (Chamberlain), John Stourton (knight of the household) and Robert Rolleston (Keeper of the Wardrobe)

[27] PROME Vol 8 pp.321, 323 and 337-67: contains a useful analysis and details of the 1406 ordinances. They appear to have little relevance to the circumstances of 1437, since in 1406 a concerned parliament was seeking to restrain the king’s autocratic tendencies by increasing the council’s powers: arguably, that was not the case in 1437.

[28] Griffiths p.276

[29] Griffiths pp.274-278: see also Wolffe pp.87-92

[30] Griffiths p.277

[31] Wolffe p.92

[32] Watts chps. 4-7; see also Carpenter chps.1- 5, passim, which makes many of the same points

[33] Watts p.30, notes 27-30

[34] Watts p.132: this is a reference to Suffolk’s successful attempt to secure his personal hegemony of the council and of the royal household.

[35] Watts p.133

[36] Baldwin pp.190-191″ Suffolk did not frequently show himself in council but with excessive disregard of his enemies carried his policy with the king independently of colleagues.

[37] Griffiths pp. 284-286; Baldwin ibid; the Council Ordinances of 1444 were only intended to improve the government’s administrative efficiency. However, Henry’s more unscrupulous officials used the ordinances to consolidate the move of government from the council to the household.

[38] Watts chps 5 & 6, pp.181-254; contains detailed and complex arguments in defence of Suffolk’s actions. Put briefly, Watts’ argues that Suffolk’s service to the king forced him to exercise royal authority because the king was incapable of doing so. The real problem he suggests was not venal counselors but a useless king. Such a narrative suggests that England was governed by a group of aristocrats who abandoned the rule of law in favour of the edict ‘might is right’. The image of these royal officials and court favourites disposing of power, wealth and privilege among themselves in order to maintain a privileged status quo and regardless of the rights of others, whether noble or commoners is unedifying to say the least. It brought royal justice into disrepute and was the cause of the social unrest that erupted with catastrophic consequences in the summer of 1450. Watts’ detailed analysis of the working of government and interesting tables and statistics on attendances are meant to support his contention that between 1435 and 1445 Suffolk was acting with the tacit consent of almost all of the English nobility. That may be so, but it doesn’t make Suffolk’s ‘rule’ legitimate nor does it explain why Watts seems to think that such criminal behaviour was in the national interest. By ‘the later 1440’s, even Watt’s acknowledges the lords’ support for Suffolk’s policy was falling away and in any event was ‘insufficiently visible to the rest of political society’.

[39] That is exactly what happened in the 1454 and 1455 when Henry’s metal health collapsed. One wonders whether Henry was of sound mind earlier than this. Did he inherit his maternal grandfather’s ‘melancholia’?

[40] Watts P.240

[41] Griffiths Chapter 20, p.562-609, contains a detailed analysis of the lawlessness and aristocratic violence during Henry’s reign; see also Wolffe pp.106-125; IMW Harvey – Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford 1991) Chp.2; and RL Storey – The end of the House of Lancaster (Sutton 1999 2nd Edition) passim for further extensive details of lawlessness

[42] PROME Vol 12, PP 72,73 & 159

[43] Roger Virgoe – William Tailboys and Lord Cromwell: crime and punishment in Lancastrian England (Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library 55, 1972-71973) pp. 459-482; the first charges brought against Suffolk were that he plotted with William Tailboys to murder Lord Cromwell on the 28 November 1449 at Westminster. Even though the incident might have been exaggerated, the fact that this offence was included in Parliament’s second petition for Suffolk’s impeachment is an indication of its seriousness.

[44] PROME Vol 12, pp. 75,76, 93-105 & 154-156 appendix1, article1; this is easily the most comprehensive account of Suffolk’s impeachment with the detailed petitions and and proof, and Suffolk’s own response. See also EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987) pp. 492-495 for an excellent summary of these events.

[45] James Gairdner (ed) – The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Cambridge Library edition 2010) six volumes, Vol 2 pp.146-147. This letter from William Lomer to John Paston is dated the 5 May; it contains a vivid and detailed account of Suffolk’s death at the hands of the hands of the Captain and crew of HMS Nicholas at Tower. This being a royal ship, it is inconceivable that they acted independently. It is impossible for obvious reasons that they either the king or the queen were behind this murder. However, the Duke of York is a suspect; though there is no evidence.

[46] PROME ibid

[47] PROME ibid; Wolffe p.230; Harvey p.189.

[48] PROME p.78

[49] Alfred H Burne – The Agincourt War (Greenhill Books 1991 edition) chp18 pp. 306-330: contains a useful summary of this campaign with a common sense assessment of numbers and tactics etc. Colonel Burne would, he wrote, gladly have passed over the loss of Normandy in silence since it was such a discreditable period in English history, for which he blamed Suffolk whom he described as ‘shuffling’, even ‘shifty’.

