We all know how Richard III’s reputation has been besmirched over the centuries. He was turned into a monster because the likes of More and Shakespeare pandered to the Tudors’ need to justify their seizure of the throne. Thus he became a creature of misshapen body and mind, capable of putting his own child nephews to death, and disposing of righteous opponents who only stood up for the truth.
Hmm, yes. Well, in this present day and age, people are becoming more enlightened about Richard, who has an army of supporters prepared to stand up and be counted on his behalf.
King John is another monarch with a bad reputation, although in his case it is more deserved, I think. Yet something that first happened in his reign has come down in history as being the work of a 14th-century nobleman, John Holand, 1st Duke of Exeter, half-brother of King Richard II. What was this horrible crime? The instigation of the bloody sport of bull-running in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford.
Records state quite categorically, that it originated in the 12th century, in the time of King John. So how did King Richard II’s 14th-century half-brother get the blame? Simply because John Holand is another bogeyman. It is almost a tradition to point accusing fingers at him and denigrate him, à la Richard III. If there is a connection between John Holand and Stamford, it appears to be the burial of his parents at Greyfriars, i.e. Princess Joan of Kent and Sir Thomas Holand, 1st Earl of Kent.
John Holand had his faults, and in his youth was a hothead, passionate and hasty, but that appears to have only applied to his youth. Later on he was a steadfast supporter of Richard II, and eventually lost his life in the first half of January 1400 (the actual date of his summary and illegal execution isn’t known) while rebelling in Richard’s favour against the Lancastrian usurper, King Henry IV.
There are two murders in which his name is involved, that of a Carmelite friar who was tortured most cruelly because of a supposed plot against the king. The other, in 1385, occurred when Richard II’s army was moving north toward the Scottish border. One of John Holand’s favourite squires was murdered during a quarrel with men of Sir Ralph Stafford, son and heir of the Earl of Stafford. John Holand’s mercurial temper burst forth, and he took some men to ride to be avenged on Stafford’s men. On the way, in the dark, he came up against Stafford himself. What happened next is uncertain, except that the outcome was Stafford’s death at the end of John Holand’s sword. Some accounts say he simply killed Stafford without warning, others that there was an argument that got out of hand. Whatever the truth, John Holand fled into sanctuary at Beverley.
He was eventually received back at court, and obliged to make abject apologies, etc. etc. But one sad result of the whole incident was said to have been the death of Joan of Kent, who could not withstand the state of affairs when one of her sons (Richard II) swore to severely punish another (John Holand, who was said to be Joan’s favourite, perhaps because he reminded her so of the husband she had loved so much – but that’s another story).
So, these are the two bloodthirsty crimes that have come down through history to attach to his memory. I defend neither of them. He didn’t or couldn’t control his temper. Today he’d receive treatment for anger management. But, to his credit, he does seem to have overcome this flaw in his character, for I have found no further evidence of it.
His other sins appear to be have been of an amorous nature. He is said to be the actual father of Richard of Conisburgh, from whom the House of York descended. And he seduced John of Gaunt’s daughter, Elizabeth of Lancaster, putting her in the family way, as the quaint expression goes. They were married hastily, and bundled off to Castile with John of Gaunt’s expedition to claim the crown of that land.
John Holand was a fiery but devastatingly charming man who was said to have been charismatic, and I am prepared to believe this describes him well. He was also a famous and flambuoyant jouster, a regular rock star of the tournament circuit, who always put on a great display of skill and theatre.
But as for introducing bull-running to Stamford. . . Well, it had been going on for a century or more before he came along, so it would be a miracle indeed if he had anything to do with it. Yet, he has been given the blame. So, like Richard III, he has been given a bad name. Yes, he was a sinner at one time, which Richard III never was, but even so, he’s being castigated for things he couldn’t have done.