Charles Ross in his invaluable book Edward IV explains the utility of the Woodville family to Edward IV. The fact that they were (relatively) low-born and owned (relatively) little land was actually their selling point. Essentially (unlike for example Warwick, or even the Duke of Gloucester) their power and influence could not be exercised independently of Edward. They needed him rather more than he needed them. It is perhaps not inappropriate to think of them as members of staff in a modern company. They could be given tasks to do, but the Chief Executive (Edward) could determine and limit those tasks as he pleased, and he could also, in effect, dismiss them at will. It was much more difficult to ‘dismiss’ the likes of Warwick, who, to continue the analogy, could set up in business on his own account or become a valuable acquisition to a competitor.
Of late there has been an attempt to whitewash the Woodvilles in some quarters, but Ross (who was no raving Ricardian) has this to say: ‘More important in creating their unsavoury reputation was their own behaviour. As a family, the Woodvilles were not conspicuous for their charm and amiability. Like his daughter, Earl Rivers seems to have been greedy and grasping and the duchess of Bedford was not much better. They could also be vengeful and overbearing.’ (Edward IV, p97.)
In fairness, Ross goes on to say that Anthony was a more attractive figure. But then he says: ‘…the main source of the Woodville unpopularity was the contemporary belief that they exercised an excessive and malign influence upon the king.’ (Edward IV, p99.)
Now, just as it is mistaken to believe that Edward IV was entirely dominated by Richard of Gloucester, I believe it is equally mistaken to believe Edward was ruled entirely by the Woodvilles. Edward IV was his own man, and that is why the – dare I say evils? – of his reign must be blamed squarely on him, and not on either Richard or the Woodvilles. However, at the time, I believe it was easy for critics of Edward’s regime to blame the Woodvilles for the policies they disliked. In Warwick’s case, he was simply following the well-trodden path of blaming ‘the King’s advisers’ for the King’s policies. Rebels almost invariably did this, whether we are talking about the Lords Appellant in 1387 or the Parliament in 1641. It was simply the norm, as it implied that the King personally was not to blame but was the prisoner of a clique.
In Richard of Gloucester’s case, I suspect it was mentally more comfortable for him to blame the Woodvilles than to blame his once-adored elder brother. Though I suspect his adoration of Edward had dimmed a little by 1483, for a number of reasons.
On the other hand, the Woodvilles clearly had some influence. They were not around the court for the benefit of their health. It’s simply that they did not have quite the influence either they or their opponents imagined, and this was cruelly exposed by the death of their patron.
It may be that the Woodvilles simply had a different ‘vision’ of a Protectorate, that they envisaged something like the minority of Henry VI, when Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, although named Protector, had limited powers and functioned more or less as primus inter pares at the head of the Council, with no control of the person of the King. That is the most generous interpretation that can be put on their actions. A less generous interpretation is that they meant to destroy Gloucester (and possibly Buckingham and Hastings too) and rule themselves, perhaps with Rivers, or even Queen Elizabeth, at the head of the table. It’s impossible to be sure.
Richard of Gloucester quite clearly envisaged the role of Protector as akin to the power exercised by his own father during Henry VI’s periods of insanity – that is, that he would rule virtually as a king. If we assume that – and there really is little evidence that he was planning to take the crown himself – his reaction to the Woodvilles’ intrigues is fairly understandable.
As for Hastings, it is quite clear that he too felt threatened by the Woodvilles, and so we can safely say that the issue was not entirely in Richard’s head. His threat to debunk to Calais if Edward V’s escort was not limited to 2,000 says it all. (One wonders why an escort even as large as 2,000 was felt necessary unless the Woodvilles’ envisaged some sort of clash of arms.)
Hastings was (though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise) as much a ‘new man’ as any of the Woodvilles. His father had been a knight, and the family had been in York family service for several generations. He was vaguely related to the Hastings earls of Pembroke (whose line died out in 1389) but so were lots of other people. Like the Woodvilles he had (relatively) little land. What he did have were remarkable political skills, a great deal of popularity, and the personal friendship with Edward IV. A lot of his power, though, depended on the offices he held. Lord Chamberlain, Lieutenant of Calais and Master of the Mint. (He was also employed as ‘steward’ by various lords and ladies, but only because of his influence, one imagines.)
Hastings was no friend of the Woodvilles, and indeed had apparently had something of a feud with them. He was reportedly delighted by their fall. So what went wrong? In my view, he very quickly realised that he was not going to be Richard’s right hand man. Buckingham, Howard and probably Lovel were in the queue ahead of him. Lacking the political influence he had enjoyed under Edward IV, he would be – well, perhaps not ruined but certainly diminished.
He may also have favoured the 1422 model of a Protectorate. Either he did not want Gloucester to have too much power, or he saw that Richard was planning to make himself King. Neither scenario would give Hastings the power he wanted and needed. He was not, in short, prepared to be relegated to the second violins.
This would explain why he started some plotting of his own, perhaps by making overtures to his Woodville rivals. Again, he may not have intended to do more than limit Richard’s power, put him back in his box, or it may have been something more lethal.
Yet another possibility is that Hastings knew of the Edward IV-Eleanor Talbot marriage, and that when the facts came out his position became untenable. However, given that Edward somehow apparently managed to keep Hastings out of the loop about Elizabeth for some time, this can by no means be certain.