[50] Burne pp. 318-322

[51] Harvey ibid

[52] Jacob pp.202-220, & 255; Jacob provides a useful analysis, with tables, of the monetary grants made to Henry V from 1415 until the end of his reign. This information is extrapolated from the English and Norman exchequer records of the time and includes the detailed costs of in defending and administering Normandy.

[53] Livre: ‘old French currency equivalent to a pound of silver.’ (SOED)

[54] Jacob ibid

[55] Griffiths pp. 376-394 contains a detailed analysis of the crown’s financial problems and the measures taken to overcome them. Griffiths also provides useful tables of taxation trends and prominent Crown creditors.

[56] PROME Vol 11 pp.69, 70 and 102-113; Cromwell’s lengthy schedule is in the form of a petition to the king, which provides a fascinating and detailed description of the Crown’s estate and sources of income in 1433, together with its expenditure and indebtedness. See also Griffiths pp.107-122 for a instructive discussion of these financial problems and some very useful tables of taxation, loans etc. during the minority. It is clear from the evidence and Griffiths’ analysis that parliament underestimated the cost of the war and overestimated the ability of the French territories to pay for it. One consequence of borrowing was that any imbalance between unpaid debts and taxation would inevitably lead to bankruptcy. Significantly, in 1433 the Crown’s indebtedness was two-and-a-half times greater than its annual revenues.

[57] PROME Vol 12, p.77

[58] John Bellamy – Crime and Public Order in England in the Late Middle Ages (Routledge 1973) pp.4-6 citing LO Pike – A History of Crime in England (London 1873-73) i p.297; EG Kimball – The Shropshire Peace Rolls 1400-1414 (Shrewsbury 1959) p.45; RH Hilton – A Medieval Society (London 1966) p.258, who from an analysis of the Assize Rolls for the reign of Edward I formed the opinion that the sanctions of common law were ineffective in curbing violence and corruption; GO Sayles (Ed) – Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench, Edward II (Selden Society,74 1955) p.iii. See also PROME 1275-1504 all volumes, which contain hundreds of petitions attesting to the lawlessness and corruption of the Middle Ages. Finally, there is also a mass of unpublished material in the National Archives as described in Bellamy’s bibliography (pp. 205-206). “Every verdict seems unfavourable” (Bellamy p.4).

[59] Bellamy passim

[60] Livery and maintenance was the practice whereby individual lords recruited large numbers of retainers who were personally loyal to them and wore their livery. These men were expected to respond to calls for military and other services in return for their lord’s protection (‘maintain their part’) in litigation and/or any other disputes they were involved in, and their preferment on matters of patronage Prime examples of these over-mighty subjects during Henry VI’s reign were the dukes of York and Somerset, and the earls of Suffolk and Warwick. Livery and maintenance continued to plague the monarchy until Henry VII outlawed it.

[61] Bellamy pp.1-36 and 69-88

[62] A Harding – The Law Courts of Medieval England (Geo Allen and Unwin 1973) pp.51-53; see also Bellamy passim; from the twelfth century, civil and criminal cases in the country were dealt with under the general eyre. This was an itinerant system of justice introduced by Henry II, whereby professional judges and legal administrator’s from the curia regis (the King’s Court) accompanied the king during his progress around the kingdom and paid prolonged visits to individual counties. Their jurisdiction was wide-ranging and superior to that of the Hundred and Shire courts. The king’s judges were entitled to hear all pleas presented to them and not just those from a special group. Furthermore, their hearings were very thorough by medieval standards. More particularly, these judges were authorised to investigate any and all excesses, misdeeds, taking of bribes and other dishonest practices of sheriff’s and bailiffs, and to review the work of previous eyres. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the demands placed on the general eyre were too great for the limited number of professional judges available and the system fell into abeyance during the thirteenth century. It was a pity as the misconduct of the sheriffs’ was no longer monitored and corrected.

[63] Bellamy p.6; PROME Vol 4, pp. 164 and 166

[64] Wolffe pp.152-153; Griffiths pp. 715-718; Watts pp.301-325 passim and Storey p136 note 13

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Another take on Richard de la Pole

Here, the American blogger Samantha Wilcoxson writes about Lord Richard’s life in DSC06658

his capacity as the last free son of John, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, and as an exile from the England of the first two “Tudors”, before dying at Pavia and being buried in the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro there (right).th (7)

From Lord Richard’s Wikipedia page, it appears that someone else has noticed the coincidence between his early exile in Hungary and the Hungarian guests at Marguerite‘s 1539 marriage, so it possibly isn’t a coincidence. Marguerite’s fecundity and long life testify to her youth in that year, although they still don’t quite prove her paternity. Perhaps her mother has finally been identified?

