The Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471 was to prove decisive for the reign of our first Yorkist king. The opponents were Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrians, versus King Edward IV and the Yorkists. Margaret was defeated, and her heart and spirit was broken by the death in battle of her only son, Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales.
This article is concerned with what happened immediately before the battle, when there was a game of hide and seek between the foes. Margaret set off north from Bristol, intending to cross the Severn at Gloucester, which was the first bridge over the dangerously tidal river. Edward had been thrown off the scent, but suddenly realized what she was doing, and set off north on a parallel route, up on the drove road along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, while Margaret’s exhausted army trudged the wetter alluvial road in the vale of the Severn.
It was clear to Edward that she planned to enter Gloucester and cross the bridge, the only access to which was through the town. The main road to the west crossed three branches of the Severn and low-lying meadows by a series of bridges and a long causeway.
Edward sent a swift rider ahead to order the governor of Gloucester, Sir Richard Beauchamp, to close the gates against the Lancastrians and hold the town. Sir Richard was the son of a staunch Lancastrian, but was now loyal to Edward, and did as he was commanded.
Margaret could have taken Gloucester by force, but it would have been time-consuming, and she did not dare to risk Edward’s forces coming up behind her. She decided to march on north for the town of Tewkesbury, where there was a ford over the Severn at Lower Lode. The next bridge over the river was further north again, at Upton-on-Severn. The ford was impassable, Edward was almost upon her, and so Margaret prepared to make a stand. The rest, as they say, is history.
If you visit Gloucester today, it is hard to associate anything with the Gloucester of 1471. Oh, there are four main streets that form a crossroad in the heart of the city: Southgate, Northgate, Eastgate and Westgate. But the gates themselves have long since gone, and the streets are now pedestrianised. There are medieval buildings, if one knows where to look, but a great deal of wanton 1960s damage was done to Gloucester’s soul. The cathedral remains, however, and is still (in my opinion) the most handsome of all our cathedrals. But perhaps I’m biased.
What has also gone forever is the castle from where Sir Richard would have commanded his men as Margaret’s host banged at the gates. First it was dismantled until only the keep was left, and this was used as a gaol. Then that too was pulled down, and HMP Prison Gloucester was built. That is also no more, and in excavations they have found the remains of the old castle keep. What goes around, comes around.
The original castle nestled in the south-western curve of the old city walls, beside the river and quay, and would have been able to overlook the approach to the South Gate. This is surely the way Margaret would have come.
The land on the floor of the Severn vale is flat Severn clay, which after rain is like thick half-set glue. Whether it had been raining or not I don’t know, although I imagine that the impassable ford at Lower Lode meant there had been a quantity of rain in recent days. Well, there had been somewhere upstream on the Severn, if not in Gloucestershire. Or, of course, there was the Severn bore to consider, with the notoriously hazardous wave sweeping well inland. I have been told that it was not unheard of for it to sweep all the way to Worcester. There is a weir at Gloucester now, to stop it, but in 1471 Tewkesbury was well within reach. And spring tides are high in March, April and May.
If these conditions prevailed, Margaret’s men would have been even more disheartened. More than that, the land south of Gloucester was marshy anyway back then, the river would spread out of its bed. Thus the main road from Bristol was on another causeway. Not the ideal landscape and conditions for a medieval army that was already weary. (The land had been drained a great deal by the time the illustration below was drawn.)
Map of 1712 showing South Gate and Castle (middle, bottom, just above river)
With the gates closed firmly against them, Margaret marched on north, and Sir Richard Beauchamp’s men came out behind her army and harried the rear, capturing some guns. He was to be knighted after the battle.
An artist’s impression of Margaret of Anjou being taken away in defeat
Night. The late Middle Ages. An angry mob rips open the sealed tomb of a man and carries his fleshless skeleton through the town streets, jeering. Reaching a field of execution, the bones are hurled on a pyre and burnt, then crushed to small fragments. This indignity not being enough, the desecrated remains are then gathered up and hurled unceremoniously into a Leicestershire river while the throng gazes on, casting abuse at the meagre remnants of the hated dead man as the waves swallow them…
A version of River Soar myth about Richard III, now disproved by the finding of his lost grave?
No, but the above story is almost certainly the origin of this once pervasive myth.