Horrox on the de la Poles

Two weeks after visiting Wingfield , I attended a “Wuffing Education” Study Day at Sutton Hoo, addressed by Rosemary Horrox on the de la Pole family. This juxtaposition of dates was entirely beneficial as their genealogy and history was fresh in my mind so it was easy to follow Horrox’s train of thought.

She covered the family’s commercial origins in Hull as two of three brothers, whose father’s forename is still unknown, left the city to enter the national scene, lending money to the King. Although Richard was probably William’s elder brother, their paths diverged as he sought a less acquisitive strategy and his male line descendants are less famous, expiring three generations later. William’s family is better known but trod a far more perilous path, particularly in royal moneylending. His son, Michael, served the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, being created Earl of Suffolk and marrying Katherine Wingfield before falling foul of Richard II and dying in exile in the year of that King’s deposition. We were also shown some accounts from shortly after this time, relating to the second Earl’s children and their education. The first Earl’s successors, a son and a grandson both also named Michael, died on the 1415 French expedition, one of disease after the siege of Harfleur and the other at Azincourt soon afterwards. The younger of these left no sons and was succeeded by his brother, William, whose career, elevation to the Dukedom of Suffolk and end aboard the Nicolas of the Tower is a familiar story to most of us. Then we have John, brother-in-law to Edward IV and Richard III, both of whom he outlived – incidentally, Horrox does not believe that he actually married Margaret “Beaufort” as a child.
Between them, John de la Pole’s ten or so children lost his position completely and appear to have had only one child, a nun who died of the plague in about 1515. Horrox’s genealogical handouts detail the lack of alternative male lines in great detail, such that the “Marguerite de la Pole – Suffolk” who married in France during spring 1539 could have had no father by that surname save for Lord Richard or a cousin at least twice removed. Even if we had some of her DNA from somewhere, a father-daughter relationship would be the most difficult to prove – impossible as today’s scientific knowledge stands.

I cannot recall enjoying a history talk as much as this since one by Ashdown-Hill nearly fifteen years ago or Michael K. Jones a few times in Norwich. I would recommend these Study Days to anyone when a particularly appealing topic arises: http://wuffingeducation.co.uk/studydays/ . The setting is outstanding and the Sutton Hoo café is two minutes from the hall, although transport from Melton station can be difficult.

Wingfield

Wingfield is a village in the middle of North Suffolk, just a few miles off the A140. There is a “castle”, but this is privately occupied and the owner is a little secretive. The village also features a small “college” and wedding venue, also known as Wingfield Barns, but its main features are St. Andrew’s Church and the “de la Pole Arms”, an excellent hostelry which is directly opposite the churchyard.

This Church tells the story of the de la Poles as they expanded from their mercantile origins in Hull and married an heiress of the Wingfield line. Monuments to three heads of the family and their spouses lie near the altar, which was moved further east as the church grew to accommodate the last of these tombs. Nearer to the door, a board (left) summarises the de la Pole genealogy as they experienced close association with the Black Prince, the wrath of Richard II, the vagaries of Henry V’s French expedition, sudden death aboard the Nicolas of the Tower, marriage to the sister of Edward IV and Richard III – and the reigns of the first two “Tudors”, the last confirmed family member dying in the Tower of London in 1538, although a mystery remains in France and in Italy. John de la Pole’s shield, replete with leopards, is among many in the church.

By then the Brandons, descended through another Wingfield heiress, and their son-in-law Henry Grey had been assigned the Duchy of Suffolk but this tenure ended in 1553-4 as Grey backed his daughter’s claim to the throne and was attainted and executed.

Additionally, a tomb to Robert Leman DD (right) lies beneath the flagstones. This Georgian cleric may well be related to Sir John of Beccles, particularly as he seems to have enjoyed the living of Pakefield, which is also by the A12, further east.

 

Tintagel-More Kings Than Just Arthur

Tintagel in Cornwall is best known for its connections to King Arthur. However, the castle, although reputed in folklore to be Arthur’s birthplace, does not date from the Dark Ages but from medieval times, being first built by Earl Reginald, the illegitimate son of Henry I, then later remodelled by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, younger brother of Henry III.  Earl Richard built most of what we see today, including the ‘Iron Gate’ which guards the cove, as well as the curtain walls, the buttresses augmenting the great hall, and the grand entranceway leading out into the nearby valley.

At one time  a chapel to St Julitta stood within the castle walls; although Tintagel was described as ‘ruinous but still strong’ in the 1470’s, King Richard III appointed a chaplain, John Leicrofte to St Julitta’s in 1483. A few years later, not long after Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, Henry VII made one John Upcoate captain of the castle for his ‘services beyond the sea.’

Just above the ruins, standing alone and isolated from the village, is an ancient church dedicated to a very obscure Cornish Saint called  Materiana. William of Worcester, journeying through Cornwall in 1478, wrote that she ‘performed a miracle on a man out of his mind, and on one woman and a certain girl upon the Feast of St James.’

In the 15th c, the patronage of Tintagel and St Materiana’s church was entailed to Alice Chaucer, and upon her third marriage to William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, the advowson was given to the couple for life.

Eventually this passed to their son John de la Pole (father of John, earl of Lincoln, Richard III’s designated heir after the death of his son). John’s wife was Elizabeth of York, sister to Edward IV and Richard III, and it was likely that Edward asked John and Elizabeth to relinquish rights of patronage. This was done by letters patent in June 1480.

At this particular time, Edward was busy remodelling the Chapel of St George at Windsor, and therefore the remote the Cornish church of St Materiana was assigned to the dean and canons of St George’s ‘to hold to them and their successors forever.’

Even today, whenever a new priest is needed for the parish, the appointment is made by St George’s chapel. The ties between Windsor and Tintagel, created by Edward IV, have never been broken in 500 years.

(Photos show the ruined castle with St Materiana’s church on the cliff, sections of the ruins, and a tile with the eagle of Richard of Cornwall.)

IN AN OXFORDSHIRE VILLAGE

In a beautiful, sleepy Oxfordshire village stands the church of St Mary the Virgin.  Once this village was a much busier place, with ornate Almhouses known as ‘God’s House’ (now partly a school)  and a lavish manor house that was near enough a palace.  Other than a wall of the old dairy, not one trace of the manor now remains above ground,  but in the 15th century this was the home of Alice de la Pole, wife of William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk.

Alice was the grand daughter of one of the most famous English writers of all time, Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales fame.Her father was Thomas Chaucer and her mother Maud or Matilda Burghersh who are both buried in the church in an altar tomb set with fine  brasses and covered in the wheel symbol of the de Roets and the leopards of the Plantagenets. Alice was married  three times, first to Sir John Philip, then Thomas Montagu  Earl of Salisbury, and finally to William de la Pole. Her son, John de la Pole,  married Elizabeth of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, and John’s son, Alice’s grandson, was John Earl of Lincoln, whom Richard III made his heir after the death of Edward of Middleham.

Alice’s husband William was murdered when his ship was intercepted by a huge royal warship called ‘Nicholas of the Tower’ while  crossing the Channel as he went into exile. Immediately he knew doom had befallen him; he had been told years before by the astrologer Stacey that he must ‘beware the Tower.’ Taken on board the enemy ship, he was beheaded with ‘many blows’ from a rusty sword and his body displayed for all to see upon the sands at Dover, his head stuck upon a stake.

Alice inherited  many lands and manors from her husband and as she loaned  a considerable amount of  money to the Crown, the lands and titles were not placed under attainder. At one point she was constable of nearby Wallingford castle and as such custodian of  both the ill-fated Henry  Holland Duke of Exter (later to suspiciously ‘fall off’ a ship and drown after Edward IV’s French campaign) and Margaret of Anjou in the aftermath of Tewkesbury. Years before, Alice had been one of Queen Margaret’s ladies in waiting.

Alice died in 1475 at the age of 71. She has a large and elaborate alabaster tomb of exceedingly fine workmanship. On top lies the effigy of a strong-featured but peaceful-looking woman wearing a coronet; below the top, in a recess, lies a macabre memento mori monument of the Duchess as a decaying corpse, a grim reminder of the transience of life.

 

 

Richard and John de la Pole I and II….

Hull de la Poles

This article is about the de la Poles and their connection with Hull. The author rather muddles some members of the family but there are no nasty comments about Richard III.

http://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/…/story-29118778-…/story.html

The True History of King Richard III (Part 3)

The True History of King Richard III – Part 3

Interlude

It is now time for a little housekeeping and explanation. The political situation between 1455 and 1459 is too boring and complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that sometimes the Duke of York was in power, and sometimes the Duke of Somerset and Queen Margaret were. Of course, this Somerset was not the one Richard had killed, but his son, who most confusingly had the same title. Similarly King Henry VI was sometimes insane, and sometimes what passed for ‘normal’ in the case of Henry VI. In other words, he wasn’t actually catatonic, and gave the impression that he was merely unworldly, and in fact quite holy. Had he been a friar, he’d quite possibly been made a saint while he still lived, but as a king he was more in the way of an inconvenience, often signing things he was not supposed to sign, and quite frequently granting the same thing to two different people.

Richard had a number of brothers and sisters alive at this time. The eldest was Anne, who was no longer at home being married to the Duke of Exeter. The idea of these arranged marriages was to build alliances with other noble houses, but unfortunately Exeter hated both Anne and her father, the Duke of York. (This is no reflection on Anne or York. as Exeter hated everyone except Lord Egremont, and was always going around annoying people and getting thrown into the Tower.)