It was John Wycliffe, who produced the first Bible in English, whose bones met this fate. A Yorkshire man, who was educated at Merton College in Oxford, he was a noted theologian and philosopher, who became the rector of Lutterworth in Leicestershire. He wrote books that were considered heretical and was accused of inspiring the Peasant’s Revolt. His followers, the Lollards, were often persecuted…and executed…long after his death. He himself remained a threatening figure to the church even years after he died of a stroke. As he had escaped the normal heretics’ punishment of death by burning, when he lived, it was decided to vent the punishment on his remains. So his skeleton was disinterred, burned and hurled into the River Swift.
Somewhere along the line, this true tale ‘grew in the telling’ and changed, as such stories often do; repeated over and over with added embellishments and errors they lose their original meaning and only retain fragments of the truth…in this case, that the remains of a persecuted man had been dug up from the grave by a mob and thrown into a Leicestershire river. To the average person, centuries after the event, who was better known and more interesting to tell such tales about, a slain King or a heretical theologian?
Once Stuart era cartographer John Speed had written down the legend in regards to Richard, it swiftly took hold and was accepted henceforth accepted as truth by many…including numerous historians, although without one scrap of hard evidence (these historians shall remain nameless!)
The mythologisers had put the wrong man in the wrong river.
You know the rest.
Following our recent post https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/what-perkin-actually-said/, the eternal troll duRose has assured us that Francis Bacon and John (The Colourblind Cartographer) Speede didn’t actually invent “Perkin”‘s specific accusation against Richard III.
No, we are assured that much of Bacon’s manuscript came from John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, who actually lived from 1527-96, whilst “Perkin” was executed in late 1499. Leslie only quotes part of the speech to James IV, which Leslie obviously never heard unless he was a time traveller or confirmed it at a seance. So we still don’t have an authentic, contemporaneous accusation against anyone at all.
John Ashdown-Hill’s piece in “History Extra”, defusing a few persistent myths:
Most of us are familiar with the story of “Perkin Warbeck” and the letters he wrote back to the Low Countries. Depending on his identity, his parents hailed from there if he was an impostor or his aunt was Dowager Duchess of Burgundy if he was Richard of Shrewsbury, the former Duke of York and hitherto illegitimate son of Edward IV. In the decade leading up to his execution in autumn 1499, he had travelled widely, married Lady Katherine Gordon (James IV’s cousin), issued a proclamation of his rights and written various other letters. It seems to be a mantra of the Cairo dwellers, or have they reached Alexandria yet, that this proclamation refers to his kidnap and his brother’s (the erstwhile Edward V) death at the hands of “a certain lord”, an uncle who it later names as Richard III.
The most obvious question mark over this document is that later identification. Even if you assume that it was written whilst he was an untortured free man, you assume that he wasn’t portraying his brother Edward as dead for some complex reason or other (by-passing or protecting him) and you forget that Edward IV’s sons had many uncles, by birth or marriage, including Buckingham and St. Leger , alive in summer 1483, in which language was it written? Latin, which is quite likely, has separate words (patruus and avunculus respectively) for paternal and maternal uncles, which would help here. In Cairo, however, they assure us that the document is not in Latin and that “Perkin”‘s own hand names Richard III, “proving” that it is bad news for Richard whether “Perkin” is Shrewsbury or not.
Well, here is the proclamation, transcribed by Sir Robert Cotton:
You will note that “Perkin”‘s own words are clearly separate whilst his letter to Isabel of Castile is indeed in Latin. You will also note that John Speed, in his 1610 “Historie of Great Britain” compiled a century after Tyburn 1499, has appended an imaginary speech to James IV and the specific accusation of Richard III appears only in this later addition. You will also note that Bacon has appended even more. You will remember that this is the same John Speed (c.1552-1629) who confused Leicester’s Greyfriars with the Blackfriars, gaining the sobriquet “the Colourblind Cartographer”:
Speed and Bacon were, of course, writing for an early Stuart interest.
In other words, nowhere does “Perkin” name the “certain lord” who features in his convenient tale. QED.
Many of you will remember reading, perhaps in “The Last Days of Richard III”, how John Speed went to Leicester looking for the site of the Greyfriars but confused it with the Blackfriars which was in a far worse state of repair thus no royal body could possibly have survived.
Yesterday, I lunched at the “Robert Ransome” in Ipswich – table 22 in case you ask. On the wall were several interesting photos, including Speed’s 1610 Ipswich map. Apart from his unaccountable failure to include the railway station, it compares well with the town four centuries later.