The next eldest were Edward and Edmund. Everyone knows Edward, who was later to become King Edward IV. He was very tall and good looking, and all the ladies liked him, so he always got extra chips on his plate when he lined up for dinner. Eventually, as a direct result, he became rather fat. No one knows much about Edmund, though he was probably similar to Edward, but nicer. These two lived in their own establishment, which may have been at Ludlow, where they were mercilessly bullied by a boy named Croft. Or, as they called him, Bonzo. Later this same Croft became a faithful servant, which probably proves something about bullies.

Next was Elizabeth, who was married to the Duke of Suffolk. If you’d met Suffolk in the street, you’d have thought him a moderately prosperous turnip farmer with no more wits than he needed for the job. But he was in fact a duke, and Elizabeth must have loved him as they had lots of babies together.

Then there was Margaret, of whom little needs to be said except that she was exceptionally tall. Had the House of York put out a ladies’ football team, Margaret would have played centre half. Then there was George, who shouted a lot and tried to be a bully. Then Richard himself. These three were in the nominal care of their mother. However the Duchess Cecily was very devout. She spent most of her time kneeling in the chapel, praying for the souls of her deceased children and also praying that she would have no more, just in case it turned out to be a three year pregnancy.

They were not always at Fotheringhay. Sometimes they would move to Ludlow, or to Berkhampstead, or to Baynard’s Castle in London, which must not be confused with Barnard Castle, a place they did not own. Occasionally they even went to Sandal, which is in Yorkshire, although not very deep into the county. Although the Duke of York had ‘York’ in his title, he actually owned very little of Yorkshire. Indeed, much of the county belonged to Henry VI (in his role as Duke of Lancaster) or to various other nasty Lancastrian persons, like Lord Clifford for example. This had been set up just to confuse foreigners.

The True History of King Richard III (Part 2)

The Battle of St. Albans, 1455.

Having been two years in the womb, Richard was naturally a forward child, and in no time at all he was not only walking but wearing a little suit of armour. The Duke of York had this made for him by the village blacksmith,  an advanced craftsman who doubled as the castle armourer. This meant it could easily be adjusted as Richard grew.

Richard was not yet strong enough to lift what we call a two-handed sword, or a poleaxe, but he could manage what is politely described as a kidney dagger, and rapidly became an expert with it, through long hours of practice with the dagger in one hand and a rusk in the other.

The King at this time was Henry VI. As he was a Lancastrian he was obviously a very good man, but more than that he was saintly, so saintly that at times he didn’t know who he was or where. His wife, Margaret of Anjou, was by this time doing most of the heavy lifting. People didn’t like Margaret, even though she was Queen, as she was also French, and a woman, and had too much to say for herself. She also favoured men who weren’t the Duke of York, especially the Duke of Somerset, who hated York and was also grossly incompetent. This team had already comprehensively lost the war with France, and the Government owed the Duke of York a lot of money. This made York very cross.

York got together with his brother-in-law, Salisbury, and his wife’s nephew, Salisbury’s son, the Earl of Warwick. (It’s easier to refer to these two by their titles as the were both called Richard Neville, which was confusing even at the time.) There were other lords there too, but these men were less important and it might confuse you if I gave them names. Just imagine them grunting agreement in the background.

York and his friends had a few beers and they decided they must go to the King and tell him to get rid of Somerset. As the King had lots of people about him they didn’t trust, this meant that for safety’s sake they had to take an army with them.

York decided to take his youngest son Richard with him as a sort of mascot. The idea was that Warwick would hold little Richard’s hand and lead him onto the battlefield before things started, to exchange pennons with the King’s mascot.

However, when they got to St. Albans and met the King’s army, it soon became apparent that none of this was going to happen. The King wasn’t prepared to negotiate and he certainly wasn’t ready to hand over Somerset. He and his men were well dug in behind barricades in the centre of the town, and York and his friends were at something of a loss.

Then little Richard suggested to Warwick that if they (and Warwick’s men) sneaked around the back alleys and gardens, they could take the enemy in the flank and surprise them, And because no one had any better ideas, that’s what they did.

The plan worked wonderfully, and soon Warwick, Richard and a host of followers were cutting their way through the Lancastrian leadership. As they charged they cried ‘A Warwick! A Warwick!’ which confused the Lancastrians, who thought they were in St. Albans – as they were.

Richard, of course, was very small, but he was just the right size to run between men’s legs and stab them in the groin through the gaps in their armour. In no time at all he had killed the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Clifford, and the Duke of Somerset in just this fashion. Whereupon the enemy lost heart and surrendered, much to Richard’s disappointment. He had really enjoyed stabbing those lords and now wanted to stab Henry VI.

His father forbade this. York was now quite content because Somerset was dead, and he and his friends were in a position to force the King to allow them to form his government. When Richard had a tantrum over this decision, York gave him a severe ticking-off and sent him to bed without supper.

Interlude


It is now time for a little housekeeping and explanation. The political situation between 1455 and 1459 is too boring and complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that sometimes the Duke of York was in power, and sometimes the Duke of Somerset and Queen Margaret were. Of course, this Somerset was not the one Richard had killed, but his son, who most confusingly had the same title. Similarly King Henry VI was sometimes insane, and sometimes what passed for ‘normal’ in the case of Henry VI. In other words, he wasn’t actually catatonic, and gave the impression that he was merely unworldly, and in fact quite holy. Had he been a friar, he’d quite possibly been made a saint while he still lived, but as a king he was more in the way of an inconvenience, often signing things he was not supposed to sign, and quite frequently granting the same thing to two different people.

Richard had a number of brothers and sisters alive at this time. The eldest was Anne, who was no longer at home, being married to the Duke of Exeter. The idea of these arranged marriages was to build alliances with other noble houses, but unfortunately Exeter hated both Anne and her father, the Duke of York. (This is no reflection on Anne or York. as Exeter hated everyone except Lord Egremont, and was always going around annoying people and getting thrown into the Tower.)

The next eldest were Edward and Edmund. Everyone knows Edward, who was later to become King Edward IV. He was very tall and good looking, and all the ladies liked him, so he always got extra chips on his plate when he lined up for dinner. Eventually, as a direct result, he became rather fat. No one knows much about Edmund, though he was probably similar to Edward, but nicer. These two lived in their own establishment, which may have been at Ludlow, where they were mercilessly bullied by a boy named Croft. Or, as they called him, Bonzo. Later this same Croft became a faithful servant, which probably proves something about bullies.

Next was Elizabeth, who was married to the Duke of Suffolk. If you’d met Suffolk in the street, you’d have thought him a moderately prosperous turnip farmer with no more wits than he needed for the job. But he was in fact a duke, and Elizabeth must have loved him as they had lots of babies together.

Then there was Margaret, of whom little needs to be said except that she was exceptionally tall. Had the House of York put out a ladies’ football team, Margaret would have played centre half. Then there was George, who shouted a lot and tried to be a bully. Then Richard himself. These three were in the nominal care of their mother. However the Duchess Cecily was very devout. She spent most of her time kneeling in the chapel, praying for the souls of her deceased children and also praying that she would have no more, just in case it turned out to be a three year pregnancy.

They were not always at Fotheringhay. Sometimes they would move to Ludlow, or to Berkhampstead, or to Baynard’s Castle in London, which must not be confused with Barnard Castle, a place they did not own. Occasionally they even went to Sandal, which is in Yorkshire, although not very deep into the county. Although the Duke of York had ‘York’ in his title, he actually owned very little of Yorkshire. Indeed, much of the county belonged to Henry VI (in his role as Duke of Lancaster) or to various other nasty Lancastrian persons, like Lord Clifford for example. This had been set up just to confuse foreigners.

 

A Little Piece of Alternative History

Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk, is a good height for a woman, but not tall – only her headdress make her seem so. As a recent widow, she is clad entirely in black, from head to foot, her furred gown made of the finest wool damask London mercers can supply. She is a handsome woman – some go so far as to call her beautiful – and on her lovely face there is an expression of sheer resolution. Nonetheless, she is calm, almost relaxed, nodding graciously in response to the bows and curtsies the lesser courtiers make as she passes.

Behind her by a single pace is her brother, Sir Humphrey Talbot. He is a knight, and an English gentleman, and so outwardly he also appears calm. In truth, he is close to shitting himself, because he knows what the Duchess is about to do. They have discussed it again and again, but he has failed to change her mind. However, as a knight and an English gentleman, he is still there to back his sister. He can do no other. Honour commands him, and it is as good a day as any other on which to die. The courtiers think she is here to attend the wedding of her little daughter to King Edward’s little son. Humphrey knows better. They are about to find out that Elizabeth is truly old Shrewsbury’s daughter, afraid of nothing on this earth.

The King is seated on his throne, a welcoming smile on his pudding-like face. He is very tall, and increasingly very fat. People still call him handsome, but those that do are relying on memory. These days he lives on charm, and when that fails, on threats and terror. He has lately thrown his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, into the Tower on very dubious grounds. No one doubts that Clarence is to die, though no one knows exactly what it is that he is supposed to have done. None dare question Edward on the matter. One does not question the King of England, and certainly not this particular King; a man ready to kill his own brother, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

He is a petty tyrant too. When he arranged, or rather ordained, the marriage for Elizabeth’s daughter, he forced Elizabeth to accept a reduced dower, so that his son would be the richer. The Duchess remembers that fact keenly. If you conversed with her you would find her an amiable woman, but she does not like to be cheated.

Around the King stand his leading men: His younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester looks to be in pain, because he is. He has been standing a long time, and his back is giving him agony. But he is a knight, and an English gentleman, and so he does his best to ignore it. Then there is Hastings, the King’s Chamberlain and life-long friend. All smiles, Hastings; everyone likes him, from the King to the lowest scullion of the court all will tell you what a splendid fellow he is. No one will tell you that he buys and sells favours, that his chief loyalty is to himself, and that he introduces whores to the King’s bed as part of his job. Next to him is Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the Queen’s eldest brother. A cultured man, Rivers, who writes poems and takes part in formal jousts, pleased because Clarence, whom he hates, is locked away and likely to have his head cut off. He flatters himself that this is because of his advice, and that of his sister. So he is the image of complacency and satisfaction. Even the Duke of Suffolk is here, the King’s brother-in-law, who rarely strays from his own manors. Well, there is a Parliament, and this is also a family occasion, so that is his excuse. He has the look of an over-dressed pig farmer, and Elizabeth recalls he has manners to match. Then there are the clergy; on this occasion Bishop Russell of Rochester and John Morton, Archdeacon of Leicester. They stand slightly in the background, their smooth, assured faces like masks. She is glad the Queen is not present. She does not enjoy cat-fights, and there is no telling how that ill-bred woman will react to her announcement.

Elizabeth advances, making the prescribed three curtsies along the way. If anyone notices they are not as profound as they might be, they put it down to her rank. Rank has its privileges at court. A duchess can get away with things a mere gentlewoman might not. They are only surprised when the duchess speaks without waiting to be spoken to.

‘Edward Plantagenet,’ she says, and her voice is surprisingly loud, given that she is a woman and that this is a very large room, ‘I am a Talbot by birth and a Mowbray by marriage, and my blood is as good as anyone in this presence, yours included. I have decided that I am not willing that my daughter shall be married to your bastard.’

 

A strange sound seems to echo about the great chamber, the result of collective intakes of breath. No one can quite believe his ears. King Edward’s mouth – surprisingly small and rosebud-like in that great moon of a face – falls open, but no sound emerges except a gentle choking. He gets a taste of the eels and white wine he had for breakfast, but no words form.

Before he can even find his anger, the Duchess goes on. ‘In the first year of your reign, the year of Our Lord 1461, you contracted an irregular marriage with my sister, a widow at that time, Lady Eleanor Butler. You swore her to secrecy, but nonetheless you consummated the marriage. And by that very act, made it binding. You eventually grew tired of her – perhaps, because there was no child, perhaps because you never intended anything more than to seduce her. It matters not. You were still married to her when you made your subsequent, purported marriage with Dame Elizabeth Grey.’

Anthony Woodville, furious with what he perceives to be an insult to his sister and his family, takes a step forward, but Gloucester holds him back before he can make a fool of himself by physically attacking a lady who is not even his wife. For which, under court etiquette, there is no excuse.

‘You have no proof of this, my lady,’ says William Hastings. His smooth tongue is the first to recover, and his voice brims with confidence. ‘What womanish fancy is this that you bring before us? Beware, lest you be accused of treason.’

Elizabeth looks at him as if he is something unpleasant she has stepped on. ‘Oh, I have proof enough my Lord Chamberlain, and now I am a widow, and free from my husband’s commands, I’m free to bring it forth. First, my sister was devout, and Shrewsbury’s daughter – no light woman. She told me all – swore to it. As far as I am concerned, that is proof enough in itself. Yet there is more. Bishop Stillington can vouch for the tale. Not long after the marriage he became Lord Chancellor, no doubt because of his merits. Yet now he has fallen from favour, and is lodged in the Tower, for speaking some words against the King. One wonders what those words were. Perhaps we can fetch him here and ask him. There are other proofs too. A whole box of them, which I shall be happy to place before Parliament.’

All eyes go to the King. Everyone expects him to explode with anger, but in fact Edward has his head in his hands. He is actually weeping.

Hastings persists. ‘Your sister died in 1468 did she not? Even if what you say is true, the King could remarry – indeed he could already have remarried, for all you know.’

Elizabeth smiles. It’s a very special smile, that of someone who has all the cards. ‘Do you think I came here without doing research? Without consulting men learned in the law? I have news for you all. You cannot repeat the sacrament of marriage without a dispensation. Next, you cannot get a dispensation for bigamy. Not even the Pope has that power. Thirdly – and this is the biggie – the relationship between the King and Dame Elizabeth Grey is what canon lawyers call ‘polluted’ by the bigamy. They can never make a valid marriage. Not. Ever. Did you get all that? I know it’s a lot to take in – especially when you’ve only got a little woman’s brain like mine. If anyone is interested, I’ve got it all written up. My clerk Helmholz has even put it into Latin.’

‘It’s true!’ Edward’s voice is practically a squeal. ‘It’s all true. She’s got me bang to rights, and it’s a fair cop. I done it all. And what’s more I took advice too – I’m not stupid – and all that stuff about getting married again is exactly what I was told. I just hoped it would go away. But I can’t live with it on my conscience any more. I’ve let you all down so badly.’ He turns to Anthony. ‘I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t plan it like this. I never, ever thought it would come out. Now I just want to put it all right.’

‘You can make a start,’ says Elizabeth, ‘by releasing your brother Clarence and Stillington from the Tower.’

‘I agree,’ says Richard of Gloucester. ‘It makes eminent sense. In fact, Ned, I suggest that George acts as Regent until this unpleasant mess is sorted out. It seems to me that a lot of questions need to be asked.’ He gives Hastings a suspicious glance. ‘For example, which other people were involved in keeping this secret.’

The King, still weeping softly, pulls off a ring and passes it to his brother. ‘No time for a proper warrant, Dickon, but this will do. Go and get them. I just hope George hasn’t already drowned himself.’

Gloucester rushes off. After he has gone, everyone just stands in silence, waiting.

‘I suppose the wedding’s off then,’ Suffolk says into the silence. He has a booming voice. ‘Pity, I bought them a present and everything. Hey, Duchess, what about marrying your girl to one of my sons?’

No one answers him. Rivers squats on his haunches. He tries to formulate a poem, perhaps one about disaster, but nothing he can think of quite cuts it. He is ruined. His whole family is ruined. His sister is going to go mad! The only good thing is that no one wants to execute him.

Fortunately, they’ve all been trained in the art of keeping quiet and standing still. The hours go by, or at least it seems that way. Until at long last there is the sound of footsteps ringing on the tiles. Richard is back, with his brother, George Clarence and the rather shabby-looking Bishop of Bath and Wells.

‘George,’ says the King, his voice very low and his head even lower, ‘I’ve been a fool. I’m going to step down for a while – it’s only right. You can be Protector and Defensor, and all that stuff. Dickon will help you – in fact he suggested you for the job. I’m just so glad you didn’t drown yourself.’

Clarence was a broken man when he was imprisoned, but being rowed up the Thames from the Tower has cleared his head nicely. ‘Thank you, Ned,’ he says, in his usual informal way. ‘I had no intention of suicide, although I suppose that big butt of Malmsey in my room was your idea of a subtle hint.’ He turns to Elizabeth. ‘And thank you too, my lady. You have saved me, and saved England. And you have proved that our long tradition of free speech, liberty and the rule of law is not just an idle boast. My first act as Protector will be to introduce the law of Habeas Corpus even though I am not entirely sure what it means. There will be no more tyranny, no more cases of people being hanged, drawn and quartered just for saying the wrong thing. What’s more, we shall restore your dower lands in full. Won’t we Ned?’

‘Indeed,’ says the King, who by this time is recovering himself a little. ‘It is the least we owe to you, Duchess. Without your courage and example, I might have died with this hideous sin still on my conscience. Now I shall leave you all, and go to my closet to pray. Before I do, dear, brave lady, is there anything else you want?’

‘Just one thing,’ says Elizabeth. She beckons to the Archdeacon, whom she knows slightly through her family connection with Margaret Beaufort. She points accusingly at the King. ‘Book him, Morton. Bigamy One.’

It is, after all, an offence under church law. As the King is led away, Clarence stares at the Duchess in admiration.

‘Madam,’ he says, ‘you are the most amazing lady I have ever met, or even read about. I thought my mother was tough, but compared to you, she is a lamb. As you know, I am a widower, and you are a widow. Will you marry me?’

Everyone applauds, except Rivers, who is too upset, and Hastings who has gone off to look for a consoling cup of wine.

Elizabeth looks at George. He is really quite handsome, just a bit, well – eccentric. No one in the English aristocracy objects to that. ‘I will tell you my answer next Tuesday, Your Grace. For now, I just want to go outside into the air, and give my dear brother Humphrey a high five. I think I can say – without fear of contradiction – that we Talbots rock.’

 

Questions for Readers Groups

 

  1. This is a piece of Alternative History. Things did not really happen this way. However, when discussing the story, please assume that Eleanor Talbot really did marry Edward IV. (After all, even the 19th Century historian James Gairdner thought she did and the marriage was confirmed by Act of Parliament.) Can you think of any reasons why the secret did not emerge in reality until 1483, after Edward’s death?
  2. What do you think would have happened to the real Elizabeth if she had behaved this way?
  3. Do you think Humphrey Talbot, or Bishop Stillington, being men, would have fared better or worse?
  4. If you had lived in those times, as an ordinary person, would you have revealed the secret, and what do you think would have happened to you?
  5. How many people do you think would have known the secret, directly or indirectly.
  6. Do you know of any evidence that Edward IV had a conscience? Give examples.
  7. Taking into account your answers to the above, do you still find it strange the secret did not come out while Edward was alive?

 

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